Exacting Production Design on Anthony Minghella's Breaking and Entering

Since his first production-design credit on 1992's The Lawnmower Man, Alex McDowell's rà©sumà© has read like a syllabus in hip contemporary style – it includes The Crow and its sequel, City of Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club, Minority Report, The Cat in the Hat, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His team won the Excellence in Production Design award from the Art Directors Guild in 2005 for its work on The Terminal, and he was nominated again last year for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Putting such a prodigious visual sensibility to work on Breaking and Entering, a story set in a very ordinary slice of London, might seem like overkill, but McDowell immediately saw his challenge in writer/director Anthony Minghella's tale of urban renewal and personal drama – not only would he be kept busy building up the industrial, many-windowed offices of Green Effect (the landscape-design firm run by Jude Law's character, Will), but he'd also have the challenge of helping tell the story by effectively visualizing the difference between Will's tony Primrose Hill neighborhood and the more multicultural environs of Bosnian refugee Amira (Juliette Binoche) and her son Miro. Finally, he'd have to learn about landscape design himself, so he could help make the work of Green Effect in the film seem credible.

F&V asked him to describe his working methods, to talk about collaboration with cinematographer Benoit Delhomme and others on the crew, and to explain how digital previs and VFX technology are changing the way a production comes together.

Click here to read the F&V interview with Breaking and Entering cinematographer Benoit Delhomme.

You’ve done a lot of overtly stylized films ‘ science-fiction stories and alternate realities. Breaking and Entering is based in the present-day real world.

Yes. Even on The Terminal and Fight Club, though they were both set in the present day, the subject matter was highly stylized. In design terms they were more naturalistic but in terms of the overall fabric of the film, we were inventing things. In Breaking and Entering, the idea was to find something of the essence of contemporary London to frame the story.

How did you get started?

The main subject for design was placing the Jude Law character in a believable context. It’s already a hard-to-define role, "landscape architect." It’s not a role that people readily understand, because it’s not building the buildings, it’s building the spaces in between the buildings. So we spent a lot of time talking about architecture and landscape and what that really meant. That was the more continuous task for me – getting a depth of knowledge in that field and giving Jude and his team that kind of context, which then led to the building of the Green Effect space. I think the focus of attention with Anthony was: What does that space look like? We were appropriating this existing archictectural scheme, this King’s Cross redevelopment, so we had to find a real way to wedge our story into that existing space. So that was the focus of the conversation to start with.

In the low-rent housing neighborhood where Amira (Juliette Binoche) lives with her son, was that apartment a built set or an actual apartment?

All of the interiors were built. Juliette Binoche’s space was a build, the little flat where Jude and Juliette make love was a build, and the two bedrooms in Jude Law’s family home and the bathroom were built. As always in design, you have to really be clear about what your exterior is. The big goal for Breaking and Entering was to create this seamlessness between all these spaces, so you believe they’re all in proximity to one another. It’s good if you have to ask what is built. I think it’s true of production design on the whole, but particularly in this kind of film, the ideal compliment is to ask, "What did Production Design do?"

What's your working environment like? Describe your tools.

My own tools are really the people I work with. I don’t do much more drawing than a sketch. I work with people who are using 3D or 2D digital tools – CAD or 3D modeling tools or pencil. It really depends on who I want to work with and who’s available and what tools they bring to the table. Putting together a design department in film is quite fluid because it’s very dependent on who you can get at that moment and what tools they bring to the table. But my first tool is research. What I think is most important for a designer is to establish the kind of rosetta stone of any film. You’ve got to establish a unique language every film that you do, and that’s entirely a visual language. I get there by pulling a lot of reference material, a lot of research over the arc of the film. A lot of stuff about landscape design, a lot of stuff on Bosnian history and Amira, a lot on parkour, the rooftop jumping the boy does, and the history of London and the redev of London – you put that together and start getting feedback from the director, the cinematographer, and the costume designer, people in the core of the visual discussion. You know Anthony prefers one portion of the research to another, and you start steering design toward that. In many ways the design of a film has less to do with the line you draw on a paper and more to do with the environment you create in the production, so everyone has a clear understanding of what the film needs to look like and what space you’re inhabiting.

Do you try to work with the same crew from film to film or is it more scattered?

We’re all on different cycles. And I’m based in L.A., so going to the UK was a new experience to me. Even though I'm British, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the first film I had made in the U.K., and the budgets were so different from Charlie to Breaking and Entering that I sort of had to work with a different scale and type of team. I brought two or three people over from Charlie. You look for people with specific skills that relate to a film. If it’s a fantasy film, you want concept artists and illustrators who are good with those extreme forms. This was a little more prosaic as a design job and the bigger part of the design was finding this thread that was the essence of London.

Benoit mentioned that his approach in terms of color was partly determined by the two neighborhoods of London where story takes place. Are your decisions based on that kind of visual need?

Very much so. The whole conversation about color is a central conversation between the cinematographer and the production designer. The production designer tends to start earlier, but I try not to make any fixed decisions about color until I’ve had the conversation with the D.P. Benoit has a wonderful color sense and he brought in a lot of clips of films that we looked at. And it was not only the kind of rich colors of the multicultural, Bosnian world against these very monochromatic colors of Jude Law's home, but also the difference between night and day. We wanted to really pump up the color of the night and make the nighttime of London more exotic. We looked at a lot of Chinese cinema and looked at the way those filmmakers used available light. And we really pumped up the color in the nighttime.

Benoit was also concerned about the Green Effect offices, with all that glass and those windows. He said some production designers work like architects, almost hands-off after they hand you a set – so you have to figure out how to light it. But he said you always made sure to allow him enough light sources to do his job.

Yes. It’s fundamental, I think, for the design. Ultimately, design is really about the material. The job of a production designer is to create surfaces that either reflect or absorb light. Nothing about a set has an architectural reality. Its function is not architectural – its function is as a conveyer of light. So I’m very conscious of the way that light works in space. It tells a story, but it also models the space, because the space only exists according to the way it’s lit. It’s a fundamental part of the conversation. My experience on The Terminal taught me a great deal, because the terminal [set] was an enormous light box, and our color decisions were based on the color temperatures of light rather than the colors we painted walls. So we had green fluorescent for the lower areas and a kind of clean white tungsten for the upper-class areas. It was a very delicate balance of light because we lived in that one space for such a long time. We worked hand-in-hand with the cinematographer and the gaffer for a long time on that film to make that light box functional. It’s fundamental now to the way that I start talking with the cinematographer.

So you're thinking not only of what you’re building, and the materials, but also what type of light is going to be illuminating them.

Exactly. And allowing the difference between interior and exterior light, natural light, and how that relates to the exterior of the space you’re working in and the geography of the space. When we’re chosing locations, we’re looking at the orientation of the building, where light's going to fall at different times of day through existing windows. And then we know we have to bring the same compass bearing to interiors, even if they’re sets on stage. That’s has to do with that fluid transition from inside to out.

There are two distinct kinds of light, and one is the way light bounces off an object, and the other is what light looks like as an object in the space. That becomes a set dressing thing, if you like. My set dresser is equally interested in that, but the lighting components you choose to put in the space are important. In the Green Effect opening night party Benoit wanted this soft light over the entire interior, so he used these "moon balls." They’re big inflatable silk balloons that have lights inside, and we incorporated those into the set as party balloons. We start collaborating a lot on how you justify that light being in the space.

Do you try to design in such a way that the camera has the freedom to be set up from whatever angle, or will certain angles just not work?

Very often we do this digitally early on by building a mockup, a virtual version of the environment, and looking at camera angles before the set is built. In Green Effect, it was a conversion of an existing building, so we were able to walk though it with Benoit and Anthony, and we used a crane to get up high, to look at all the possible angles before we ever built the interior. When Anthony is both writing and directing , he's writing with an eye to camera angles long before we have a location. The tough location to find was that Green Effect building, because it had so many requirements in terms of eyelines and camera positions. You’re trying not to ever say there’s a place you can’t put a camera. But if you can determine the primary angles before you go into a space – and some of the spaces we had were tiny locations – you have to ask where is the crew going to be, and do we have to build everything? We built the room where Will and Amira made love, this little flat. It was so small it would have been very hard, but we shot a little bit in the real space. And it becomes a functional problem of this tiny apartment building. Where can the lights go? Where can the camera be? You choose locations based on how shootable they are rather than how good they look.

Who else do you collaborate with especially closely? You mentioned the costume department.

Traditionally, the central creative triangle is the director, cinematographer and production designer. That deals with the narrative and the actors on the director’s side, the light and relationship between the audience and the actors and space on the cinematographer's side, and the environment and the framing of the action on the designer’s side. But obviously connected to the characters is the costume designer, and there’s always a very rich conversation about color and texture and character in terms of narrative. As a designer you’re having to generate backstories for characters to justify how their space works and what you put into it. The script won’t tell you in great detail how long has Amira been in the country or how long she has lived in this space. Obviously the fact that she’s a musician informs a lot of the layering. In terms of what she’s wearing, those conversations are very similar between the costume designer and the production designer.

The VFX supervisor is another increasingly big collaborator. Breaking and Entering is not a big VFX film by any means, but there are a lot of little bits and pieces. We had a discussion about adding cranes from the King's Cross development above the Green Effect building, just to cement that relationship between the two places. So there's a lot of conversation between production design and the VFX supervisor about things they can do later in post that will complete the overall idea of the design. On something like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, fully a third of the film, probably, is being created in VFX and post-production so there’s an intensely close relationship with the VFX supervisor on a film like that. And then, scene by scene, you may spend a lot of time with a stunt coordinator, because stunts have all sorts of requirements from the set. Increasingly, because of digital technology, the art department and the designer’s job comes right back into the center of production because everyone starts getting their information on how a set’s going to work from that core design team. When we’re designing the roof of Green Effect and looking at how much glass we need to light the set, we’re also looking at how much weight the set will support for the actors to be on the roof. If the set doesn’t function for putting actors or crew on the roof, it’s not going to work. So you have to make those decisions as part of the design process right at the beginning.

It’s not just how it looks on the 2D screen, but it’s the physicality in the real world of the production as well.

Right. Whenever you make a film, you're creating this machine with many cogs, and they all have to interlock. And the design department is probably the single best place to have conversations based on the functionality of where the actors are going to be and what the space looks like and what the properties of the space around the actor are going to be. We’re the first hire. We’re there in the beginning, so we’ve got a responsibility to frame all the mechanics of production and give everybody access to that information.

Are you ever surprised, when you see the film or look at prints, at the way something looks?

What surprises me is all about the editorial – the way the story flows through the spaces you create, which is ultimately what we’re all doing it for. And that’s the part I have the least view of. I’m there to open the set, but then I go off and start working on the next set, so I see very little of the action that’s shot, and very little of the editorial process and how it’s put together. But I have a fairly clear picture of the way the lighting and set exist after those early conversations. And it’s less and less surprising because digital tools let you do very clear previsualizations of what everything’s going to look like. On the whole, no one’s surprised when they get to set these days because they’ve all seen it in some form or other before they arrive.

Click here to read the F&V interview with Breaking and Entering cinematographer Benoit Delhomme.