Production designers are the unsung heroes of creating cinematic universes.
We talk a lot about worldbuilding from a writing and directing standpoint, but I don’t think we often delve into who actually builds the worlds when we get to the set. There are carpenters, painters, decorators, and lots of creative people coming together to execute.
But above them all is the production designer.
The production designer is the head of the art department. They oversee the fashioning and creation of aesthetics and the execution of those things on every location.
On a movie the size of Batman Begins, the production designer oversees all of the builds, from the sweeping sets of Wayne Manor to the gadgets and gizmos used by the guy who lives below that house.
The production designer of all three Nolan-Batman movies was Nathan Crowley.
Crowley is widely respected as one of the best in the biz. He first worked with Nolan on Insomnia and then got brought back for a little movie called Batman Begins. Here’s how Crowley remembers the pitch.
“I went around to his house for lunch and Chris started talking about how he wanted to remake Batman, and at the time it was like, ‘Wow, hasn’t everything been done?’ And then he started explaining to me what he wanted to do. I remember after that lunch he got me very excited, and he was saying one of the biggest things he wanted to try and do was redesign the Batmobile.”
That’s a pretty shocking thing to see as you walk in the door but it was just the right thing to get Crowley interested.
Like any great artist, his first instinct was to go hands-on.
“It was a Friday, I went away and I went down to Toys R Us and bought a bunch of vehicles (laughs). I went over to my workshop and cut everything up and smashed them up. We talked about mashing up a Lamborghini with a Humvee, and so I thought, ‘Well let’s just start somewhere.’ So I smashed this thing together and I left it on his doorstep on a Monday morning. He called me and he said, ‘Get in here, let’s convert my two-car garage into a workshop art department and figure out how we’re gonna do this film.”
This immense challenge and success brought him back for all those films. And when it came time for the sequels, he knew he would have to step up his game.
“For me – I don’t think this is true for Chris – The Dark Knight is actually the Batman I always wanted to make, but we had to step over Batman Begins to get to it. I am a desperate modernist. I like simplicity. On Batman Begins, I struggled with trying to make sure we didn’t destroy the comic book-ness of what Batman was and we tried to explain everything – there was the cave and Wayne Manor and how that worked and how you got down to it. There was lots of explanation in the design, and I’m grateful for Chris because he burned everything down [at the end of] Batman Begins.”
When you’re working on a movie with that scope, you have to go big or go home.
So much of their time was spent building models and brainstorming that it was hard to keep things secret. Especially with the press and prying eyes. Still, things like the batbike were able to be hidden until the filmmakers were ready to put them on display.
Crowley says, “We were very much in secret building that thing. There was no point in modeling it – we like to use models to play with things. But it was like, ‘We might as well go to Home Depot and buy some parts and build a full-size model.’ So we sort of snuck up to Warner Bros. and nicked the tires off the Batmobile and brought them back to the garage, but we couldn’t tell anyone why we were doing it. These were in the days when I could go into Home Depot with Chris and no one would recognize him… those days have gone, I can’t take him anywhere.”
And it’s not just Batman influencing Batman. Nolan’s other work with Crowley taught them how to continue to broaden their horizons.
“We’ve done these films in between the Batman films…like The Prestige got slotted in there and the was very low budget. We sort of slowly discovered the beauty and the advantage of getting around locations and getting as many as possible. So by the time we get to The Dark Knight Rises, we’re going to like three different countries. And that really expands the scope of the film practically. Obviously we make films practically – we avoid set extensions and as much digital work as possible. Obviously it’s in there because it has to be in there, but we only do it when we have to, and the question of when you have to is different for all people (laughs). For us, it really really has to be an impossibility.”
This kind of work and dedication built those Nolan movies into the behemoths of entertainment we see today and paved a landscape for Crowley to do Interstellar, First Man, Dunkirk, among many other films.
What’s your favorite part of the world Crowley and Nolan built?
Let us know in the comments.