Alex McDowell interview: designing Minority Report

Alex McDowell is one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed production designers. Here, in the first of two interviews, he looks back at his work on Steven Spielberg's Minority Report…

As Minority Report hits Blu-ray in the UK on Monday 17th May, we had the absolute pleasure of chatting at length with acclaimed production designer Alex McDowell. Here, he chats to us about bringing the look and feel of Minority Report to the big screen, and how to go about designing a futuristic movie that genuinely lasts. Here’s what he had to say…

Let’s start with perhaps an obvious question. Looking back at Minority Report now, what are your thoughts on the project?

There’s a few things, really. It was a very important film for me because it really changed the way we worked. An accidental collision of time and technology and opportunity. Plus Spielberg was directing it, which empowered us. In that way it will remain a marker for me when it turned digital, and it really fundamentally changed the way our creative process worked.

As a film the thing that’s gratifying is that it’s not dating. So many science fiction films are dated by the technology they use that is necessarily contemporary, such as screen technology.

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Did it stem from the fact that you base so much of the architecture and the look of the film on the buildings that were around at the time you were making Minority Report?

Well, that’s a really good point. One of the things that Steven was pointing out, correctly, was that we all live in yesterday’s future. We’re not living in crazy sci-fi buildings, we’re living in buildings that were 100 years old, you know.

Most of the future we were imagining 10 years ago, very little has changed from how it was. It’s scale-based. The cell phone is going to change every year, and the refrigerator may change every five years. But the technology that we pay a lot of attention to are really the small components of our lives.

One thing you seem to have got scarily accurate is the way advertising is weaved into the world around. Is that something that you foresaw coming, or just a good, estimated guess?

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Well, you know it was actually a direct result of our process. The thing that triggered it was that Spielberg wanted, not to make a science fiction film, but a film about a future reality. And what that meant for us that we did a whole other kind of research.

It was really important that we could say, to the best of our knowledge, this is a pretty fair guess at what will happen. More than a guess. A well informed decision based on research that just having Spielberg at the helm gave us access to. Technology departments, CEOs in big corporations who were able to say confidently to us that touchpad technology was going to be big in the future because they were developing it.

One of the things I find with future-based films is that when you see the world on a big screen, it doesn’t always look used. It’s as if the movie world very much existed for just this one film.

Going through some of the documentary material on the Minority Report disc, you put together an ethos that the Pre-Crime department had to be very clean and very clinical. But how did you cross that with the idea that it had to be so matter-of-fact to the characters who were in it?

Well, I think it fit. One of the things we thought about Pre-Crime was, at this point, the police department was a corporation just like any other. So, it was like a corporate headquarters. Like if you go into the Microsoft campus. It isn’t worn, a lot of money is being spent on keeping it a very clean environment.

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But what I’d say we did is that we extrapolated out to real locations all of the time. We knew where Pre-Crime was, in a real place in real Washington DC. And we found architecture that supported the idea that Pre-Crime was largely underground.

It’s actually the Ronald Reagan building, I think, in the centre of DC that’s the exterior of Pre-Crime, and it happens to have a killer component in the courtyard which fits.

The underlying theme in Minority Report for me is water and the idea is that narrative is a series of ripples with a single inception point, and the narrative was very much doing that.

The pre-cog chamber is a pebble drop in the centre of Pre-Crime and the narrative that starts in the pre-cog chamber ripples out into the narrative of the film, and the architecture reflects that.

So, Pre-Crime is a series of concentric circles, and Pre-Crime itself, the pattern of the walls is all based on a ripple pattern. We found that holistic or synchronistic idea in the exterior architecture. Even the way that Arlington Cemetery is laid out fits the graphic that we were using.

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The water presumably then informed the colour scheme you used…

Yes. In a very simplistic way, Pre-Crime is a series of cool blue tones and transparency. Transparency is the other political statement in a way. We’re saying Pre-Crime has nothing to hide, it’s transparent in every way.

The spiral ramp has the minimum of vertical walls. It’s quite complex architecturally to hide all of the vertical structure in the set. So that you’ve got the sense that the whole thing is transparent. That architecturally and metaphorically the transparency is hiding this core dark loss of civil liberties for the population because of the existence of pre-cogs.

Spielberg is known for loving physical sets. But is it right that he didn’t walk through the finished set until a couple of days before you were due to start?

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s true! He had developed an interesting approach to his own personal immersion in the sets on Saving Private Ryan. He wanted to feel as if he was experiencing it for the first time. We had heard that he didn’t visit any of those sets until he was ready to shoot so that he could get the same visceral experience.

No pressure!

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Yeah, exactly! We were shooting on the Fox lot on one stage and building on the other one, and he would not come over and look at it! And the Pre-Crime set was the most expensive set in the film, very structurally complex.

He had just finished A.I. where he had walked into a set for the first time and not liked it. He’d changed it, they’d started again, we shoot again in two weeks. It’s an interesting pressure.

We have tools available to us now such as photo-realistic 3D pictures on top of 3D models where you can put those images in front of him, and, really, even if he’s experiencing it for the first time, he’s got some embedded idea of what it’s going to look like. We have some safeties.

There’s a terrific shot in Minority Report which combines what you were saying about how things were changing digitally for you, with Spielberg’s love of the physical set. It’s the containment chambers, the prison, and the sheer sense of scale of it. The other thing about Spielberg is that he clearly doesn’t like his camera to be fixed, and he’s sweeping around what must be an extraordinarily complex shot and scene to set up. Can you talk us through it?

It was a set that stayed dormant for a long time because Spielberg had a vision of a graveyard with headstones. And beneath those headstones were all of these people in storage. We went to giant underground locations. We looked around a lot for somewhere that could contain that. But there were a lot of practical issues, and the vision was hard for everyone to get their head around.

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What we did was went into PreViz, a technology for post-production planning, but we built the whole set in that. It didn’t go through set design at all. And we mastered this conceptual idea of vertical tubes that were underground with headstones, and then laid them out in a pattern. And really just looked at the rhythm of motion that would give us.

So when that big crane arm moves through the set, completely inefficiently and with terrible functional design, each of those [headstones] has to go back into the ground to avoid the sweep of the arm and then come back up again.

But it gave this really interesting pattern and rhythm to the shot. We got that working in animation, so we really animated first, and then designed back to the animation. And once the animation was working and he could see the kind of shot he could get from it, we actually built very little. We built, I think, three or four tubes in one corner and then the main room they come out of. And the arm was just a big dolly track that they swung out on.

It was all a green screen set. It was completely designed, CG and real together, in an animation environment to begin.

I read your diaries of putting together the set for The Terminal. I got a sense of reading through that that you put together a very efficient set for The Terminal, having designed things for the sets of Minority Report that the camera never really caught. Is that right?

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In an all-embracing way, I think Janusz Kaminski [director of photography] in conversation with Steven and myself made a decision that we, as the audience, needed to take it for granted. It means that you don’t do big establishing wide shots of here, we’re about to enter this great set, we enter it as if it was an everyday event.

There’s a slight downside to that for the designer, because the camera’s not looking at it as if it’s a big beautiful set, it’s looking at it as if it’s a big corporate building that you just walked in, that you’re not there for the architecture.

The upside is that I think the audience has a far more visceral and immersive connection to the space. If they want to see more, they have to pay attention, and it’s not just being presented to them in a way that some other, more stylised films might do. I think it went a long way to breaking the science fiction convention.

Post Blade Runner it’s a brave company that allows its name to be used in such a movie. You dealt with some product placement in the film, most notoriously Lexus. Were there any difficulties in basically matching the design of the film with what someone was paying to put in it?

It was a similar situation for The Terminal and for Minority Report that, in order to portray a real world, you’ve got to accept that advertising and product and corporate puff is in your frame. It gives you back a value.

Although it’s potentially compromising, the Lexus situation actually was great. We pitched a design of a car. We had a great car designer called Harald Belker, and pitched a design back to Lexus, and as long as it had a couple of components, like polished wood in the interior, they really gave us an incredible free hand.

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We had some vehicles that were very pushed like the Maglev cars, and we had the electric car that was fully-functional, that we built from the ground up and could do 60 miles per hour. They really loved it, and gave us absolutely free reign. There was no ‘this is the way our cars need to look’.

Then there were the police backpacks too…

Most of that design work was done with 3D design and animation. The props in this movie were complex and expensive because they had to work, and they had to look really good close up. And in most of Steven’s films there’s a great attention paid to those.

But I think we did our testing in 3D, if I remember rightly. A thing like the hovership was a very big physical effects model with lots of moving parts and a big dangerous machine. The factory sets had a lot of robotics and, again, heavy machinery operating everything.

The huge advantage we had on the film was that we had a lot of prep time. There was no script when we started, and there was no script for a year, but we were given, almost as a result of that, the opportunity to develop the interior logic of all of these things, and really test it properly. As opposed to the regular deadline that might have been four or five months before shooting. We were more like 15 months of prep before we started shooting in two sections.

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So we prepped for a long time, and went away and did a whole other movie while Steven did A.I. And then came back and started up again. So we had the additional advantage of an objective point of view, of being able to stand back and have a look at it again, to open the boxes and say some things were working, and some things weren’t. It really allowed us to test the believability of the props and the sets.

Alex McDowell, thank you very much.

We’ll be back for more chat with Alex tomorrow, when he talks us through the failed attempt to get Fahrenheit 451 off the ground, his work on the upcoming Upside Down, and what his views are on designing for 3D.

Minority Report is out on Blu-ray from Monday 17th May from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.