Production design is a somewhat “hidden” element of filmmaking, but it’s one that far too many people take for granted. Everything you see on screen – the location, the sets, the vehicles, the props – were specifically crafted by the film’s production designer and art department, and for films like Interstellar and The Dark Knight that design is an incredibly complicated and challenging process. But of course, that’s why Nathan Crowley is one of the best in the business.
Crowley was recently gracious enough to join me on another installment of our remote interview series Collider Connected to talk about his career and some of the specific designs for some of the films he’s worked on. Crowley has been nominated for five Oscars for his work, and even the first film he ever worked on was massive – Steven Spielberg’s 1991 movie Hook. He has since gone on to become one of Christopher Nolan’s closest collaborators while also working on films as varied as Behind Enemy Lines, Public Enemies, and The Greatest Showman.
Over the course of our hourlong interview, Crowley explained precisely what a production designer does on a film set, and how he became involved in the profession in the first place. He talked at length about his working relationship with Christopher Nolan, walking me through their radical reinvention of Gotham City and various vehicles for The Dark Knight Trilogy as well as the immense challenge of creating the Tesseract for Interstellar, the unique role he had on Dunkirk, and how his early work on the practical effects of Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula came in handy when it came time to tackle magic in The Prestige.
Crowley also talked about the balance between visual effects and practical effects on these various films, as well as the difficult production of John Carter and why he’s still eager to see Andrew Stanton’s sequels (as am I!). He also discussed his work designing the world of Westworld for the HBO series’ pilot and collaborating with Damien Chazelle on First Man – for which he had to figure out how to recreate the surface of the moon in Atlanta, Georgia. And last but not least, he spoke vaguely about Nolan’s highly anticipated film Tenet and how the film serves as culmination of sorts of their efforts thus far.
If you have any interest or fascination with how movies are made, I can’t recommend this interview enough. Crowley sheds an insightful light on a major element of moviemaking that goes far too under-appreciated, and shares some fantastic stories along the way.
Check out the full interview in the video above, and see below for a list of what we discussed.
- What is the role of a production designer on set?
- How did he become a production designer? Talks about first wanting to be an architect.
- His first movie experience working on Hook with Steven Spielberg.
- Insomnia and his first impression of Christopher Nolan.
- Talks about how Nolan always has the script in place early on and how they work together to figure out the look of a film.
- Batman Begins and creating a radically new take on Batman. Explains how they started by designing the Batmobile.
- The origins of Nolan’s famous “garage” where he and his collaborators design the worlds of his films in the early days of development.
- The Dark Knight and moving into a more modernist design by filming in Chicago. Goes in-depth on the creation of the Batpod and tells a great story about building a full-scale model with Nolan.
- How the films in between the Batman movies helped Crowley and Nolan evolve their approach to making movies.
- The epic scope of The Dark Knight Rises and why they finally shot in New York.
- Why The Prestige is one of Crowley’s favorite films. Explains how working on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula greatly informed his approach to the practical effects of The Prestige.
- Talks about creating the flying vehicle The Bat for The Dark Knight Rises and how it’s more practical than you think, and Nolan’s approach to visual effects vs. practical effects.
- The massive challenges they faced on Interstellar, which he describes as the biggest design job he’s ever been involved in.
- Explains how Nolan wanted to tackle the design of the Tesseract in Interstellar on the first day, and it ended up being one of the last things they figured out because it was so complicated.
- Tells a story about trying to find the right place to shoot the water scene for Interstellar.
- John Carter and how the budget constraints reflected in the filming process. Says he wanted them to shoot the whole film in Utah, but instead the soundstage work was done in rainy London.
- Crowley says he still wants to see Andrew Stanton’s sequels to John Carter, which he had worked out already.
- How did he get involved in Westworld and what was it like designing the sets for a pilot? Talks about being excited to design for both a Western and a sci-fi.
- The unique process of designing Dunkirk.
- Working with Damien Chazelle on First Man and how he went about designing the surface of the moon in Atlanta. Also talks about the disappointing reaction to the film.
- Making Tenet, which he says is their first-ever seven-country shoot. He says much like Interstellar, there’s a big element in it that was tough to figure out, and that the “time inversion” effects were all practical.