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Dante Ferretti’s Designing Dreams

Dante Ferretti’s Designing Dreams

Articles - Directing

Francesca LoSchiavo and Dante Ferretti have
collaborated on eight films.

Dante Ferretti designed his first picture, Pier Paolo
Pasolini’s Medea, more than 30 years ago. A fan of the movies since
childhood, Ferretti zeroed in on production design as a career at
the tender age of 12. “I went to see movies every day,” he recalls.
“Normally, when you are young, you want to be an actor. I never
sought that. I always loved period films like Hercules, Ben-Hur
and Cleopatra; those kinds of movies. One day I discovered the word
“scenographer” and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do’. Then
I went to fine arts school and became a designer quite easily from
there. I was very lucky.”

With good preparation comes good luck. In addition
to studying fine arts, Ferretti also received a degree in architecture.
Not long out of school, he landed work as an assistant on Pasolini’s
The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, eventually designing five
films for the director. A celebrated master of the cinema, Pasolini
was one of two great influences on Ferretti’s career.

“I have two mentors: Pasolini and Fellini.
Pasolini was more poetic; he created a kind of poetic reality. From
Fellini I learned more about design. He always created his world
from his dreams. Everything had to be a little bit big with him—never
to scale; always a little bigger. He taught me to think big.”

Working from that foundation of informed fantasy,
Ferretti, a six-time Oscar nominee, has gone on to create worlds
that stand side by side with the epoch dreamscapes of Walter L.
Hall (Intolerance), William Cameron Menzies (Gone With The Wind)
and Cedric Gibbons (Julius Caesar), all legendary craftsmen who,
like Ferretti, learned to make sets that tell a story on par with
the script. Ferretti builds set pieces not just within which a story
can unfold, but which, as he puts it, “function on a parallel with
the story”. “There is an important relationship between the story,
the actors and the set,” adds accomplished set decorator Francesca
LoSchiavo, Ferretti’s wife and longtime collaborator, and four-time
Oscar nominee herself. “The set and set dressings have to be part
of the story.” Ferretti’s creations whisper a tale about the film’s
characters and their world, illustrating character and story without
stepping in front of an actor’s performance.

His work with Federico Fellini, for whom he crafted
four pictures, reached dreamy heights with And the Ship Sails On.
After completing work on Fellini’s Ginger and Fred in 1986, Ferretti’s
career took flight beyond his home base in Italy. First came Jean-Jacques
Annaud’s The Name of the Rose, for which he materialized a medieval
universe of impeccable authenticity. From there Ferretti crossed
into the fantasy of Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,
Franco Zeffirelli’s Hamlet, Neil Jordan’s gothic Interview With
the Vampire, the urbane splendor of Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black
and Julie Taymor’s groundbreaking Titus. It was during this international
phase that Ferretti began his ongoing collaboration with Martin
Scorsese, for whom he has designed The Age of Innocence, Casino,
Kundun, Bringing Out The Dead and, most recently, Gangs of New York.

Recently completing production on Anthony Minghella’s
Cold Mountain, for which he rebuilt a piece of Civil War-era North
Carolina in Transylvania, Ferretti and LoSchiavo chatted with MM
at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences, where an
exhibition of Ferretti’s work was on display. The exhibit was the
brainchild of Cinecittá Holdings, the parent company of Cinecittá
Studios in Rome, where the designer has made nearly all of his pictures.
It was there that 19th century New York City was recently built
from the ground up for 21st century audiences.

Dante Ferretti’s design
filmography includes The Age of Innocence(1993); Titus (1999); Kundun (1997); and The Name of the Rose (1986).

Phillip Williams (MM): How did
both of you become involved with
Gangs of New York?

Dante Ferretti (DF): This is my fifth
movie with Martin [Scorsese]; for Francesca, the second one. She
did Kundun. We love Martin; we love to work with him. With Gangs of New York, we built everything from scratch—in this
case, in the studio.

MM: On a soundstage in Italy.

DF: On a soundstage and on the back lot.

We built three distinct neighborhoods, plus a section of lower Broadway
in downtown, plus the harbor and ships—built full-size. All the
interiors too, of course. All built in Rome.

MM: Why build everything in the studio?

DF: Money. Nothing actually remains in New
York from the period.

Francesca LoSchiavo (FL): We would
have had to recreate everything in New York in any case.

DF: Exactly. It would have been the same thing.
We thought of Canada, but it was too cold. Then we thought of England,
but England was too expensive. So we thought, why not Rome? Rome
is a beautiful city, Cinecittá is a great studio and we’re
Italian and like working in Italy. [laughing]

MM: I would have thought that Italy would
be an expensive place to shoot.

DF: It’s expensive compared to Romania, but
not compared to England or the United States. Anyway, Francesca
and I built everything from scratch.

MM: Francesca, can you describe your role
in relation to what Dante is doing as the production designer?

FL: First off, when Dante starts a new movie,
he begins by making a series of sketches. Once I can get a sense
of what his vision for the film is, I can begin to see the film
for myself. At that point, for me, it’s very important to understand
that I am between Dante and the director: there is Dante’s vision,
and the director’s. Obviously I have to be very close to the director.
I have to understand what the director wants from me and at the
same time I have to grasp Dante’s concepts thoroughly.

Once I have a sense of what the overall vision for
the film is, I can begin the research. That is extremely important.
We have to recreate a new world—a new reality—every time we make
a picture. Only through proper research is that possible. That’s
my fundamental approach to my job.

MM: When you are doing research, obviously
you might go to libraries. But when you’ve reached the end of what
they can provide, where do you go? Don’t you find, with a book,
that sometimes a historian’s knowledge may have certain limitations,
but you sense that there is something more?

Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002)

FL: Exactly!

DF: The most important thing for a production
designer is to understand the period. When you really understand
the period, you can do everything you want. It’s just like today.
Most of us think in a certain fashion; it was the same in the past.
When you understand the period, you can work inside the period.

Of course you don’t just utilize the designs of the
period itself. You can also draw on what was created before that
period as well. You can go back, but never ahead, in that sense.

I always do a great deal of research in order to
recreate a particular world. Once I’ve done that research and it’s
stored in my brain, then I start to design the vision myself, with
some freedom. I don’t want to copy; I want to be part of the period.
In order to be part of the period, I must understand the period.

If I want to recreate a section of a particular street,
I could easily take illustrations of the street and copy them exactly,
but I’d rather put something of myself into the work.

MM: What was the era you had to recreate
Gangs of New York?

DF: The era was 1840 to 1861, but I did a lot
of research about the New York that existed before that time. The
story takes place in the mid-1800s, but New York had already existed
for over 100 years at that point—and before that it was New Amsterdam.
So I looked from 1861 to the very beginning of New York history,
when New York was born.

MM: Like an archeologist.

DF: Like an archeologist. We rebuilt an area
called Five Points, where the story takes place. In that instance
we were quite precise in recreating what had been.

MM: You wanted to duplicate what existed?

DF: Yes, though none of it exists anymore.

It was completely gone by 1947, when the entire area was taken down
and new buildings were put up. I did my research and we were precise
about the layout of the square and so forth… Then, using pictures
from Jacob Riis and other photographers and painters and engravings
and what I had read, we put them all together and built this neighborhood.

After Francesca had dressed everything, Luc Sante,
the writer [of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York],
came to visit the set and said that we had achieved the exact feeling
and sense of place needed for this film. Francesca did an incredible
job with all the set dressing.

MM: Francesca, when does your actual
physical work begin on the production?

FL: For me it’s a little different… I am
similar [to Dante] in the sense that I don’t like to copy what I
get from the research exactly.

But I have to do what the movie—the director—asks.
I start by building all the furniture, the tapestries. I work closely
with my assistant, with a small crew of people, because as you can
understand, it takes quite a lot to undertake one of these movie
projects. I dress all the interiors, but also all the exteriors.

I have to personalize the environments, all the details. With this
kind of movie it’s a huge job.

MM: How do you use the set to tell the story?
The Age of Innocence, for example, when we see Winona
Ryder’s character, there will invariably be a palm tree behind her,
or some type of garden atmosphere surrounding her.

I assume there were some design elements being consciously applied
to her character in that instance. Did you work in that way on

FL: Absolutely. There is an important relationship
between the story, the actors and the set. The dressing has to be
part of the story.

DF: The set—the design—functions on a parallel
with the story.

MM: Will the environments change as the
story moves forward; as the characters change and grow?

FL: Absolutely.

MM: Will you redress a room as a character
evolves over the course of a film?

FL: Absolutely. I encountered the need for
this on Cold Mountain, because the same space encounters
a range of situations. Nicole Kidman’s room, for example, changes
over time; she has many sad moments in the story, so the dressing
becomes different over the course of the film. It reflects her sadness,

For Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name
of the Rose
, Ferretti had to build everything from scratch.

MM: Might you, for example, use the same
chair but redo that chair in some way?

FL: No, no. I use the same pieces, but I will
move everything around within the environment. I remove some elements;
I move them around. Sometimes I’ll ask the painters for different
patterns, perhaps. But definitely the sets have to change in order
to follow the story.

MM: In Gangs would you, for example,
have certain colors assigned to specific characters?

FL: No.

DF: But in Gangs of New York we did
establish this kind of visual difference between the different layers
of society. The colors we used for the people who lived in Five
Points were very flat. When you see the upper classes, the colors
are different; the color is more alive. With the use of color, you
can give a feeling of how the people live. So in a sense, colorful
people are represented with more color; the poor people in the film
are more gray. That was the only difference created with color.

MM: How did you relate to color on Kundun?

DF: Kundun was of course full of color.
The colors themselves were very rich; it’s part of the Tibetan tradition.
What we did is actually pull the colors back a bit, because otherwise
we felt they would be too strong. We made it a bit less colorful
[than it actually might be].

MM: For The Age of Innocence, the
environments you created were richly dressed with oil paintings…

DF: We used 180 [oil paintings]. We collected
all the painters from the Ashcan School and other schools and assigned
them to each character just to represent who the character was.
So for Mrs. Mingott, her room was full of dogs—only dogs. In the
rest of her house were landscapes from the Hudson River School.
Mrs. Archer was assigned other painters who evoked their own particular
feeling. For Ellen, because she lived in France, she brought with
her French paintings. So we saw the movie through the painters;
it was very important.

MM: When you are working on a film where
there is one main set or key location like the castle in
Hamlet or the monastery in The Name of the Rose, does that represent
a particular design challenge for you? Your set in those instances
is almost like a massive stage.

DF: Yes, when we did The Name of the Rose,
the main set was an interior plaza and the abbey itself—and we built
everything from scratch. We also built all the interiors, including
this library…

MM: The labyrinth!

DF: Yes, and Francesca did all the set dressing.
She designed all the tables, furniture, everything you see, even
the books… But this was only one world—the monks’ world. We didn’t
have to jump from one reality to another; we built only one world
for that film. Hamlet was almost the same. We built almost
everything from scratch.

MM: Dante, when you are designing, how much
do you need to know about what the camera will be doing? For example,
if a director is intent on using wide lenses, will that have some
impact on how your set reads?

DF: Hmm… [laughs] This is always a
problem with a director. I like to give the director 360 degrees
[of set] and give him the freedom to do what he wants. Sometimes
the director might ask, ‘What do you think—is it better if I put
my camera here or over there?’ But when you give them 360 degrees,
normally it’s up to them. If the director says ‘I only need this
piece of the set’—two walls or three walls—then I might build a
little less.

Ferretti’s sketch of the ballroom in
Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence.

But I don’t like to dictate to the director what part
of the set to shoot. First of all, I come from another culture—Italy—where
I worked a lot with Fellini and Pasolini. With Fellini, you could
never say where he had to put the camera! [laughs] My hope
is that the audience will get to see what I’ve created, but sometimes
you think you’ve done something beautiful and you end up seeing
very little of it.

MM: If you were talking to someone who is
on the path to becoming a production designer, what do you think
are the most important things to know about set design and set decoration?

DF: Drawing is very important, as is studying
architecture. When you know how to build something well, then you
can employ the fantasy. But you have to know reality first. Fantasy
is optional, but building things correctly is not optional! If you
can combine fantasy with real knowledge of how to build, then you
have something that others may not have. When someone says they
want something from the 16th century, you have to understand how
they did it—then you can use your sense of fantasy.

MM: Francesca, how would that apply to becoming
a set decorator?

FL: You have to immerse yourself in the culture.
You have to know the various periods of design, the schools of painting,
all this stuff. But the most important thing is to have sincerity.
You have to grasp what the director and the production designer
want to show. From there you have to put your heart, your head—everything
you have—into the process. To be a set decorator you have to enter
deeply into the emotional feeling of the story.

You have to put something of yourself, of your own culture, into
the work.

MM: Having worked with Martin Scorsese over
the course of several films now, can you say what makes him unique
as a director? What do you admire about him?

DF: I like Martin even when we are doing nothing
at all. It’s difficult to explain.

Martin has a great vision.

FL: For me, he is a painter. He can make a
painting with a camera; his camera movements are incredible.

DF: He can tell a story like no one else. Using
his camera, he is able to reveal what’s going on inside the brain
of a character. What can I say, he is my hero. (laughs).
His work is never banal, never. MM

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