Diane Haithman is a contributor to AwardsLine
Surprisingly, Laurence Bennett, production designer for The Artist, calls his first experience working within the confines in black and white “incredibly liberating.” Bennett, also production designer for 2004’s Best Picture Oscar winner Crash, says that black and white, for all its limitations, strips a film down to its “essential imagery. There is less getting in the way of composition.”
1. While some movie theater interiors were shot in downtown Los Angeles’ historic movie palaces, theater exteriors employed the Warner Bros back lot’s New York Street. This still (above) is Scene I, the grand opening of silent star George Valentin’s latest picture. “The buildings in this frame, none of them would have been out of place in downtown Los Angeles in 1927,” Bennett says. “The architecture is much more closely associated with an East Coast or Midwest city. But Los Angeles back in the ’20s was doing its best to look cosmopolitan.” Bennett says the chance to realize this opening scene “made me decide to do the picture.”
2. Light means more in black and white — and the searchlights attending a Valentin opening are more than just appropriate to the story: they comment on the reality that every night in Hollywood is the opening night of somebody’s dream, even if that somebody is still a nobody. “Certainly the searchlights raking across the Hollywood sky is a very genuine cultural marker without being too heavy-handed about it,” Bennett says. “You want the thrill for the public of the flash. Everything is a little glitzy, has a shine to it.”
3. Much of the fun for Bennett was in creating the details. In designing the theater marquee, Bennett chose to add “a sort of crenellated Art Deco crown across the whole thing, almost like teeth, that’s all gilt, and black — that was just that little bit of movie plaza glamour.” The design, he says, is part history, part imagination, “sort of a pastiche of all kinds of cinema exteriors in Hollywood.”
4: While for budget reasons some movie palace interiors extended the crowd size with CGI, the crowd here is made up of real live extras. “On the big extra days, when we had all these folks in costume, I would walk through the hair and makeup department and they would be doing a couple hundred people on a given day, and I think it was really wonderful because it helped the crew and everybody, it was a very contagious excitement, and it put everybody in the mood of the period,” Bennett says.
5. Who’s the gal in the light-colored coat? Why, its spunky wanna-be Peppy Miller! (Bérénice Bejo). “You notice how much she pops — that is by design,” Bennett says. “I’ve never worked as closely with a costume designer [Mark Bridges] in coordination of our efforts. You don’t have color to change things or change moods. Just light vs. dark, dark vs. light. We need to notice her, but not too much. We want to drop a little hint that she is special.”
6. As an unorthodox part of his role as designer, Bennett wrote the text for the marquee. “I wrote the copy, I should be forgiven for that,” he jokes. Bennett made sure that star George Valentin’s name appears multiple times, and included such seductive words as “intrigue” and “romance.” He said: “It’s part of that promise to the audience: ‘This is what you’re gonna get. This is what you’re gonna spend your nickel on.’ ”