You may not know who Francois Audouy is, but if you’re fan of superhero movies, you’ve surely seen his work. Born in the south of France and raised in Los Angeles, Audouy has risen in the Hollywood creative ranks as first an illustrator, then an art director and now as a production designer. Along the way he’s worked on films like Spider-Man (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), Watchmen (2009), and Green Lantern (2011), not to mention a slew of other films like Transformers, Men in Black, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Minority Report, and more.
With The Wolverine, his second film as a full-fledged production designer (following Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter), Audouy faced the challenge of taking Logan (Hugh Jackman) out of the hyper-real X-Men film landscape of mutants and super-villains and placing him in the midst of a grittier, more naturalistic world of Japanese criminals, ninjas and corporate intrigue. With the film a success around the world and arriving on Blu-ray/DVD last week (in both theatrical and extended cuts), Den Of Geek got Audouy on the line to talk about taking everyone’s favorite adamantium-enhanced mutant into the East – and out of his natural element.
Den Of Geek: When this project first came to you, what were your initial thoughts about it? You’ve worked on some other comic book based properties — what made this different for you than some of the previous ones?
Francois Audouy: To be honest with you, what I was excited about was an opportunity to do a movie set in Japan. I didn’t really know much about the project other than it had a Japanese setting. It was always a dream of mine to design a film set in Japan so I jumped at the opportunity. I think the enthusiasm I had for everything that was Japanese really came through when I first met with (director) Jim Mangold. I mean I’m just – I’ve always been such a huge fan of the architecture and the history and the pop culture in Japan. This was an opportunity to sort of become an expert. Every time you’re in production on a film it’s kind of an opportunity to learn something and become an expert in a certain topic. So I wanted to become an expert in all things Japanese.
The fact that it was Wolverine was kind of a secondary thing for me but what I found out from Jim was that his vision for the movie was that he wanted to really make a standalone Logan story, sort of a Logan film that hadn’t really been done before. That was incredibly exciting because I’m basically the same age as the Wolverine comic books. I was born in the ’70s and in the late ’80s it was kind of the golden age, in my opinion, of Wolverine comics. And I was very familiar with those great comic book arcs and felt that none of that had really been exploited in other movies. So it was a great opportunity to try to sort of correct the franchise and do something with this character that hadn’t been done before.
What was the mandate you got from Mangold and how does the relationship between the director and production designer work?
I’ll answer the second part of the question first. The collaboration between a production designer and a director is an incredibly tight one because he has to trust me and I have to trust him. And I have to kind of get inside his head because it’s my job to not only create a look for the film but I have to have his back in that he has to be able to trust me to create settings and find settings that give maximum sort of impact, help the narrative along, and be efficient. It’s really about trying also to keep the movie alive and keep the enthusiasm up and come up with ideas and alternate ideas and problem solving. So it’s a very, very close creative relationship. I mean I’m basically kind of – on a movie there’s kind of a creative core that’s made up of the production designer and the director and the director of photography and sometimes the visual effects supervisor. And so we’re kind of like in that inner circle where we have to listen and then move on and sort of rally the troops and get things happening.
As far as a specific mandate from Jim, what’s really, really helpful is he’s such a movie geek. He has seen so many movies and he’s a huge movie fan. So he was able to sort of pull specific movies for me to look at and that were really kind of inspiring to him. That was very useful because it gave us some inspiration up for the sort of mood or the tone of the film. And then the second thing is he wanted to make a movie that felt true and that felt grounded and that was focused on the characters and the depth of the narrative. He didn’t want to make a light sort of summer comic book movie. He wanted to make a film that was much more grounded and gritty and real than what had come before. I think that we did a pretty good job of doing that.
When you do a film like this where there’s a lot of location work and the locations are so easily identifiable, does that make your job any easier or more challenging?
It’s a mixed bag. When I start a film I really don’t know how the cookie’s going to crumble — whether it’s going to be a lot of stage work and backlot work or a lot of locations. What we wanted to do with this film is we wanted to shoot in Japan as much as possible and sort of capture real Japan as much as possible because we knew it would be almost impossible to do that in a stage or backlot sort of way. What makes it really challenging is when you have two countries that you’re working on concurrently because for me it meant that I had an art department in Sydney, Australia, and then a separate art department in Tokyo. So it meant flying back and forth quite often and location scouting in Japan because we didn’t really build anything in Japan – it was all locations, but locations all over Japan. And then at the same time we had heavy builds and a much larger art department in Sydney. When you’re working with two different cultures like that and two different countries you have to really kind of adapt to each culture’s approach to getting things done. So that’s the biggest challenge.
But one thing that was also on the forefront of my mind was that I wanted to maximize the value every day that we’re shooting in Japan and get these incredible locations that hadn’t been really seen before. When you’re shooting for two weeks every day is so precious. And what I’m really proud of is that we had an opportunity to go down to southern Japan to these little fishing villages that had never been shot before in a western film. It was so remote but I think that they really added something special to the movie. Those are real fishing villages that you’d never expect to see in a summer superhero movie.
So do you now consider yourself an expert in Japanese culture and architecture?
You know, I’ve certainly learned a lot. I think, you know, I think I could hold my own on Jeopardy on that category. But the thing that’s so rewarding and was so fun is that the more you learn, the more you see there is to learn. It’s just endless, just all of the rich history and culture that there is to learn about in Japan. So I think I need to do another couple of movies set in Japan before I’m truly an expert. But I’m working on it.
Can you talk about creating Silver Samurai, which a lot of fans were excited about seeing on the screen for the first time?
That was something that I was really excited about, too, because I thought wow, this is really cool because this is a character that’s never been realized in a live action anything, you know. I mean it’s only been in the comic book and a couple of toys and things. So that was probably the first thing that we focused on early on. One thing that I wanted to do early on is I decided I wanted to try to build something for real and not have it be just this completely CG character all the time. And that’s something that we were able to pull off which I’m really happy about. We made a full size nine-foot Silver Samurai which we see in the movie in all of the non-animated poses when it’s just kind of not moving. It was basically like a full size posable prop. But it helped a lot because it was a very accurate sort of reference for just the surface quality and the materials that it was made out of.
What was really cool, too, is that it’s not totally literal to the comic books. The idea of Silver Samurai’s been tweaked and I thought that was really interesting. But it was also a huge challenge because we wanted to create a design that held its own against all these other incredible robots and armors and things, like in Transformers or Iron Man. There are incredible designs out there. So it was definitely something that was thrilling and terrifying at the same time.
Your next project is a new Dracula movie starring Luke Evans. This is a character we’ve seen so many iterations of before, so what’s your approach with this film and what could we expect to see?
Well, I’ve had a lot of great opportunities to sort of invent or be involved in the very foundations of franchises. And Dracula Untold is an example of that, where it’s an incredibly great idea of doing kind of a Dracula origins film and being inspired by the legend of Vlad the Impaler and 15th century Wallachia or Transylvania as it became known. So what’s interesting also about it is it’s less of a genre film, less of what you would expect as a kind of a light genre vampire movie and much more of an epic historical drama. It’s very, very lush and very sort of big palette, big canvas. And it’s cool, too, because when I read it for the first time I was like, “Holy s**t. Why hasn’t this been done before?” This was a great idea of putting the legend of Vlad the Impaler into a Dracula movie and taking elements that had been hinted at in other movies like Coppola’s Dracula film and expanding it into a two-hour movie. So I’m very, very excited about it.
You worked as an art director on many projects for many years and now you’ve become a production designer on your own. For people who are not familiar with the credits in films, what’s the difference between those two jobs and what the responsibilities are?
That’s a good question. I started as an illustrator and then I worked as an art director and then a production designer. An art director is someone who’s responsible for the how and kind of managing and figuring how they’re going to get things done. So you’re managing a team in the art department and managing construction and also the production designer’s eyes and ears on the ground. Whereas a production designer is really a person responsible for the overall look of the film and being a collaborator with the director to design the production in a way that maximizes the impact. So I’m responsible for defining and creating and inventing the world in which the story’s going to take place. I can dream up these crazy ideas and then I have a team of wonderful people who actually figure out how to do it — which would be my art directors.