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“The Hard Way Every Single Time”: Production Designer Adam Stockhausen on Asteroid City

Jake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman and Matt Dillon in Asteroid CityJake Ryan, Jason Schwartzman and Matt Dillon in Asteroid City

Though Wes Anderson’s films can be seen as the product of the director’s sharp imagination, the finished work is nothing without those who turn his thoughts into spreadsheet-enabled reality. Most of the physical things on screen—the punctilious graphic design on signs and cards, the actual locations, the trimmed sets and the giant buildings in the distance that exist just to fill up white space—exist thanks to production designer Adam Stockhausen, who has been Anderson’s go-to since 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. Stockhausen has noted his fondness for planning productions in an old-fashioned, tactile way which likely appeals not only to the very analog Anderson but also Stockhausen’s other frequent collaborator, Steven Spielberg. Filmmaker spoke to Stockhausen about the nature of production design, his work with aesthetic perfectionists and how he made a midcentury American desert town out of Spanish farmland in his latest work, Asteroid City. 

Filmmaker: When you started working on studio productions, you were an art director, including for Wes Anderson on The Darjeeling Limited.  How would you characterize the difference between working as an art director and as a production designer on these larger productions?

Stockhausen: The art director and production designer work together very closely, so there’s definitely some sliding between the two roles. The way I like to separate the two is to say that the designer is really dealing with the questions of “What should we make? Where should we do it?” —big picture production questions, getting down to small detail questions as well: “How does this all fit together?”  As you slide over to the art director, those “What does it look like?” questions are in the minor key. In the major key, you’ve got “Is it on schedule? Is it on budget?”

Filmmaker: Recently you’ve worked mostly for Wes Anderson and Steven Spielberg, both of whom have a reputation for being extremely meticulous and knowing what they want. What kind of conversations are you having whenever you first come onboard? Do they come to you with an idea fully fleshed out before they’re even talking to you as a production designer?

Stockhausen: It’s different director by director. Sometimes the piece is entirely finished in terms of the script, sometimes it’s not. Asteroid City was mostly finished, but Was was still finishing up a little bit at the end, the last quarter or something, But he was at the point of dealing with the project where he wanted to start talking about how to do it. And one of the big things [a production designer asks] is basically, “How do we film this thing? Is it built on stage? Do we go to a location and try to find this thing and modify it, or is it all in front of a green screen?” On this one, it’s a movie set in this town, but the town isn’t necessarily a place on a map. The town is a fictional town that’s the setting for a play. So, that makes it a bit different. We start with the research and the look of these different places and then also [ask] the big picture questions. Do we build the whole thing? And do we build the whole thing outside or inside, or build it on a back lot, or in front of some real mountains?

With Steven it’s the same thing. West Side Story was complete because the book and lyrics have existed for 50 years, but San Juan Hill doesn’t exist anymore. That neighborhood as it was in 1958 is gone. It was destroyed and Lincoln Center was built in its place. You can’t just open up the door and turn on the camera. We’ve gotta build the sets and find locations that we can modify and make look like what’s described in this story.

Filmmaker: Not only have you been collaborating with Wes for so long, but you’ve also been collaborating as a production designer with his usual DP, Robert Yeoman who will whip pan to reveal more of the set or do long tracking shots that go from room to room. How much does his coverage and movement determine the scale of your production or vice versa?

Stockhausen: Wes has these shot ideas and is laying them out on storyboards, and we in the art department and Bob in the camera department are trying to forensically break apart the storyboards and figure out how to make and light physical space to achieve the shots that Wes has already planned out. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as building a set, sometimes it’s a lot more complicated. The camera’s twisting and turning and moving and we’re doing all sorts of fancy perspective shifts and cheats.

Filmmaker: I’m curious, since Wes is known for that planimetric composition, the flatness of his image, if there are physical things that make or break the illusion of that effect. Or if there’s maybe some cheats or general ways in which you usually work with Bob Yeoman in order to achieve that kind of look.

Stockhausen: There’s no trick. It’s the hard way every single time. The whole sequence [looking] down the luncheonette [with] Midge and Dinah at the end, and how that frames up with the waitress and Augie on the bar stools, it’s all laid out in advance. If we’re on the 40 millimeter lens and we have 15 chairs in the luncheonette, then Midge is going to feel this far away. If we went to the 35 millimeter lens and we only had 12 chairs, it would feel like this.

Filmmaker: I’m curious what kind of  mid-century Western materials you and Wes were looking at during pre-production. I appreciated the mesas that looked straight out of Looney Tunes.  And I know Bad Day at Black Rock was an influence, but were there any other big cinematic influences that came from that time?

Stockhausen: The ones that were super helpful to me in my conversation with Wes are not necessarily the only ones—there may well be loads of others that Wes and Bob were looking at. But the ones that were most helpful for me—I would say Black Rock for sure. The Billy Wilder films Kiss Me Stupid and especially Ace in the Hole in terms of the overall feeling of the place, the carnival coming to town. It Happened One Night  was a big one in terms of the motel and the layout of that. Niagara was a big one, especially with the luncheonette at the cafe. But it starts to bleed away from cinema references and into photographic references, and we dig into each one of these structures and do huge background [research] into gas stations, roadside structures of all sorts, motor courts, motels, postcard collections of the American Southwest with really beautiful images and loads of mid-century color photography of Monument Valley.

Filmmaker: I’m curious what kind of factors led to the final decision to shoot in Chinchón, Spain, as opposed to, say, Cinecittà Studios in Italy.

Stockhausen: It’s so funny to hear you say that, since we almost did shoot it at Cinecittà and had done a whole layout of Asteroid City in the backlot space. We may have ended up there, except that there’s a flight path going straight overhead and it looked like it was going to become an issue. But to be honest, I’m very happy that we ended up in Spain because there are a lot of tall trees surrounding the backlot at Cinecittà, so the mountains would’ve had to have been closer and taller to block them effectively. And being in Spain allowed it to kind of spread a bit and have a bit more air, which I think is really great for the feeling of space in the landscape around the town.

Filmmaker: I was reading that you were collaborating with Spanish film companies and 140 different landowners to shoot on the visible space that makes up Asteroid City. I’m imagining that involves a lot of knocking on doors and filling out spreadsheets, but what else contributes to that kind of a headache, and what relieves that headache?

Stockhausen: It was a huge headache, but not for me—for Jeremy Dawson and the locations team on the film. The basic thing is—from an American perspective, you think of a cornfield where everything as far as I can see is probably part of one farm.  And it’s just not the case in Europe, where the land has been divided and subdivided by generations into smaller and smaller parcels of lands until the point where you’ve got our little town, which was a few thousand feet—it’s not really that monstrously big —but it’s 137 different farms, all of which could be the size of your backyard or not very much bigger. 

Filmmaker: I assume you need to get the space for the planes to stretch out into infinity, because you’re also designing sculptures in the background. What kind of things are you putting on the outskirts of the town and what’s the work on that like? I assume you have to make each piece gigantic in order to be visible. 

Stockhausen: Yeah, I mean, it was pretty big. It’s a really interesting project, because it’s like all the tricks that you would [use] on a stage if you were doing an old school landscape using forced perspective tricks for fields going off into the distance or whatever the case may be. Now we’re taking all those ideas, but doing them outside on a much wider scale, still using the tricks of perspective. So, we’re trying to make Monument Valley-scale buttes and mesas and things, but instead of being 3000 feet tall and two miles away, we’re going to make it 75 feet tall and 1500 feet away. It was all about finding when it was big enough: “If it’s this close, I just don’t buy it. Keep going back.” We’ve got guys with long sticks testing it all out and taking a hundred photographs and gradually found a spot that seemed to work for us. It was big, but not so big that it became impossible for us to build.

Filmmaker: I assume that since this is all taking place in one space, there’s a sort of ease in the production of not having to go from location to location, but maybe a difficulty in the spatial continuity from sequence to sequence. What kind of things are happening in pre-production that guarantees that you’re not having to rebuild parts of the set at any given time?

Stockhausen: I think that’s a really important thing to talk about, because the way that Wes makes films is to try to be as centered as possible, to take this group of people that are staying together and say, “We’re gonna be very, very close to where our set is.” Of course there are going to be little satellite pieces that we have to add on and augment, but they all have to be within a very short distance from each other so that this whole thing is incredibly contained. That’s really useful and smart, because it allows us to move around very quickly and shoot different pieces of things. So, when the inevitable happens, when you don’t get a chunk of something or it rains, you’re able to bounce back and forth and say, “At the end of the day, we’re gonna grab that shot that we missed at the picnic supper.” Two people can be setting that up in the background while we’re working over here, and it’s all very quick and easy to move back and forth. That efficiency of space makes for a very efficient production, and he strives to very intentionally maximize that.

Filmmaker: I was reading that because of COVID you were having to work remotely for a lot of the production, and I imagine that’d be pretty difficult for you. But is the difficulty of it then offset by the fact that you are able to maybe communicate within Zoom and actually see the design itself as being flat already?

Stockhausen: I don’t know if Zoom helped with that particularly, but I will say we often are mocking stuff up with a lens and cardboard and people standing and saying, “I’m a wall right here.” We couldn’t do any of that stuff, but we ended up 3D modeling the whole thing, so it became a virtual design process. Some camera planning that we would traditionally do with a real camera or an iPhone and walking and figuring stuff out in a very nuts-and-bolts, hands-on way became a digital process of sliding a digital camera sideways inside the modeling program. That was a big shift that we did a great deal more because of the nature of our prep during the lockdown, but it worked out really well. And when we were moved out to the real site, it was actually incredibly satisfying to do the first move physically and have it actually line up with what you had planned virtually and have everything work.

Filmmaker: After COVID, a lot of these virtual spaces that were supposed to be temporary have become quasi-permanent. I’m wondering if that method will become a go-to within production design.

Stockhausen: My cardboard and sticks methodology might be the outlier. The world’s very much gone towards all that stuff.

Filmmaker: What was that process of coming up with the look for the extraterrestrial parts of the film, like the spaceship, its entrance, and how that ship should move?

Stockhausen: I worked very directly with Wes on that. Part of the nature of the way Wes works is that we’re planning every shot so specifically, and it’s often divide-and-conquer. I was working with an illustrator that Wes and I work with all the time named Victor Georgiev  who had done loads of work on The French Dispatch and Isle of Dogs and has sort of been in the gang for years. He often does mechanical projects with Wes, like Atari’s plane in Isle of Dogs. So, Victor came on board and started working with Wes on the design for the alien, for which Wes had a very specific look in mind. They were bouncing drawings back and forth and, and I was like, “Great, I’ll be over here trying to figure out how to make this motel work.” Then I come back into the conversation to start to talk about how we are going to do all this. There was a huge conversation about if we should build the crater as one gigantic set, or if we should do it in pieces and stitch it together later. We ended up doing the pieces and slightly regretting it and wishing we had built the giant crater in the end. 

Filmmaker: I also see that you’re attached to Wes’ next two movies. How are those conversations going? 

Stockhausen: Good. I mean, one we’re just beginning; we’re starting to build for it now and we’ll shoot it in the fall. The other one is the Dahl stories, and that we shot last year. I’s fantastic, and I can’t wait to see it. 

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