|Bumstead with MM’s Eric Nazarian|
Everybody calls me Bummy,” chuckles
two-time Academy Award-winning production designer Henry Bumstead (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sting), as he slides into a corner
booth at the Colonial Kitchen in San Marino, California. Fresh off
the set of Clint Eastwood’s thriller Blood Work, based on
the novel by Michael Connelly, Henry is taking the afternoon off
to reflect on his 63-year career that is now just a few films shy
of a hundred.
Born and raised in Ontario, California, Henry found
his way into the motion picture industry via high school football.
He won a scholarship to USC, where his time was divided between
the field and the fine art and architecture department. After a
serious back injury that resulted in a prolonged stay at the Good
Samaritan Hospital in downtown LA, he decided that the time had
come for a serious and less painful education. He quit football
and hit the drafting table. Within a year, he landed his first job
in an industry struggling to shake off the Great Depression.
Over the course of the afternoon, Henry shared his
memories, spanning from the Depression-era Hollywood where he started
his apprenticeship with legendary art director Hans Dreier (Sunset
Boulevard) to his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, George
Roy Hill, Clint Eastwood and Martin Scorsese, among countless others.
The Early Years
I finished my sophomore year at USC and got a call
to go work at RKO as an apprentice draftsman at $35 a week. In those
days, there were about 80 art directors in town; now there are over
800. It was during the height of the Depression. Life was tough.
People were struggling I guess I got lucky.
The following summer I got a call to go work at
Paramount for $35 a week. That was when I made the decision to make
movies my life. I was working with Hans Dreier, who came to Hollywood
from UFA with Ernst Lubitsch and Marlene Dietrich. One of the first
and maybe the most important lessons I learned during that period
in my career came from Dreier, who was the head of the art department.
One day he walked into my office, briefly looked over my sketches,
nodded his head and said “Ah ha! The character who inhabits that
room must be a very learned man.” Then he walked away. I didn’t
know what he meant, so I went back to the script, re-read it and
shook my head because the main character was anything but an educated
|Production designer Henry Bumstead discussese
a sketch with director Alfred Hitchcock.
When I looked at my drawing, I realized that I
had designed the main character’s house with more bookcases than
you would find in most people’s homes. The bulb went on and I realized
my first lesson: design sets that are livable for the specific type
of people who inhabit them and don’t try to show every trick you
From 1937 until the break of World War II, Henry
worked as a draftsman, sketch artist, model maker and assistant
art director. After the war, he returned to Paramount and worked
as an art director on several films, including Anthony Mann’s The
Furies, Mark Robson’s The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Nicholas Ray’s Run
for Cover and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo,
for which he received his first Academy Award nomination.
Hitch was very conscious of the everyday little
details of a character’s life. I didn’t stack bookcases in Jimmy
Stewart’s apartment with encyclopedias or books because he was a
cop, not a reader. [laughs]
I’d pick the locations, take photos, get Hitch’s
approval, then design and build the sets. Nowadays, the half-hour
photo labs help art directors a lot because we can take all these
pictures of a location and show them to the director on the same
I did four films with Hitch: The Man Who Knew
Too Much, Vertigo, Topaz, and Family Plot. We’d [shoot]
from 9:00 in the morning until 5:30 p.m.—never later than that,
especially on his last film. Hitch knew what he was shooting so
well that he never looked through the camera—and most of the time
sat in his chair looking terribly bored. He resented the fact that
it took so long for the cameraman to light the set. One day on the
set of Vertigo I noticed that he was frowning so I walked
up to him and said ‘Hitch, what’s wrong?’ He slowly turned his head
toward me and said “Nah-thing I’m thinking about my next picture
because this is terribly boring.”
During the actors’ strike in 1960, Henry left Paramount
for Universal. He was scheduled to go to Africa with Howard Hawks
to make Hatari for Paramount, but persistent back problems and a
four-picture deal with Universal, which had signed with the actors
persuaded him to leave.
“I really would have liked to work with John
Wayne, but I just couldn’t see myself riding across the African
terrain with my bad back. Shortly after I signed with Universal,
they sent me to Italy with Robert Mulligan to do Come September
with Bobby Darin, Gina Lollobrigida and Rock Hudson.”
Come September led to three back-to-back films with
Mulligan including To Kill a Mockingbird, for which Henry was awarded
the first of two Oscars for Best Production Design.
Friends and Favorite Films: Eight with George
I was vacationing in Oregon when I got a call from
Alexander Golitsen, then head of the art department at Universal
and co-art director on To Kill a Mockingbird. He said that
George Roy Hill wanted to meet with me regarding a film adaptation
of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I bought the book,
read it, flew down to LA and met with George. He hired me and the
next thing you know, we were scouting locations across Romania,
Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It was a tough movie to
make, but George is one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.
I’ve done eight pictures with him because he realizes what a good
art director can add to a picture. When we started filming The
Sting, I suggested that we do the whole picture in browns and
sepias that would evoke that vintage 1920s smoky, backroom feel.
George and the great cameraman Bob Surtees liked the idea, so we
did it. Well, that film got me my second Oscar.
|Top: Bumstead won his first Oscar for To
Kill a Mockingbird (1962), starring Gregory Peck and Mary
Badham. Below: Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) marked Bumstead’s
first of eight films with director George Roy Hill.
Remaking Cape Fear with Martin Scorsese
Everybody loves working with Marty—he’s an encyclopedia
of film. When my agent called me and said that Martin Scorsese wanted
me for a film, I automatically thought that he wanted to interview me for the job. “No” my agent said, “he wants you.'”I said, ‘Well
I can’t understand it. He’s a great New York filmmaker. Doesn’t
he use New York people all the time?’ My agent said “no” with an
exclamation, so I immediately agreed and went to work. We shot in
Ft. Lauderdale; that was another great experience. Marty remembered
films and people I’d worked with that I’d forgotten! We had a marvelous
cameraman, Freddie Francis from England. As I remember it, it was
the first time Marty used matte shots. We built a huge stage for
the ending with dump tanks, hoses, gimbals and everything under
Ten and Counting with Clint
I had the same relationship with George Roy Hill
that I now have with Clint Eastwood. What I love about Clint Eastwood
is that he has taken all the BS out of making pictures. Clint has
branched out and done difficult films over the course of his career.
He’s one of those directors who really understands that the set
is a character in a film.
The first picture I did with him was Joe Kidd (1972), directed by John Sturges. We built sets in the high Sierras
and in Tucson, Arizona, where the train runs into the saloon at
the end. Clint liked what I did on Joe Kidd and years later
hired me to do Unforgiven. Unforgiven was a very rushed
production; we scouted and picked the location for Big Whiskey in
Calgary, Canada in one day. What helped me the most was designing
a simple and uncomplicated period set—no Victorian gingerbread and
no big mirror behind the bar with a nude woman centerpiece.
I made the drawings in LA, flew to the location
and built the set in 36 days with a lot of good help. The only person
I took with me was my painter, Doug Wilson, who has worked with
me since 1960. It was another one of my favorite experiences. On Space Cowboys, we built the flight deck and mid-deck of a
space shuttle. I was knee-deep in computers with help from my young
In Blood Work, Clint’s character lives on-board
a boat. I thought it would be marvelous to have the boat down by
the Queen Mary. That way, the audiences from the midwest that haven’t
traveled out to California would get a kick out of seeing the Queen
Mary in the background. That was the main location we picked.
The big challenge on Blood Work was building
the interior of an old freighter where most of the action takes
place, aging it down and filling the engine room with water for
the climax. I really enjoyed the fact that we shot the whole movie
around town so I could go home every night and sleep in my own bed.
I’m 87, you know. It’s nice to have everything local.
Even at this old age, my interest and love for
a project is what keeps me going. Otherwise, I wouldn’t do another
film. In a nutshell, my job is to break down the script, find the
best possible locations, make a budget and design the appropriate
sets that correspond to the story. By the way, I don’t work on a
computer because I’m from the old school. I prefer designing by
pencil rather than computer. However, I realize that young art directors
need to know how to design with computers.
Between films, Henry teaches production design at
the American Film Institute. In recent years, he has received many
lifetime achievement awards from various schools, film festivals
and universities. Film scholars and documentary moviemakers continue
to study his contributions to 63 years—and counting— of American
Up next, Henry will be in Boston shooting Mystic River
with Clint Eastwood, marking their eleventh collaboration.
I’m very happy. Nobody could’ve had more fun than
I had. I’ve seen the world first-class and worked with lots of talented
and wonderful people. Sometimes I wake up in the night and just
can’t believe that I’ve been able to raise four kids, send them
all to universities and, at the same time, been so lucky to do what
I’ve always loved to do. It’s been a great life every minute of
Eric Nazarian is a moviemaker and photojournalist
based in Los Angeles. He is currently making a post-war drama in
Armenia and the U.S.