In an industry in which people routinely scramble for work, movie production designer Henry Bumstead has never had to worry about his next paycheck. In fact, during his 63-year career, Bumstead has never been laid off. "I have never been fired," he says matter-of-factly. "I attribute it all to the fact that I have worked with good scripts and good directors and good actors and actresses. I have been lucky."
"Bummy," as he is known in Hollywood, is still going strong at 87, thanks in no small part to his ongoing relationship with actor-director-producer Clint Eastwood. Bumstead first met Eastwood on the 1972 western "Joe Kidd," directed by John Sturges. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and prolific working relationship.
They have collaborated on "High Plains Drifter" (1972); "Unforgiven" (1992), for which he received an Oscar nomination; "A Perfect World" (1993); "The Stars Fell on Henrietta" (1995), which Eastwood produced but didn't direct; "Absolute Power" (1997); "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (1997); "True Crime" (1999); "Space Cowboys" (2000); and Eastwood's latest film, "Blood Work," which opens today.
Eastwood says there was a near 20-year span between "High Plains Drifter" and "Unforgiven" because Bumstead was tied up working with directors Alfred Hitchcock and George Roy Hill on various projects. "Finally, when those guys all retired, I got him back," Eastwood says. "I love to see a guy his age having so much fun working."
Bumstead returns the compliment--in his own no-frills way.
"I have worked with Hitchcock, George Roy Hill, [Martin] Scorsese and Billy Wilder, but Clint has taken the bull out of making films," says Bumstead, relaxing recently in the living room of his comfortable home in San Marino. "He could keep doing Dirty Harry and westerns and just go right along, but he tries everything."
"I tell him how I kind of see things," Eastwood explains. "But I tell him go ahead and he will show me things along the way. In fact, he'll want to show me more things than I want to see. But when you have good people like that, you can trust them to deliver. 'Unforgiven' was fun because he got to build a town from scratch. We scouted it together from a helicopter and found a place in Alberta [Canada] that we liked and he just built it."
Considering his stature in the business, Bumstead is remarkably down-to-earth and unpretentious. A tall bear of a man, he has been slowed down a bit by having both knees replaced with metal implants, but he doesn't call attention to it. According to Eastwood, he is easily embarrassed when any fuss is made about him on the set. "When I say things like, 'Bumstead, will you just tell me where you want the camera and I'll just go ahead and do it?' He'll go, 'Aw, all right.' He gets all bashful and red."
Bumstead has a cameo of sorts in "Blood Work" that will no doubt make him cringe. It's in the form of a painting of Bumstead that adorns the wall of a police station. "That wasn't his idea," Eastwood says. "The art department did it as a joke but I went ahead and used it."
Pleased With Ship Set
In "Blood Work," based on the thriller by former Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Connelly, Eastwood plays an FBI agent forced into retirement after suffering a heart attack while pursuing a serial killer. Two months after he gets a heart transplant, though, he's back on the trail.
"Blood Work" was shot in and around Los Angeles and Long Beach. Bumstead is especially proud of the elaborate interior he built for an old ship at Long Beach Harbor that is the setting for the movie's action-packed finale.
"We built this fantastic interior set of the boat with the engine room flooded with water," he says enthusiastically. "That was a big set and I got to do some wonderful aging. I love aging. I am a stickler for aging--the rust and the dirt. It was just a beautiful set."
Bumstead's work isn't flashy and never intrudes on a story. But his designs are such an integral part of a film, they become characters in and of themselves. For example, would "Unforgiven" have been as effective without Bumstead's spare but evocative designs of Eastwood's desolate, claustrophobic house or the rough-and-tumble frontier town?
Nominated for four Academy Awards, Bumstead has won Oscars for his haunting depiction of 1930s rural Alabama in "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962) and for bringing to vibrant life the colorful underbelly of Depression-era Chicago in "The Sting" (1973).
Jack De Govia, president of the Art Directors Guild--the terms art director and production designer are essentially interchangeable and often the two will work together on a project--praises the "marvelous ease" of Bumstead's designs.