After creating Denzel Washington's pig stye apartment for Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate, Kristi Zea made the leap to the world of academia as part of the full-time faculty at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in a dual appointment between the Department of Design for Stage and Film and the Kanbar Institute of Film and Television, Graduate Division. Zea's career, aside from being a production designer, has included gigs as a director, producer, and costume designer. Additional recent production design and second unit directing credits include Red Dragon, Changing Lanes, and Sleepers. She also production designed a number of major films including Beloved (1998), Silence of the Lambs (1991), Philadelphia (1993), Goodfellas (1990), New York Stories (1989), Broadcast News (1987), and The War (1994). Mark A. Newman talked to Zea as she was settling into her new office at NYU.
Entertainment Design: What inspired you to make the jump from film to academia?
Kristi Zea: Actually, there were two very good reasons why. First, I realized that my life was extremely wrapped up in movie making. While I get more and more inspired by working with great directors, at a certain point I realized that it was important to have quality time with my daughter. Secondly, I have an important need to share my knowledge and my abilities with people who are going to take the baton and run with it later. I wanted to make myself available to students who are going to really be interested in learning this craft. I wanted them to have whatever pearls of wisdom that are still on my necklace.
ED: Are you afraid that once you settle in to the hallowed halls of NYU that you might go stir crazy to get back on a movie set?
KZ: One of the things that NYU is adamant about is that I stay active as a professional and that's just fine by me. I am going to design and create this department and then hopefully be able to occasionally take leaves of absence and work in movies because I love making movies. The interesting thing about teaching is that it revitalizes my enthusiasm for what I do. I honest to God believe that people don't understand how important production design is to a film. It's all about the actors, director, and occasionally the cinematographer gets a pat on the back. The validity and importance of production designers cannot be underestimated. NYU is the only school in the country that has a profoundly important film school, and for them to have a Production Design Department that functions on a three-year basis, out of which you come away with a production design degree, is vital. Luckily the school is on board with that, too. It's a win/win situation and I couldn't be happier about it.
ED: Tell me more about the department you are heading up.
KZ: Basically, I am under the wing of the Department of Design for Film and Theatre. Eventually, if we can get the appropriate funding, we hope to create a Department of Production Design. I'm acting as a bridge between the film and design departments and it's a wonderful thing, because I am enthusiastic and intrigued by both areas. Up until now [the two departments have] existed beside each other, but they haven't had too much contact except in an informal way, but there was no vast curriculum to endorse this kind of relationship. Production design does that.
ED: How long are they planning for this to take place?
KZ: The initial appointment is for a year. After which time if we're all happy with each other — me with them and them with me — it will be a five-year appointment. As I get this out into the film world ether and let everybody know that this is happening, I am hopeful that funding will come to NYU, specifically to continue and to enlarge this department. There are courses that design students can take when they first come in that are good for either film or theatre. After a year of study, they should be able to make a distinction as to whether they want to study production design or theatre design. At a certain point things do change and you need to learn things specific to the film world that you wouldn't necessarily need if you were designing for the theatre.
ED: What kinds of classes will you be teaching?
KZ: One of the courses I'm doing now is to get the students to collaborate with each other. There are two collaborative film courses they'll be taking, one of which (Production Design Collaboration I) is where they work with a cinematographer, a director, a production designer, and a costume designer and take a short story and break it down and the students will come up with all the visual elements and work together as a team to create what the visual tone and look of the film should be. It's everything up to, but not including, filming.
The second semester (Production Design Collaboration II) will have the students shoot a 10-minute movie with real actors and real locations, sets, props, and everything else. Again, they'll be working with a similar team and we'll also pull sound people in. It's like creating a soup with all these elements that exist already in the school but up until this point haven't been able to function as a whole.
I'm really excited about this because it will give everyone an incredible experience, also hopefully at the end of the day they will have a body of work they can show to people. The idea is they will be able to take the work that they have done at school and show what they are capable of doing. I have fantasies that the union will come on board and bless this as a means by which they can have an apprentice program, because the students will have the kind of experience that bona fide production designers are going to want to have around them.
It's really a way to enforce, not just professional, but to learn how to design as well. It's a great thing that it's in a school environment rather than on the gritty streets of New York and that the students have the freedom to fail and a lot of chances to experiment without anybody holding a gun to their head saying, “Thou shalt not spend a dime.” It gives them the opportunity to understand the craft and to design, and once they're out in the world, they have more confidence being able to take a script and come up with proposals and ideas that directors will be able to respond to.
ED: In your mind, what exactly is a film production designer?
KZ: Dante Spinotti, a very fine cinematographer once said to me, “I am nothing unless there's something to light.” He can light actors of course, but he needs to be able to light sets and the story that the sets tell. Production design is the visual translation of a story. It's a vital art form and it's a collaboration.
ED: Why do you think production design is given the short shrift?
KZ: I don't know. It really mystifies me. Probably because good production design is very subtle and should support the movie as opposed to overshadow it. I think good costume design is the same. Good costume design is organic to the piece, as is good cinematography. Anything that suddenly sticks out at you, and you think “the costumes were great” or “the costumes were terrible.” When that takes over, then it's not very good because it draws attention to itself and it doesn't support the piece.
ED: What are the differences between designing for film and designing for the theatre?
KZ: Theatre design is a lot more obvious because audiences walk into a theatre, which is a big black box, and they're going to respond to something they see visually. Often, you see the set long before the actors come out onto it. In a sense, the design and the set are the first thing they see after music or lighting. [In theatre, it's] a lot more important to set the tone, but when you watch a movie you're getting everything at once. The camera selects what you're going to see. When you sit in a theatre, the audience sees what it wants to see. You're in the space that the designer has created for you, but in a film the camera is finding stuff for you. You're in a different kind of relationship with your audience.
ED: How important is production design for the actors?
KZ: Actors need to understand the space they're in as much as they need to understand the clothes they have on because it helps them understand who they are.
I just had a wonderful experience with Denzel Washington in The Manchurian Candidate. His character is a very fastidious and straightforward major who has this terrible problem that he cannot forget what happened to him in the war. When he and I sat and talked, I thought his apartment would be Spartan, pristine, and monastic, and he said maybe not; that the character is so incredibly screwed up he can't hold anything together. He can barely put on his uniform in the morning and I thought, “Wow! That's fantastic.” So instead of Spartan, his apartment looks like the Collier mansion where he can barely hold on to his sanity. There are piles of newspapers he's never thrown out. Nothing is neat because that's where he's coming from and that kind of informs his character. He helped me inform what his space should look like. It was a great collaboration.
ED: What's scarier: Hannibal Lechter or a classroom full of eager NYU students?
KZ: Hannibal Lechter is a pussycat! I am welcoming the challenge. I am hoping the students can come up with more fantastic stuff than even I can imagine!