Known for critically acclaimed collaborations with lauded filmmakers including Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond The Pines) and Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), production designer Inbal Weinberg has added Irish auteur Martin McDonagh to that list with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. With Three Billboards, Weinberg was tasked with crafting the fictional Ebbing, Missouri, a middle American small town that was neither bustling nor broken — a town existing in a time warp, caught in some decade from the past, that would be a central character in the piece.
Below, the Israeli production designer discusses her interest in working with foreign directors on quintessentially American projects and McDonagh’s unorthodox approach to visual geography.
What did Martin McDonagh convey to you early on about the look for the fictional town at the heart of Three Billboards?
The script probably wasn’t super descriptive about the town. It came off as an all-American town. What was important in the script, and also in our process of trying to find our locations, is the physical proximity that certain sets within the town played. For example, the advertising office is across the street from the police station, and it is written that way in the script, so that there’s a lot of interaction, back and forth, on the main street.
Often, those things are written into scripts, but if you’re used to the magic of filmmaking, often you suggest, “Okay, well they don’t actually have to connect. We can always cheat and shoot one way, and then shoot the other way, and you’re in a different place.” But that wasn’t at all something we were entertaining. To Martin, it was pretty specific that the places actually had to exist in that way, and we’re not ever going to cheat.
I think the main town was picked mostly based on the fact that we could find two building across the street on a main street, where you could really turn one into an advertising agency and turn one into a police station. We kept it very true in terms of the space, which is how you get scenes like when you have Mildred at the swing set, and you literally see the billboards in the background. We had scouted for that exact relationship. That was something that was interesting in the process.
In terms of the town itself, I pulled a bunch of references. Some were more rundown because nowadays, if you drive around America and try to find a perfect small town, it’s not actually that easy. A lot of what we would imagine small-town America is has vanished or has deteriorated to a point where Main Street is not as active, and maybe has a lot of shuttered businesses. If you go to the opposite end, you get small towns that have become richer, and therefore almost gentrified, or become touristy. That’s also something we didn’t want.
We were really going for a quintessential Main Street that is not rundown and is not gentrified, and probably a bit dated. We didn’t want it to be extremely contemporary, but we also didn’t want to be too nostalgic. It all had to be in between, and that is—almost sadly—not easy to find.
The town of Sylva [North Carolina] that we ended up in…what was interesting about it is that it’s like a functioning, small town. It had a healthy main street with mom-and-pop businesses. Some have been there for generations; they’re very proud of their heritage, they have photos of how the town used to be in the 1930s on the wall.
You don’t see any modern buildings for miles. That kind of stuff was important to us.
After that, we had to take over Main Street to not only deal with the two main sets, but also, we did change a lot of storefronts to be even more timeless. We changed signage, and we changed storefront content to fit more with the idea of a dated town that is stuck in some decade—maybe 20 years ago.
Was there anything notable about pursuing an Irish director’s vision of Americana?
I’m also not American, so I feel like I usually connect well with foreign directors when they come to the U.S. I feel like there’s this observer mode that you’re in when you’re not from the place, where things don’t necessarily make sense to you in the natural way that things make sense to somebody that grew up in a place. I’ve been working in the United States for a long time, and I always feel — even going to small towns where I’ve worked a lot — it’s always so interesting to me, sometimes even more interesting than taking a trip to a big, well-known city. The workings of a small town in the U.S. are very specific—I don’t take anything for granted, so I’m always asking questions that perhaps, to other people, are basic. I think in that way, Martin and I probably have a similar way of looking at things.
Can you explain the process of designing and setting up the billboards themselves?
In the beginning, we pulled a lot of references of billboards through the years because the construction has changed. We tended to like the more vintage look of the billboards from the 1950s and 1960s, so that’s mostly what we referenced. It was a mix of pulling photo references but also driving around in the area where we were. I had at least one billboard — we were in the car with Martin and our location manager, and all of us were like, “Wow, this is a great billboard.” I took some very specific elements that we liked, and then, of course, we had to adjust it a little bit.
We had the scene where Mildred goes up the ladder, so we need to add a ladder. How would that work out? What would be best for the actual sequence of the fire? After that, it was more the actual elements of putting up a billboard. They’re gigantic pieces of wood that took a special crane to put up, but we got in touch with a lot of local billboard businesses. Everyone was super nice, helpful and informative. My set decorator and I found a billboard company close to the town where we were shooting, so we even went there to take photographs of their place, to have the bigger picture of how these things are done.
We contracted a local billboard company to help us put the big posts in the ground. After that, our carpenters built the rest of the structure. What was, of course, interesting is that because we had a lot of fire in our film, everything had to be fireproof, so there was a lot of logistical conversation about how the billboards would burn, and in what order, how would we replace them. That was super complex and took a lot of meetings.
In terms of the actual content — the boards, and how they would be represented — I basically photoshopped trillions of fonts in different colors and layouts, of how the words would be on each board. It was actually Martin’s idea to do the red background, which was at first like: “Oh, wow.” Once we tried it out, it was like, “Oh yeah, definitely. Let’s go for that.” It’s the most alarming and unexpected color.
Then, we had the general idea, and we just wanted to see how it would feel, so we all went out to the space and put up really large posters that we were holding, just to get an idea of the scale. After that, we photoshopped the things into site-specific photos, and we even made a small model of the road, with toy cars and the billboards on it.
Pretty much the day after we put up the billboards, our location manager started getting complaints from people around that area. It’s pretty much the South, and people are quite conservative, so especially the “Raped While Dying” board was extremely upsetting to people who were driving around with their kids.
We had only unveiled it to show the director — it was a test day — and already, we started getting calls, which, funny enough, didn’t really even occur to me. At that point, I became so desensitized to it, because it’s really intense when you see it the first time, and then you’re there every day, minding other stuff, so I’d forgotten how intense it is to see the first time.
Our location manager was really good in keeping every local authority or local community happy with our process, but it was a huge ordeal. We always had to have four carpenters or riggers and two lifts, every night and every morning, to cover and uncover these boards. Quite frankly, I think we were happy when they finally got burned, because at least one was completely dark and couldn’t bother anybody anymore.
You transformed an antiques shop into a police station for the film. Can you explain the out-of-the-box thinking that comes with being a production designer?
You start with the information you have from the script, and then, of course, starting to pull references, you go to the larger picture of: What is this town? It’s obviously a place that’s a bit stuck in time, so we’re going with an older version of a police station that had a large bullpen, and these architectural moldings—things like that.
We grabbed a lot of references and decided on a look that was distinctly older than what modern police stations are. We wanted to be authentic as much as we could to the area, so we went down to the local police station, which was only a few doors down from where we were shooting, and they were lovely. We talked to people, and when we told them about the layout we were planning, people were always saying, “Oh yeah, that’s how our old police station was before we renovated.” It sort of made sense like, Okay, we’re assuming this town is more stuck in time than maybe what it would be, but that’s the point. As we can see, some people’s attitudes are still antiquated, so that helped.
After that, you start thinking, “What are your restrictions within the building?” A big thing for us was, we were going to burn down the building. We had to have serious fire in the front and inside, so that is a major restriction. Because everything has to be built to fireproof code, and with fireproof material. The second thing is, we couldn’t actually damage the existing structure. These people are going to want to receive it afterwards exactly how it was. What we ended up doing was literally building a set within the set. We had to build a completely new floor and completely new walls within the existing structure because those walls were going to get damaged, and that floor was going to get damaged. We removed it afterwards, and were back to the original building. So it was interesting. It was almost like building on a stage, only you’re inside a building.
In that particular case, we had to completely redo the façade of the building because it was just a regular storefront, and it had to look more like a police station. Our scenic department had to match the actual existing brick of the building, so you don’t notice the points where they’re all connecting. The new brick was, of course fireproof, and it was the protective part so that the original brick wouldn’t get damaged. A lot of those kinds of restrictions come into play when you’re designing, which is actually helpful. You’re not designing out of nothing — you have rules and guidelines you have to adhere to.