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Interview: Production Designer David Crank on Making ‘News of the World’

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Arriving today on VOD after a December 25th theatrical release is News of the World, which comes from director Paul Greengrass and stars Tom Hanks as a man who goes from town to town reading the news to an eager audience in the time after the Civil War. Awards Radar had the chance to speak with production designer David Crank (also interviewed earlier this week for another Hanks film, Greyhound) about his work creating a number of Texas towns and his approach to the feel of this story.  

Q: This is our second time talking after last week’s press conference for Greyhound. What is it like having two major Tom Hanks releases in one year?

A: It’s kind of crazy because they were done so far apart from each other. I didn’t quite realize they were going to do this. What’s funny is that Greyhound we shot on the USS KIDD, and then that’s his name in News of the World! Someone must have been smiling on it.

Q: You’ve worked on a number of period pieces in the past, including The New World and There Will Be Blood. This is a return to the post-Civil War era that you also got to create for Lincoln. Do you enjoy working with this time period?

A: I do. Living in Virginia, we’re kind of in the middle of all this. I grew up around this world. It is really interesting. Everyone has an idea of what the Civil War was, and when you start doing a lot of research into the pictures, you realize that it was pretty plain and simple. Trying to capture that versus everyone’s idea, which is probably a little more Victorian, is an enjoyable challenge. Texas was a different part than I’d worked with before. Most of my war things were on the East Coast. There are many more Spanish influences when you get to San Antonio. It depends on when the towns were built. Many of them were just rolled out of a box from the East Coast. Really, these towns were kind of new compared to ours. It’s a matter of editing and reducing. We shot a lot of it in the same place, so I had to keep remaking the same town over and over again.  

Q: The nature of this film’s premise and its protagonist’s job meant that the sets and background were constantly changing. Was that a challenge, or an opportunity you welcomed?

A: It wasn’t stressful. It was one of the first things I talked about with Paul. It is the nature of the story that he goes from town to town, but then each town has to be something. We did try to work and come up with a different focus and size for each town, what would be in each one. The first town was almost like a truck stop. It really wasn’t much of a town at the time, it was a farm. The second one existed because it was a cattle stop. Then Dallas was the bigger one, and then San Antonio is a totally different kind of thing. That was our concern, and our challenge was to give each one a very specific look and reason for being there. Otherwise, it just becomes generic. Fortunately, we filmed it in order, so that was a little easier.

Q: Are there any westerns or other classic films that you referred back to as influences or inspirations for how you wanted this film to look?

A: Well, we did watch The Searchers. That was one that was quite important to Paul. But that was more about one scene. Oddly enough, I tried to look at photographs more than I looked at films. I’ve seen a lot of westerns. It’s funny, right now I’m taking care of my parents, and my father watches westerns all day long. You can almost see certain scenes and you know what research they came from. Because they were TV, they do start to get generic. I didn’t try to watch too many westerns because it’s very easy to get influenced by somebody else’s look, so I kept trying to go back to the original Civil War-era photos to get a feel of what we were trying to do. I’m very horrible about watching other movies, kind of like the shoemaker’s child. There’s always the case that you have seen a film in the past, and it’s there, you can’t really change it. To look at them, if they’ve done it well, it’s really hard to get that out of your head, and it’s a different story, so it should have a different focus than what someone else did. Of course, I was filming on sets that were all built for other movies, so there’s that.

Q: This is obviously so much of a collaborative process. I assume you worked closely with the director of photography on all the scenes that were not in the towns and instead in the vastness? What’s involved for you when the set is the landscape?

A: I was really lucky because Dariusz Wolski was there from about two months early, with us every day, which is very great and unusual. We didn’t have Paul for some scheduling reasons, and it was very nice to have someone to build something with to present to Paul. I always knew he wanted to use those landscape pieces as transitions from place to place. We kept a file of wonderful landscapes that we would send him and let him choose from, and then narrow down. We had a lot of them, and they were all over the place. Initially, they were going to treat those as something totally separate and just go shoot those as they needed that. They did some of that, but a lot of it was on land that we were using. Because we were in New Mexico and not Texas, we had to choose carefully and focus on that landscape to feel like you had a journey from start to finish. We tried to find the different looks of Texas as best we could in New Mexico. It starts greener and lusher and gets harsher, then goes to farmland. I wasn’t quite sure how they were going to use all of them, but that was always the conversation as we chose towns. What are the connecting points? I worked in theater on Broadway once and was told that all you do is you design all the transitions. The scenes will take care of themselves, but you have to figure out how you’re getting to A and B. That was a great piece of advice.

Q: These sunsets felt so historical. It made me think how great it must have been to live during this era. Sure, there was lawlessness, but look at these landscapes!

A: No indoor bathrooms, though. But the landscapes were stunning.

Q: How did you come on board this project and were you already familiar with the novel?

A: I had not read the novel when I got it. I came on to it by way of Playtone because I’ve worked with them. They did John Adams when I was the supervising art director on that, and then they did Greyhound, and they were also involved on another HBO project that I did that ended up not being made about halfway through. I’ve known them for about ten or fifteen years. They were always incredibly nice to me. They brought me on and introduced me to Greg, and I didn’t know Paul, so that was kind of a new learning experience. It was fun. He’s such a gentleman. It’s easy to get along with him.

Q: What interactions did you have with Tom or Helena Zengel?

A: Tom was doing another film in Albuquerque when I first started, and then he went on vacation to Greece or something, so we didn’t see him very much. What was interesting, and it was probably somewhat with Tom as well, but with Paul, we had to go discuss things since it was a period piece and you had to have things ready. But he really didn’t want to be so familiar with things until he showed up because of his background with documentaries. He enjoyed coming on and discovering it. He would talk to you but didn’t want to come look at it. It was fine, once you knew it. We were lucky that he liked our first set and trusted us from that point on. I’d walk on the set and hear, would David come explain the set to Paul? You’d walk him through it. He liked to react to it with a freshness, and really used everything quite well. He’d walk around and study it. I didn’t have that much of a day-to-day relationship with Tom. We figured out what he had from the beginning, and that’s what he’s got for the whole movie. He’s got a little wagon full of stuff and it never changes. He just loses it as it goes along. The newspapers were probably the biggest thing. Paul’s very particular about those kinds of things, and there were a lot of steps to figuring out those newspapers.

Q: I did think as he was rolling along that you can’t really get a flat tire because there’s no tire, but you could have to push it over a rock and have bullet holes in it. Different advantages and disadvantages of the past, right?

A: Yeah, we built four of those wagons. They really were quite uncomfortable to ride on because it had a spring seat. I heard that after a long take, Tom would go, I’m walking back. He would not ride in that thing – enough of this wagon.

Q: A question I’m sure you receive a lot during this time is about how most audiences won’t experience your work in a theater. How do you feel about this, and is it something that you think will affect the future of cinema?

A: That’s a loaded one. I haven’t seen it on a big screen, just like I haven’t seen Greyhound on a big screen. You are missing a lot by not experiencing those landscapes full-size in front of you. Like with Greyhound, that comes with not seeing all the detail. What works nicely here is that it’s a story between two people. That’s a part of it but you really can focus on the two of them, which is a part you haven’t lost. The sad part is that you don’t get to experience watching it with a lot of other people. I was so happy to see its pace of being kind of slow. Not as a bad thing, but riding that wagon, it’s not a fast journey. I’m so glad that it didn’t feel rushed. You had time to get from place to place, which is something they would have had. As for the future, I don’t know. There is certainly something wonderful about seeing it with other people and at the scale it’s meant to be. Who wants to see this on the back of the airplane seat in front of you? It will be interesting to see what comes out of this. I watched this little video that came out of Spain, which was at Christmas with the Hallelujah chorus that was done in this cathedral. Everyone will know immediately when they see this thing when it was shot because they all have masks done. It was a new way of doing the Hallelujah chorus and it was done in an incredible way that would never have been done if they had been able to have a chorus standing there. They did something that just kind of blew the top off the building. It will be interesting to see what people are able to dream up because of the restrictions. It might make people really consider things. I got a note from one of the studios early on, back in March, when they were trying to figure out what to do, their rules. When we have a crowd scene of over two hundred – and I was like, we ain’t having a crowd scene of over two hundred! You make all the rules you want, it’s not happening. It’s going to be considering how to tell a story. There’s certainly no shortage of good stories that don’t have to have that. You hope people don’t try to do the other thing but embrace what they have to work with. They’ll probably come up with some really exciting pieces.

Q: I see that you worked on a third film that debuted this year at the Venice International Film Festival, The Book of Vision. Is there anything you want to share about that? Presumably that project was a bit smaller scale than both of these?

A: It was over a very long period of time. We prepped, and then there were problems with the cast, so it went off for four months. It was shot in northern Italy and Belgium. It involved two time periods, a modern and period piece, with the same actors playing parts in both and it crisscrossed. It was very interesting, an odd little story but it was fun. When I first got the call, I was like, Rome, I’ll be there, sure, no matter what it is. Incredibly nice people, very good crews, and we really had very little money. What came out was great. Jörg Widmer was the DP who had worked on all of Terrence Malick’s things that I had worked on, and he was great.

Q: Do you have a next project that you’re working on or are hoping to work on?

A: Not yet. I’ve got some family health things with my parents, so I really can’t go. I was kind of waiting to see what these projects brought for me. Hopefully, there will be some interesting offers. I feel incredibly lucky that I’ve had three things this year that were like three pegs of a table. They were so different, and that’s kind of what you hope for all the time. It may have been luck, I don’t know if there was any plan in that, it just kind of happened. But I feel very fortunate that it has happened.

News of the World is currently playing in select theaters and now available on VOD.

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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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