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Ferretti's art of creating and re-creating

October 25, 2002|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

As one of cinema's great production designers, Dante Ferretti is a kind of master poet who uses design to create vivid, expressionistic, self-contained worlds. Whether they are whimsical or frightening or somewhere in between, his colorful reel-life universes are always compelling, drawing audiences into strange and beautiful worlds.

For director Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" (1989), he was responsible for the film's surreal, extravagant fairy-tale visions.

For director Neil Jordan's "Interview With the Vampire" (1994), he created the opulent, erotic and violent trappings of a group of sexy vampires.

And in Martin Scorsese's upcoming "Gangs of New York," he re-created Manhattan of the 19th century from scratch at the famed Italian film studio, Cinecitta.

Over the last 30-plus years, the six-time Academy Award nominee has collaborated with such acclaimed filmmakers as Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini. Ferretti fell in love with the design of movies as a youngster. "When you are young and going to see movies, you say normally I want to be an actor, but I liked to see period movies," he recalls. "One day I discovered this world of art director and I said, 'Now I know what I want to do. I want to be a designer.' I was 17 years old. I was very impressed with 'Ben Hur.' "

Now Ferretti is the centerpiece for an exhibit opening today at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Beverly Hills, "Drawing Dreams: Dante Ferretti, Production Designer." A three-week retrospective of his films also begins today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In conjunction with the Ferretti celebration, on Nov. 7 the academy (in collaboration with the Art Directors Guild) will hold a symposium, "Arresting Images," that will look at the history of production design and the challenges faced by designers and art directors. On Nov. 9, the UCLA Film & Television Archive kicks off its own three-week film tribute to production designers, "The Art of Hollywood."

Ferretti will be speaking at LACMA's "Tribute to Dante Ferretti" today and a screening of his 1983 collaboration with Fellini, "And the Ship Sails On," on Saturday.

"I am so pleased and so proud," says Ferretti, 59, speaking by phone from Romania where he is working on Anthony Minghella's adaptation of "Cold Mountain," the bestselling novel about the Civil War. "I am in the middle of Transylvania with the vampires," he says, laughing. "I see Dracula every day. I am with him now!"

Ferretti hasn't been involved in planning the exhibit. "I said I don't want to know nothing," says Ferretti in his charming accented English. "I give all my sketches, all the models and also some of the costumes I did for 'Kundun' and then I said, 'OK. Now it is up to you. I want to come the day before and just be surprised.' "

The academy is collaborating with Cinecitta on the exhibit and screening. "We have worked with Cinecitta on a number of things over the years," says Ellen Harrington, the academy's exhibition curator and special events programmer. "Every once in while we do exhibitions on production designers. Part of what the gallery's job is to get around to all of the 15 branches of the academy and try to do programming that relates to the different branches."

Ferretti, says Harrington, is an exceptional artist -- a designer who does his own production design sketches. "A lot of people these days aren't necessarily fine artists even though they are in production design. They work on computers or they use illustrators. Dante Ferretti is a really sort of old-fashioned Renaissance man from Rome. He is very skilled in architecture and design and construction."

The exhibition is high-tech and interactive. "It is obviously centered around the original artwork, but there are scale models and film clips and projections," Harrington says.

Though the exhibition in the grand lobby will be on the traditional side, the fourth-floor gallery has been turned into a black box with video hanging projections. "A lot of the artwork is actually going to be mounted and hung off of our open-grid hanging system in the ceiling," Harrington says. "The Tribute to Dante Ferretti" at LACMA tonight will feature clips from several of his films including "Age of Innocence," "Meet Joe Black," "Kundun" and "Titus." Miramax also is producing a mini documentary on his work on "Gangs of New York" for the evening. Besides "And the Ship Sails On," the retrospective includes Pasolini's "Arabian Nights" on next Friday, Scorsese's "Kundun" on Nov. 2, Jean-Jacques Annaud's "The Name of the Rose" on Nov. 8 and "Baron Munchausen" on Nov. 9. The prints of "And the Ship Sails On" and "Baron Munchausen" are new.

When he was 18, Ferretti started to work and study at Cinecitta. He got his first break as a production designer on Pasolini's 1970 film "Medea," with Maria Callas. He made five movies with Pasolini and then collaborated with Fellini on the master director's last five films.

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