Making The Magic Happen #4 – Jeannine Oppewall (Production Designer & Art Director)

Welcome to the fourth instalment in our behind the scenes interview series, MAKING THE MAGIC HAPPEN.

We continue the series this month with the four-time Academy Award-nominated Production Designer and Art Director, JEANNINE OPPEWALL.

Jeannine began her career in the early 1980s, working as a Set Designer on such films as Brian De Palma‘s giallo-inspired, neo-noir mystery thriller, BLOW OUT (1981), before moving onto work as a Production Designer and Art Director on the likes of the critically acclaimed films IRONWEED (1987), THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY (1995), PRIMAL FEAR (1996), WONDER BOYS (2000), and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002), amongst many others.

Jeannine has received four Academy Award nominations for Best Art Direction for L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, PLEASANTVILLE, SEABISCUIT, and THE GOOD SHEPHERD.

Tender Mercies

1. What are your favourite career moments to date, or favourite films you have worked on?

It might be just as hard to pick a favorite film as it would be to pick a favorite child.

The “first born” perhaps? Tender Mercies – a film that could never get made today.

A story about a woman who lived her life as her mother and grandmother had before her – traditionally.  The story made sense to me because I had a lot of feeling for this kind of Horton Foote written character, and I was lucky in that it found an audience and stayed in release for many months.

The “most successful”? L.A. Confidential was widely seen and respected by many people; it received numerous Oscar nominations, although, as director Curtis Hanson quipped, “All things considered, it would have been better not to have done our best work in the same year as Titanic was released.” I found a compatible collaboration with Curtis, based on our mutual interest in exploring the history and underbelly of the city we both lived in.

The “most adventurous” maybe? Pleasantville was both funny and serious at the same time, a filmic feat difficult to achieve. With Pleasantville, I got to explore something about what I thought and felt about small-town America.

Ridgewood House for Seabiscuit – Jeannine Oppewall © Production Designers Collective
Ridgewood House for Seabiscuit watercolour- Jeannine Oppewall © Production Designers Collective

2. How did you get started in the industry?

I fell into the film business after I had been working for about 8 years at the Office of Charles and Ray Eames in Venice, CA.  (At the time, Charles Eames was probably the most famous living American designer.)  A number of other people who worked there with me at the same time ended up in the film business as well.  My ex-husband was making his first film, Blue Collar, and his designer needed some extra help, so I was drafted into the service, you might say.  When I decided to try to continue to work in the art department of the film business afterwards, no one who interviewed me asked to see my portfolio, which I found odd, but I guess they figured I could not have been too stupid, having lasted at the Eames Office for 8 years.

3. What was the movie that made you fall in love with cinema?

I guess I would have to say that this happened to me rather late in life. Maybe it was seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev, set in the Russian Middle Ages. I had studied the Middle Ages in college, and so was predisposed to be interested in the film. But I was astounded to see what seemed to me a new way to tell a complex story – in black and white, with extremely long takes, one scene after the other telling different stories about different characters, but adding up to an astonishing emotional exploration of a relatively unknown time and place. Many years later, of course, I figured out that in Russia at the time, people and time were cheap, and film stock was expensive, unlike in the United States, where people were expensive and film stock cheap. So the obviously long-rehearsed shots made economic sense.

And there was also Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, with its deeply romantic story and fantastic but simple special effects.  I think I fell in love with the Beast then; I am still in love with him today.

4. What are some essential films for anyone wanting to start a career in your field?

Sunrise by F.W. Murnau. You can hardly find a better made film even today.

5. Can you tell us a little bit about your creative process? How do you get started on a project?

It is next to impossible to describe a working process that is both similar to everyone else’s and totally individual at the same time, born out of some combination of who you were born to be and who you were trained to be.

6. What’s a guilty pleasure movie you won’t switch off if it’s on TV?

I confess that I am probably carrying the wrong passport, as I find almost any foreign film more interesting than almost any American film, and I don’t feel guilty about that at all, though maybe I should. The language is different, the environment is different, and therefore you have to work harder just to begin to understand the story that is being told.

7. Can you tell us a little about your upcoming projects?

I find it utterly impossible to talk about upcoming projects because they are not within anyone’s control these days. Even if a designer is contacted by a director who would like you to work with him/her, that person is subject to the dictates of studio rules, cast availability, funds available, etc., and committing to work on a project these days is tenuous at best most of the time.

LA Confidential Victory Motel © Production Designers Collective
LA Confidential Victory Motel watercolour – Jeannine Oppewall © Production Designers Collective

8. How do you switch off from work? What are your hobbies?

While I am engaged on a project it is almost impossible to switch work off. Sometimes a simple small change of geography can help (a change of geography can often be a change of mind); but always, always, one’s antennae are fully extended, scanning the environment automatically for bits that could be inspirational or useful for the job.

9. What’s one piece of advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out in the industry?

I was given the best advice of my career by Charles Eames, as I was leaving his office: “Don’t let the standards down.”  I have done my best never to let the Eameses’ high standards down. But I am sure numbers of producers have not been fans of this fact.  Honestly, I am more afraid of my internalised voice of Charles Eames than I am of any producer in Hollywood.

10. If you had to submit a ballot for the Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll, what are some films that would be on your Top 10 list?

I believe I have already mentioned three of these – Andrei Rublev, Sunrise, Beauty and the Beast.

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