Director Bryan Campbell and production designer Kristen Bonnalie, of the Tribeca-premiering short “Big Boy,” explain how they created the most disgusting onscreen bathroom since 1996’s Trainspotting.
The short “Big Boy” is about a nine-year-old boy who encounters a cast of unsavory characters in a ridiculously gross highway rest stop bathroom. We have had a lot of success with the film and we are always asked how we made the bathroom into the beautiful disaster you see on screen. Below are some tips and tricks we’ve learned throughout our careers that enabled us to create such an amazingly effective set.
Pull Visual References from Real Life
Bryan Campbell (BC): I didn’t waste my time typing wordy documents or giving long-winded explanations to describe the look I wanted to Kristen. I combed the Internet and magazines for images, colors and textures, and took photos of things I found out in the world. First, I pulled specific images of New York subways trains and tunnels from the 1980s. There was a really aggressive, gritty, grimy feel to NYC subways and the style of the graffiti at that time, and I wanted the bathroom to have that same texture. Kristen and I also pulled a lot of images to reference graffiti content. I wanted things that were funny and perverse, not misogynistic or hateful.
Kristen Bonnalie (KB): Words can cause confusion. Images beat words every time. Ultimately, we are creating something for people to watch, so it makes sense to begin the process with visuals. At the beginning, I would take pictures of graffiti while I was out. I also pulled a number of images of just filthy, nasty public restrooms to make sure that we were on the same page about how far to push the gross factor. I think we both pulled some fun glory hole reference images—glory holes cut into stall walls made of metal were downright scary!
Create an Idea Board on Pinterest
BC: Kristen and I used Pinterest to visually communicate all our ideas for the look and feel of the film. We could each post images and comments in real time, allowing us to easily bounce ideas back and forth. Because of the collage-style layout, we had a really clear picture of how all the visual elements tied together as we refined the boards.
KB: It became a digital “lookbook” that I could use to show the rest of my team what we were trying to achieve. It’s important to note, though, that it was the communication enabled by Pinterest that was the key. If you don’t have or don’t like that platform, don’t use it. Just find a way to visually communicate early and often with your director.
Source for the Most Appropriate Materials
BC: We chose to shoot in a bathroom at a local community college, but this particular location posed a number of challenges: Namely, we were not allowed to paint or put graffiti on any walls. Before we locked this location, I had a long conversation with Kristen to figure out if she thought the look I wanted was still going to be possible given our restrictions. She seemed pretty confident in her ability to develop a plan, but I really wasn’t sure how she was going to do it.
KB: I spent over a month in research and development and used my own home as a testing ground. I applied every brand of spray paint on multiple surface types to determine what was going to work for us and what wasn’t. My husband got used to coming home to graffiti spray-painted on the walls, doors, bathroom fixtures and my truck. In the end, we used contact paper to protect the walls and stalls in the bathroom, and then we used water-soluble paints on top of that as a fail-safe, in case anything were to get through the contact paper.
Have a Detailed Plan Ready for the Day
BC: We did three months of pre-production for our two-day shoot. By the time production arrived, the whole crew had a clear understanding of the scope of work, and Kristen and her team were more than ready.
KB: We had 50 hours to prep the bathroom for shooting. My art department team and I started by protecting the surfaces with the contact paper. It takes quite a while to do something like that and so it was all hands on deck. Then, as we got large sections covered, several of my artists broke off and started layering on the graffiti while the others continued applying the contact paper. When all the surfaces were covered, we each rotated through all the materials (markers, stickers, paint), all working simultaneously. I wanted layers of graffiti. I’d even typed out writing prompts for everyone. Once I felt that they had a good start, I began prepping the glory hole wall. I made it out of insulation foam so that I could easily cut the hole into it. After everything was installed, we started to do some more of the “dirty” work. We added the grime using a combination of airbrushed tempura, coffee grounds and baby food. The finishing touch happened when the cast and crew showed up at call. I had a bin of markers and Bryan asked everyone to put their own tag in the bathroom. I think everyone had a great time making a mess.
Show Your Work Off
BC: My girlfriend, Lindsey, suggested I add before-and-after photos of the bathroom to the credits of “Big Boy.” The bathroom is such a strong character in the film and people always have a lot of questions about it when the film is over. The credit sequence is a way to answers those questions and give a nod to the great work Kristen and her team did. I don’t think people always understand the importance or impact of great production design, and this was a way of really bringing that home.
KB: I love that the before and after photos are in there. It’s rare that the opportunity comes along to really push the boundaries like we did. The images are a testament to the work of my team and I like that the audience gets a deeper look into the film. MM
“Big Boy” had its world premiere at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. For more information, visit the film’s official website here.