An Interview with Richard Hoover
Richard Hoover is an award-winning production designer and art director. Richard has worked on acclaimed films such as, Girl Interrupted, Dead Man Walking, Payback, The Mothman Prophecies, and Apt Pupil, as well as TV series including, Twin Peaks, The Newsroom, and Enlightened. I spoke with Richard about the role of production designer, his work on Twin Peaks and Dead Man Walking, the challenges he faced on Girl Interrupted, and his advice for aspiring production designers.
How did you get into Production Design, and what does the role entail?
I started as a stage set designer in Minneapolis and then working out of New York for regional and off Broadway theatres in the late 1970’s.
I got involved in solidarity work for the American Indian Movement which led me to make a documentary film with associate Paul Smith about tribal treaty rights shot in South Dakota. This work lead me to discover a growing independent film world when back in New York and to discover, yes, setting design in films.
I did not really go to university for design, although I spent time in classes in design in NYC and Minneapolis. It was all a series of accidents which brought with them education and a sense of focus.
I began “art department work” on non-union films in New York and eventually joined the union (United Scenic Artists), having built a portfolio for theatrical design. Along the way, I was asked to art direct on a film in Los Angeles for designer Lilly Kilvert. I began designing my own films shortly thereafter in the early 1980’s. I lived in both Los Angeles and New York, but found more film work in Los Angeles.
The production designer: The designer is collaborator with the film director and cinematographer in the conceiving and making of physical settings for the filmed story. Physical settings include both found and built environments that fit the story arcs.
The work is physical story telling using all the tools one can muster to bring concept into reality. The process starts with analysis of story, theme, character and general mood and then “look” of the film. The process is overlapping and not always linear and sometimes not so “logical”. Of course, each script, while in a common written format, are always speaking to different themes, places and intensities of plot and action. The designer speaks in terms of visualization of story that may include research (historical, technical etc), tonal conceptions of mood and light, design conceptualization of spaces and objects, location discovery, graphic design and, of course, costs.
I usually start by making a look book (formerly mood board) in a digital format as a way to arrive at an interview with purpose. The design department, once in motion, then enters ongoing layers of presentation of ideas which involves collaboration with the director (of course), the cinematographer, and the line producer. My look books are a process of slow reading which produces an outline of theme, descriptive adjective, and general arcs or shifts embedded in the structure of the script.
This extends to setting up a room or walls where the arcs can be displayed and discussed in pre-production. For me the walls are a shifting zone of desired tone that then link to factual display of locations, set illustrations, and color notions.
The production designer leads the art department via the agreed upon visual agenda. Here, members of the team become involved and begin to organize their own various sub departments.
The art director: general manager of the art department work along with some design: scheduling and budgeting
The graphic designer: manages and produces graphics as needed.
The art department coordinator: runs the design office, handle clearance and general flow of
Information out of and into the office.
PA's: work as needed for the above.
Illustrators: (if you have them) work with the designer to render key angles of various setting
Using pencil and digital tools.
The assistant art director: will handle details of various sets.
The set decorator: finding and installing set dressing with her team.
The Construction coordinator: manages set builds for stage and location work.
Greens person: manages use of plants not potted on sets as needed.
The prop master: handles key physical props for actors during shooting.
And on set dresser: is like an on set art director but helps maintain the set during shooting
You worked as production designer on Twin Peaks. Can you tell me more about this?
Twin Peaks was the invention of humor and wonderfully dark minds of David Lynch and Mark Frost. As such, it was as much a journey for those working on it, as I think it may have been for the audience: what the heck is going on? And is this funny, or sad, or both? Why does it seem to move at an often slow pace? In our work, we all wondered the same but loved going with the flow of it all, since the idea of a series was, I think, an unknown for many of us.
I worked with Warren Frost (Father of Mark Frost) in Minneapolis. I was able to re-connect to Mark after the Twin Peaks pilot was first shown at the Telluride Film Festival. Patricia Norris did costumes and settings for the pilot.
The process at first meant replicating the basic tone of locations used in the pilot. Sets were built in warehouses near the Van Nuys airport. We had a 6 week period to design and build these various rooms which folded around each other in the warehouses. Two complete construction crews worked, at times, for 24 hour periods. Locations were found in the Malibu Mountains and anywhere we could find a pine tree. New settings were extensions of ideas found in the pilot: a mundane world of so called normalcy set within mysterious woods and bodies of water: eg based on the Cascade Mountains in Washington State.
Most of the series was done in and around Los Angeles with some second unit work done in and around Snoqualmie Falls, Washington (where the Great Northern and the RR Diner were located).
This was a world of mundane life mixed with suggested mystery, dark woods, and set within a rambling morass of human corruption.
The humor of the work (satire), mixed with potential deeply felt emotion, with a threat of mayhem looming over it all. In other words, it was like an expanded soap opera taken seriously, where the audience was offered mundane normal life on an edge. At times one could laugh at the whole thing and yet we always worried that the kids would be safe.
You were also production designer on Dead Man Walking. What research was involved in pre-production?
The physical agenda for the film was to build the visiting room and death house in New York City and to use the locations in and around New Orleans. Once on the ground in New Orleans,
we decided to use several of the real locations tied to the story: Hope House, where the nuns lived in the Housing Authority Complex, as well as exteriors at the real prison on Angola prison complex. Each step of the way the context and texture of the area demanded that we set this there: for example, the script speaks of a prison but a visit to Angola stunned us. Angola is a 11000 acre complex of prisons where prisoners work on the prison farm under guard.
While we could not use real interiors there, we were able to shoot exteriors which gave the film an amazing and very real and scary context.
Research was, then, really done on the ground through discovery of textures and spaces that spoke to the realities needed in the film. This was less one of pre-conception but conception on the fly where definitions became clear to me as we went.
What challenges did you face on Girl Interrupted, and how did you approach the subject material?
We wanted to see what it would cost to build the interior of the institution wing, but of course this was way out of financial bounds….Concurrently, we began a search for a practical older institutions on the East Coast. The idea was to soften the visual impact of the “institution” using color and finish and yet have it live within an older idea of institution.
The film was set in Massachusetts and based on a real institution. In our research we found similar institutions in Pennsylvania and in Maryland. We found that Harrisburg State Hospital (Harrsburg, Pa.) gave us the 90 percent of what we needed: an old unused wing, tunnels, older offices, and a campus like exterior and nearby small towns.
In our research, we learned, that in the late 19th Century that many states took on construction of huge campus-like mental institutions often called “State Hospitals”. Of course, at that time, theories of mental health and treatment of the mentally ill were rather new and often draconian.
And thus, throughout the US one can find the presence of sprawling mental health campuses, now often unused or repurposed
While Girl Interrupted was set in the 1960’s, in a time of suggested enlightenment, the visual shell of the film wanted to reflect a older institution using drugs and soft incarceration to quiet upset.
Harrisburg State Hospital was perfect for all the physical needs of the film. We were able to renovate an entire floor in an un-used dorm building giving us all the rooms needed for the story: halls, day rooms, activity rooms, medical offices, etc. Harrisburg also had a complex of old tunnels used in the past for steam heating and access by staff to the various campus buildings. These looming dark tunnels were more than we could hope for.
The “ice cream” shop was an amazing discovery of an existing pristine “stuck in time” pharmacy/soda fountain in Mechanicsburg, PA. We could never have built this setting which was complete with dressing of the period. I think we added only a card rack and a few graphics.
It was a gift.
You’ve worked in both film and television. How does the role vary between the two?
Design for film and television are two different financial and schedule based cinematic forms using the same tools. Feature films are usually lead by a director (who may also be the writer) in collaboration with the cinematographer. The design of the physical film is formed in an agreement with director, cinematographer, and designer. In feature work, then, the designer has, at first, one person (director) to make presentations. Some directors come with a formed or forming visual idea and some do not, but the director leads.
In Television production the writer/creator in collaboration with a lead producer are a consortium of folks that the designer relates to with the director, perhaps, arriving later into the process. These relationships morph based on the dynamics of the instigating group (writers), producer, and director. The designer is, in any case, dealing with a group and often several directors.
Features are usually more fluid in terms of start and finish of production while television often has a hard delivery date for airing or streaming. In terms of the work and scope of work, I am finding they are now very similar. There is not a TV of way of doing things anymore. The visual
Demands are the same. However, the pacing for television production is often more sped up and thus more stressful. On the recent Plot Against America, for HBO, we often spent very short shooting times on settings so that it seemed we were always moving. Feature work often affords more time in settings…which may allow for more technical set up and rehearsal time.
Do you have any advice for anyone trying to break into the industry as a Production Designer?
Right now, damn…it is tough given the virus and I imagine it will take longer to get going than
any of us want…..but during this time get computer skills (Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketchup, Rhino etc)…practice drawing, develop illustration skills and have fun doing all this.
But if a designer wants to design then do it where and when you can. If you are in a film making center where there is more work, then make and build contacts with designers who are working.
Keep a list of who you know and try to meet them. Ask folks for ideas and if they are able…perhaps they may help. It is a freelance market so work comes and goes. Directors are in the boat, by the way. It is not easy. Find projects you love and focus on them. Find a story you want to make yourself and do it.
Regarding unions, yes, you need to join. For designers there are two: United Scenic Artists and The Art Directors Guild. This will entail contact, a portfolio, amount of work out there, and money. But in the long term, as designer, the work gets better within a union structure.
Depending when or where you get a gig…you may start as an art department PA (nonunion).
If you have joined the unions then you may work in a variety of areas: set design graphics and assistant art direction…. But if you want to design…then do it where you can. Smaller films will allow, fyi, more freedom of work at times.