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Houses in Motion: Production Designer Rick Carter on The Fabelmans

The back of a young boy's head with brown hair is turned toward an elderly man wearing a white shirt with pinstripes and a brown sweater vest. They are sitting at a dining table during dinnertime.Gabriel LaBelle and Judd Hirsch in The Fabelmans, courtesy of Universal Pictures

Production designer Rick Carter caught the eye of Steven Spielberg when he was art director on The Goonies and first worked with him directly on the pilot of Spielberg’s anthology series Amazing Stories. Spielberg told him the minimal amount of train he needed for the episode; Carter ended up giving him more without increasing the budget. “I think I have an ability to prioritize what’s important so that I can put the resources into [those] elements, whether it’s the set or visual effects or any other aspect of the movie,” says Carter. Starting with Jurassic Park, Carter has served as production designer on 11 Spielberg features since 1993, including the director’s latest, The Fabelmans. A portrait of Spielberg as a young artist, The Fabelmans follows stand-in Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) from childhood to early adulthood as he discovers his passion for filmmaking against the backdrop of his parents’ separation and multiple moves across the country.

Over almost 30 years, Carter and Spielberg have developed a professional shorthand that privileges both emotion and economical execution. “I’ve been the person that Steven has gone to [for] saving a lot of money,” Carter explains. “Not just hundreds of thousands of dollars or even a million dollars, but tens of millions of dollars. Whether it’s Lost World or Jurassic Park or Amistad, I’ve been able to save upwards of $40 million [by] saying, ‘Do we really need this scene? Can we do this?’ With Steven, you’re talking not just to the director but also the producer. He cares that the budget is kept as minimal as possible. I’m not trying to say that’s my primary contribution, but it’s just one of the things that I’ve enjoyed that we share in common, which is to be efficient as possible.”

Part of that efficiency comes from Spielberg moving away from storyboarding his films. Aside from some previz on War Horse and Ready Player One, Carter says Spielberg hasn’t extensively storyboarded his films since The Lost World. “He used to be extremely shot specific,” Carter says. “He [still] does a lot of little storyboards where he’ll use little stick figures—very much the way Sammy draws in the movie—and he’ll sometimes send these little iPhone messages where he’ll talk through what he’s seeing. Certainly on The Fabelmans and Munich and The Post and Lincoln, there’[re] really no storyboards. We just have to be able to communicate how much we think he’ll need, then hopefully he understands what those parameters are when he comes in. Most of the time he does, then he works with it. He likes responding to what’s given to him and trying to make the most out of it.”

The majority of Carter’s work on The Fabelmans involved designing the three primary houses where the Fabelmans reside. As a child, Sammy lives in New Jersey before moving to Phoenix, where he spends the majority of his adolescence before relocating again to a California rental house. Carter and Spielberg thought of the houses as the backbone of a three-act structure that chronicles Sammy’s coming of age.

For the New Jersey house, Carter and his team rendered it with a 1940s design despite the film being set in the early ’50s. “There’s a fair amount of color in that young childhood set,” Carter says. “Every room is turned into an opportunity to have a bit of a wonderland, even the kitchen and the dining room, almost like each room was like a land in Disneyland where he can create.” Meanwhile, the Phoenix house has more literal expanse to it, as the family crosses the desert to stake a new claim in the West: “The whole interior of the [Phoenix] house is all spread out on one level, and it’s all the same color as the exterior, with all the tans and browns and desert colors on the interior.” Carter relied on source material provided by Spielberg for the New Jersey and Phoenix houses, which were explicitly based on homes where he grew up. “We had the most pictures and home movies of the Phoenix house. The New Jersey [house] we had less, but we knew the rough plan and had a couple photos that at least indicated the tone of the paint color. It’s not an exact recreation, but the Phoenix house was especially close. My attempt the whole time was to have him to be able walk in and feel like he was close to being back.”

The Los Gatos rental house was an invention, as the real Spielberg family spent its time in apartments and various temporary homes. “It served the function of the script to have them be in this one place they were moving into while waiting for this other house to get made,” Carter says. “He’s moving to the promised land, but it doesn’t turn out to be so promised in California. In the beginning, it’s actually rainy and dark and gloomy, and all the kids at the school are a third bigger than he is.”

Carter emphasizes Spielberg’s resourceful nature and how that translated on a production that emphasized speed and efficiency. “We basically designed this movie as though [the director] was Sammy Fabelman, not Steven Spielberg,” Carter says. “In the Universal era of the 1970s, they would have said, ‘OK, you’re not going to Phoenix. You’re going to do everything in a 30-mile zone. And we’ll build you three houses, but we don’t have money for a platform. If it’s about a scene in a bedroom, you don’t get to build an extra bedroom for the sisters.’ We were very economical with everything that we chose to build, putting it all on one stage. The whole first half of the movie was out on location, then they could condense the locations department and just move onto a stage.”

Along with Spielberg, Carter has collaborated with his resident cinematographer Janusz Kamińiski since The Lost World in 1997. He cites Kamiński’s ability to find appropriate light sources in all three of the main Fabelman houses by placing lights just out of frame: “We have open ceilings that he can light from above by pulling panels, and lots of practical lights that he can move where he needs to. He’s very good through the windows. He’ll often put a light in just where he wants [out of frame], and you don’t really know where it’s coming from. It’s very impressive to me how he’s able to do that and move extremely fast through the day’s shooting.”

Kamiński also encouraged the production team to expand the interiors beyond what they looked like so that they could get through the shoot as fast as possible. “It was just about making sure that we move as fast as Steven likes so we didn’t have to be pulling walls in order to get the camera in the positions that he wanted. He shot pretty straightforwardly. There were not a lot of dolly moves. There’[re] a few in them when he’s doing 360s and things, but in general, they just could move into the house and shoot.”

At the end of The Fabelmans, Sammy briefly speaks with his artistic hero John Ford, played with curmudgeonly verve by filmmaker David Lynch, in his office at Paramount studios. Using the paintings on his wall, Ford bluntly explains to Sammy the importance of placing the horizon at either the top or the bottom of the frame before kicking him back out into the world. (This scene actually happened almost beat for beat to Spielberg in real life.) For Ford’s office, Carter and his team used the director’s 1957 film The Wings of Eagles, in which Ward Bond plays a character inspired by John Ford, as a reference. “It’s a much more elaborate office than the one we did, but we still got some of the sensibility from those images,” Carter says. “We were able to take that and say, ‘Let’s now take the elements that are important—the Western-style furniture and the Academy Awards but, more specifically, these sort of [Frederic] Remington-esque paintings.’ Some of them really are Remingtons. We got the rights to them and they have literally those horizons the way they are. But to really make the point of the low horizon, we painted a picture that is actually from a still frame of The Searchers to make it very, very clear that this is low horizon, this is high horizon. Then, he can make his point about, ‘Those are interesting.’ What I think everybody enjoyed about that was that it was such an emotional movie up to that point, and then you have somebody who takes all that emotion and reduces it to just ‘Do a good shot.’ I think that there’s a kind of a release. If you want [the emotion] to be dramatic, you have to make the image dramatic, and that’s what Steven Spielberg has become a master at over his lifetime.”

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