Oscar Gold 2020 – Production Design

Strictly speaking, the award for Production Design is meant to be limited to the interior design of a film, namely the sets, props, and overall decoration. But in the case of our nominees this year, it has to be said that “interior” doesn’t quite cover it. Each of the five films selected here have a mix of interior and exterior sets that have been specifically tailored to fit the needs of their stories, all but one of which takes place outside the modern day. And for the one that is present, the designs inside and out are still essential to the overall themes and messages of the film.

It’s a strong set this year, but only one film can take home the prize. I have a working theory as to which one it’ll be, but really there’s no wrong choice in this category, which is a rarity for just about any field in just about any Oscar ceremony.

This year’s nominees for Production Design are:

The Irishman – Bob Shaw (Production Design) and Regina Graves (Set Decoration)

Of the nominees in this year’s field, this is the most traditional, as the bulk of the action takes place inside interior sets. And a good deal of those sets are fairly standard for a crime/mafia film. You have jails, courtrooms, Congressional hearing rooms, warmly lit restaurants, and well-appointed houses that show off just how rich the right players can be while still maintaining the illusion of everything being above board. The real highlight of the interior design here is the nursing home that bookends the film. It’s cramped, drab, and depressing. In a previous breakdown I described it as a waiting room for the afterlife, and the set design certainly gives it that look, what with the brown carpeting, wood paneled walls, and litany of old folks in wheelchairs with oxygen tanks. It’s a great combination of set design and prop apportionment.

On the outside, though, you also get a fun bit of design during the frequent cuts to Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci’s road trip to the wedding. The highways are littered with era-appropriate billboards, cars, and road signs. The 50s, 60s, and 70s are alive and well when we see pit stops along the way as the story jumps between eras. Of all the nominees, the outdoor sets here are the smallest percentage of the overall design, but it’s still done nearly to perfection.

Jojo Rabbit – Ra Vincent (Production Design) and Nora Sopková (Set Decoration)

From an interior standpoint, the highlight of the design for Jojo Rabbit lies inside Jojo’s house. Each room tells its own little story, from the bare opening foyer to the welcoming living room, from the humble kitchen to Scarlett Johansson’s modest yet luxurious bedroom. But the real high marks are the living quarters of our young foils. Thomasin McKenzie’s hidey-hole in the wall is a great piece of design, particularly the way the section of wall opens out to allow her something resembling free movement. On the flip side, Jojo’s room is cluttered with posters and propaganda about Hitler, who is just the tops in the boy’s mind. As Stephen Merchant notes when the Gestapo come snooping about, he considers Jojo’s room to be the perfect bedroom for the Hitler Youth. “I wish more of our young boys had your blind fanaticism,” he quips upon seeing the walls plastered with the Führer.

Outside the walls of Jojo’s home, however, there is still plenty of great design to go around. Making heavy use of a studio lot, the streets of the town are lined with a mix of freshly-paved roads and dilapidated buildings blown out by frequent bombings. And of course, there’s the Hitler Youth camp that opens the film and introduces us to Jojo’s imaginary friend. The open space for training, bombing, book burning, and all other sorts of playful atrocities is Das Boot Camp of the Third Reich’s dreams.

1917 – Dennis Gassner (Production Design) and Lee Sandales (Set Decoration)

The polar opposite of The Irishman, almost all of the set work for 1917 is done outdoors. But despite the wide open spaces of the exteriors, there is still a lot going on. Much of the focus comes down to utility of space. When Schofield and Blake are indoors, it’s usually in a tight, cramped barracks or bunker with minimal, almost Spartan appointments, like dusty bunk beds or trip wires. When Schofield encounters the French woman with the baby, it’s in the basement of a destroyed building. His encounter with a sniper is in an abandoned house. And in all those situations, the near or total desertion of each location adds to its mystique, because every single prop that the protagonists come across is there for a very specific reason.

Outside, the trick is turning open landscapes into smaller areas that feel as if they’re interior sets. This is best exemplified by the crossing of No Man’s Land, which is littered with barbed wire, pits, and bodies. A close second is the blown out farm house, a shell of what we can imagine its former self to be, and yet there are crisp, solid identifiable parts to it that play a significant role in the moments where our heroes linger. It feels like an actual house that’s been hollowed out and had its walls separated and moved out to widen the area, and it makes for a great bit of atmosphere for one of the more tense moments of the film. And then, of course, there is the destroyed town of Écoust, itself an open lot filled to the brim with crumbled buildings, a gauntlet that Schofield has to run while dodging unseen bullets and German soldiers popping up around every turn.

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood – Barbara Ling (Production Design) and Nancy Haigh (Set Decoration)

There’s an entire essay that could be written about the inside of Rick Dalton’s house alone. The kitschy furniture, the old movie posters, the shag carpeting so thick that rabbits could live in it. Every inch of that house is a training course in how to dress a set. It’s amazing how many stories could live just in those few rooms. Pretty much every interior set could speak similar volumes.

But really, the star of the design is Los Angeles itself. Not content to keep the set dressings indoors or on a studio lot, Quentin Tarantino and his team literally transformed downtown Hollywood into its former self circa 1969. Living in the area, I can tell you first-hand it was a wonder to behold the several months of retrofitting that went on out here in Tinseltown. No detail was considered too minute for this purpose, as store fronts, theatres, houses, street signs, whatever you can think of was completely altered to recreate the look of Hollywood in the late 60s. For months us plebeians got to drive around the city and all but literally travel back in time in the process. Maybe it’s too “inside Hollywood,” but it added an entirely new dimension to the film that only locals could truly experience and appreciate. But goddamn was it incredible.

Parasite – Lee Ha-jun (Production Design) and Cho Won-woo (Set Decoration)

From an interior perspective, the set design of Parasite is a tale of two houses. On the one hand, you have the immaculate Park mansion. Acres of space, modern decor, lights that turn on in sequence when the family patriarch comes upstairs after a hard day’s work (itself a clue to the overall twist of the story). It’s a house filled with contradictions. There’s more space than the family could ever hope to use, yet they brag about it being built by a famous architect. Every room looks like it could hold wonders and treasures, but it’s the cellar that hides the biggest secret. Contrast that with the cramped and overstuffed semi-subterranean apartment of the Kim family. There’s almost no furniture, just clutter. There’s barely room to sit, much less do anything of substance. Their toilet is propped up on a tiled ledge in a tiered bathroom where you have to lean forward just to use the facilities, or cram yourself into the window alcove to get a single bar of wifi.

This juxtaposition is further highlighted by the film’s exteriors. The Park estate is tucked away up a high street. The entrance looks inconspicuous enough from the road, but once you enter the property, it’s a veritable maze of stairs and gardens until you finally get to the front door. On the other side of things, a horrible rain storm sends torrents of water down the hilly streets and stairs of the city, until you literally get to the bottom rung of society, the Kims’ home, which is flooded along with several other abodes of the poverty-stricken. The wide shot of the sheer number of stairs that the Kims have to descend in order to have a chance at saving their home is one of the best visual metaphors of class warfare ever put to film.

My Rankings
1. Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood
2. Parasite
3. Jojo Rabbit
4. The Irishman
5. 1917

Next up: It’s time to make the movies really pop! And also bonk, zap, and pew pew pew! It’s Sound Editing!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Which sets did you like best? Should Production Design be limited to interior sets? Could you live in between walls for your own safety? Let me know!

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