A Conversation with Jess Gonchor, Production Designer

By Christopher Redmond

From the set of Hail, Caesar! – his sixth film with the Joel and Ethan Coen – Academy Award-nominated Production Designer Jess Gonchor talks to Christopher Redmond about his craft, his career, and what it takes to rise through the ranks in Hollywood.

What made you want to become a Production Designer?

For some reason I always felt that I had an eye for what could tell a story. What looks good and what does not look good to tell a story. Not in context to the world, but what is a background that is going to help tell a story. If there was an actor out there that couldn't speak, what could support telling a story visually? I fell into studio set building, which I also loved, and I embraced that.

And now you're working on your sixth Coen Brother's film, Hail, Caesar!.

Yeah, I'm sort of back in Hollywood for the first time on a big build movie. We have six sound stages that we're building sets on.

One of the guys, one of the painters that's on the crew, came up to me and goes, "Hey, do you remember me? It's Bobby so-and-so." And I'm like, "Yeah, I remember you." And he goes, "Congratulations," and he sort of nudged the guy next to him, and he goes ,"this is a guy twenty years ago who said 'I'm gonna be a production designer some day,' and we all laughed." But here I am! And I've got a couple hundred people working on this job.

Looking at your resumé, it really seems like you worked your way up through the art department to get to where you are.

That's sort of been my path, and I don't think it's the normal path, because you do get labeled in this business for something that you do—especially if you're good at it. It's hard to work your way out of that type of thing sometimes. But I always got to the point where I wasn't fed up with it, but I just sort of had enough.

Building sets ran their course with me. Being in charge of people that were building the sets ran its course. And then drawing the sets up for people to build ran its course. And then telling the people who draw the sets up how to draw them up, being an art director, ran it's course. And then the opportunity to start designing came.

How exactly did you get your first gig as a production designer on a film?

It was very hard to get my first job doing it, so I went into commercial production design and started designing commercials. I had hoped that I would do a good enough job in that for someone to recognize my work. But as luck would have it, and as hard work would have it, I worked with Bennett Miller on a lot of commercials, and he had yet to direct something. So he turned to me one day and said, "Jess, you want to go to Winnipeg and do a movie about Truman Capote?" And I was like, "Sure, let's go!"

From there, at least my work was recognized and people could see that I had an eye and I could tell a story visually, and I could design something, and I could be fiscally responsible for a budget. There's so many things that go around for production design.

Could you define, in your own words, what it is that a production designer does?

I would say that the responsibility of the production designer is to tell a story visually. Take away all the acting and take away all the singing and all the performance and see a movie without that. Does it still tell a story if words aren't spoken? Does it still mean something? Does it move itself along page-by-page visually? That's what a production designer does.

You read a script and you figure out, "Okay, how can I tell this story visually?" And you have to go out into the world and say, "Okay, this is going to have to be a practical location where we'll fix up and do something, then we're going to have to go to a stage for this. Then we're going to go shoot a scene on a train, then we're going to go back to the set." So you have to put a lot of pieces together. And then you have to answer to a dollar amount. You really can't go over, or you may be looked at as somebody who's too extravagant, someone who doesn't understand what it takes just to shoot a scene and just build two walls if that's all you're going to see.

I'm a big believer in a concept for a movie. Like, what am I trying to get out of the production design? What's it trying to say? Is there a colour palette or style that I'm working with? Am I helping keep pace with my scenery for the movie?

And it's anything from cars, to practical sets, to big giant stage builds, to a pen that somebody's writing with or a piece of paper that they're writing on.

How did you get involved with the Coen brothers? What attracted them to you? I assume it was easy to be attracted to them…

Yes, I was always a fan of their movies. Listen, a lot of this business is timing. Across the board, with actors, designers, all sorts of people. A lot of this has to do with timing. Capote had just came out, they saw it, and they were looking for someone to design No Country for Old Men. I know that they interviewed a lot of people and they were exhausted with that (laughs).

Actually, truth to be told, the story is I was on a movie, and they called my agent after they saw Capote and said, "Hey, this guy Jess…we want to talk to him. He may fit into our family over here. We're pretty down to earth, pretty low-budget, pretty simple. When we overstate the look of something, it's still understated in a way."

But I was on a movie and I was unavailable and the movie went down. My agent said, hold on, and she got me an interview with the guys. So I put together some really nice images of what I thought, after reading the script, what No Country should look like. And we hit it off. Since then I've learned what they like, they've learned what I like, and together we've formed a bond of just being on the same page for filmmaking.

And they obviously trust you with their designing movies now.

I think the trust that they instil in me is pretty amazing. I'm super thankful for that. They know that I get them, so there's a trust now. Yes, there's a lot – a lot – dialogue between us, but this is the sixth movie I've made with them right now, so we know how to gauge it.

All through the first movie we did, I think I came out of the gate with something special, and they recognized it and then obviously things worked out after. It takes a lot of hard work, but it worked out.

I had an art director tell me to ask this question: what percentage of your vision do you feel shows up in the final film?

Um, 90 per cent. I mean, what else is there? It's all your vision. If they use something or not, it's all… I mean I don't know. I might go to 100 per cent. I don't want to be a pig about it, but… maybe not. Let's just say 90. That's a tough question.

If I name a couple of your films can you describe them to me from a production designer's point of view? Let's start with Capote.

Bleak. Bleak, desperate, telling a story of this family that was murdered in cold blood, and the two guys that were guilty of it. Like an Andrew Wyeth painting, it's just really wintery, cold. It had to feel vulnerable, bleak. If I sewed it all up tight in a blanket I would say it's…


(laughs) Winnipeg was the perfect place to go, when it was all said and done. But it was like a still life painting to me, and I still feel that way.

How about The Devil Wear's Prada?

Let me tell you something. I did not have a movie out yet that I could call my own. I had art directed a bunch, but Capote wasn't out yet. I interviewed with the director and the producer and I'm pretty sure if they saw Capote, I would not have been the guy to get that job! (laughs). It was complete polar opposite of that.

But I remember this was in 2005 and I had just got my first iPod and it was a white one with silver on the back and this black dial. I had this thing and I had a few photos of Vogue, and this that, but I had this iPod in my pocket. And they asked me, "so what do you think the movie is?" And I pulled out this brand new, shiny iPod, and I said: "I think this is what the movie looks like." David Frankel and Wendy Finerman were like, "Hmm, okay, tell us more." So that sort of piqued their interest.

For me, it was just high fashion, polished colours, beautiful shades of white with some colour mixed in. It is what it was. It was opening up a 500-page issue of Vogue magazine.

And then going to No Country For Old Men?

For No Country, I had a very specific colour palette in mind for that too. (pauses) It feels like an easy one but it was sort of a hard one.

It was also a sense of being desperate. To me, the whole movie was about the colours of the desert. Being out in harsh environments. I just started to look at shapes against the sky. Just sort of open land.

I started looking at negative space for that movie. I don't want to get too deep, but I was just embracing the sky in everything we did. So instead of looking at the outline of a trailer, I sort of looked at it upside down like, "what's the outline of the sky?".It helped me to define the landscape. The landscape of West Texas and how hot it was and how thirsty you were out there. Getting that message across of space and dessert.

Jess Gonchor's colour palette for No Country for Old Men

I remember the colour palette I made for that: I knocked off a Rothko painting and had pretty much just the colours you would find in the West Texas desert. I put a splatter of blood to top it off. So it was a few shades of brown, a shade of rust, and shade of concrete, and then a spatter of blood.

How do you communicate your vision to the rest of the department exactly?

We have extensive, extensive research done. We plaster our department with research. Our entire hallway (for Hail, Caesar!), which probably runs 300 feet—both sides of the hallway are covered with research of the era. The period movies like a Gene Kelly movie, a song and dance thing, an Ester Williams thing, a Nöel Coward thing. All of it.

Then I'll have my concepts and illustrations and drawings on the other side of the hallways. And I'll break it down into scenes, so everybody on the whole movie can walk through the hallways and see, "Oh, we open in a Chinese restaurant, here's the research on it." This takes a couple of months but someone can walk through the whole movie.

What would you do on a smaller film like Capote?

The first thing I did on Capote was I made up a colour palette, a 5x7 card, with six colours on it. I laminated the card and on one side I had the colours on it, and on the other side I had my name and my cell number. I punched a hole in it and put a little clip on it and I gave it to all the people on the set, namely the set PAs. I said, "If anybody sees any colour that is not on this card, call me up and I will get it out of this set. I don't care if it's a pen, a car, a hat, you know what I mean?"

So I always make up some kind of colour palette to get on board with the costume designer, and sometimes he or she will agree on another colour, but I feel it's important to maintain continuity between something like that and the concept.

So how big was your card for The Lone Ranger? It couldn't have been just 5x7.

(Laughs) No, it wasn't. It wasn't. But that was a movie about landscapes too. You know that was really a true Western. It didn't want to be a pulp Western, like a Roy Rogers thing. It wanted to be a void of a lot of colour. Like reds. There was a little bit here and there, but mainly we really tried to stay true to the old John Ford Westerns. Almost black and white type of thing.

Can you tell me about your different approach between The Lone Ranger and True Grit? Two Westerns, but a very different approach.

First of all, the budget. Lone Ranger was ten times the budget that True Grit was. But they were different sort of eras.

In The Lone Ranger, they were building the train line so people were just traveling across America and discovering this new World. There was a lot of open landscapes and a lot of America discovering itself.

In True Grit, the train line was already in. These towns were established, so it wasn't this saloon swinging movie. It had an established town, it was built up, it was functioning, people had a purpose, people had jobs, people had responsibilities. It wasn't the old Wild West.

The Lone Ranger was like the Wild West of yesteryear. I fell like True Grit was more of a modern day Western. I mean, it took place in Arkansas. Some people say it was an Eastern. We were also able to stylize it into a Coen Borthers way with some of the sets. Mixing the grocery in with all the produce and the meats.

Do you prefer the big pulpy type of world-building like The Lone Ranger and The Devil Wears Prada, or the more subtle stuff like Moneyball and *A Serious Man?*

I think it's an equal challenge. Big movies come with big problems and small movies come with big problems. There are no small-problem movies.

I really feel a movie like Inside Llewyn Davis is so much harder to do than a Lone Ranger or a True Grit, because the camera is locked-off. It's like looking at a photograph. The audience gets to examine. And I tried to avoid that, because I want them to look at the performance and I want my stuff just supporting that. But if somebody's looking around, a movie like Inside Llewyn Davis, which is very slow-paced with the camera locked off, just looking at the performances and singing performances, is much more of a challenge than doing a giant movie where you're flying by things on horses, on trains, on cars. Those things are much more forgiving. Challenging in their own way – you have to do monstrous stuff – but I find the finer details stuff is much less forgiving as a production designer.

I think an actor will say that too. If an actor is on a boat chase, they've got the wind and someone's chasing them, and they're acting above that, as opposed to citing Shakespeare on a stool.

If someone said, "Okay Jess, we're going to make the film you want to make." Would you prefer a period-piece, something sci-fi, or what?

A period piece, really. I love the 50s and the 60s. It's fun to do the period pieces. The futuristic things, I would love to get in there but it's definitely more intimidating, because we don't know what the future looks like. We can draw on the past and put our own twist on the past, so it's definitely more comfortable to do things that have already happened. I sort of gravitate to that. But I would definitely like somebody to ask me to put my spin on what the future would look like too.

Contemporary—look, as long as the script is great. To me, it's all about the script. A movie like Foxcatcher, it's an amazing script, my buddy's directing it, he's got a great cast, it's 1980s and I think I ended up assigning a really good look to that movie, but it's sort of contemporary. So you have to figure out how you're going to make something like that look good. And I think it's amazing. I think I did come up with some good concepts for that.

For the contemporary things, as long as the script is good. But if there's a good script in the Civil War, yeah, that's a home run right there.

I noticed you were the Second Unit Director on Foxcatcher. Is that part of the career path or just a one-off?

No, I think it's part of the career path. I don't think I could ever stop doing production design, I love it. You're the first person on the movie, besides the director. On a movie like Hail, Caesar!, I've got five months of prep, because that's what it takes. On The Lone Ranger, you get nine months of prep. So you're with the script, you're with the director, you're with the environment, and they trust you to tell the story.

So I actually said to (Bennett Miller): "Look, I know you have your hands full. If there's anything I can help with and go shoot, I would love to do it." He's like, "Nobody knows the story better than you, Jess, and that would be fantastic. I would embrace that." So no giant scenes with acting, but whatever I could do to do and fill in.

When you get to this point on a movie, you get the material. You get it better than most people on the movie, just because you've been living with it for longer, having dialogue with the director for a long time. So yeah, I'd like to do more of that. Or directing on my own. We'll see what happens.

It was not easy to do that and design a movie, but it was probably one of the most satisfying film experiences I've ever had.

So do you look at someone like Robert Stromberg (director of Maleficent) as an inspiration? Because there aren't that many directors who go through the avenue of a production designer into directing.

Well, Alfred Hitchcock. I mean that's why his movies looked so good. He was an art director for a while, and his visual style is amazing.

And yes, I'm friendly with Rob and thrilled to death with what he's done. And hell yeah I look up to him, absolutely.

He came up the visual effects side though, and you're doing more the classical route. Are more people coming in the visual effects side, now?

Yeah, they are, because there's a lot more movies like that. A lot of visual effects in movies, so people are crossing over who are artists and creating the worlds that some movies require.

I still think that it all starts with the script. Whatever your training, if you can understand the story you're trying to tell and not just upstage everything with a background that looks good, then I think you can do it.

My path was the theatre, I started in high school. I will credit forever that backstage crew that I with in high school, learning about what it takes to do something with absolutely nothing. Just a roll of duct tape and a couple of twigs.

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