Thursday, October 19, 2017
  • Friday, Feb. 10, 2017
Reflections On "Manchester by the Sea," "Hidden Figures," "Arrival," "La La Land," "Lion," "Passengers"
Kenneth Lonergan (r) directs Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea" (photo by Claire Folger/courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions)
Director, Writer, DP, Editor and Production Designer Perspectives

With Manchester by the Sea, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan doubled his number of career Oscar nominations. His nods for Best Achievement in Directing and Best Original Screenplay were two of six earned by the film, the others being for Best Picture, Lead Actor (Casey Affleck), Supporting Actress (Michelle Williams) and Supporting Actor (Lucas Hedges).

Lonergan’s very first two Oscar nominations came for his penning of the screenplays for You Can Count On Me in 2001 and Gangs of New York in 2003.

Manchester by the Sea also secured Lonergan his first career DGA Award nomination and third Writers Guild of America Award nod. Additionally the film has made awards season history. Amazon Studios spent $10 million to acquire Manchester by the Sea at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and now becomes the first streaming service to land a Best Picture Oscar nomination. Furthermore, Kimberly Steward becomes the second African-American female producer to receive a Best Picture nomination. (Oprah Winfrey was the first for Selma.) Steward financed Manchester by the Sea ($8 million) as the first production of her company K Period Media, in which she is partnered with Lauren Beck, also a producer on the film. Steward received the Best Picture Oscar nomination along with producers Beck, Matt Damon, Chris Moore and Kevin Walsh.

Shortly after the announcement of the Oscar nominations, Lonergan said, “We tried to make a movie about people standing by each other no matter what; thank you to everyone who let us try, and to everyone out there trying to tell the truth about what it is to be a human being.”

Manchester by the Sea introduces us to Lee Chandler (portrayed by Affleck). A janitor in Boston, Chandler returns to his home, Manchester, Mass., upon the death of his older brother, Joe. Affleck’s character will have to stay there longer than he had planned upon learning that he’s now the sole guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Hedges). There Lee Chandler is forced to confront a past tragedy which still remains very much of his present-day psyche. It’s a past that separated him not only from his wife, Randi (Williams), but also the community where he was born and raised. Lonergan has created in his narrative a moving mix of anger, isolation, humor and the struggle to somehow try to cope with profound grief.

That creation was brought to life through Lonergan’s collaboration with assorted artisans, several key ones whom he worked with for the first time, including cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, editor Jennifer Lame, and production designer Ruth De Jong. The writer-director discussed what drew him to each artisan, prompting the leap of faith to try a new collaborator. Lonergan said of Lipes, “I liked what I saw of his work, his sense of cinema history, how he wanted the movie to look. We weren’t able to shoot on film but he was adept at making it look as if we shot on film. He thought of many details I wouldn’t have thought of, all towards the goal of avoiding a stylized look but rather what we wanted, a very natural look, capturing the mundane details of a high school principal’s office, the beauty of a marina, using all the lights and darks. Our collaboration was a continual conversation. And he was very good on the fly, taking on the happy accidents of weather, cramped space within a boat, a snowstorm on the water.”

Attracting Lonergan to editor Lame was their initial phone call. “I didn’t get to meet Jennifer before I hired her but I knew of her reputation, her work with director Noah Baumbach [Frances Ha, While We’re Young, Mistress America],” related Lonergan. “We talked on the phone and she had read two drafts of the script. She pointed out three scenes that she thought shouldn’t have been cut out—they were all scenes that I had gone back and forth on myself. She thought it was a mistake to take them out and she was right. We also agreed that the flashbacks in the film should not be telegraphed. She later came up with a key insight—that the present and flashbacks [for Lee Chandler] were two stories running along parallel lines. Rather than a movie with flashbacks, this was the main character’s experience of leading one life while another is always in his head.”

Lonergan described production designer De Jong as “the kind of person I like, very positive, hard working, imaginative, dedicated to bringing the story to life—and in this case, bringing the town to life, people’s homes to life, all the environments. She came back to me with sketches which showed she really understood the town, where each of the characters lived.” De Jong embraced the fact that the backdrop was a character in and of itself, that the characters are shaped in part by where they came from, the environment they inhabit.

On the flip side, Lonergan also brought in long-time compatriots for Manchester by the Sea, a prime example being costume designer Melissa Toth whose prior credits included the writer-director’s You Can Count On Me and Margaret. “Melissa does a book for each character and the world of clothes they might reside in. She opens up a three-way conversation among her, myself and the actors. You don’t know someone until you get into their costume. Even if you don’t care about their clothes, it says something about them. Melissa discusses all the ideas around that, the choices, the differences. She helped define Lee (Affleck) and Randi (Williams) in the past and present. Randi’s costuming started with Michelle [Williams] who we see going back several years and then now as she’s trying to start a whole new world for herself. Melissa helped to define what kind of sartorial armor Randi would need for that. She digs down into what each character is about.”

Regarding creative challenges that Manchester by the Sea posed to him, Lonergan cited, “Getting the town right, doing justice to that part of the world, an accomplishment which came from a combination of all the major collaborators and myself. None of us was from that area, We did a lot of research, spent a of time in the Manchester area. We talked to a lot of the locals. We wanted the film to feel real and not like a generic Massachusetts movie. Upon seeing the movie, people from that part of the world unsolicited told us we got it right, which was very gratifying.”

Theodore Melfi
Theodore (Ted) Melfi last month nabbed his first two career Oscar nominations—for Best Picture (as a producer) and Best Adapted Screenplay (shared with Allison Schroeder) on the strength of Hidden Figures (Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.). This came on the heels of his first WGA Awards nod. 

Hidden Figures—which Melfi also directed—is a true story based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, centered on three African-American women at NASA who made vital contributions to the space race. Their workplace is segregated (with separate bathrooms and drinking fountains) but the women’s incredible perseverance and smarts eventually make their mark. Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae and Octavia Spencer portray, respectively, mathematician Katherine Johnson, budding engineer Mary Jackson and computer supervisor Dorothy Vaughan. Spencer is a Best Supporting Actress for her performance in Hidden Figures, which garnered a total of three Academy Award nominations.

For Melfi, the major challenge posed to him as a writer was balancing the varied elements. “It was an incredibly complicated script, juggling three women’s storylines inside and outside NASA, while also chronicling the space race in the early 1960s along with the civil rights movement. We had to keep all these plates spinning in the air which required a tremendous amount of coordination, rewriting, recrafting and shuffling. The story had so much going on and yet these different elements had to work together. It was important to distinguish each woman individually, to give enough time to their work and home life in order to understand their plight.”

Melfi credited Oscar-winning producer (Shakespeare in Love) Donna Gigliotti with bringing him into the Hidden Figures fold. She had run across a book proposal by Shetterly and the true story immediately resonated with her. The book and Schroeder’s first screenplay draft were sent to Melfi who said simply, “I was floored by the story. For [famed astronaut] John Glenn’s story to not include these women over the years is astounding and fascinating. It’s not that people chose to ignore the story. It’s more that people didn’t even know about it. I felt truly honored to tell this story.”

SHOOT talked to Melfi just days before Hidden Figures exceeded $100 million at the box office. “For me, it validates that you can create something meaningful in Hollywood that can go on to be critically and financially successful. I hope it paves the way for more of these kind of meaningful stories to be told.”

Melfi shared that he’s been profoundly moved to see the responses elicited by Hidden Figures since its Xmas Day opening. “Teachers are taking entire classes to see this film. Schools, churches, women’s groups, men’s groups, science clubs are going. I get notes and emails on a daily basis from people telling me about how they’ve been impacted by this story. Good Samaritans are buying out theaters so people can see the film. A 13-year-old girl raised $15,000 online and took her entire school to see the movie. One thing after another has happened and will inspire me for the rest of my life. It’s affirmation that the power of cinema is alive and well, and that it’s our responsibility as filmmakers to craft stories that make a positive difference for our audiences.”

Hidden Figures is the second feature directed by Melfi, the first being the well-received tug-at-the-heartstrings comedy St. Vincent (2014), which he also wrote.

Prior to St. Vincent, Melfi as a director was best known for his work in commercials and short films, the latter including Roshambo which won best comedy honors at the Malibu Film Festival. He broke into the ad arena on the strength of a number of inspired spec spots, including MTV’s “Pizza Guy,” a spoof which helped him earn inclusion into SHOOT’s 2004 New Directors Showcase. Melfi’s body of work in commercials spans such brands as FedEx, McDonald’s and Intel.

For the latter he recently directed a package of spots for agency mcgarrybowen, New York, featuring Jim Parsons (The Big Bang Theory). It’s the second Intel campaign directed by Melfi, the first also starring Parsons. And based on that initial collaboration, Melfi cast Parsons in a supporting role (NASA chief mathematician Paul Stafford) in Hidden Figures.

Melfi’s spotmaking exploits are done through brother, a production house which he teamed with executive producer Rich Carter to launch in 2014.

Eric Heisserer
Also up for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar is Eric Heisserer on the basis of Arrival (Paramount Pictures), which earned a total of eight nominations, the others being for Best Picture, Director (Denis Villeneuve), Cinematography (Bradford Young, ASC), Editing (Joe Walker, ACE), Production Design (Patrice Vermette), Sound Editing (Sylvain Bellemare) and Sound Mixing (Bernard Gariépy Strobl, Claude La Haye).

Based on “Story of Your Life,” a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival depicts alien beings who bring spacecrafts to Earth, hovering slightly above the ground at sites throughout the globe. A team is assembled—which includes linguist Louise Banks (portrayed by Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker)—to investigate and communicate with the other worldly lifeforms. Their visit to our planet sparks myriad thoughts and feelings, ranging from fear to optimism over their intentions. Arrival is a multi-faceted, intelligent, emotional form of science-fiction that touches the heart and mind.

Reflecting on being a first-time Oscar nominee, Heisserer related, “I’m still in a state of shock. It hasn’t set in for me yet—probably because at the beginning of this journey I felt the odds of this getting such recognition seemed astronomical.”

That journey started with Heisserer having been obsessed for years with “Story of Your Life” “I carried a dog-eared copy of ‘Story of Your Life’ in my car and would read and refer to it often. I so wanted to find the right home for it, to pursue the rights and set it up somewhere as a film. It’s not the kind of story that immediately lends itself to a marketable film and certainly not a franchise which is often the silver bullet that a lot of producers look for.”

However, Heisserer found a pair of producers who, like him, were looking for more—Danny Levine and Dan Cohen of 21 Laps Entertainment. “They were just as passionate as I was to communicate this story in a film.”

Heisserer’s passion translated into his commitment to pen a script on spec, spending a year basically “writing on faith.”

He shared that among the prime creative challenges that Arrival posed to him as a writer “was finding a balance between the intellectual and emotional sides of the story—the heart and the head. We had to be careful not to be merely educational about really big concepts. We had the extra burden and responsibility as storytellers to craft a dramatic narrative with tension. The big risk and the first major change deviating from ‘Story of Your Life’ was that we had the aliens land on the planet itself. In the short story, they appear via technology, monitors for video conferencing. For the movie, we brought them right to our doorstep, helping to build tension and the plot, making for a geopolitical nightmare that got more and more intense.”

As for the biggest takeaway or lesson learned from his experience on Arrival, Heisserer assessed, “I saw the reward of following one’s heart, putting all that equity into something for love only, no money. And to have it pay off like this, to affect audiences that way it affected me, has been a wonderful experience that has informed my own career. From now on, I will write at least one spec screenplay a year no matter what else is going on in my career. That spec work may not see the light of day but it’s important to do something you love and believe in. That wards off cynicism which can be the death of creativity.”

In addition to the Oscar nod, Heisserer’s work on Arrival has yielded Best Adapted Screenplay nominations for the Writers Guild Awards as well as the BAFTA Film Awards.

Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS
On the strength of Lion (The Weinstein Company), Greig Fraser, ASC, ACS, recently garnered his first career nomination for the Best Cinematography Oscar while winning his first ASC Award. These two high-profile honors came on the heels of Fraser’s work on Lion receiving the coveted Golden Frog honor at Camerimage. 

SHOOT connected with Fraser to discuss Lion, which marks the narrative feature directorial debut of Garth Davis. However, Davis and Fraser are hardly first-time collaborators. They first met some 20-plus years ago at Exit Films (which has offices in Australia and New Zealand). Eventually Fraser wound up shooting assorted commercials for Davis (who is now handled by RESET in the U.S., RESET at Academy in the U.K. and Exit Films Down Under for commercials and branded content). 

“I’ve shot more with Garth than any other director,” shared Fraser. “Therefore, there is a shorthand, and an understanding which we naturally just have. When we both pull references, or look at frames, we understand quickly what each of us is trying to achieve with that reference. That makes for faster communication on set.”

That shorthand helped them do justice to the challenging narrative of Lion. Based on a true story and adapted from the memoir “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley, Lion introduces us to a five-year-old Saroo who gets lost, ending up on a train which takes him thousands of miles across India, away from his home and family. Somehow he survives living on the streets, escaping close calls before ending up in an orphanage that is far from a safe haven. Eventually he is adopted by an Australian couple who takes him to the Aussie town of Hobart where he feels love and security. In respect of and not wanting to hurt the feelings of his adoptive parents whom he loves, Saroo suppresses his past and the hope of ever finding his lost mother and brother. But a chance meeting with some fellow Indians rekindles his past as he struggles to find himself. With a small store of memories, and the help of a then new technology called Google Earth, he ultimately decides to try to find the proverbial needle in a haystack, seeking out his original home and first family.

Lion features transformative performances from Dev Patel as an adult Saroo and Nicole Kidman as Sue, the mother who adopts him. Also delivering an integral performance is Sunny Pawar portraying Saroo as a youngster. Having a five-year-old protagonist carry the first half of a film is a tall order but one which Davis and Fraser were able to nurture through their approach. 

In a SHOOT Fall 2016 Directors Series profile, Davis noted, “Greig and I were very conscious of trying to give the audience the child’s perspective. We needed to follow the young Saroo in such a way that the audience could see the world through his eyes. We never started with a wide angle on him. The camera was always with him, following his experiences as much as we could.”

Fraser related, “Shooting over two countries [India and Australia], on a smaller budget, meant we needed to be really creative about how to solve problems. We didn’t have the means to carry a Steadicam throughout the whole production, but we could carry a gimbal rig, which actually served us better because it was more appropriate a height for our young actors.”

As for camera choice, Fraser went with the ARRI ALEXA. “We felt it captured the light, and quality of India and Australia,” said Fraser. “We also used the RED Dragon on the drone rigs, that we used to shoot the aerials in India.”

Fraser’s filmography extends well beyond director Davis. The DP, for example, lensed director Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), and director Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which also earned him a New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Cinematography. Fraser’s credits additionally include Bennett Miller’s Academy Award-nominated Foxcatcher (2014), the Andrew Dominik-helmed, Palme d’Or-nominated Killing Them Softly (2012), and Jane Campion’s Brightstar (2009) which earned assorted accolades for the DP such as a British Independent Film Award. Among other Fraser-lensed features are Out of the Blue (2006), Last Ride (2009), The Boys are Back (2009), Snow White and the Huntsman (2012) and The Gambler (2014).

Fast forward to today and we find Fraser wrapping a return engagement with director Davis—this time on the feature Mary Magdalene, based on the beloved figure of Christianity who, according to the Bible, traveled with Jesus as one of his devout followers. Magdalene is considered to be a saint by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican and Lutheran churches.

Fraser shared that his experience on Lion with filmmaker Davis informed their work on Mary Magdalene. “There were times on Mary that we both referenced times, or lenses, or lighting in Lion, which would have suited a particular scene or shot,” said Fraser. “I think the more films we do together, the more references we can pull out of past shooting.”

Tom Cross, ACE
Editor Tom Cross, ACE has enjoyed a fruitful collaborative relationship with writer-director Damien Chazelle, starting with the short film Whiplash (a Sundance Award winner) which spawned the feature of the same title, a three-time Oscar winner—Best Editing for Cross, Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons) and Best Sound Mixing (Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley).

Whiplash earned a total of five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. But that number has been dwarfed by Chazelle’s next collaboration with Cross—La La Land (Summit Entertainment/Lionsgate) which just copped 14 Academy Award nods, tying the all-time record with Titanic (1997) and All About Eve (1950). On the basis of La La Land, Cross not only secured his second career Oscar nomination but also won the ACE Eddie Award for Best Edited Feature Film (Comedy).

While Comedy is misleading in terms of category, there are humorous elements to La La Land, a musical which unspools a dramatic, at times whimsical narrative that introduces us to Mia (portrayed by Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, who are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern-day Los Angeles, this original musical about everyday life explores the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams.

The movie is the latest music chapter in Chazelle’s career. His debut, Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench (2009), was a loving ode to the city of New York, and to being young and in love; and then his feature Whiplash (2014) offered an intense take on a young drummer’s self-destructively ambitious pursuit of music-making. 

In working with Chazelle on both features, Whiplash and La La Land, Cross said that the initial process was similar. “Damien would send me a script along with a list of movies that were references for him—movies that inspired him and inspired scenes in the movie we were about to do,” noted Cross. “I found this very valuable, helping to define some of the language we would be using. In the case of Whiplash, Damien cited Raging Bull by Martin Scorsese. Damien wanted the musical scenes to feel like the boxing scenes from that movie. This gave me a pretty good idea of how those scenes in Whiplash should play and feel.”

For La La Land, Chazelle cited musicals form the 1950s and ‘60s—including Singin’ In The Rain, West Side Story and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. “Again, this gave me a sense, a taste of the style and feelings he wanted to evoke,” shared Cross. “For me, editing a musical is more challenging than editing any other type of film. Normally when you’re editing, you have to take into consideration such elements as the emotional aspect, continuity, geography, the plot, what’s right for each character. For a musical you have to do all that while taking on the additional element of music—where the cut will fall, at one point you want it to happen in the music. It’s something you have to take into account with every picture cut.”

This was Cross’ first film inspired by Hollywood musicals.  But La La Land is not the first Cross-cut movie with musical scenes. He served as editor on director Travis Fine’s Any Day Now (2012), which starred Alan Cumming as a nightclub singer. Cross also did some additional editing on director Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart (2009) in which Jeff Bridges gave a Best Lead Actor Oscar-winning performance as country singer Bad Blake.

Assorted specific scenes in La La Land were challenging but always helpful was getting a handle from Chazelle on what the feel should be for each. “When we see John Legend’s character in concert, where Mia sees Sebastian play [the keyboard] in the band for the first time, it was important for Damien that the scene not feel romantic,” recalled Cross. “He wanted something more fragmented, jarring, to make it fast. Some scenes were designed by Damien to have soft edges, where you really feel the curves. Other scenes were sharply edged like this one.”

As for what’s next for Cross, he’s taking on director Cooper’s Hostiles, a Western adventure/drama starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike. “Going from a romantic love story/musical to a story that’s violent and dark is the kind of range I love. I’ve always been inspired by editors who are able to work in different genres and types of films. I’m lucky to get the opportunity to bridge between such two different films.”

Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon
Editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon are first-time Oscar nominees for Moonlight (A24). McMillon additionally made history by becoming the first female African-American editor ever to land an Academy Award nomination.

Moonlight garnered a total of eight Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay (both for Barry Jenkins), Cinematography (James Laxton) and Original Score (Nicholas Britell). Jenkins, Laxton, Sanders and McMillon first met as students at Florida State University Film School. Prior to Moonlight, Laxton shot a short film, Chlorophyl, for Jenkins, as well as the director’s debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy. Sanders edited Medicine for Melancholy while McMillon cut Chlorophyl as well as several Jenkins-helmed commercials over the years. (Jenkins recently signed with production house Smuggler for spots and branded content.)

Asked to reflect on what the Oscar nomination means to her personally and professionally, McMillon related, “This was my first feature film credit as an editor. I just wanted to do a really good job and was honored when Barry and Nat were generous enough to allow me to come into the project. I wanted to show them that they made the right decision. To end up receiving an Oscar nomination for the film was beyond anything I could have imagined.”

As for the historic aspect of her being a nominee, McMillon noted, “Friends are jokingly calling me ‘history maker.’ I’m certainly honored to be the first [black woman nominated for an editing Oscar]. At the same time you ask why it’s taken so long for this to happen. I feel there’s a responsibility that comes with this. I am the first but don’t want to be the last. Before this happened, I was doing my due diligence to encourage other female editors. I’ve been mentoring a few as well. Now I want the Oscar nomination to serve as a catalyst for change and for the industry not to remain stagnant about diversity.”

Sanders shared, “I think back 16 or 17 years ago when Barry [Jenkins], James [DP Laxton], Joi and I were hanging out at film school, working together. Flash forward to now and we’re all Oscar nominees for Moonlight. It’s mind blowing. Barry has always been an amazing filmmaker and special to me. To make a film so personal to him is a great source of pride for me in my friends and what we did together. To a lesser degree, I’m also taken by the feeling like the Oscar nominations have gotten Joi and I invited into the club. I came from a very sidetrack independent film route and so much wanted to get my foot in the door. Moonlight means a lot to all of us.”

Moonlight is a coming-of-age story that centers on Chiron whom we follow through three distinct chapters in his life—as a boy (portrayed by Alex Hibbert), a teen (Ashton Sanders) and then a young man (Trevante Rhodes). Growing up in the perilous Liberty Square neighborhood of Miami, the vulnerable, quiet Chiron copes as best he can with a harsh reality which includes a drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and kids who mercilessly bully him. However, Chiron finds camaraderie and intimacy in a childhood friend, Kevin, played at different ages by Jaden Piner as a lad, Jharrel Jerome as a teen and Andre Holland as a young adult.

Jenkins adapted Moonlight from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s story titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” Jenkins and McCraney did not know each other in childhood and through their teen years like the characters Chiron and Kevin. However, in real life, Jenkins and McCraney grew up in Liberty Square, attended the same elementary and middle schools around the same time and both went on to become artists. While Jenkins is straight and McCraney is gay, the two African-Americans have a familial parallel as each had a mom who struggled with drug addiction. Jenkins’ mother survived her battle while McCraney’s mother passed away from AIDS. Jenkins told SHOOT that Naomie Harris’ character is a composite of his and McCraney’s mothers.

In terms of division of labor, ultimately editor Sanders found himself focused on acts one and two of the film, with McMillon concentrating on act three. The editors in turn worked together and then in concert with Jenkins. 

The experience on Moonlight was gratifying and fulfilling, said Sanders, noting that a prime takeaway for him was “learning to trust the silence of the movie. We didn’t always have to fill things out with music or pick up the pace. We just had to be true to the characters and their story. Also, sometimes you get concerned about clarity and there not being any points of confusion for the audience. With Moonlight, I learned that there can be room for a little mystery, that you don’t have to over explain every single thing. If an audience is engaged in the story, they will meet you halfway and work with you.”

McMillon said that a prime lesson she learned from the Moonlight experience was not to be overly worried or too obsessed about aspects like holding a take a little too long. “If you’ve done your job of shaping a story that is honest and truly representative of the world you set out to create, people are going to engage and immerse themselves in the story. They will go just about anywhere the characters take them. I have to sometimes remind myself of that—the importance of keeping your eye on the big picture, first and foremost serving the story and its characters.”

Guy Hendrix Dyas
“So happy and honored that the world we built for Passengers has been nominated by the Academy. Congratulations to all my fellow design nominees,” said production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, who’s no stranger to Oscar recognition. Passengers marks his second career nomination; the first coming in 2011 for writer/director Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

Passengers (Columbia Pictures/Sony) is a futuristic love story set on a mammoth spaceship—carrying thousands of passengers, kept in sleep chambers—headed for a distant utopian planet called Homestead 2. Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt play two of those passengers—Aurora Lane and Jim Preston, respectively— who awaken 90 years early. An equipment malfunction rouses Pratt from slumber. His profound loneliness experienced over a year drives him to awaken Lawrence’s character. They fall in love until she learns that her being taken out of suspended animation wasn’t an accident.

Passengers marks Dyas’ first collaboration with director Morten Tyldum, a Best Director Oscar nominee in 2015 for The Imitation Game. Tyldum reached out to Dyas for an initial meeting. At the time the production designer was in San Francisco working with Danny Boyle on the feature Steve Jobs. Dyas flew down to L.A. to meet Tyldum, bringing with him a sketch book filled with design approaches to the environments in Passengers. “We hit it off,” recalled Dyas. “We are of a similar age, found we enjoyed the same sort of inspirations, and he liked the thought I put into the design just for the interview. He offered me the job on the spot. What’s wonderful about Morten is he carries the true sign of a director who has great confidence in the people he hires. He leaves them alone to sort of get on with it. He would come in at regular intervals and critique what I was doing. Fortunately for me I must have been able to channel his mind. He was attuned to 99 percent of what I had sketched.”

Dyas was drawn to John Spaihts’ script, a sci-fi story with no monsters or aliens, no weapons or murder victims. The narrative focused on life, death, relationships and moral choices. For Tyldum, Passengers was an epic journey experienced by two individuals from different walks of life.

The spaceship was called The Avalon, an opulent super liner built to an enormous scale with a storyline calling for it to carry 5,000 passengers who are put into hibernation chambers with the hope of awakening 120 years later to start new lives on a distant, idyllic planet. It’s the ultimate adventure cruise, with the spaceship housing all the amenities in that the passengers are scheduled to wake up a couple years prior to arriving at Homestead 2. During that time, they would have access to international restaurants, a futuristic shopping mall, a Japanese zen garden, various forms of recreation including a basketball court and a massive swimming pool with a majestic view of outer space in all its glory, and an art deco Grand Concourse Bar for libation that looks like it came out of the 1930s. The latter is replete with a robotic bartender, Arthur, whose face and upper torso appear human (portrayed by Michael Sheen) while being propelled by a lower half consisting of state-of-the-art machinery. 

Dyas noted that reaching out to an unspecified date way into the future enabled him to think about The Avalon and its interiors on a bigger scale, experimenting with the notion that it would have taken decades to actually build a ship of this enormity. The ship would be built from the core or spine outwards—marked by somewhat familiar NASA-type architecture. But as the years go on in construction, the architecture and design changes, takes on a more organic, futuristic feel. “Hopefully the audience can subliminally take in the idea that this ship has been built over a long period of time, well before its maiden voyage. And during that time, technology, methodologies and building materials improved. These advances are seen in the ship which takes on an organic shape by the time you get to the outside of it. I approached this project as the designer of a ship as opposed to a movie designer. On one hand it’s eerily beautiful. On the other hand it’s a commercial entity, a futuristic version of a cruise ship looking to create an environment that makes its passengers want to spend money when they awaken. They are to feel relaxed on this cruise, to find comfort in the setting.”

Part of this comfort could be found in the art deco bar, and in Arthur who is the lone robot in the movie resembling a human—someone to commiserate with and be entertained by. Dyas was inspired by the bar in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. For Jim and Aurora, Arthur proves even more essential, providing for much of the time the only “human” connection and conversation they have outside of each other.

In the big picture, there was a method to the madness of constructing a massive luxurious spaceship and interiors. Dyas explained that Passengers is ultimately driven by the characters and their performances. And to get those performances, Tyldum didn’t want Lawrence and Pratt to act against green screens. Tyldum and Dyas wanted to build as much as possible so the actors could actually feel and understand the space they’re in, to convey the feelings of isolation, loneliness, alienation yet somehow still harbor a spark of humanity, hope, love and the desire to connect with another human being. 

The sets of Passengers occupied seven stages at Pinewood Studios, Atlanta, and one 40,000 square foot stage at EUE Screen Gems, also in Atlanta. Sets included the Hibernation Bay, the Forward Observation Deck, Infirmary, Vienna Suite, a cafeteria, Aurora’s cabin, Jim’s cabin, Jim’s workshop, the swimming pool, corridors, The Bridge and The Grand Concourse and Grand Concourse Bar.

Dyas’ approach began with the exterior of The Avalon. “The scale, the shape and science of the exterior would inform the interiors,” he said. Deployed was the idea of a rotating vessel to create gravity but rather than create a wheel, as seen in other films, Dyas opted for an entirely original device. “I took the concept of the rotating wheel and stretched it out into an elongated shape, which naturally led to these wonderful, twisted blades. When you look at the spacecraft from the front, it looks like this classic rotating wheel. But the moment you turn, it becomes a three-dimensional object of extraordinary length.”

With that design in place, Dyas could tackle the interiors. Each of the three blades would represent a different aspect of life on the ship. “One blade,” he explained, “is the hibernation area where 5,000 passengers are sleeping. Another blade is the entertainment blade, where you have the Grand Concourse. The third blade is a giant container area for getting supplies to the distant planet.” Each blade has a different look. Connecting the blades is a zero-gravity elevator.

Dyas also worked closely with visual effects supervisor Erik Nordby who extended the size of the and scope of the film. For instance, the VFX team transformed the already humongous shopping mall set into an even bigger space by extending the storefronts to be a mile long and five stories high, with a glass ceiling giving shoppers a view of the beauty of space outside. Also when Jim takes a moon walk, he’s initially on a 40-foot section of the ship. Everything beyond that which is the scale of the Grand Canyon was created by Nordby and his effects team.

Dyas additionally credited Nordby as being instrumental in making the outer space scape look as good as it did. “He spent a great deal of time designing our journey,” said Dyas. “He fully understood our need to build real spaces to get performances from Jennifer and Chris. We needed to create enormous environments to show the loneliness, a sense of desperation for lone figures in overpowering, enormous spaces. It was very much as it was in the description of Robinson Crusoe and the island he’s lost on—belittling his importance and him as a being within the environment he’s stranded on.”

Tyldum and Dyas collaborated on designing the world of The Avalon some 10 weeks before production began, and then oversaw months of set construction. “We wanted something futuristic yet familiar,” related Dyas. “Another key driving force for us was that we were determined to create a ship that would hold an audience’s interest for two hours.”

This is the 14th of a multi-part series with the concluding weekly Road To Oscar installment in next week’s SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com. SHOOT will also offer full coverage of the Oscar winners on Feb. 26, the day the Academy Awards will be held at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.