Color Commentary: Naomi Shohan

American Beauty is ravashing in red, but it's the blues that make it pop. Production designer Naomi Shohan discusses her work on iconic films. 

As the production designer on such visually distinctive films as American BeautyConstantine and I Am Legend, Naomi Shohan’s work affects audiences on many levels, from the emotional to the intellectual.

Shohan had aspirations of becoming a painter when she won a scholarship to the California Institute of the Arts at the age of 16. The school, though, had no interest in old-fashioned art. It was all about avant-garde conceptualism. “My first day at Cal Arts I went looking for where the live nude models were, and they sort of laughed at me,” says Shohan. So she dropped out, took a job making holograms in San Francisco, and for a while studied philosophy at Stony Brook in New York. Then, pretty much by happenstance, she wound up a production designer—a career that she loves. 

This year, Shohan lends her talents to A Winter’s Tale, again teaming with director Akiva Goldsman, and the film adaptation of the ‘80s crime drama The Equalizer, directed by Antoine Fuqua.

Get In Media: How did you first get into production design?

Naomi Shohan: I had a boyfriend who was directing an exercise video—a post-apocalyptic exercise video. And I made post-apocalyptic sets where rocket ships crashed through the ceiling with vines and crap growing all over them. And at one point I thought, I could really do this. It was called The BodySculpture System, and I have no idea if it was ever distributed. The boyfriend ran off with the choreographer, leaving me with my copy of the tape and a cockroach-infested apartment. So I brought the tape around and let everyone know I was the art director and that’s how I got my start.

At the time there were a lot of nonunion, extremely low-budget productions, and if you were willing to work, they were willing to exploit you and call you a production designer. After a few of those, I got a job at HBO that was a little more legitimate. I started as a set decorator, and in the middle the production designer was unable to complete the job, so I did it. After that, I began to get work that was much better than the earlier, straight-to-video in Saudi Arabia stuff.

GIM: Production design might be one of the least understood jobs in film. Can you tell us what it entails?

NS: Basically, the production designer is responsible—either independently or collaboratively with the director, depending on how much input the director likes to have—for basically everything in front of the camera that’s not an actor.

GIM: What’s the first thing you do at the start of a job?

NS: Well, first you read the script, and you can’t help seeing things a certain way. Me, I think about the quality of the project, what the genre is, how I want the audience to receive the material. Off the top, I usually have an impression of what that is. Then I’ll analyze it a little bit more and figure out what I need to do to make the various beats of the story play as well as they can. There’s a big component of script analysis and a visual interpretation of that.

Then you have a conversation with the director, and if you and the director feel like you’re in sync about what this thing is you’re making together, you get the job.

GIM: In that conversation, do you talk specifics like color palette and sets?

NS: I may have an idea about that, but my first impressions are usually more abstract. The directors often want you to tell them what color things are, but in the beginning I don’t like to tell them because that usually evolves. I try to be as general and theatrically descriptive as I can without getting extremely specific from the get-go. I like to work off of the tone and atmosphere and the beats because it’s going to take me awhile to crystalize it into something real.

GIM: How did the visual concept for American Beauty evolve?

NS: American Beauty actually did start with a color conversation, and the conversation was that the colors should be cool except for the roses and ultimately the blood. I very consciously went with a blue palette because blues just pop the reds really well. We have the roses at the beginning of the movie and we have Annette Bening in a red dress and we have the red door on the house. And, of course, the falling petals.

I think I got the job when they asked me how I would do the petals falling from the ceiling. I just sort of went the Ray Harryhausen way, where I didn’t say, “Oh, visual effects. I said “We’ll build the ceiling on the floor, she’ll lie down and we’ll drop the petals then reverse the film.” And that’s exactly what we did.

Finally, we have Kevin Spacey’s blood on the table. So it’s kind of a progression of red that was bracketed and highlighted by the coolness of blue.

Blue is also a color we would use to describe some sort of idea of middle class perfection. The point of the story, it seemed to me, was that Annette Bening’s character is striving very hard to live the American dream. She’s got the perfect American house and everything is perfect. So coolness was also a good device because it’s distancing. Even though you’re inside the characters, there’s sort of an analytical, “looking at” quality to it, and coolness serves that.

Another thing I discussed with Sam Mendes [the director] was symmetry, which is also a good device to describe the stricture of her idea of perfection. For the house, Sam wanted to see classic Georgian, center-entrance architecture, and we looked all over Hancock Park [a section of Los Angeles with stately old homes]. Then one day I realized the house is not a Hancock Park house, where it’s genuinely gracious. This is a contractor’s version of a Hancock Park house. And then we found the right one—the brand new, striving-real-hard-for-the-American-Dream version of a Hancock Park house. Those were some of the elements that defined the design in that movie.

American Beauty house

GIM: Constantine has a completely different kind of emotional atmosphere. How did you achieve that? 

NS: I read a lot of the Constantine comic books, and what I really loved about them was that the character is kind of this slacker dude who really would prefer not to be bothered by the spirits. So even though he performs heroically, he’d rather not and he does it really grudgingly. I found that incredibly charming.

In the comic book he lives in London [in the film it’s Los Angeles]. It’s very grungy and the city is real, but what’s going on is supernatural. So what I discussed with Francis Lawrence, the director, was how do you create that combination of gritty reality and comic book edge. Francis is a very visual director and has a very strong graphic sensibility. So he would take a lot of photographs of places and you’d immediately get the vibe he’s after.

You know, there are aspects of a real city that can be surreal in comparison with the city as people imagine it. When you say New York City or Los Angeles, there’s its general public persona, but there are also all these marginal places. You can drive around LA and see these crazy things that you can’t believe. Like this little corner with a house that had turrets and a mariachi place underneath and a great view of the city. Those kinds of places were really interesting to explore for Constantine.

Constantine apartment

There was also a description of where Constantine lives—a long, long, long place over a bowling alley. We chose a bowling alley downtown and his apartment is designed to belong to that building. And there’s a thing in the script where he opens all the blinds at once and closes all the blinds at once, so having a long row of windows was really important. And one night I was thinking about the crucial moment when I had to define the colors, and it seemed to me it should be green. It’s a rich, luscious green, sometimes seen as a primer for steel in old buildings. It makes things fanciful, credible, but not quite normal. Imagine Constantine’s apartment with any other color in place of green and you’ll see what I mean. 

There’s also a scene where they wanted to go behind the bowling alley and see the machines working. But when you actually go behind an alley, the machines are in these enclosed boxes and you can’t see anything. So I put in a bunch of mechanical stuff that looks like the things that move the pins. And there’s somebody who has a lair at the end of the bowling alley, this guy who’s a magical-potion maker. Well, in this bowling alley there was a handyman room, and the handyman had shelves on which he had hung jars by their lids. I thought that looked really, really cool. So after Constantine and the girl, Keanu Reeves and Rachel Weisz, run down the row of these Edward Scissorhands-y objects that are supposed to be the bowling lane machinery, they come to the lair and the ceiling is totally covered with these jars with glowing stuff in them, red, green and gold, and it looks just great.

Constantine Bowling Alley

GIM: Can you tell us a little about the various stages you go through in the production design process?

NS: It’s partly logistical. If you know what’s going to be filmed first, then you work in that order. Or else you work with the most challenging. Then you kind of put a little fun into it, do a bunch of sketches, and work out floor plans.

Every set starts with a ground plan because you want to understand the geography of the scene. You want to know how people are going to be moving around. You’re also imagining the lighting. Is it evenly lit? Is it a shadowy room? What’s the emotional quality of the light? Then you might have conversations with the director of photography to make sure your idea coincides with theirs. But you’ve got to build lighting in.

The next thing that’s going to happen is that I’m going to have a set designer. I’ll tell them the architectural particulars and a plan of the area and thumbnail that out. And I’m going to have illustrators and I’m going to show them my thumbnail sketches, and if I can I’ll find some photos or painting references to give them an idea of how I want the place lit, in addition to whatever description I might give verbally.

The set designer does the actual set drawings. That’s a very detailed process. It’s sort of involved. You work in quarter-inch, and when you’re satisfied with the details, you go ahead with the working drawings, which are a little bit larger and have all of the details like window jambs, masonry, those kinds of things.

After that, you’re going to discuss it with the director, and you’re going to say, “Does this geography work for you?” Then you give as many set drawings as you’ve developed to the illustrator, who can take them and draw the set, sometimes in three dimensions.

At this point the people who are financing a movie want to know what it looks like. No one wants to put down zillions of dollars without knowing what they’re getting. And they’re completely right. So the director is going to present these drawings to the studio. When they approve them, you can go ahead and build.

Once we’re building, my role is to make sure all the details come together. I make sure the place or the set has the feeling and conveys the atmosphere that I understood it needed to have. You try not to make changes because they’re expensive. And for me, because I do love paint, painting is what brings it to life.

GIM: How do you use paint?

NS: We always paint with an eggshell so that we can put a glaze on. You don’t just paint it and leave it. In American Beauty there’s not a lot of variation, and to your eye it’s going to look pretty flat, but it’s going to look flat in a way that the director of photography can light it for atmosphere. Without that you’re just dead. The whole thing just lies there.

Constantine had layers and layers and layers of paint, and then a glaze, and then something to make it look like there were underpainted layers, and then more glaze. That gives a very different atmosphere. It becomes very rich and dense. There are all kinds of degrees of painting and all of it changes, really subtly, the way the light behaves and the way an audience is going to see it.

The word I keep coming back to is atmosphere. You want to have the physical reaction that you’re looking for. In American Beauty, it’s kind of a constrained reaction. And in Constantine it’s a kind of mysterious reaction. It’s an emotional reaction that comes from analysis. So when I walk onto the set, until I have that reaction I’m still painting. When it feels that way to me, then we’re done.

GIM: How would someone just out of school go about becoming a production designer? 

NS: If you want to be a production designer, you should see how the department works, so it wouldn’t hurt to be a production assistant. It’s an inglorious job because you have to do things like get lunch. But the ones who are really smart and great, you give them interesting work to do, like research and other things that aren’t regulated by a union. And you can find out from that whether you really want to be a part of this or not.

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