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Designer Genes

Designer Genes

Articles - Directing

Gary Wissner

I’ve been working as a production
designer on various shorts and feature films in Vancouver since
1996. Prior to my professional career, I studied film and theater
arts at two prominent local institutions. During this four-year
period of film analysis and production, not even one day of instruction
focused on the role of the production designer-remarkable, considering
the production designer is one of the three most influential contributors
to the look of a film (along with the director and cinematographer).
Setting out to research literature devoted to this "mysterious" art,
I found very few textbooks, articles or interviews. Two very good
texts are By Design by Vincent LoBrutto [LoBrutto contributed MovieMaker‘s
recent cover story on Stanley Kubrick-ed.] and Production Design
in Contemporary American Film, by Beverly Heisner. To this day,
though, I am amazed at how few People actually know what a production
designer really does. Clearly, fledgling designers need more resources
and words of wisdom. At only 34 years old, Gary Wissner has already
amassed an impressive slate of production design credits including
Last Man Standing, I Know What You Did Last Summer and 8MM.
He has also art directed films such as Hoffa, Wyatt Earp and
the brilliant Se7en. I had the good fortune of speaking
with Wissner in Vancouver where he was designing his latest film, Detox,
starring Sylvester Stallone. He most impressed me with the confidence
and focus he brings to his work.

Tony Devenyi (MM): When did you know you wanted
to be a production designer?

Gary Wissner (GW): (Originally) I’d hoped to work
on Broadway; to increase the likeli­hood of that, I wanted to be
a scenic designer. So in 1982, I went to NYU to study theater.
It wasn’t until the last year that I started taking some film classes
and getting involved in film production and commercials. Film was
a small division within the dramatic theater school. You study
acting and lighting production, but mainly for theater. NYU is
very strict in their foundation teaching of theater design, art
history, drawing, painting, figure drawing, etc. They give you
that great basis.

MM: Have you gone back to theater
or are you just working in film now?

GM: I moved to L.A. in 1987, a year after
I graduated from NYU, and L.A. is not really a theater place, so
I got right into drafting for commercials and film. My first job
was the Country Music Awards. I was drafting for 600 bucks a week
for this guy right in his living room. I remember almost blowing
the whole experience because I spilled all my airbrush paint on
his carpet, right below my drafting table, then stepped in it and,
without knowing it, walked through his living room (big laugh).

Millenium (1999)

MM: You seemed to have advanced fairly
quickly.

GM: Yes, I guess so. I never really considered
myself ambitious or driven. But I think in Hollywood it’s not just
about talent, it’s about how you can work with people, how you
can get along with people and how you interact with your crew.
I was really lucky-I set out to try to work as an assistant with
the biggest designers I could. I searched out Ida Random, Joe Nemec,
the huge designers. I really learned so much from them. (Nemec)
really took me under his wing. I art directed and assisted him
for many years. Then I did two shows with Random and she was really
involved with paint technique. It was very different from Joe.
Joe was technically oriented and had art directed a lot of high-budget
hardware movies himself. I just looked at these designers and emulated
them and eventually really worked well with their crews and met
a lot of great Hollywood talent. A lot of those guys 1 use now,
like my scenic artist and my construction coordinator. It just
happened. It was strange… I kind of feel like I had two breaks
in design. One was when I was the art director on Another 48
Hours
.  The producer on it went on to direct a Stephen King
film (Graveyard Shift). It was a smaller film He liked my
work on Another 48 Hours and asked me, "Do you want
to design this?" I was glad he did that, but I wasn’t happy
with advancing that quickly. I wanted to get better as an art director
because it was still interesting. I knew that I wasn’t going to
be happy those types of horror movies, but it fell into my lap.
It was a great experience, but I needed a couple more years of
the biggest films I could do as an art director. So I did films
as an art director (Hoffa, Wyatt Earp, Junior, Se7en),
which gave me a wider range of experience, and I got a lot better
at it.

Then I felt,” I’m done with art dire that was essentially
it. Se7en was my last one it was an excellent way to end
a career in art direction. And Se7en led to Last Man
Standing
because it was the same studio (New Line).

MM: I just watched Last Man
Standing and  found your attention to detail to be amazing.

GM: I had the best time on that. Can you imagine
designing a 1931 period piece gangster epic?

Nicolas Cage in 8MM

MM: Huge budget?

GM: New Line produced it, so it wasn’t quite
as huge a budget as you might think. It wasn’t like, "Here’s
all the money, go ahead." They had Walter Hill. They had the
huge star of course, Bruce Willis, for $16 million, I would guess.
So it was probably around $50-­$60 mullion.

MM: Did you build the whole town?

GM: There were a couple of towns- we did two
makeovers-one of which was the old Silverado Town in Santa Fe which
I had already done on Wyatt Earp with Ida Random. So I knew
that town really well. But you always update. We had to repaint
every­thing, add all this detail and redress it. And the other
one was Melody Range, which was Gene Autry’s old TV studio. It
was a mess, so we basically spent $1 million on it. We refaced
everything, built new buildings and hotels and put this black-and-white
look on everything, trying to suck the color out of the whole town.
We also built five soundstages worth of sets. El Paso was the home
of the big desert sequence; that was a complete build.

MM: You seem to design mainly dramas.

GM: You know, it hasn’t happened on purpose.
I haven’t decided,"I’m only going to have movies or thrillers
with heavy dark looks on my resume." My wife, and my coor­dinator,
Tembra, ask about that all the time: "Why don’t you do a romantic
comedy?" Or just something lighter so I’m not doing the same
thing over and over. Eventually the subject matter gets to you.
I do research all the time and right now we’re researching crime
scene photos with peoples’ heads blown off to match the blood in
this character’s living room. You know it’s only a movie, but you
keep doing it year after year, and you want a change sometimes
just to do something a little different. I guess Hollywood looks
at your resume and says "you would be good for this certain
kind of movie."

MM: Do they tend to pigeon-hole you?

GM: Yes. There are designers that only do
comedies or wacky stuff like Romy and Michelle’s High School
Reunion
. And there are people who only do action movies, Armageddon-type
movies, and they won’t get called for other kinds. We were joking
about this with the last DP that I worked with. He was doing a
lot of pizza commercials and he tried to get a hamburger commercial,
and they said: "You can’t shoot hamburgers. You’re a pizza
specialist." (laughs) I think that some­body who looks at
my resume and sees Last Man Standing, Se7en, 8MM
I’m not sure if consciously they would say he can’t do My Fair
Lady
, for example. If you’re good, you can design anything.
Look at the greats like Bo Welch [see interview this issue, pg.
46-ed.], Dick Sylbert and those guys.

Top: A black-and-white sketch which Wissner
usses before color renderings and models are created and sets
are built… all in consultation with the director. Below:
The final product, Last Man Standing (1996).

MM: So what are your major influences?
You’re obviously interested in painting. [Wissner had painted
five large canvases during his few months designing
Detox,
now called
The Outpost, in Vancouver-ed.]

GM:Yes, I love sculpture and painting. Rodin.
Francis Bacon. I have a really painterly style, so I work closely
with the scenic artists. But I haven’t looked to any other movie
designer’s work and tried to reflect it. I’ve always just tried
to do it on my own. If there’s any heavy painting research that
I do, it’s always been classical. I won’t go back 20 years and
look at a film designed by someone else and try to emulate that.

MM: But when you work on a film such as Last
Man Standing, wouldn’t you want to look at every western ever
made?

GM: No, I didn’t look at a lot of westerns.
I looked at a couple of old spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone,
just because we were doing a remake. (Like Leone’s A Fist Full
of Dollars
, Last Man Standing was a remake of Kurosawa
Yojimbo
.) So I wanted to get the essence of what those films
were about. But when you look at the old spaghetti westerns, they
actu­ally didn’t have much of a stylized theatrical look at all.
I did try to re-invent the genre a bit and not just go for the
typical western look, with the same geometry, styles, colors and
architecture. I think that’s boring. In some ways Wild Wild
West
(designed by Bo Welch) has reinvented the western totally.
And that’s where I think the designers really shine and take a
genre that’s been done to death. You can do it the way it’s always
been done, or you can just go for it. That’s what we tried to do
on Last Man Standing. But you have to have a DP and director
who are into that.

MM: There was one particular shot in Last
Man Standing-the dinner scene where they’re all having pasta
on silver trays… It was so unusual and beautiful…

GM: Yes, that was a great idea, thanks. I
was lucky to work with a couple of great, promi­nent decorators
for the last few years. Gary Fettis has had a couple of nominations
for movies like the Godfather III, Apocalypse Now
So as a young designer, I try to surround( myself with good people.
I can’t do it on my own. They make you look good (laugh).

MM: What is your relationship like with
set decorators?

GM: I’m very hands on. It depends on the(
decorator, too. The decorator I’m working with now is kind of an
up-and-comer an( younger, and doing an excellent job. I’ll give
him the set for a day or two, after a lot of dis­cussions about
color, texture, form and design.

MM: Do you give him detailed illustrations?

GM: I’ll do conceptual boards of the sets
really early on, which have everything from research to fabric
samples to colors. Things I can talk about with the director to
indicate, "Here’s general overall world this character inhabits.’
They’re big collages. And from then on I gel more specific, going
into detail and making illustrations. Everybody in my department
has copies of all the concept boards. We’ll be able to pull a color
or texture from the original concept board throughout the course
of the film, which is the only way I can work, because if I don’t
have an overall theme from the beginning, I’m making it up as I
go along. I have to have a foundation.

MM: It helps you make decisions in the
future. There has to be a spine.

GM: Yes. You can never think of everything
that’s going to happen through the course of the film. New sets
get added. Scripts change. So if you have a new bedroom set, or
a new exterior building that pops up in a rewrite, you can pull
from your original concept of color, architecture, style, geom­etry
and it will fit right in.

MM: Obviously cinematographers are key
ele­ments. How do you discuss the look with them?

GM: Often the DP is not yet on (the pro­duction)
really, so that’s unfortunate. I cover myself a lot. I design a
lot of lighting into the sets, and I think that comes from my theater
background. It’s nice when a DP comes on set and says something
like, "Oh this guy is really into lighting." It’s not
that he doesn’t have to light the set, but it’s motivated. The
practicals are in the right place and it helps him tremendously,
which only makes my sets look better. In this film, Dean Semler
arrived late because he was on another picture and we didn’t have
the money to start him soon enough. But I’ve been lucky in that
every DP I’ve worked with has just been into the practicals. I
just put them in. If he doesn’t like one, he just turns it off.
At least it’s there to start with.

MM: How much have you had to fight over
things like the color of a shade or the size of a lamp?

GM: Innately, I think I know what makes a
good-looking set, so I don’t approach it as a fight. If I’m fighting
with the DP or the director or the costume designer for a look,
then we’re already starting on different pages. If I’m just doing
what I know is right for the look of the set, they’re just going
to follow my footsteps. If I put a lamp shade on a desk lamp, I
don’t necessarily have three more to change to when the DP complains.
I say, "That’s the one. If you don’t like it you can take
it out." But the lamp shade with the wrong lamp base is not
good design for me. Just to do what a DP or camera operator wants
in terms of composition or lighting… it’s not my style. I’m not
there 24 hours a day on the set saying, "We’re going to move
stuff around to fill the frame the way they want to fill it." Through
the course of the film they come to respect that the sets are a
piece of sculpture that aren’t supposed to be changed when the
camera arrives. I have the director backing me up on that, because
he’s an artist. On this film, too, he (Jim Gillespie) is into the
sets. I’ve had a relationship with him from other movies, (I Know
Mat You Did Last Summer) so he trusts me.

Wyatt Earp (1994)

MM: You mentioned that you’re very "hands-on." How
much time do you spend on set?

GM: I’ll open every new set and I try to bring
a director in the weekend before, or a couple of hours before,
to walk through it. Then I kind of hang around for the first shot.
I can’t spend 12 hours a day there. But I check in all the time
for other elements that have to do with the look, like a certain
carpet that has a blood stain on it. How big is the blood stain?
What color is the blood stain? How deep a red is it? Or whatever.
So I’m always interacting. Lately though, I’m doing less and less,
because I used to want to control everything by showing up on the
set and not having anybody touch any of my stuff unless I was there.
But you have to let your team make your set look better.

MM: With your team, do you do a "show
and tell" (present your design concepts) for them?

GM: I actually don’t do that, because I’m
assuming that the on-set dresser knows exactly what he’s supposed
to do without me telling him. If he doesn’t do that, then I find
a new on-set dresser, because that’s part of the reason why he’s
there, to preserve the look. But there’s the fine line of preserving
the look and changing something. I’ve had nightmares where on-set
dressers and standby painters are at the whim of the DP, because
DPs are like gods. DPs have attempted to repaint sets when I wasn’t
there, because they just haven’t figured out how to light it. Once,
I came on to a set where there was a big piece of machinery that
filled the set. It was a huge, monstrous, belt-driven, cotton-shredding
machine. It looked like the DP had dipped the whole thing in talcum
powder. It had all this white flaky shit on it. It didn’t look
mean  or menacing, it looked terrible. I went to the director and
DP and said,” You’re going to wind-up re-shooting this once you
see it in the dailies." So we shut the unit down and I brought
my painters in and we repainted the piece of equipment while everybody
on set stood by waiting. I think that was a case of the DP panicking.
Somebody was trying to get a reflection off a piece of equipment
without calling me or trying to get my help, but ended up doing
something that just got him deeper and deeper into shit. He is
trying to make it work, and he’s on the front fines and everybody
is waiting. I was a fresh eye coming in to say, "This is ridiculous.
This is a major set piece." So, I have no problem shutting
down a movie or shutting down a unit if there is something wrong.

MM: What’s your philosophy of production
design?

GM: I don’t look at it as architecture. I
look at it more as fantasy. It’s not realty. I don’t think people
go to movies just to see stuff that they have in their real lives,
especially when it comes to a look, environ­ment or setting. I
really try to design something that people will want to be in or
want to see again. Something they haven’t seen before. So even
if it is a straight drama based in realty, there is always a twist
that I put on it, especially with color and texture.

MM: To heighten it?

GM: Yes. Something to either motivate the
characters or something that comes from the characters. I try to
assign themes to the dif­ferent acts of the film. I treat it as
piece of theater. I don’t come from architecture. I know a lot
of designers who do, which is fine for their careers and that’s
how they approach their production design. I know architecture.
I’ve studied architecture. I’ve studied the details. It’s not like
I don’t know which cornice should go in what period building. But
to me that’s not what movies are about. I don’t even care about
that, because I know what looks good in my sets and what works
for the script. I never follow rules of engi­neering and architecture
because in film there are no rules. And the people who take chances,
the filmmakers who take chances all the time, are the ones I respect.

MM: What do you do when you first get the
script?

GM: The first time I get the script is usually
when I’m trying to get the job or someone is trying to hire me,
so I just try to find out if I’m interested in what’s going on
with the look or in the story. You know right away. I kind of read
it quick and then I’ll break it down right away. I decide if this
is some­thing I can bring myself to, my style and my whole way
of working. I see who the players are, too, because when you get
a script you already know who the director is, who the producer
is and maybe who the star is. "Could this be a very interesting
experience for maybe six months or a year of my life?" If
I get the job, I will of course read it again with the intention
of asking questions of the director. I write down questions and
try to come up with the first instinctive ideas of characters in
this environment. What does it look like? What does it feel like?
I give the director a mushy conceptual. It’s kind of like "design
speak"(laugh). Eventually, as the movie progresses, you begin
to get more structured and more detailed. You work on construction
documents and get specific. Then, nine months later, I always try
to bring that back to the director and say, "Remember when
we talked about this slash of red that was supposed to be in this
black satin? We’re still doing it," because he forgets.

MM: Do you also think of design from the
point of view of a filmmaker? Taking into consideration the different
lenses, camera movements, etc.?

GM: Yes, and usually the director will tell
me, "This is the shot that I want for this scene." So
you’re always designing for the shot, not just designing a set
that looks cool as a sculpture or as painting. You’re listening
to what the director’s point of view is. Detox is at, anamorphic
movie, so the ceilings are 10 percent lower than they would be
in real life. It forces the camera down and just expands the scene.
I will design sets that will almost force the camera to be in a
certain space because I start from a certain point of view or vision
of what looks best.

MM: So that’s how you would present your
drawings to the director?

GM: Yes, I sit with an illustrator and we
do sketches. From those black-and-white sketches I do models and,
if I have time, get into some really beautiful color renderings
that get distributed to every­body, the costume designer, the prop
man, etc. I try to hold onto the concep­tual boards within my own
department, m with the decorator, because they have specific fabric
samples on them, wallpapers and things like that. So it’s a whole
process, which is great because by the end of the movie, looking
back on what you did nine months ago, all the stages of work, it’s
fasci­nating. I’ll also try to have the color script, act one to
act three, in my office showing the director the progression of
how things will change or stay the same. So you can walk in and
see it all in continuity, from swatches to samples, a sketch next
to a sample, next to a color swatch and so on.

MM: Do you ever discuss your designs with
the actors, as far as what they see for their characters?

GM: If your sets are good, the actors are
appreciative because it just makes their job easier. But, conceptually,
I don’t talk to them at all, they’re not even involved. The director’s
the thing with me. He’s the one who hired me. He’s the one I’m
loyal to. He and I have a distinct vision and have had the conversations
no one else has had.

MM: Obviously there are different types
of direc­tors. Some know exactly what they want. Others just
say, "Give me a room, or a bar…"

GM: Yes, everybody likes to think that they
know what they want. Directors don’t start by saying, "Do
whatever you want.  "They’ll think they know what they want,
but they fre­quently don’t. That’s why they hired you. Certain
directors, more than others, are really specific about color: "This
is the red part of

the script. This is the horizontal part of the script.
This is the white part of the script," while some younger
ones have no clue that you can even think that way. I don’t know
if I like working one way better than the other way. Sometimes
I don’t agree with the director who knows exactly what he wants,
but you have to do it anyway because he is the director. So you
say, "It really would look better red than blue," and
he says, "No, I want it blue!" I never fight with a director,
because when you’re fighting a director you’re shooting yourself
in the foot. If you’re having a fit with the director then you
haven’t done your homework with him. And if everybody is hearing
the fit you’re having with the director, it is really too late.
Have your fits in the first month when you’re talking about what
the concept of the film is. I start with the big picture. I don’t
start with the small details and show them a molding, cornice or
a drape first.  I present the overall idea for the look and say, “This
is what my idea is. Does it fit? Or should we find a whole new
idea?”  And if it fits, then there is no fighting.

MM: How about dealing with the producers?

The Outpost (1999) formerly Detox

GM: I’ve had more problems with producers
than I’ve had with directors, because I think sometimes producers
want to be involved in the creative process and they try to control
it. But ultimately they can’t control the director. At least they
haven’t been able to on any of the movies I have worked on. The
director does what he/she wants to. But the pro­ducers sometimes
think they can control the younger directors, or even the older
direc­tors, by going to the people that the director surrounds
himself with, like production designers and DPs. Producers are
often only thinking about the film from the bottom line. Which
is their job-you respect it. I don’t disregard the bottom line.
l can’t have a reputation of going over budget on every film, because
producers talk. You have to be fiscally responsible without trying
to please all the people all the time.

MM: Would you say that you have developed
a certain style?

GM: Conceptually? Yes, I think so. I’m getting
known for a painterly style. A color style. More so for paint color
and texture than for architecture. I don’t know if I’ve worked
on that. It’s just sort of the way it’s come. I inter­viewed for
a job a month ago and the director asked me, "Remember this
scene in that movie you did? Did you paint this alley?" So
he was really into paint. He noticed the paint in that alley was
different than anything he’d seen before. And, of course, we had
painted that alley. So getting noticed is great. It makes it worth
it.

MM: What are your goals as a designer?

GM: To direct! (laughs).

MM: Seriously?

GM: Yes, I think everybody wants to direct.
l don’t want to direct before I become the kind of designer that
I’m really happy with. I want to reach a pinnacle of design where
I can say, "OK, I’ve reached this level, kind of what I did
in art design." Maybe I’ll direct and go back to design. I
don’t want to say, "Once I direct, I’m going to give up my
design career." I think production design is about directing.
It’s about designing a set that works to enhance the script and
get the actors in the right place. It’s probably the best step­ping
stone to directing, after being a writer. As a crew member, I think
it is better than being a director of photography because you are
involved with the process much earlier. And a designer who ultimately
becomes a director, like Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam, James Cameron…
the movies they do are something you’ve never seen before. Art
directors who become directors, like Hitchcock, who was so into
the art direction, can almost direct from the back seat of a limousine,
because they’re usually so well-prepared.

MM: It’s not just about filming pretty
sets.

GM: Right. Filmmaking is not just about the
sets, its about the story. Design should never overshadow any part
of the story; it should enhance it and be a part of it.

MM: Who are the designers you admire most?

GM: I think now the one I admire the most
is Bo Welch (whose films include Wild Wild West, Men
In Black
, Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands and The
Color Purple
). I think his choices and his wide range of work
are something nobody’s ever seen before.

MM: Would you ever work on a lower budget,
independent film now?

GM: Yes, sure. On lower budget films, I’d
even love to do wardrobe at the same time. Or second-unit directing.
Or do something where you had an opportunity to visually control
more of the look on a smaller film. I don’t just want to do $100
million dollar movies, because you make more money or you have
more money to spend. It’s all about the story. I’ve done pilots,
commercials and $60 million movies and had a great time doing them
all. You find the resources to do what you want, and focus in on
the look.

MM: So what do you see as the future as
far as the use of computers and the digital world? Where sets
don’t actually exist, as in
Star Wars?

GM: Yes, the virtual sets. I think everybody
has a problem with them. I don’t think that they will ever take
of, because I think virtual sets are boring. I just don’t think
that it works for the overall good of the film and I don’t find
them more interesting or better than real sets. Yet I work on a
computer, I visualize sets on programs all the time, I do all the
computer stuff. But it’s only a tool for me and it never replaces
the real thing, the real construction. I don’t think it ever will.
Right now, of course, virtual sets are prohibitively expensive.
I don’t think it works for the actors, either. Some directors who
don’t like armies of crew members and set construction guys around
them might try to control everything through a computer screen.
For me, though, that’s not what filmmaking is all about. It’s not
about a computer program. It’s a film. MM

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