Cannes favourite THE ARTIST has won festival acclaim for its pitch-perfect homage to Hollywood’s silent era. Here, production designer Laurence Bennett reveals the challenges of bringing the film to life, using modern techniques.
As assignments go, production designer Laurence Bennett is not exaggerating when he calls The Artist a “once-in-a-career opportunity”. French-financed, but made in the heart of Hollywood, this homage to the silent era of moviemaking dares to deliver its story of a fading matinee idol without the aid of dialogue or sound. The brainchild of director Michel Hazanavicius, unlike the world of ’60s spy films he recreated in his 2006 spoof OSS 117: Cairo Nest of Spies, this is no mere pastiche. “It’s a love letter to cinema, in its purest form,” says Bennett.
Based in Oregon, Bennett—whose career started in Dublin, when he worked as a stage designer for Neil Jordan—was one of several key US creatives brought on board by Hazanavicius in this unique Franco-American collaboration, and he immediately began to dive into the world of silent movies. “For me, it was really an opportunity to really get to know better the work of people who pioneered the art form,” he says. “And we borrowed freely—I’d like to think in the spirit of respectful admiration. But these people were inventing the language and style of cinema. It’s mind-boggling.”
While Bennett’s most noted film collaborations have come with Paul Haggis on his contemporary-set films Crash, In The Valley of Elah and The Next Three Days, this was his first period movie. Although his knowledge of film from the ’20s was good, it was mainly based around comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. He’d even been to college with the grandson of Roland ‘Rollie’ Totheroh, Chaplin’s cinematographer. “I’d had the chance to look at some of his grandfather’s prints. Chaplin has always been a magical icon. He was so strong.”
When it came to The Artist, however, Bennett relied on his director. “Michel has studied films of that era in great depth. He was a great guide in looking at pictures.” In particular, he steered him towards the films of F.W. Murnau, King Vidor, Fritz Lang—whose 1928 film Spies is a particular influence—and Josef von Sternberg. While the majority of the film was shot on the backlots at Warner Bros. and Paramount, Bennett was able to use the same real-life locations these legendary directors had all filmed on. “Recreating the streets of Los Angeles from the ’20s and ’30s, on the same streets as von Sternberg shot Underworld in 1927, was sort of a chilling and wonderful experience.”
While locations like Hancock Park were used for driving scenes, Bennett was limited, often finding that the streets still featuring architecture of the period were spoilt by great swathes of stucco and neon. It meant Bennett had to work in conjunction with the film’s “phenomenal” visual effects artist, Seif Boutella, who would digitally erase offending elements. “Without him, it would’ve been rather difficult to be recreate this environment,” he says. Like any good production designer, Bennett has no problem with using computer techniques. “It’s another tool, in a toolbox of things we use.”
Fortunately, with the story focusing on silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), it meant much of the film is set in the interior world of movie studios. “Ironically, they had a couple of stages we could use of almost the period we were in, where we did all of the film sets within the film,” says Bennett. With the majority of these “actually rendered in black-and-white”, it meant that the world of the movie sets Valentin was acting on could be differentiated from the 1920s they were recreating.
Then comes the more philosophical question of how a film with virtually no dialogue affects the work of a designer whose skills lie in the visual aspects of filmmaking. Did it change things? “On some levels, no. On other levels, yes,” he answers, rather cryptically, before telling me his job is really about helping find the truth in the story. Still, with the help of graphic artist Martin Charles, Bennett was very closely involved with designing the posters and programmes of the era seen in the film, which included designing the old-school title cards used to convey snatches of dialogue.
In the end, Bennett’s maxim was a simple one: avoid cliché. “The environments needed to be living, believable settings that supported the character and the stories but didn’t distract from them.” Easier said than done, perhaps. So what would he view as clichéd? “You sort of know it when you see it,” he says. “Sometimes we would dress a set and say, ‘That may be accurate but it doesn’t feel right.’ Or, ‘This is not strictly accurate but it feels right.’” Judging by the look of The Artist, they got it spot on. •