Sunday, 23 February 2014

interview: Melanie Light (2009)

Melanie Light has worked as production designer or art director on a number of cool films, some of which I have reviewed on this site. So I was delighted that she agreed to an e-mail interview when I contacted her in June 2009.

How did you first become involved with film-making?
“I guess my first real experience was from bagging a place in the art department for Adam Mason's The Devil’s Chair. That movie completely opened a door to me. I was kinda homeless and jobless and needed an escape. I had discovered and would go to the library for free internet until I got kicked off. There was an ad for an art director assistant for a horror movie in Cambridgeshire and I was like, 'Holy shit - this sounds amazing!’ I emailed them ASAP and luckily was the first to answer and had a car.

“I kinda went into The Devil’s Chair pretty blind to the way you make movies. I'd always wondered how you'd get in there. I had no contacts within it and thought you had to work on Star Wars to work on movie sets. For a while I used to watch the behind-the-scenes and make notes; I kinda always used that sort of influence in art works I was making in my spare time.

“We had a small art department of three, the production designer being my now friend Neil Jenkins and another guy who kinda clashed with me. I remember some great times, like choosing the colour and decorating the space of the hospital mental room and dirtying down walls at 4am with just water from a weird scary building tank thing; making the best-I-ever-made fake blood for the hardcore scenes at the end of the movie; choosing the weird horse and my small cameos.

“Working on The Devil’s Chair was like the coolest job ever, which is like more of a hobby. I loved the crazy energy of being a part of a team within in a team. It was almost like being at college again. My only experience before that was being at a friend’s music video shoot as an extra but I kinda ended up making a few suggestions. Also making a zombie graveyard set for a public Halloween horror tour in Kent. (That was fun! I also kinda directed my fellow zombies and did make-up.) I had a few fiddles about with things at uni and I did shoot a kinda suicide home movie where I pretended to be drinking vodka in the woods and then shoot myself, but the camera was on in my bag as I started my way to the woods, and wore the battery down. Dunno what happened with what I did get.

“Oh, and I guess going to a horror convention in something like 2002 at the Radison Hotel. I'd seen it advertised in Dark Side magazine, hardly anyone went, I thought it was so cool to have people talking on a panel with stories of their movie making process. Meeting the likes of Ingrid Pitt who later made an appearance in Beyond the Rave, which was an incredibly cool moment for me, seeing a horror legend doing some crazy scenes right before my eyes, that made all the long night shoots completely worth it.

“I also met Paul Davis who is doing incredibly well with his American Werewolf in London docu and the creator of the Little Apple Dolls figures, Yurie Urie. All that and I guess spending my university reading week hiring three horror movies a day and making an image and title for works influenced by a movie poster. I guess my past lives were all pushing me into the right direction and hopefully they still do!”

What is the actual difference between a production designer and an art director?
“Good question. The production designer is like the boss of the art department, the art director is like the manager. The production designer works closely with all the other heads of departments and the director and producers. Usually you get involved a lot earlier on in the project. You go through the script and break it down, find out how much money you’ve got to spend and on what, where you’re going to shoot, what needs building etc. Whilst dealing with that, figuring out what sort of colours, fabrics, textures, sizes, looks of the movie, how to make the director’s ideas work out, planning the whole ordeal. The art director is kinda like the instigator to the production designer, working closely together, creating the overall look of the movie.”

Most of your film credits are horror/fantasy: is that a personal interest in the genre or does it have to do with the greater scope for imaginative design inherent in these sorts of films?
“Horror and fantasy do seem to be what I have fallen into. I am a big fan of those films, particularly horror. I have been a horror fan in some way or another for a long time. They do tend to have a much wider scope and imagination for influencing a look.

“I have recently shot an action-spy-CIA-agent thing in Morocco which was a lot of fun, having stunt guys jumping out of buildings and blowing stuff up. Choosing pretty cool weapons like rocket launchers! I get into whatever the project is really and new genres are always a nice challenge. The Scar Crow had period elements which I really dig doing too. At the end of the day I always throw myself into what I do.

“Horror is great as you get to create a set-up that can embed eerie atmospheres to the viewer’s brain without them noticing. I do like dirtying things down and fucking stuff up! But then for some sets I get a kick out of making sleazy sex parties and co-ordinating colours and styles. Another recent project for a pilot pitch for BBC3: I got to get back to my sculpture ways and, whilst organising the green-screen set-ups, I spent many hours making a cool wonky model of a house. Somehow it ended out being quite Tim Burtonesque which was fine and something I'm proud of.

“No matter what I think, I am starting to create a style for myself and I get offered a lot of horror stuff. I'm still holding out for a real horrific project which will make people sick for watching it, ha! I was hooked on the horror stuff but recently I have been making a huge effort to watch recent mainstream movies with huge budgets to see how they look. I spent some time on Centurion, the latest Neil Marshall flick, thanks to Simon Bowles the ever amazing production designer and that really influenced ideas to me. You got films like Benjamin Button winning Best Art Direction at the Oscars and you watch that and can really see the fine details and beauty in a movie, making it art.”

Tristan Versluis’ short film I Love You is basically one scene of two people sitting at a table in a darkened room - so, if you'll forgive the impertinence: what exactly was there to design?
“That's another good question. I Love You does seem very much a simple project and I will say that I really love working with Tristan as he has some fantastic twisted ideas. I spent a week attacking the table in I Love You and even have a nice chisel scar on my hand from being so into it. You get to really see that table over the credits. I had carved some sweethearts of various sizes on the woman's end and some deep scratches on the sides as if they were from the woman going towards the man.

“The table was the table we used in Pixel. I had to woodstain it a more walnut kinda teak colour as I did the same with the church chairs I managed to source, which I purposely chose as they had such upright backs, which meant we got a better controlled posture from the actors. They have nicks and cuts in them also, most of which are in the man's chair. I also sourced much of the table dressing which you see, the odd, everyday objects of torture. Amazingly I found a knuckle duster in an antique store in North London, a real treasure.

“I also supplied the black silk gown Axelle is wearing. I got to bloody up the brilliant heart that Tristan had made too. Also be on set to re-set things and make sure the table always looked cool. It’s all kinda subtle in I Love You, which fits with the tension and passion which we get from such a short.”

What was the biggest challenge on The Scar Crow and how did you deal with it?
The Scar Crow amazingly was shot exactly this time last year and is already doing some festivals, which is down to Andy Thompson being so good at producing. I think I had about a month for preproduction. I had done some recce’s at the location which was a barn/shed which we re-dressed and a build which was in another empty grain barn, the rest was a bar and exterior stuff. As there was not a lot of money and period elements then that was a challenge in itself.

“I was fortunate enough to have a great and eager art department helping me on this and Lee who is a great prop maker and now is doing his own production design stuff, had a brilliant collection of magic books and odd things from his little country house in Cornwall. We managed to hire some stuff from a cider farm too for next to nothing. I spent a week before the shoot with a small team, making the rest of the props and decorating and painting the set. I was obsessed with the fact that the walls had to be textured and not flat, this made a huge difference. I also built a cool cage and the large cross that our Scar Crow resides at. I did make a star shape for the ritual scenes but it never got shot to its full purpose.

“Looking back now I was pretty pleased with my construction of a tank made of wooden pallets and lined with a kids paddling pool, then filled up with water. It’s like the opening shot to the movie. Andy had his heart set on this shot, so I kinda left my guys on stand-by and screwed that thing together in no time.

“Every movie you make has challenges every day and you have to be fast on your feet to make things happen. Scar Crow was my first feature to production design and I don't think it was that much of an ordeal. I'm a pretty organised person and I had time to prep accordingly for it and Andy was great to work with as was everybody else involved. It was a lot of fun to make. More stressful challenges come from little prep, re-writes of scripts during shooting, big ideas and no budget.

“Andy had a controlled set kinda going down with Scar Crow. I will say that somehow I managed to put in a set report visit on The Descent 2 at Ealing Studios in the middle of night shoots. But I'd say the most tiring thing was when we had to change and dirty the set down more for the scenes of the guys in the farmhouse. I think we finished shooting at 10pm, then we took everything out and re-dressed. I sent to others to bed and think I worked till 6am for a 9am call. Luckily I had stand-bys that I made have more sleep than me so I could be a zombie for the day.”

You have worked on several on-line serials for Pure Grass Films: how do those productions differ from a feature film and what considerations do you, as production designer, have to make because of the different way that people will view the images?
“My first experience with Pure Grass was Beyond the Rave. We shot this as a feature; now this was a difficult project! In regards to long hours and travelling about, not to mention the weeks of night shoots and little prep time. Anyway, like I said we shot this the same way you shoot low budget features over the course of weeks depending on actor availability and locations etc. I was the art director and since then have been their ongoing production designer for some pretty cool projects.

“Last year we shot an on-line series called Kirill, a cool sci-fi drama with David Schofield who was in American Werewolf in London. We shot it in a week in a cute little studio near Shepperton Studios. It was kinda based within the one set of the character. I was fortunate to have Oli Smyth as the creative director, who is another guy I love working with, as we are on the same page. There was some green screen and visual effects for this but not as much as Cell 2, another sci-fi action series starring Craig Conway (Doomsday, The Descent). It was for the same people, Pure Grass and Endemol. This had a huge amount of blue screen and I had to make set pieces that could be moved around and re-used for different set-ups. I built an awesome jungle for this too which I'm pretty proud of.

“How I managed to get this all done I don't know. I think I had a week and a half prep for a two week shoot! That includes some basic drafting for the construction manager. I tend to treat the work the same as a feature but then you always seem to have less time and money! We are still shooting on HD - or, in Morocco, Shadow Line was shot on 16mm which was cool. No matter what, they are all achievements and seem to be doing something right as Kirill has won an International Webby, was nominated for a BAFTA and a Digital Emmy award and I think there's another one too.

“I kinda like these little jobs inbetween the features as they (a) keep me busy, (b) are usually a lot of fun and (c) seem to be a less serious content but with some outstanding portfolio pieces. Basically they are intense and over with fast and likely to be on-line for me to forward to friends and family as opposed to waiting for the DVD to come out (not including Beyond the Rave). I treat them the same as features in a way to making them work out.”

I was surprised to find that infamous cut-price US studio The Asylum had made a film in Wales: Merlin and the War of the Dragons. What did you make of them?
“Haha - I love The Asylum now! I got onto that job as I had met Mark Atkins, a cinematographer and director of theirs, through mutual friends in LA. Hell, before I even knew who they were I had been to an Asylum party as part of the AFM film festival in 2007, partying with Jake West. I had a Facebook message from Mark thinking I did make-up. I was like no, I'm art department. So eventually after realising you need art department on your movie I drove to Wales and met up with the small crew of, I think six and then two kinda runners - smallest crew ever I think. It was nuts, making such a huge movie in like 12-14 days.

“The Asylum make a movie a month, which is just something in itself and kinda explains why some of it looks and sounds so bad. Wales was beautiful and rained a lot. Somehow we got shit done. Hell, we did a 24-hour day once too with our one day off afterwards. I made some great friends and contacts through that job and I thought it was so much fun despite the fact it was such hard work with no assistants. I think it's good for people to have gone through the motions of busting ass on set, like learning the hard way and sticking with it. I'm good friends with some of the crew members that work the Asylum gigs and I would totally do another one and another if my friends are directing and on set. It’s a kinda fun, retarded way to make movies. I watched Mega Shark vs Giant Octopus the other day with the on-set sound recordist and line producer - I got a live commentary which was awesome! A lot of Asylum films are almost how not to make a movie and as soon as I get on another one I'll do what I can to up its spec, despite the low budget; it makes it a challenge in itself. I want them to come back to the UK and make some crazy shit happen. It seems they are slowly getting the cult status nowadays which I seem to think is kinda cool and B-movietastic.”

What work have you got lined up and where do you see your career progressing?
“Right now I have a few things in the pipeline. It’s been a little bit slow this year so far. I'm still holding out for a project called Big Cats, a horror comedy by the guys who did Freak Out, a mega low budget but brilliantly made cult movie. Tristan Versluis has something up his sleeve too. There's always little bits inbetween that pop up too and I'm hoping to do a few more music videos - they have some great energy about them and visually can be totally out there. There could be another trip back to Morocco for me and I am also working on getting a visa for the USA so I can kick some ass over there.

“Adam Mason will have something up his sleeve soon and I'd like to be jumping on that wagon as he is a fantastic director who I totally support as it was he who got me here in the first place. Vivid should be coming together and I look forward to seeing that finished and out there as with a load of other little things. I'm also looking into getting some of my personal art back out there and hopefully I can do some more writing for We'll see. Freelance film making is a strange, unpredictable business. No matter what, I always have something on the go.”

interview originally posted 10th June 2009

See also:Melanie Light interview (2014) - Inbred, shorts, Women in Horror

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