Tackling a period project that feels true to life, rather than an imitation of the past, is no easy feat for any production designer—but it doesn’t hurt to have lived through the period being depicted. Such was the case for Oscar-nominated production designer Jim Bissell, who has spent much of his career depicting different epochs of the American experience. Breaking out with Steven Spielberg’s E.T., Bissell sees an irony in the fact that at 66 years of age, he’s found himself working on George Clooney’s Suburbicon—ironic in the sense that they are more the same than they are different, when it came to his approach.
Below, Bissell describes his working relationship with Clooney—this being their fifth endeavor together—discussing the film’s depiction of a ’50s suburban nightmare.
Your collaborative relationship with George Clooney notwithstanding, what personally resonated with you about Suburbicon?
I really enjoy working with George. This is our fifth project together. The second thing would probably be that it’s not unlike the neighborhood I grew up in. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood in North Carolina. Obviously, I’m a little bit older than George—I’ve got 10 years on him, so I lived during that era—and I shared some of George’s feeling, which was that in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was an awful lot of white privilege and hypocrisy.
A lot of the social and cultural issues that are dealt with in the film were part of my youth. It was going to be interesting to try to delineate that in a non-romantic, non-stylized way. I watch a lot of ’50s movies, and very often they’re not done particularly well, but that’s only from the perspective of someone who lived through the period.
The overall approach to the film evolved. We were looking initially at actually using Levittown in Pennsylvania, and then when Matt came on board and wanted to stay in town, that required a certain course correction, where we were going to go for that East Coast, early suburb look, and try to make it look like it wasn’t necessarily in California.
You’ve frequently explored different epochs of Americana in your work. Having lived through the ‘50s, did you consider this time period in your immediate wheelhouse, or something you were able to discover more about?
Oh, probably both. Certainly, having come from a suburban background, I bring certain experiences and insights into it, and it wasn’t lost on me that there was a little bit of an interesting, ironic bookend—that my breakthrough film was E.T., and now at 66, I’m doing this show. And in some ways, I was trying to bring the same sensibility.
E.T. is a film about Elliott’s transition from the magical thinking of youth to rational thinking, and in the course of that transition he has to embrace the adult world, which is difficult. These are the kind of things you want to set against both a little bit of a magical background, as well as a realistic background, and this was the dark underbelly of that. It was also trying to provide a fairly realistic, non-romanticized background of the 50’s—to show it as a place where evil could exist, hidden by the anonymity of the suburban environment.
How did you cobble together the sense of a community out of so many disparate California locations, and what other visual ideas were essential to this portrait of dark Americana?
There were quite a few staging mandates. One of them was that by introducing the [Lodge’s] kid, and showing how he slowly understands what he’s in the middle of, we needed a platform for him to start looking at the adult world—not being able to see at all, and then eventually being able to have an open enough floor plan where he did start to really be a part of it, begin to understand his parents and his aunt for who they actually were, rather than what the kid assumes.
So, the Lodge house had to be a two-story house. The Mayers house wanted to be a single-story house because it’s their modest beginning in the American dream of getting a house in suburbia, then making the upward progression to a larger house.
That all started with a lot of interesting research about where those neighborhoods were in Southern California, and starting to explore with our location scout, Ken Haber, who did some really good work. We spent a lot of time in a car, obviously.
One of the great ironies was that we found the single-story street, which is supposed to be parallel to the double-story street, in Fullerton. Ken had done some research, and I’d done a really interesting survey of the architectural value of ‘50s [Caltrans] tracks.
We found where some of these locations were, and of course, most of these neighborhoods were completely shaded by fully mature trees. So we looked and looked, and our hope was to find at least a three-house stretch—that was, three houses on both sides of a street—where we could stage the action, and have a fairly realistic foreground, and then be able to do some extensions through visual effects beyond that.
We used Google Maps extensively, trying to identify places we should go, and Ken had gone down to Fullerton to talk to the police chief, to let him know what we were up to, and to look at what kind of cooperation we could get. He was early for the appointment, and he started driving around, and went to the street, which I believe was Ash street. And lo and behold, he came there four days after they had cut all the trees down. It was an astonishing bit of serendipity. The neighbors had complained because the Ficus trees were upending all of the sidewalks, so the city had come in and cut them all down.
We couldn’t have seen this one on Google Maps at all—it just happened. It was perfect. That’s how we stumbled across the house for the Mayers. That was a full block, much more than we’d ever anticipated being able to find.
Then, the two-story house, we found in Carson. Of course, the two houses are supposed to butt up against each other, so that’s when I put together the strategy where everything that was shot on the front of the Mayers house shot in that neighborhood; everything shot in front of the Lodge house was shot in Carson; then, the backyard was a constructed set that did in fact give us a house on either side. It was two, three houses and these open backyard,s which were very much a part of some of the East Coast suburban neighborhoods. That backyard set was built with limited see-throughs between the houses, which is where we put green screen, and we would get the background placed from the actual locations. It worked really effectively—I think it was pretty seamless.
It was interesting to read that George Clooney is someone who meticulously draws out his shots.
Yeah, it’s a very iterative process, and a very satisfying one for a designer, primarily because he does draw. Any director that can put a pencil to paper—whether they do it well or not, it really doesn’t make too much difference. The hardest part is starting that process of taking something out of your head and sticking it onto paper.
So many directors will give you the line, “I don’t quite know what I want, but I’ll know it when I see it.” That makes it really difficult because the translation of ideas is a very complex one, so you can either wind up dealing with somebody who knows the process very well, and knows when you’re going in a good direction, or you’re dealing with somebody who just wants to wander through a visual supermarket and make choices. That’s an extremely inefficient process.
But with someone like George, it’s not inefficient at all. I’ll give him a crude model in 3D and say, “Here’s where the entrance is, this is the kind of visual we would have at the entrance, and this happens, and this happens.” And he’ll instantly see it. It could be the crudest suggestion of what I’m implying, but I get instant feedback, and I continue to refine the models.
By the time we finished that collaborative process and built the set, nothing on the set changed. He was so familiar with the space through the computer models and the physical model that I built. He just felt very comfortable with the space and he was free to work with the actors.
How did you conceptualize the look for the interior of the Lodge house?
The interior is very much a theatrical set. Anybody that looks at it closely will know that it’s really a space that cannot exist, designed primarily for the series of images that help to tell the story.
There was a noirish quality to it, so there had to be walls that we could project shadows against. There had to be the drama of going up and down the stairs—I suggested to George very early on that we would probably want an open staircase, because the open staircase also gave us really interesting shadows.
The other thing was that I wanted to reflect that kind of optimism that he wanted. You had to use the same palette, and it had to feel part of the same universe. As the show itself got darker and darker, the colors in the palette had to be unsettling, and really disturbing. So, there was almost a character arc to the interior of that space. All the while, you’re juxtaposing that against the images of the riot and the chaos going on in front of the Mayers house.
Was it challenging to match the visual quality of the documentary footage integrated into the film?
That was fairly close, and the quality was so degraded that it wasn’t really difficult to match it. Levittown, just north of Philadelphia, had about the same spacing between the houses, and the same kind of boxy design that was a little less sophisticated than the neighborhood that we had in Fullerton. But I didn’t really have to work too hard, in terms of integrating that.
Can you discuss the minutiae you get into, when you get to sets like the grocery store, which was completely recreated in period detail?
My perameters as a production designer are making sure that we have the correct stage to create a grocery store. We have to constantly work within the limitations of our budget. But the other area that’s always an issue is clearances. You have a really good graphic designer that understands the essence of the period design, can capture that, but not have any identifiable products that can’t be cleared. That’s a real tight rope.
Which space in Suburbicon was the most challenging to work with?
There was a lot of stuff going on in the Lodge house. It really is almost psychological imagery, definitely dramatic, going from the invasion, to all of the stuff where the kid has begin to slowly realize what’s going on, and then the final confrontation between him and Matt.