Nine Production Designer John Myhre: The Eye-Candy Man Can
Production designer John Myhre has two Academy Awards on his (undoubtedly stylish) mantle, both earned for his sumptuous work on Rob Marshall's previous films -- 2002's Chicago and 2005's Memoirs of a Geisha. In the years that followed, he'd envision the sparkling '60s showcases of Bill Condon's Dreamgirls, and the cubicle farms and baroque hitman lairs of Timur Bekmambetov's Wanted. Though it's not due in theaters until the holidays, the accolades have already begun to trickle in for Nine, the all-star Broadway musical adaptation that reunites production designer with the director who twice guided him to gold. We spoke with Myhre shortly after he was named Production Designer of the Year by the Behind the Camera Awards.
I want to start with a question that's probably pretty pedestrian, and that's what is the difference between an art director and a production designer?
A production designer is the head of the department, and they hire art directors underneath them. Art directors tend to be more of the business end of things, and production designers tend to work with the director, coming up with the visual style of the film.
So it's not just a matter of one conceiving the sketches and another executing those sketches?
Not quite. To be honest the real story with this, which is confusing to me too, was that apparently in 1939, when David O. Selznick made Gone with the Wind, he felt that the art director of the film was doing more than what an art director does -- he was really designing the entire film. So he created the term "production design." So the first person to ever get the title was quote unquote the "production designer" of Gone with the Wind, William Cameron Menzies. And since then, it's really kind of picked up and it's become the term of, for want of a better word, the head of the entire art department. But the Academy Awards has never picked up on it, so the Academy Awards goes for Art Direction, but it's the production designer who gets the award, not the art director.
Okay, well that's pretty interesting, then.
I don't know if I've confused you more or answered any questions.
A little of both, but it sounds like it's a confused area.
It's funny because sometimes I find it just easier to say "art director." And people go, "Art director? Oh, okay, I get what that is." If I go to a foreign country, I'll say "art director" at customs because it's so much easier to explain. People don't question, whereas "production designer" seems a little mystical.
For both of your wins, I guessed you in my Oscar pool, so thanks. But I was basically looking at the nominees and going with the one I thought looked prettiest. What are you peers actually looking for that would elevate a well-art-directed movie to the level of an Oscar-winning one?
It's easy in a sense to make pretty looking sets, but what I've always found the most exciting part of my job is, how can I help tell a story through the visuals, through the architecture, through the colors. Is a person lonely because they're in a really small room, or a really big room?
And so you begin by looking at a script scene by scene and determining where it takes place?
Yes. I think I have the best job in the whole world. I wanted to be an architect at one point, I wanted to be a film director at one point. This job combines all those things. So you read the script, and when I read a script I'm really connecting with, I see it visually in my mind. I see the style of architecture, the colors, the furniture, the drapery. Anything that's visual or tangible in the film, I get to be involved with. It's a collaborative effort, so I work very closely with the director, the cinematographer, the costume designer...
Speaking of collaboration, this is your third film with Rob Marshall. I wonder if you could share a bit about how the two of you came together on Chicago, and how your process has evolved through Nine?
Well, he is such a smart, smart, amazing man. He did something really interesting on Chicago, where he cast the crew as critically as he cast the actors and actresses. He took quite a while putting the creative team together. And I think what he was wanting with each person was someone who he really clicked with creatively, and someone who came in and pitched the idea that he had without actually telling them. So he did this with Colleen Atwood, the costume designer, he did this with me, and he did this with Dion Beebe, the cinematographer. And what he ended up with was this group of the three of us who really work together well with him. The four of us are this great team, a strong unit.
Had you come out of a theatrical world?
No. I have never done an actual live Broadway show. That's actually my next goal in life. I've been lucky enough to do a lot of theatrical presentations with his films. I've designed ballet and dance segments. I'm a big fan of live theater, seen a lot of it, and been aware of it all my life. I've looked at it, analyzed it. And the thing with Rob Marshall is that that's where he started, and he's so good at it, and so many of his projects allow us to become a little bit theatrical in that sense. In Chicago, he was trying to move away from theater into film, and I was wanting to move from film to theater. It ended up becoming a really interesting balance.
It really was. The blurring of the lines worked so well. You developed a new language for the movie musical. Nine seems like a direct visual descendant of Chicago, at least from what I've seen in the trailer.
What could be better for people who love film and who love musicals than to do a musical about filmmaking? It's one of these unbelievably crazy, exciting things, to be able to work on a musical with Rob Marshall. But to also work on a dramatic film about filmmakers in Italy in the mid-'60s, and that whole amazing, wonderful, glamorous world of Rome in the mid-'60s. Either one was a winner, and to be able to combine the two was just crazy good.
Of the many striking moments in the trailer, Penélope Cruz's sequence when she's alone in a very pink world stood out to me.
Rob was trying to find a way to introduce her -- whether she came out of a puff of fabric, or a puff of smoke. And he said, "Why doesn't she slide down a drape?" The drape went from being a 12-foot drape, to a 20-foot drape, and ended up being a 45-foot drape that started about 30 feet in the air. So we actually see her sliding very sexily down this beautiful pink velvet drape, and she lands on a round mirror and then dances on top of that. It's really fantastic.
Would you call that one of the showstopping centerpieces of the film?
Well I think Penélope Cruz really made it a showpiece. The funnest thing about working on these musicals is that as a production designer you're really involved all the way through. Rob has this expression: Whoever has the best idea wins. So whether or not the actor comes up with the idea, or a dancer, or I come up with an idea, it's whoever wins. You get to see the whole thing develop. It was so fun watching her learn it, and own it, and then come the day of, and just tear it apart. She was amazing.
There were so many days on set when you just sat there and couldn't believe it. First off, we had Daniel Day-Lewis. And there's Sophia Loren! At one section of the film, all the women in the cast are all together. And I looked over at Rob and said, "I can't believe it!" And he looked over and said, "I can't believe it either."
What influence did Fellini's actual films have on Nine?
The first day there was a lot of talk about Fellini, but then it really became its own film, and the story that was in our script. You can never hope to improve upon [8½]. Certainly the musical was somewhat based on it, but Nine really is its own movie. It's so much more than what was in the musical. It's the story of this director who's the biggest director in the world, who's about to make the biggest film of his career, and he has no idea what it's about. So it's sort of a universal story, not just about film directors, but for anybody who feels lost in their life, or having a mid-life crisis, and how you get through that.
What are you working on next?
I'm actually taking a little time off right now. I went right from Rome and Nine and went to New York to design an exhibit for the Metropolitan Museum of Art called The Model As Muse. I got to design the opening night party, which they call the Party of the Year, for Anna Wintour and Marc Jacobs. It was one of the funnest experiences of my life. We took the Temple of Dendur, which is the Egyptian room at the Met, and we turned it into our version of a really sexy, fun New York nightclub from the '50s or '60s. The idea came from Anna Wintour. In the entryway going up the grand staircase to the exhibit, we put in a zebraskin carpet, 25 feet-across with red on either side. She wanted to make it fun.
With The September Issue, she's become something of a movie star in her own right.
I can't wait to see it. She's so smart, so fast. I was so impressed by her. Something that I always try to do when I work on a movie is that every day, your phone rings 200 times with 200 different -- I never use the term "problems" because then you just kill yourself -- so "situations." The way I always deal with them is to just do it and get it done. And that's what she does. She has this phone with every influential person in the world in it, and she would get an idea and immediately get this unbelievably powerful person on the phone within minutes and just solve it, or make it a million percent better.
Well, thanks so much. It was delightful talking to you. Enjoy your well-deserved break, and we'll be looking for you in February.
Well, you never know. We never even think about those sorts of things! It was probably the most creative experience of my life. Really hard work, really grueling, but when it was over, I was so sad.