- Thursday, Jun. 29, 2017
- LOS ANGELES
While director/producer/showrunner Barry Sonnenfeld viewed creating different worlds for Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events as both exciting and daunting, bringing a welcomed level of comfort to the challenge was knowing that he would once again be working with a colleague whom he described as “one of the greatest production designers of our generation,” Bo Welch.
Welch earned one of his four career Art Direction-Set Decoration Oscar nominations for Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black; the other three coming for director Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage, Alfonso Cuaron’s A Little Princess, and Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple. Welch served as production designer on Men in Black, The Birdcage and A Little Princess. He was art director on The Color Purple.
Welch’s work with Sonnenfeld also includes the features Wild Wild West, Men in Black 2 and 3, as well as the TV series pilot for The Tick.
For his part, Welch too was eager to again team with Sonnenfeld, noting, “We have a shorthand. Barry is one of the most interesting, funniest people I know with an incredible work ethic and passion for filmmaking marked by a deep appreciation of production design. He also brings the aesthetic sensibilities and dimension of having been a DP.”
(Sonnenfeld began his career as a DP, collaborating with the Coen brothers on their first feature film, Blood Simple--nominated for a Best Cinematography Film Independent Spirit Award--and continuing with Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing. Sonnenfeld also served as DP on Penny Marshall’s Big, Danny DeVito’s Throw Momma from the Train, and two Rob Reiner films, When Harry Met Sally and Misery, before settling into the director’s chair.)
Beyond the good fortune of working on Unfortunate with Sonnenfeld, Welch is also gratified by the very nature of production design. “I start in kind of a vacuum and literally sit down and draw pictures, losing myself as best I can in whatever world I’m trying to create. That’s one of the great joys of production design.”
But logistics can counterbalance that joy. “We made the decision to do this series on stage, building bigger worlds,” related Welch. “This isn’t a feature, though, where you’re shooting major chunks over forty, fifty, sixty days. Instead we’re shooting an entire episode--and having to create all the worlds it requires--in 11 days or so. You really are spread out creatively all over the place. Yes, I have to see the worlds, design them, sell them, flesh them out, make them work, find the perfect tone. But with a limited amount of stage space, money and a tight schedule, you have to navigate through a lot. The greatest pressure is the schedule.”
Still, continued Welch, the challenge “pushes you...When you set out to do something so ambitious that some think there’s no way you’ll pull it off--that’s the quickest way to get driven people to succeed. You re-double your efforts to show it can be done. At this point in our careers, there’s not much Barry or I fear.”
The story also spurred on Welch. Based on the series of books by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), the show follows the tragic tale of three orphans—Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire—who are investigating their parents’ mysterious death. The siblings are saddled with an evil guardian named Count Olaf (portrayed by Neil Patrick Harris), who will do whatever it takes to get his hands on the Baudelaires’ inheritance. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny must outsmart Olaf at every turn, foiling devious plans and disguises.
“I became totally devoted,” said Welch, “to expressing the idea of the story, of each scene, and the characters--all of this filtered through the eyes of adorable little kids who are beacons of hope within this dreary world of adults.”
Welch also got the opportunity to exercise his directorial chops on A Series of Unfortunate Events, helming a pair of episodes thus far. He is no stranger to directing with credits that include the feature The Cat in the Hat, and two episodes of The Tick.
“As a designer,” said Welch, “it’s a real thrill to create a world and then to be able to play in it. As opposed to taking the elements you’ve created and handing them over to someone else--and seeing that they’re having fun with your toys--you as the director get to play with your own toys, fulfilling the basic impulse you had as a kid, making worlds and living in them.”
Asked if he takes a different approach to production designing episodes he’s going to direct as compared to when others take the directorial reins, Welch explained, “I’m pretty much the same in how I work. When you design stuff, you have to think of it from a director’s standpoint anyway. How do I get the essence of this scene across, when to step back, when to come forward with the design? Whenever you know you’re going to direct, you might pay even more attention to all that. But in this case [for A Series of Unfortunate Events], I didn’t know which episodes I would direct. Also in this case, if you design a season’s worth of episodes and direct one or two, it makes for a comfortable fit.”
Also a comfortable fit for Welch is work that calls for a surreal tone and feel as evidenced by his other notable production design credits such as Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands.
Further making things comfortable, said Welch, is Netflix. “They’re fantastic to work with, unbelievably great,” he affirmed, quipping that they “give you enough rope to hang yourself.” The creative freedom afforded to artists by Netflix, he continued, “has made for a very positive experience.”
This is the seventh installment of a 15-part series of feature stories that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, animation, visual effects and production design. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies on September 9 and 10, and the primetime Emmy Awards live telecast on September 17.