Tuesday, July 17, 2018
  • Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2017
A Room With A Point of View; Production Design For "Three Billboards"
Inbal Weinberg
Inbal Weinberg's subtle touches help to define characters in writer/director Martin McDonagh's film
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Welcome to the most unwelcoming gift shop you’ve ever seen. It’s not overtly so. And it’s not a pivotal but rather a briefly seen setting in writer/director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight). But that’s what makes it all the more intriguing from a production design POV--namely that of Inbal Weinberg whose credits include director Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Theodore Melfi’s St. Vincent, and Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation.

As a production designer, Weinberg brings subtleties and nuances to environs which all help to build characters and advance stories, at times in small ways which collectively have an often subconscious impact on viewers. The gift shop is where Mildred Hayes works. In a brilliant performance which has made Frances McDormand a front-runner for a Best Actress Oscar nomination, Mildred is a grieving mother consumed with rage because the rape, murder and incineration of her teenage daughter has gone unsolved after a year. She rents three billboards on the outskirts of Ebbing, Missouri, a fictional town that lives up to its name--existence there is clearly more ebbing than flowing. Passing motorists read the successive billboard messages which taunt the town’s sheriff (Woody Harrelson) and ask why justice has not been served.

But the town’s sympathy seems less for the woman who’s sustained an unthinkable loss and more for the beloved sheriff, a decent man who has terminal cancer. Mildred’s uncompromising, at times foul-mouth directness and dark humor has alienated townspeople and isolated her.

And that brings us back to the gift shop which is devoid of warm-and-fuzzy tourist appeal even though its merchandise is souvenirs and sundries commemorating Ebbing. Instead the gift shop reflects Mildred and her view of the town. “It’s an isolated shop because Mildred is so isolated as a character,” said Weinberg. “You certainly don’t feel welcomed when you walk in.”

Seeing red
Even the three billboards seem isolated, located in a scenic yet lonely stretch of town. Still, the billboards scream for attention--colored crimson which stands out against a backdrop of green grass and blue sky. Weinberg said her initial instinct was to make the billboards black and white. It was McDonagh who suggested red. “I thought at first that was a bit over the top,” said Weinberg but Photoshop tests against photographs of the valley showed the impact of the look. She embraced and enhanced the look. In fact, the final billboards and the message on them were so jarring and disturbing that the real-life locals in North Carolina complained, necessitating that the billboards be covered when not being filmed. 

Among the many other notable surroundings marked by McDonagh’s vision and Weinberg’s thoughtful touch are the billboard ad sales office, and Mildred’s home. Artwork on the walls of the ad office provides glimpses of the non-existent town’s history, including Ebbing’s Bicentennial Train Ride. Weinberg said she was inspired by photos of ad shops from the 1920s and ‘30s.

Meanwhile Mildred and her son (Lucas Hedges) live in a home that is in disarray--the only exception being the room of Mildred’s late daughter, which is the cleanest in the house. “The challenge was to create a vibrant teen room that is full of absence,” explained Weinberg.

Weinberg added that McDormand provided valuable input and feedback relative to production design. “We had a great dialogue with her. After Martin approved of certain looks, we would send McDormand mood boards and discuss specifics that would fit her character.”

Other environs offer insights into the overall town and various characters, including the almost claustrophobic home where deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell) and his mother reside, and the police station itself which is just across the street from the billboard ad sales store, a proximity in a Main Street setting underscoring the close connection of things in a small town.

“Overall it was about striking a balance, making scenes seem dated but not from a completely different era, not falling into the trap of classic American Main Street and mixing things up a little bit,” related Weinberg.

It’s all part of a construct born out of McDonagh’s sense of Ebbing. Weinberg and McDonagh’s discussed the backstory and state of Ebbing--a seemingly vanishing town that is managing to somehow hang on. Their vision of a fictional American town, observed Weinberg, may have been helped in part by their outsider status--McDonagh who’s Irish, and Weinberg who’s Israeli--which brought a fresh perspective. “I think Martin and I connected because we share an outsider’s view of things,” said Weinberg who had more one-on-one time with the writer-director in part because cinematographer Ben Davis entered the process a little later than usual as he was busy wrapping lensing of Doctor Strange. “Martin and I spent a lot of time together,” recalled Weinberg. “We scouted for a long time. Being in a car for a long time is helpful in establishing a relationship [Three Billboards marked the first time Weinberg and McDonagh had collaborated]. We talked on a daily basis about ideas, colors, materials. Martin was always accessible. He had time for me. I remember we had a great pre-pro conversation which got things rolling.”

McDonagh told SHOOT that he was drawn to Weinberg’s past work and her orientation. “She’s an artist who wasn’t looking to make a documentary. She wanted to add some kind of luster and cinema to the design side. And she did that completely with a great sense of color and form. It shows in everything--the billboards themselves, the advertising office. She had colors and design sensibilities that popped off the screen.”

This is the second of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 90th Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 23, 2018. The 90th Oscars will be held on Sunday, March 4, 2018, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network. The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

Credits for ScreenWork: 

Fox Searchlight trailer for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a feature written and directed by Martin McDonagh, shot by cinematographer Ben Davis, edited by Jon Gregory, with music by Carter Burwell and production design by Inbal Weinberg.