Alex McDowell interview: Fahrenheit 451, Upside Down and designing for 3D

One of Hollywood’s finest production designers talks about the aborted new take on Fahrenheit 451, the fascinating indie movie Upside Down, and his thoughts on 3D…

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of chatting with acclaimed production designer Alex McDowell about his work on Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, which comes out on Blu-ray in the UK on Monday 17th May. Today, he’s been talking through his aborted work on Fahrenheit 451, the world of 3D movies, and what he’s currently up to.

If you missed yesterday’s chat, you can find it here. But without further ado…

I’m fascinated by the aborted remake of Fahrenheit 451, which you did a lot of work on. There’s a real fear I think that it’s going to go down as one of the great lost science fiction films of our era. How far down the road did you get with that? At what point did you realise it wasn’t going to happen?

I think I might have been on it for four to six months, as I remember. We were a long way into the vehicle design for instance, so we had conceived of the biggest road vehicle ever made for the fire engines. There’s this massive thing, we’d got a long way into that.

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We were in this holding pattern of where we were going to shoot, and the locations were going to be dependent on that. We went to Australia and tested out for locations. But in the end, I think it was as simple as the fact that the studio wanted Mel Gibson to be the lead actor as well as the director, and he didn’t want to do it. And when he ultimately didn’t want to be the lead, it fell apart, as these things sometimes too.

Had you got to the point of building much for it?

No. We were in conceptual. We were doing creature design and vehicle design, and the kind of more complicated pitch things. But we didn’t go as deep into it as some of these films.

There were a string of films that I did back-to-back that, for some reason, didn’t make it to the screen, which tends to happen. You tend to start a long way pre-greenlight and you never know if all the parts will come together.

Your work on Fahrenheit is presumably mothballed now. Do you think there’s a chance that it’ll come back together?

I had heard that it was going to, but not for a couple of years now. What I thought was interesting, and I’m not a fan of remakes, but if you take the metaphor of books and apply it to today – web-based information, and look at how relevant it is in the context of the assault of information we’re in the middle of and the way that we are controlled in terms of freedom of speech – it’s very relevant and a good film to remake. It could be a very smart, intelligent political thriller. For that reason there’s every chance that it could come back.

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You know, Kavalier & Clay is the one film that was a great loss for me that I got very close to making that I really hope they put back on the table. A wonderful project.

It’s a Michael Chabon book, but it’s based around comic book artists in World War II, and it somewhat parallels the development of Superman, the two Jewish kids who started growing a superhero and it turned into Superman. But it’s an entirely fictional story, a really fantastic, rich novel.

Stephen Daldry was set to direct it and we were six weeks away from the start of production when they shut it down. It was too complicated.

It’s often a question of audience, in some of these films it’s not always clear who the audience is, and people get a little nervous.

With that one, you had things realised and built?

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We were a few weeks away from pre-production. That’s the development phase. The lot of the designing is really locked in the first three months of development.

Can I ask how Upside Down is going, because that looks fascinating?

It’s a really interesting project. It’s a French/Canadian co-production, not a big budget, by any means, a very ambitious film.

It’s imagining a sort of magical realism fairy tale of a love affair between a boy from one planet and a girl from another. And the two planets are adjacent so that you can literally climb from one to the other, so they retain their own gravity. All of the objects from one world remain in the gravity of that world.

So it’s a metaphor for the complications of love, and then it’s got a whole other politic layer of apartheid with the two worlds. One is kind of Third World, and the other is exploitive-based upscale world.

How heavily have you fused those themes into your designs?

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It’s very much in line with the themes that I’m interested in. It’s not that far away in that socio-political sense from Fight Club or Minority Report. They’re all kind of involved in that social space that I’m interested in.

This is very much a fairy tale simplistic version of that, and in a way, it’s a really strong metaphor. It’s very interesting.

It’s been great to work on something that is independent and has a different set of challenges that come from how do you get a vision this complex onto the screen with a limited budget.

Does that bring things full circle for you? I remember, for instance, the visuals of The Lawnmower Man punching above the weight of the film itself?

[Laughs] We’ll see how it pulls together. I feel it’s maybe more like The Crow in some way, in that it’s an intense process when you don’t have an enormous studio-based support system and you’re really viscerally involved.

And because I think I’m in a different space now, and I’m working very closely with the director and the producers. It’s really very satisfying to work on a film that there’s not an indulgence around it. Every different decision has to be the right decision for it, and it directly impacts what makes it to the screen.

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A big part of the production designer’s responsibility is encapsulated in production value. How do you get vision through parts of the practicalities of production back into the fantasy of the screen, and solve the multitude of real physical and engineering problems?

Presumably it’s digital technologies that have been the liberator, that have allowed you to do that?

These kinds of films are very hard to do unless you’re using a kind of non-linear, immersive design process. I’ve been pitched here since Minority Report, really, because it’s so much closer to how our minds think, it’s so much closer to creative collaboration because you have this additive workspace that starts off digital but is always giving you back real data.

In the case of Upside Down, you come out of a building in one world, and you look up and the sky is full of the planet of the other. In the most mundane environments, Montreal industrial sites where I’m standing now, you’re always in this kind-of-fantastical, hybrid animated extension of CGI and reality space. And you have to conceive of that world globally and think of the entire world at all times and not necessarily be making the decision of what falls into the camera and what falls into post.

It’s not really a design decision, that’s a production and a practical decision. But you need to conceive of these worlds holistically, and the digital design space allows you to do that in a real way. You’re really building the film space from the beginning.

So, when we’re looking in some regular locations at the horizon, we know where all the virtual locations are at any time, and we can tell the actors which way to look. It’s not Avatar, we’re about a tenth or less of the budget, but essentially the whole design and production ethos … your capability is similar in a way within the constraints of budgets.

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It sounds like a terrific project…

I’ve been on it now for six or seven months, and every day we still have to turn pictures upside down and puzzle over which way is up, and where gravity is!

You say you’re really enjoying a lower budget film, and it sounds a little like you’ve enjoyed moving out of the studio system. Where do you foresee wanting to go next? Do you want to go back to the big blockbusters, or are you intrigued now by what you can do for less with digital technology, and how far you can stretch independent money?

I think they’re both equally interesting, to be honest. The empowerment of a studio-based film, if it’s done wisely, is that you get the same independent aesthetic to a big budget film because the more efficient you are, the more you get on the screen. And when you have a really big budget that means a lot. You can really do ambitious stuff.

I’m always going to be drawn back to studio-based films because of how the designer’s role plays out. And how much you can do with it.

I think the next step is a transmedia step. What can you do in a studio-based space, giving a whole new kind of immersive experience for an audience when a fantasy story can extend out in not just into worlds in the film, but worlds outside the film. That’s a fascinating design space for me now.

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The 5D part of my brain is always going to be tweaked by the cross media possibilities, and the fact that design space doesn’t just exist in one media.

And does the 5D part of your brain enjoy the thought of 3D film making?

To an extent.

I think designing for 3D is a specific kind of design, and I’m really interested in tweaking expectations, messing with perspective. Once you have real perspective you’re in an absolutely controlled space, and maybe you can mess with perspective, and people’s perception of that. That’s really interesting.

Avatar‘s the only film I’ve seen that properly exploits 3D space and gives you an immersive experience that you could not have used in 2D, in my view.

Cameron’s version of 3D as a window into space is a really good one, and I’m terribly interested in that

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