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Immersed in Movies: Production Designer Dennis Gassner Talks 'Skyfall'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood December 28, 2012 at 2:31PM

One of the great pleasures of doing a Bond movie for Dennis Gassner is that he gets to be 007 before Daniel Craig. On "Quantum of Solace," his first, the Oscar-winning production designer ("Bugsy") created a pattern language based on the actor's blue eyes and craggy face. But on "Skyfall," he went further in shaping the world of Bond...
Skyfall, Bardem

Great production design, of course, is all about detail, and as they a made new discovery, they folded it in and then mixed it all together like a fine roux. For the Dead City lair of baddie Silva (Javier Bardem) in Macao, Gassner found inspiration in Hashima Island off Japan with its undisturbed concrete buildings. The back story of Silva needing a remote island to repurpose cheap technology into the building of a super computer worked beautifully. "We used [Hashima] to mine lots of visual ideas in building our set," Gassner continues. "We even pulled the effigy of the leader down in the town square."

But things didn't always go according to plan. The modernistic, blue neon-infused look of Shanghai, for instance, wound up being converted into an elaborate set at Pinewood filled with LED screens for the ingenious fight between Bond and Patrice (Ola Rapace) in silhouette. You just couldn't do it on location, so this way Gassner and Deakins constructed and controlled their own environment.

Likewise, there was no way they could pull everything together in one location for the finale in Scotland, when we literally go back in time to reveal Bond's heritage at his family home, the Skyfall Lodge. "The set we designed was a fusion of all the things we liked," Gassner adds. "It was a harsh place against the elements. What does Bond do to fight back? He goes home, back to his deepest instincts, where he's most comfortable. It's a privilege for us to see it."

Bond then buries the past forever and returns to MI6, ready for his next assignment ("With pleasure"). But he's no longer an orphan: he's found an extended family. Gassner, too, has found an extended family with Bond. Indeed, he's been asked by producers Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli to return a third time next year to begin work on "Bond 24," with or without Mendes.

"A film is like a great piece of music and I always use Beethoven's 'Fifth' as an example," Gassner explains. "You start out really strong -- bang! You wake up the audience. Then you nurture them and wind up in a quieter place for the finale.

"But not until this family, have I felt as comfortable as I did when starting out at Zoetrope on 'Apocalypse Now' with Francis [Ford Coppola] and [production designer] Dean Tavoularis. At the end of every Bond film, you come back full circle with M and the next assignment. And that for me is worth showing up for."

Gassner will receive The Cinematic Imagery Award from the Art Directors Guild on February 2, along with fellow Bond production designers Ken Adam, Peter Lamont, and Allan Cameron.

"Skyfall" production design videoblog:

This article is related to: Skyfall, Sam Mendes, Production , Interviews , Features, Immersed In Movies

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.