Thursday, 19 December 2013

interview: Jonathan Carlson

Jonathan Carlson was production designer on the Hallmark Frankenstein mini-series. I interviewed him when I visited the set in Slovakia in August 2003.

How did you get this job?
"I’m friends with the producers in California. I worked on Highlander: Endgame, I production designed that in Romania a couple of years ago. So I met Dan Gross. I just got back from South Africa and something had happened with their other production designer. Dan knew I had just got back so he called me and said, ‘Do you want to take off tomorrow to Slovakia?’ And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go!’"

Had the previous production designer done much?
"They were in two weeks of prep. I guess he had problems with the producers or something happened, personal problems or something. But when I came in there was not much done. We scrambled and designed all this stuff and got it going but we had two weeks’ prep less than you’re supposed to have!"

It must be a challenge and a delight to do something this design-heavy.
"Oh yes. As a production designer you always enjoy this kind of stuff where you can push reality a little more and design more fantastic sets like rooftops and labs and boats and ship, and all these cemeteries and things like that. The one thing a production designer hates to do is be on some series decorating living rooms and kitchens. So yes, whenever you get the chance to do this kind of stuff, where you’re building ships and all kinds of fun things that you don’t normally do - oh yes, it’s a production designer’s wet dream!"

Did you do a lot of historical research?
"Yes, we did. I’ve done several period films. I just finished a period film in South Africa set in the 1900s so I just pushed back a little bit more from there. A lot of the research was right here in the town. You just get in your car and drive around the old part of the city and steal ideas: rooftops and old inns and that kind of thing. Take pictures with your digital camera, go back, design on a draft table and put it all together."

Is it set in a specific year?
"We’ve set it in the specific period 1820-1830. Not much changed in that ten-year period of time, so that’s what we’re basing the period on."

In any Frankenstein film the central set is the lab and yours is very cramped.
"The whole notion that we’re presenting on this film is it’s a little bit more reality-driven. The guy’s just out of college and he’s studying. We’re trying to keep it real, not so over the top. This isn’t some big castle and cranking the guy a hundred feet up into the space. They specifically wanted this kind of feeling for this Frankenstein, more realistic, less fantasy. There aren’t any Tesla coils bouncing around in the background and all that stuff. It’s just more reality-driven.

"Actually, that’s a pretty large set. This set was semi-dictated by the space of the stage. We always knew we were going to cram two sets in here. You have to have this much room for the crane and all this rooftop work. So we made the set as big as could possibly make it. If I could have made it a little taller and a little wider of course I would, but we’re completely maxed out on space here. It’s actually as big as it could be."

What about the equipment that he uses?
"There’s another good example. We don’t have some giant vat that looks like there’s no way the guy could even have made the thing. So what we have is: he found an old copper bathtub and he dragged that up there. So everything is reality driven. Real things. He found another tub and he turned that into a giant battery. Things that you could actually find in the village in that period of time. There isn’t that huge stretch. It’s set in the 1820s, there wouldn’t be some huge glass, Houdini-vat there. They wouldn’t be building that stuff, or big chains with cranks and wheels. It’s the 1820s. Okay, there’s a big lift in there that was used to lift furniture and things up into the building. Okay, that’s what he used to lift the monster up and bring him over and dip him into the bathtub. But if this was a real story, it’s probably a lot more in tune with the real things that were around in that day and age."

How are you finding working with a Slovakian crew?
"Excellent. They’ve all been very professional. They were given a challenge that not many crews could accomplish. I was quite amazed in South Africa at the calibre of people there, also Romania, Luxembourg, Mexico, and here in Slovakia. the secret of art directing and production designing is to get the full crew to believe that they can get it done. Our challenge on this one was we had six or seven major sets back to back with no cushion. By ‘no cushion’ I mean they didn’t go off and film a trail or some woods that we didn’t have to work on, so we could have a little breathing room to get the next set ready. Normally that’s how you would schedule a movie like this. But due to getting big actors, flying them in and flying them out, a week at a time, seven major sets had to be accomplished back to back in four weeks.

"You can take a look at the body of work: that ship, this building inside and out, the coastal farm, that whole snow set, the lecture hall at the university, a couple of others. All these had to be ready at the same time. We couldn’t even attempt to do it otherwise. If we had built one set at a time, that boat wouldn’t even be in there now. So we had to leapfrog crews day and night. No-one has had a day off in five weeks. We’re all blistered. So yes, in answer to your question, the Slovakian team has been very good! They’ve gone to war and back. They hit a wall a couple of days ago and now we’re still pushing to get the last few details in."


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