As a production designer, Drew Boughton oversees a vast array of moving parts. It’s his job to work simultaneously with the art department, director, director of photography, and producers to build the physical and visual world of a project. While other positions on a show like Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle” are likely to be occupied by different people throughout the course of a single season, Boughton is one of the constants, ensuring continuity and visual clarity in every episode.
Talking to Backstage, Boughton shared why he likens the transition from pre-production to production to a bobsled run, the necessity of research in a design process, and how not having the answer can lead to some of the best ideas.
What does a production designer do?
A production designer is responsible for the overall look of everything that is physically built in terms of settings, locations, colors, and style. [They] serve the director to help envision that and work with the costume designer and the director of photography to build up the world. So [we’re] often one of the first people to start on a project [to] help look for locations and do research for period or style. Some directors come with that vision to the first meeting and others come with an open mind and want to have a collaboration about what sort of options there are. A production designer works as a key artistic collaborator in helping this all happen.
How did you become a production designer?
My parents ran a theater so I grew up in the theater and then at a certain point I moved down to Los Angeles to get into film. I started as an art director on a very low-budget movie and I worked my way up.
I had a design degree from the Yale School [of Drama], which at the time was one of the significant schools for design. I came out here and my name was given to somebody who was looking for an art director for a low-budget movie. I don’t remember exactly how that person got my name but they called and I was like, “Sure! I don’t entirely know what I’m doing but I’ll try!”
“I wanted to work my way up through the system so that I would truly really know all the levers and dials and buttons when I got to the title of production designer. ”
The art director position is the second position to the production designer, so some people can go in as an assistant art director or art director PA and then work their way up to art director and then to production designer. It is occasionally possible for a person to be so talented that a director would choose to make them a production designer on a non-union film and you then become a union production designer if a film goes union.
I found that for me, I wanted to work my way up through the system so that I would truly really know all the levers and dials and buttons when I got to the title of production designer.
What does a day in your life as a production designer look like?
In pre-production—which is the busiest time for a production designer—you’re trying to figure out the whole movie. You’re picking locations and driving around in vans and talking with directors and [DPs] and all the different people. [You’re] trying to figure out the budget with producers and trying to draw and sketch and make designs for what you’re gonna build. So those are usually twelve-hour days.
When shooting starts, it slows down a little bit in that you just stay ahead of the shooting company. As the shooting company completes its work [each day], that’s one set less you have to worry about, so you just focus on what’s shooting the next day. At that point, it’s still a twelve-hour day but it’s a little bit easier because it’s like you’re on a bobsled run. [You built] the [chute] for a couple of months and then you get on the sled and go down the run and there’s not much you can do except slide down and enjoy it.
I’ll make a rough sketch of an interior set that we’re gonna build, make some rough ground plan layouts, supervise art directors and set designers drawing up construction plans, get that approved—creatively approved with the director, financially approved with the producers. Then we take it into the construction shops and start making samples of colors and samples of materials and start building [it].
[On] location, many things need to be entirely repainted and have all their furniture replaced and changed so in that instance, it’s going with the director [and DP] and deciding we’re gonna take over [the] ground floor of this house and replace all of the furniture and paint the walls. Once that’s all been agreed to, it’s supervising when they bring in all the furniture, making sure it feels authentic to the character that’s being furnished. In some ways, it’s a job that is both reliant on having your finger on a lot of things [and] reliant on being able to let go and trust others to do their best work because you can’t possibly be there for all the events.
Do you think that formal education and training is necessary for a career as a production designer?
I’ve certainly seen successful designers of both kinds. I don’t think there’s a requirement. I think there’s a tendency or predictability that many successful production designers do have a college or a master’s in theater or film but it’s also the case that some people are very talented and can learn on the job. The most important thing is to be inquisitive and be open to other people helping you. In some ways, that’s the most important thing, regardless of your education. Even a really good university education doesn’t quite prepare you for all the things that [you have to] learn about working in film.
What do you look for when hiring your team?
It depends on the situation. Often, I’ll travel to a different part of the world so I’m relying upon the local art directors and teams there to present candidates. Of those candidates, I’m looking for people who draw really well and who are nice.
When I was an art director hosting visiting designers from other countries, I would pull together the best candidates I could find. Some of them were people I’d worked with before, some were people I had heard about who were talented, and sometimes you have to take a risk and promote people who have not done it before and then help them and give them advice and training. It’s been nice to be in a position to do that. All of us were that person at one point and I benefited a lot from the help I got from mentors.
“All of us were that person at one point and I benefited a lot from the help I got from mentors. ”
For “The Man in the High Castle,” how did imagine that alternative version of history in the design?
When we originally built the world, we were looking for photographs that would be a touchstone for what this alternative modernism would have been and we found examples of very rigid, very totalitarian places in East Germany and Soviet Bloc countries that allowed us to blend a kind of 1940s look with that stilted mid-century look. Then we subtracted the things that we knew didn’t happen. We subtracted the 1950s cars, we subtracted rock and roll, we subtracted the Civil Rights Movement. There were these things that we knew would never have been allowed, so that’s how we arrived at the look. Based on a logical conjecture that, thank god, didn’t happen.
What advice would you give an aspiring production designer?
The best advice I ever got was just to be excited and recognize that every day your job is to be part of the solution. Some days people can be brilliant, some days you’re not as brilliant. Weeks can go by without a moment of “brilliance,” but the thing you can always do is show up every day and be a part of the solution and that alone is enough to make a career and to make a good career.
Sometimes you have a half-baked idea and you rely on other collaborators to take it down the road further. If you are open to that and you’re able to keep your ego in a place—not thinking you’ve got the solution but thinking you’ve got a question and you’re working with your collaborators to find the answer, that’s gonna be best for everybody. If you are fixated on just wanting to be your own thing because you’re the artist, you can limit yourself from the ability to hear...Oddly, not necessarily having the answer can be one of the best things.
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