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All the Doors to Hollywood and How to Open Them

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What does a Production Designer actually do? How do you go about it?
"I'm the point person for the movie's overall look", says Production Designer BILL BRZESKI. "Anywhere from helping pick locations, reflecting time of day, overseeing all the real to virtual scenery and the shape of buildings, to designing an entire world." The title of Production Designer, he says, originated with the movie Gone with the Wind. "Before then, films often had more than one Art Director, and it became custom to name a Supervising Art Director. With William Mendes, on GWTW, that designation became Production Designer."

In movies' early days, he tells, most Art Directors came from the world of architecture. "They had to design schools, buildings, cities." And conversely, some of early Los Angeles architecture was influenced by the fancies of movies the architects worked on -- "castles, witches' cottages, Moorish palaces, world-of-future stuff."

After you've signed on for a job, how do you proceed?
"Before I've been hired, I've of course discussed concept with the director, so that he or she knows we're in synch. When I have the job, the first thing I do is break the script down and design the concept -- the look, the visual feel, suggested locations. I'll do a presentation -- more or less elaborate, depending on the size of the film and the budget -- sketches, photos perhaps, models. And then get the director's take on all of it. Make whatever changes we come up with. Of course I've already begun to hire -- Art Department, location scouts, Decorator. I talk with Accounting, and make whatever changes the budget requires. Feedback is a critical part of the whole process."

How did you begin?
"Since I was 18," Bill says, "I knew I was going to work in theatre design. In high school, I was into music and band, and worked on the musicals we did every year. So as an undergrad at Miami University, I began as a music major -- but really struggled at it. In my freshman year, I discovered the scene shop next to the band rooms, and volunteered to work on a play. I was hooked - and changed my major within a week."

Brzeski went on to New York University, where he studied theatre, and got a Masters in Arts. "In the '80's, I moved to Los Angeles, and began to find work in television -- moving from variety shows to sitcoms, and finally to features. My first assistant design job was on a show - still running in Las Vegas -- called Jubilee. My first job as production designer was in 1986 on Growing Pains for Warner Brothers. I did over 800 television episodes of multi-camera sitcoms from Ellen to The Nanny. I was constantly reinventing myself."

Bill's first big screen movie was Matilda, in 1996, which launched him into feature films. It was directed by Danny Devito, with Rhea Perlman and Mara Wilson. "The previous Designer had been fired. A friend called and said 'Come on in for an interview.' I got the job, but it was three weeks before the start of principal photography, there was no design concept on any piece of paper, and not a single person in the art department. It had disaster written all over it. But I kept it together and got through it with great success. Actually, I think it was some of my best design."

Who are some of the actors and directors you've worked with?
"There've been so many terrific ones -- Jack Nicholson, in As Good as It Gets and Bucket List, Morgan Freeman, Shirley McClaine, Baryshnikov, Danny DeVito, Rob Reiner -- I could go on."

Where've you gone on location?
"All over. Asia, Canada, Thailand, China, Hong Kong - as well as Nashville, Atlanta, Chicago, Portland."

Any location stories?
"This one comes under the heading of 'Never underestimate the importance of food on location!' On The Forbidden Kingdom in China, we had a food crisis. We were shooting in a rural area and the food was bad. I mean very bad. We began to get depressed and bicker about almost everything. At which point our Italian painter announced that some ingredients for a pasta dinner had just arrived for him from Rome. Well -- he made Carbonara for five of us. The meal was amazing -- there we were, grown men, actually crying. Now when I go on location, I work on the food thing from Day One!"

What is the work like? What do you enjoy about it? Your favorite film?
"It's a little like the military. A strict hierarchy -- everyone has a very specific job and does absolutely nothing else. And you operate with strict loyalty to the director. It's sort of focusing on a very large task with one idea. What I like is that you get to do your thing really quickly -- generally three to six months time -- but what you do lives on. And you get to design your fantasies. One of the rewards is that more people get to see your work than that of other designers -- we have such influence on people and they don't even know it. As to a favorite film -- I guess one of my favorites was The Forbidden Kingdom, in China. It opened me up to traveling in China, and the possibilities of Asia in general. It was a great adventure! I think the bottom line is -- find a way to do something you love!"

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