Research into the look of department stores in the 1950s helped set the stage… (Phil Bray / The Weinstein…)
Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" is set in a richly colored, Todd-AO widescreen-feeling America circa 1950, boldly ascending from the horrors of World War II without yet comprehending the trauma incurred. It's a sometimes squeaky-clean surface under which lurks the "animal" nature that the charismatic philosophical leader known as Master (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) decries, especially in protégé Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a troubled Navy veteran. Production designers Jack Fisk and David Crank agree that the key to bringing that era to life in a way that served the story was to keep it out of the museum.
"Sometimes I think period films become too precious," says Fisk. "Even in the cinematography, they'll add a little sepia. … Everything [in such designs] is from a very tight range, five years or something. In reality, you go into your backyard, you'll see a swing set from 20 years ago. I've got wallpaper in my house that's 30 years old. Our lives are spread out over a lifetime, and they're not that specific. For me and David, [the trick is] to make these things look lived in or have the choices come from some character."
Crank adds, "Our marching orders were to constantly simplify. It was to take out what was precious. It was like walking through your house and everything's all there, and it doesn't look frozen."
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Persuasive detail is present in the clothes, the haircuts, even the faces plucked by the casting department; the film was shot on rare 65-millimeter stock (think "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "My Fair Lady"). Yet the look of "The Master" doesn't seem stylized or self-conscious; rather, it achieves an effortlessly immersive feeling aided by personal detail.
"In that department store scene [in which Quell works as a portrait photographer] was a picture of my mother on the wall — as a bride from the '40s," says Fisk. "It was hand-colored and had some beautiful turquoise and blues. Little things like that will help. The yellow backdrop — it brought you back to, 'Oh, this is the time of Kodachrome film.'
"We had a great research book on department stores, written in the '40s. We were stunned they used corrugated plastic, they used big graphics, they had recessed lighting, all sorts of contemporary feels, because you had the best interior designers working on them."
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"The department store was challenging because it was halfway through the schedule, so it came down to the wire and we didn't have a lot of money left," says Crank, who has worked with Fisk since Terrence Malick's 2005 "The New World." When Fisk points out that the other two major movies this year with dual designers, "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Cloud Atlas," had average budgets about six times their film's $32 million, Crank adds with a laugh, "We had a very small army behind us."
They scouted locations on the fly at times, switching sets for a hotel scene reshoot overnight and faking a school in Berkeley for England. "The school was kind of run down," says Fisk. "Paul didn't want it to look too successful; the next step in Master's career. When I saw that big window and the paint peeling off the walls and stuff, I got so excited. Three days later, we were shooting."
Fisk says, "Of all the films I've done, I'm really proud of this one. I thought the design didn't take away from the story. It seemed to all work together. A lot of times, I'll look at a film I've done and cringe." Both men laugh. "You get excited about a scene looking good; you cringe at the ones that look bad. It's like reading a bad review; they seem much more important than the good reviews."
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