Growing up in the southernmost tip of Texas, in the Mexican border town of McAllen, I was far from Hollywood. I have a younger brother and sister, and our mom taught fourth grade. Our dad was a farmer, growing cotton, carrots, onions and sugar cane. You can do everything right as a farmer, but some years the weather or the insects don’t cooperate and a farmer loses money, so finances were very tight. But our parents were creative.
Every month, Mom picked up the big end-rolls of paper from the local newspaper so we could draw, and she gave us Sears catalogs that we could cut up for collages. One of my favorite drawings was titled “The Village of Summerville,” which featured little houses raised up on stilts near a lake.
One Christmas, Dad told us our present was in the backyard. My brother, sister and I raced outside to find a huge pile of carrot dirt. This is the soil that clings to the carrots—it gets washed off and piles up in the packing shed.
We stared at our Christmas present: Dirt! Thanks, Dad.
But the carrot dirt turned out to be our most creative present ever. We turned that pile into mountains with tunnels and caves. We made rivers with the garden hose and used sticks and rocks to build houses. We created a whole little world of our own.
At 18 I began studying architecture and was fortunate enough to design many buildings while still in my early twenties. But I wanted to go further. I wanted to create my own special worlds, like I had as a child. I thought that Hollywood would be the place to do that. After working as a production designer and then a director on more than 20 films, I finally got my chance with Red Riding Hood.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s production company, Appian Way, had developed an intriguing script by David Leslie Johnson (Orphan), which expanded the classic fairy tale.
The story is set in a medieval village, and the original fairy tale gave me one key clue as to how the village could look: Red Riding Hood ventures into the dark woods and is saved by a woodcutter. The forest is a key character, which means the look of the woods is essential. So logs became the main building material for the village.
I started researching rustic wooden buildings—log cabins, lodges, etc. Concept artist Kit Stolen and I were brainstorming one day when I remembered a little book on Russian architecture that I’d cherished as a teenager, which included amazing photographs of windmills and farm buildings on stilts.
We suddenly realized that the village architecture should be “fear-based,” meaning that the town’s paranoia would be baked into the architectural DNA. Kit and I ran with this concept.
In the script, the village has been plagued by a wolf for decades, so we decided that the buildings should be built on stilts. On full moon nights the villagers pull up their ladders for protection. Their doors would have heavy wooden bolts and large iron locks. Windows would be surrounded by thick wooden shutters.
We drew ridge poles with carved totems and horned animals to ward off demons. Then came the spikes; ends of logs were carved into sharp points and placed on rooftops. We started to develop a look.
David then incorporated these details into the fabric of the script. I thought the villagers might sacrifice to the wolf to appease its appetite, so I starting drawing designs for a “wolf temple.” This became a key feature in the town—and the story.
As concepts were developed, so was the budget. The biggest question was whether to build the village outside in a beautiful location or in a large soundstage. We were committed to filming in Vancouver, so the search for the best place to film was on.
As a production designer, I had built several outdoor “towns” for movies such as Three Kings, Tombstone and The Newton Boys.
Advantages to filming on location include the presence of real sky and landscapes—360 degrees of them—which create enormous depth. Disadvantages include the long-distance driving required to reach a remote location without power lines and modern buildings in the background, expensive night lighting/shooting costs and lack of control over the weather.
In our story, there are many big night scenes, as the werewolf only comes out at night. Also, almost every scene is in the snow, but we were filming in the summer. Everything pointed to building the village on a soundstage, but the largest stage in Vancouver was rented to another studio.
There were two decent-sized stages available, right next door to each other. But the whole village, with connected interior sets and space for horses and a carriage, could not fit on one stage. Originally I tried to convince the facility to cut a door between the two stages, but then I came to embrace the idea of two stages. We could build half the village on each stage and find a clever way to connect them. With a sound barrier between them, we could shoot on stage one while the art department was re-dressing or building a new set on stage two.
We created a covered passageway between the two stages and used a green screen when the characters walked between the two different neighborhoods on the two different stages.
A revised script, a set of concept drawings and a budget were presented to the studio. The film was greenlit, we set up offices in Vancouver and a production designer, Tom Sanders, was hired. Tom was the production designer on Braveheart and Apocalypto and was nominated for Academy Awards for Saving Private Ryan and Dracula.
Working with the art department, Tom dove into the preliminary village concept and expanded it. He started making his famous “hands-on” models with sticks, twigs and stones.
Every time I visited Tom, he’d be creating some crazy new spike design (and have two or three new stitches in his hand). He and his team found that the most economical way to build our town was to use real lumber, much of it culled from lumber affected by a beetle infestation, so the set was environmentally sound, too. The real logs gave an incredible sense of texture, weight and even smell.
After the set was nearly finished and we finally put the snow on the ground and brought the actors in, I stopped and took a breath: The world really had started to come alive. It felt full, dimensional and unique. After a life of dreaming, drawing and building little villages in carrot dirt, I finally got to build one full size.