'ARE they serious?' Anton Furst asked a friend. 'It sounds like a joke.'
It wasn't a joke. A restaurant called Planet Hollywood was due to open in New York in the autumn of 1991, and they needed an interior designer. Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had lent their names to a hamburger joint that would re-create Hollywood by displaying film memorabilia - an Arnie mannequin from Terminator 2, a bloody Bruce T-shirt from Die Hard - in the belief that fans would queue for hours to be part of it. The interior design budget was $8m (pounds 4.3m). The designer would receive about dollars 200, 000. But who was up to the job? Keith Barish, the restaurant's chairman, wanted a star designer to match his star backers.
Anton Furst, a 46-year-old film designer from Essex, thought it was a prank when he got the call. He'd never done anything like this and didn't hang out with Arnie's crowd. But since he'd won his Oscar for his dark visualisation of Gotham City for Batman in March 1990, he was getting all sorts of strange offers. Previously he had designed fabulous sets for The Company of Wolves, Full Metal Jacket and High Spirits, but had received limited acclaim and only adequate payment; after Batman he had to swat away offers like flies. Now it was: would he take a director's deal? A production office at Columbia Pictures? A house in Beverly Hills?
Sure he would, and sure he'd do Planet Hollywood. At the opening party last October, many guests said they adored his work. Furst grinned for the cameras with his daughter, Vanessa, and drank Heineken as he mingled with Kim Basinger and Stevie Wonder. But as he small-talked, he remembered the year of compromises and personal disappointments that he had endured for this place; he looked around his garish walls with movie tat in glass cases, and in his heart he knew it was trash.
Friends who had flown in from England for the opening sensed that all was not well. In the year that had elapsed between his acceptance of this commission and its public unveiling, his life had been transformed. In Hollywood he was cut off from most of his friends, and his film design - the work that drove him and what he did best - had virtually ground to a halt. Also, he was drinking a lot and finding it impossible to kick his addiction to Valium.
But there was no indication that Furst might have reached the end of his tether, and certainly no warning that on 25 November, four weeks after this opening party, his family would be woken by the news that Anton had jumped to his death from the eighth floor of a Los Angeles car park.
IN MANY ways, Anton Furst's death is the stuff of cliche and Hollywood parable: Brit finds domestic success, is feted by the American studios, can't cope with the madness and deceit, bows out. Yet his family and many friends were shocked by his death, and, in their sad soul-searching, paint their own contrary cliche: of a man who loved life, a man who never quit, who seldom talked about depression, who had more to live for - and more money, more acclaim, more open doors - than at any other stage in his career. 'He was a very strong-willed man,' one of his oldest friends says, 'and it takes a strong will to leap off an eight-storey building.'
A production designer creates the visual texture of a movie, the stuff on which we build our dreams and suspend our disbelief. The work is much more than set design; it's the intangible aspects - warmth, mood, colour coding - that will be vital to a picture's sustained visual impact. The very best can create new worlds.
Furst was not a great film-goer in his youth. 'It's not real life,' he used to say, 'and it's usually not art.' His training was in fine art and sculpture, principally at the Royal College of Art under Sir Hugh Casson, who remembers him as one of the most engaging and inspiring of all his students. He
co-founded a laser and hologram company, worked on light shows for The Who and designed television commercials to support his family. His big film break came
in 1984 with The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan's psychosexual retelling of the Red Riding Hood fable.
'Someone suggested we give the part of Red Riding Hood to Anton's daughter,' says Steve Woolley, the film's producer. 'She was a bit too pretty, but I went round to Anton's flat (in north-west London) and we talked with Neil about the design. We had this idea of creating an entire forest on a studio set, but didn't have much of a clue how to do it. Anton immediately loved the idea, and said things like, 'I know, a kind of cross between Dali and Dore]'. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he had this manic enthusiasm that meant it was hard not to nod your head and say 'yes, yes, yes'.'
'His big message was that the only point to this work was to create stuff that had never been done on film before,' says Eddie Butler, a sculptor who worked on all of Furst's films. 'His references were complex and hugely varied, and he needed strong images that could be developed deeply. He never played the intellectual, but he had an intellectual approach.'
Like any British film of the last decade, The Company of Wolves was beset with financial compromise. Woolley remembers saying to Furst: ' 'You want seven trees and we've only got money for five'. He'd mope around a bit and then come up with an incredible solution.
'This sounds naff, but he did something on the film that I don't think had ever been done before, combining the plasterers and polystyrene carvers, and he was very proud that he could get his guys together to improve the efficiency of their work. Anton always rallied round his team, and would argue and fight and froth at the mouth and get incredibly tempestuous. He stormed around in his Germanic boots and his big, dark cloak and he'd look incredibly fierce sucking his pipe. But he would end up laughing it out and was always disappointed with people who didn't. He'd put his arm round you and he'd be a real mensch.'
'He was inspirational,' says Alison Dominitz, his assistant on The Company of Wolves. 'I'd never met anyone like him. He was hugely encouraging and you were just affected by him whatever he was doing. He didn't discuss what was expected of an art director, about how to order your life and do budgets. Art was all that was discussed.'
The way his friends tell it, Furst crashed through life like a medieval black knight. 'Women were very attracted to him,' says John McIlvride, a close friend since the Seventies. 'He was very charming, and physically striking. He had this extraordinary nose. Instead of signing his name, he'd draw a little picture of himself that looked like a bird of prey.
'You'd go out for a meal with him, and he was a terrible eater - no etiquette, he'd eat off everyone's plate. When he used to go round art galleries he always used to take his pipe along and make an appalling racket banging it on marble plinths. He lived in his own world. Penny Fielding (his second wife) used to say: 'Excuse my friend, he's from Barcelona'.'
Along with the eccentricity came anxiety. His father, who suffered from mental illness and alcoholism, died when Furst was 21, and shortly afterwards he began taking Valium to calm his nerves. 'I think he was very concerned not to end up like his father, whom he didn't like very much,' McIlvride says.
When Furst's personal life crowded in, he buried himself in work. In 1985 he agreed to take on what some of his colleagues feared was an impossible venture. Stanley Kubrick wanted to make his Vietnam movie, but he didn't fancy travelling: would Furst build him Vietnam on the site of the disused Beckton gasworks in the East End of London?
Full Metal Jacket took almost two years to make. During shooting Steve Woolley remembers a birthday party at his flat, 'at which Anton literally collapsed at 10.30, because he was on personal call to Stanley 24 hours a day. His obsession with work was so powerful that it would override everything else.' The film was a qualified success; Furst's Vietnam, which he described as 'better than the real thing', was hailed as a masterpiece.
'IT'S LIKE hell had burst through the pavements and kept on growing'
It was March 1989 and Anton Furst was at his drawing board telling me about his vision of Batman. He talked of the Futurists, of Fritz Lang, of holograms and 'cosmic reality'. With glee, he displayed a model of his Batmobile. Here, drenched in light and surrounded by perhaps 200 large sheets of paper, was a man in his element. 'It has to be unique, like no other film,' he said. 'And timeless.'
'The Anton I knew changed on Batman,' Woolley says. 'He had a lot of highly qualified people under him who believed he was in over his head. Anton would call me from his studio and say 'God, there's no one like you here, there's no one coming into the office giving me a hard time. Apart from Tim (Burton, the director) there doesn't seem to be anyone who really cares about the film'.'
But, once again, his work was singled out as the best thing about the film, and won him his Oscar.
'After Batman he realised that if he was to continue making films like that he'd have to go to the States like everyone else,' Woolley says. 'He'd fulfilled his ambitions in England. You do a certain amount of work here and then you ask yourself: 'Is it worth me having to go through this denigration over here any longer, why don't I go out and degrade myself in Hollywood and earn four times as much?' '
Batman was the last American blockbuster to be made in Britain. Government tax recessions were rescinded, the exchange rate got worse. 'Anton was very pissed off with what was going on over here politically,' McIlvride says. 'He was always a great supporter of the British film industry, and hated what he saw as its neglect and decline.'
He moved first to New York to design Awakenings, Penny Marshall's hospital drama based on the work of Oliver Sacks. At the beginning of 1990 he was firmly established in Hollywood, and initially expressed pleasure at his new life. A deal with Sony (which had recently taken over Columbia Pictures) had thrown up several exciting possibilities. Michael Jackson was apparently keen to make Midknight, a full-length musical, and Furst had ideas for a film version of Candide and a new Frankenstein. He patronised absurd restaurants and took meetings with leading agents and stars. Everyone appeared to be in awe of this eccentric with the piratical dress code and Home Counties accent.
'Anyone who called at his house and met Anton for the first time would have thought 'This is weird, and this man is mad',' McIlvride says. Furst would walk around with a green parakeet on his shoulder. 'Napoleon would make the most appalling noise. It used to get off Anton, and sidle over and bite you. In the end he rolled over and smothered it in his sleep. Very Hollywood.'
Furst soon became distressed that his movie projects seemed to take an age to take shape. 'They'd dangle these carrots and promise you anything, but he was out there with real sharks,' Woolley says. 'I get the impression that he was not that happy. I believe he was kind of lost, as if he was treading water until something really good came along.
'When I heard that they'd given him a director's and producer's deal, and about these restaurants, I was appalled. None of those made sense to what you knew Anton loved doing - creating these worlds. I would never trust Anton to produce a movie. He needed a huge amount of encouragement to get something right. He needed his friends around him.'
Furst's second marriage broke up in December 1990, and although he briefly took up with the actress Beverly D'Angelo, friends now believe he was very lonely. He began taking Halcion, a sleeping drug that had been banned in Britain due to its possible side effects of amnesia, paranoia and depression. His drinking also became more of a problem, and he began talking to a friend about his father for the first time.
'If you go out to Los Angeles and drink too much, you're renowned,' Woolley says. 'If you saw him when he got the Oscar, you could see that Anton always drank. Most people who work in movies in the UK drink. Anton goes out to LA and gets drunk a few nights, but you don't do that over there, at least not in public. And then maybe a phobia develops: you've got all this work coming in, and you haven't got your old mates around you, your plasterers and carvers and whatever.
'Anton always needed a team around him,' Eddie Butler says, 'which is why a few of us worked together as a unit for all of his (British) films. There was a kind of shorthand that he wouldn't find in Hollywood. One could talk about elaborate things quite simply and know what we were after.'
Furst's principal dilemma was he was a production designer who wasn't designing any productions. When word of a Batman sequel surfaced, Furst was keen to do it. But Batman Returns was a Warner Bros picture, and Furst was signed to Columbia.
'I think he was upset that having given so much to the success of Batman he got so little money out of it,' McIlvride says. 'At his house he had this one dollar bill stuck to the wall, and underneath it he wrote: 'My residuals on Batman'. He never did well out of movies, and he was always concerned about the money that went out to his agent and his accountant and his lawyer. He was very conscious of the responsibility towards his two kids.'
'I COULD imagine him bumping into a small wall and falling over, but I couldn't imagine him jumping,' Woolley says. 'He was very clumsy, incredibly frail. Whenever he got a cold, it was always as if he was on death's door. You wanted to wrap him up and put him in cotton wool.'
Towards the end of November 1990, Furst announced his intention to kick drugs and drink. He cropped his lanky brown hair as a symbol of his clean-up. Nigel Phelps, one of the few of his old friends who had accompanied him to Los Angeles to work in his office, was pleased to take him to Midtown Hospital to check in. But the formalities took a while, and Furst wandered outside. He climbed the eight floors of the garage opposite; he was found in an alley moments later.
McIlvride believes it must have been an impulsive act. 'Anton was incapable of planning anything. He obviously felt really depressed and said, 'That's it then - I'm off' '.
At a memorial service on the Columbia lot in December, his first wife, Jane, said: 'What killed Anton was probably a very old pain.' His body was flown back for the funeral at the family grave in East Sussex three weeks later. His children, both former wives, and elderly mother attended, as did many friends. There were a lot of his old creative buddies.
'It was a terribly sad and formal occasion,' Woolley remembers. 'They didn't have a good celebration afterwards. It wasn't a wake thing. It seemed so far away from Anton.'
NEXT Friday Anton Furst's work goes on display again, as Batman Returns opens in London. He did not work on the movie, but Gotham City looks much the same as when he left it in 1989. And in the real Gotham, at West 57th Street in midtown Manhattan, at the phenomenon that has become Planet Hollywood, the queues stretch round the block and T-shirt sales are booming. You can look at the interior today and see a little more. Furst's tawdry design incorporates all that disgusted and frustrated him, all the bluff and doubletalk, the triumph of commerce over art. The film world distilled into glass cases and zebra-patterned tablecloths: a cynical, exploitative tribute to his own particularly crushed vision of Hollywood.'
-Simon Garfield in the Independent, 4th July, 2002
Lynn Geller for BOMB magazine:
'A native of Britain, Anton Furst was on his way to medical school when he realized that the one thing he could do better than anyone he knew was to draw. Consequently, he chose to apply to the Royal College of Art, which happened to be next door to the Imperial College of Sciences. This arrangement made the possibility of combining his dual interests—art and science—completely accessible; besides studying illustration, he was able to create three-dimensional images using optics and lasers. After earning his degree and two traveling scholarships to America, first with the Czech stage designer, Josef Suoboda, and then with designer, Charles Eames. When Furst returned to London he took a job with one of his heros, Tony Masters, the production designer of 2001. His next project, a show of holography at the Royal College, was nearly aborted when the main “tube blue” blew—it would have cost the department’s entire budget to replace. Instead, the resourceful artist had an inspiration. It was 1977 and The Who were using lasers in their stage show. On a whim, Furst rang them up.
“I happened to get Daltry who said ‘Just a minute, mate, I’m finishing up lunch. I’ll ring you back’,” explains Furst, doing a smashing imitation of a working-class accent. Dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, he’s leaning back on a couch in an office on the set of Awakenings, the film adaptation of Oliver Sacks’s book, directed by Penny Marshall, and starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. With his dark good looks and animated delivery, he could be a visiting actor. He is, in fact, the production designer. His office is by far the most colorful on a set occupying three floors of a working State Hospital in Brooklyn. “So I went back to the lab fairly depressed,” he continues, “thinking, probably not. And within a half an hour he had a fuckin’ helicopter turning up on the lawn with three lasers and three technicians in tow. I was pinned to the wall by Daltry, barking, ’Who’s involved in this thing?’ ” The Who took over, donating space and money, and the result was “Light Fantastic,” a “hugely successful laser show that attracted football size crowds and was bigger than punk at the time.” After another blockbuster the following year, the same producers, including the faculty, Furst, and the band, with additional financing from Agfa, built the biggest special effects lab in England, based at Shepperton Studios. This was the era of the special effects movie—Star Wars, Alien, The Empire Strikes Back—and, as the artistic director of the company, Furst found himself spending more and more time overseeing the staff and the business. “I was the front man of the operation and I wasn’t really doing my art,” he says, lighting up a pipe. It’s late on a December afternoon, midway through a lengthy shoot. This may be the first time he’s put his feet up since the six a.m. call that morning. “I was producing creative things, but I felt if I wasn’t at the drawing board, I was really only servicing other people’s whims—someone else was designing them.” Four years on, he took a leave of absence from Shepperton to design a two and a half hour TV movie and never went back. His next call was from director, Neil Jordan.
Needless to say, the company’s loss was the film world’s gain. Furst went from designing The Company of Wolves to Full Metal Jacket to High Spirits to 1989’s Batman, for which he will probably win an Academy Award.
Lynn Geller Your first feature was Company of Wolves, I remember it looked almost like a dream.
Anton Furst It’s a pubescent girl’s dreams and fantasies told by a cautionary aunt played by Angela Landsbury. It was designed like a fairy story—little villages in the woods. We did it all in the studio, even the exteriors. We were trying to develop something which was the fantasy of a child, a dreamworld with its own reality. We had very complex forced perspectives, what we call dioramas so that you had specific views. Can you remember the little village down there and the church up on the hill? It was different from anything else coming out at that period. It needed a magical feeling about it because it was magic. Remember the wolf coming out of the guy’s mouth? I always regard Neil’s scripts as a form of poetry. Anyway, Kubrick saw it and said, “Get a hold of that guy, he’s our designer.” On Christmas day he rang me up and said, “I want to send you my script, it’s gonna be a great script.” It was Full Metal Jacket. He wanted to do it all in England—the Vietnam War in England. I looked at the script and thought, What?, and said, “Yes.” Although his reputation does precede him. You know the implication in the film industry—if you do a film with Kubrick and survive it—two years that was, it tends to put you at the top of the shit heap. If you can handle it with Kubrick then they think you can handle anything because he’s 44 times more difficult than anybody else.
LG I heard an amazing story about him hearing a fly on the set. I was going to do a book with a friend of mine about location shooting—Kubrick, who invents his own locations, versus the ultimate in being on location, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Kubrick’s are the most controlled circumstances possible.
AF You have to get through three electric gates to get to him. At the last gate, you get into an armored car which he sends down from his mansion.
LG No, no. Does he have agoraphobia?
AF Yes, yes. He hates making movies cause he’s got to go out of his house. I’d say it’s similar to Howard Hughes. Megalomania. He’s intensely shy and awkward, increasingly so. He works with the smallest crews. In real terms, I’d say he only talks with myself and Dougie Milson—the lighting and camera man, the director of photography—and then through us to other people. I had a very big department, we had a port-a-cabin village built. He walked into a 50-foot room with 14 drafting guys and me at the end and I saw him just go—like that. He walked out of the port-a-cabin without saying a word. Rung me up from outside on his car phone and said, “I just want you to come out and meet me in the car for a minute, you’ve got to get your own office. We’ll have another port-a-cabin brought down. I cannot, I cannot talk in there.” He’s like that. He has to be in an intense, small unit and then he’s happy. That’s why he spends a lot of time in his Winnebago with televisions and only comes out on the set when he has to and he’s got cages built …
LG What if a regular guy had that problem? What would he do as a profession? He’s so lucky. Well, maybe not lucky …
AF He is lucky because he has a wonderful home life. He adores his wife and family and he loves his dogs and cats and all that is lovely. I’m not sorry for him because he can actually enjoy the way he wants to live his life. He only has to make a movie every six years—in his case. The worst aspect is the couple of months before shooting when he realizes that in eight weeks time he’s going to have to go out…so he starts causing problems, anything so that he can put it back. He’ll start disliking everything you do so that he can actually hold it up. Once we were shooting, it all got easier. Then he had to concentrate on a hundred crew members, and not just me. I must tell you, though, that I have enormous respect for him. He’s a formidable intellect, a huge mind—prodigiously bright—if the word genius applies to anybody, there’s an element of that in him. I think he’s the best lighting and camera man in the world. I was mind-blown when he first called me. It becomes a campaign, making a movie with him, a war-campaign where strong bonds are made with people who come through to the other side of it. Afterwards, whenever you meet, you’re very close. Most people get fired at some point on the picture, in the course of two years. Stanley and I definitely got on and I think there are a few tricks that I learned pretty quick with Kubrick. If you know that you made a mistake and go to Stanley and you say, I think I fucked up and I’m going to have to redo, he couldn’t be an easier director to work for. If he comes down and you haven’t told him, you’ve tried to cover it up, you’re fired. He’ll be cruel, absolutely appalling, and he’ll never trust you again. Even if you try to cover for someone else, he’ll immediately suss it out. He grasps everything. You can’t bullshit him. You can’t. Bottom line. I like Stanley and I admire him.
LG You weren’t trying to re-create Vietnam with Full Metal Jacket were you?
AF Not exactly. We saw about 6,000 photographs of the Vietnam War. We took what we thought were the most powerful images with the most impact. For instance, when the squad went into the burned out city of Quai, we had every building on fire. That was probably an exaggeration. We had seen some shots where it looked like everything was on fire. We weren’t going for complete historical accuracy. So we built sculptural images and lit that whole section of the film with available light and fire. We didn’t want blue skies. If the sun came out, Stanley didn’t shoot. It was supposed to be the image of hell.
Set for Full Metal Jacket.
LG Wasn’t the perspective in the beginning of Full Metal Jacket really exaggerated?
AF Yes and repetitive, repetitive images of men on racks that went on and on. It was actually almost true of the boot camp, Paris Island, at the time, though we shot it in an augmented way to drive the point home. Paris Island was supposed to train them for their tour of Vietnam. So we contrasted the unbelievable cleanness, spic and span quality of the boot camp with the incredible filth, the shit, of the actual war. The point was that they came up against something they could never have trained for. All of Kubrick’s films are about the frailty of the human condition in extreme circumstances, from Clockwork Orange to Paths of Glory to Full Metal Jacket. We went for the power of the imagery. I don’t like to look too hard at references. I just look enough to know where to go from and how far I can go. Otherwise, you get hung up on detail. It’s much better to go for the broad stroke. With Gotham City for Batman, for instance, I’d been to New York before, but they asked me if I wanted to go back to do research and take photographs. I said, “No.” I knew enough about New York and its architecture, the tone and the feeling and that’s all I wanted to know. I changed the reality to give it a different perspective. I work on metaphors and parables of situations. Gotham City is all the elements of Manhattan exaggerated. You can tip it one way or another, and five percent more one way, it’s unbearable. Any New Yorker is aware of that five percent balance, where the place could just fuck up on a moment’s notice. Con Ed ripping up the pavement or a lorry creating gridlock for miles. I imagined what it would have been like if it had been run by a criminal organization for a long time and had been allowed to become what you saw in the film.
LG With a Good vs. Evil scenario, you have to avoid getting too pedestrian.
AF Yes, and once you’ve gotten into this almost abstract situation with the city and car, then the characters can be entirely unique. The Joker can go crazy, Batman can put his cape on and you can set up a whole integrity for the movie. They’re basically just a couple of psychotics; one dresses up as a bat at night and the other runs around in whiteface with green hair. We had to turn the whole film into this extraordinary fantasyland of its own to let these things occur.
LG Besides the hype, what do you think it was about Batman that so captured the audience and made it such a phenomenon?
AF I think what the producer, Jon Peters, would say, is that there were certain inconsistencies and weaknesses in the story and script, but indigenously, this wonderful visual landscape held the whole thing together. One of the things that all of the films we’ve spoken about offer is the power of the image. What Peters said is that the design of Batman became as much of a personality as Michael Keaton or Kim Bassinger. It became a character. I may have taken design into that new area just a little bit. Because it’s cinema, if you take the imagery to a certain level, it can be as important as any other aspect of the film. Not in all films, of course. Certainly, in Awakenings, DeNiro and Williams are more important. This film lives or dies on the success of their performances, the direction and the script. The bottom line is always the script. But there are certain movies that require a whole reality, a world and in those, the design and visual aspect becomes as significant as any other element. So with Batman, the producers realized that people were going to see the Batmobile and Gotham City in the same way that they saw, for instance, the Yellow Brick Road in the Wizard of Oz. In Awakenings, it’s a question of me supporting humor or wit with a relatively light area to the space, a light, simple void rather than keeping it down and dark and gloomy as Batman.
Drawing for The Company of Wolves.
LG How does that approach translate when you’re doing a movie like Awakenings, which is reality-based?
AF On this film, I’m constructing something which is spiritually right in order for the script to tell the story. I’m not taking references from hospitals or anything like that. I’m trying to re-imagine the situation and to open it up, give it some lightness, so that the audience can cope with what is an exceedingly heavy story. I haven’t gone for literal things. Again, I’ve gone for a heightened reality. I’ve simplified the backgrounds, so you’re always looking at the actors and can really concentrate on them. In the same way I starved Gotham City of color to exaggerate the Joker’s look. The same way that Batman is always coming out of the shadows and disappearing and re-appearing. You never quite see him properly. In the case of Awakenings, I’m trying to take an element of Diane Arbus, putting these characters in an uncomplicated background, almost in a void, isolating them. Instead of putting people into little boxes, which would have been too claustrophobic, we put the patients into a big, spatial void. So again, I’ve taken a fairly abstract approach. To make it gloomy would be to make it almost intolerable for a mass audience. It’s a $32 million picture. You’ve got to draw in the audience to be able to tell the story. I suspect that’s why Penny Marshall wanted me to do the film, because she knew it couldn’t be done literally and that she’d have to find the right context and tone, in order to find the humanity and the slightly more humorous aspects.
LG Awakenings is being shot in New York?
AF This film is starting at 17 weeks and I say it’s going to go to 20, 23. That’s a very long shoot.
LG Now when did this start?
AF Early October.
LG But you’ve been working on it longer than that, right?
AF Oh, yeah, since August. What I’m trying to say, is I’m not trying to recreate the absolute reality of a hospital. I’m trying to develop a context for the film which will be spiritually correct or tonally correct. I don’t agree with the idea of trying to reconstruct a reference shot of something from some period. I believe in looking at the film and then thinking in the abstract. And then reconstructing your own reality to support that general abstract idea of the whole piece.
LG What sort of research do you do?
AF You look at the implications—the script immediately suggests certain references which lead you to others and you think, Yes. But you are always trying to achieve something spiritually and tonally so you look at references in that area. Then you begin to roll. You always try to think artistically about composing shots.
LG Are you working with the DP or the Director?
AF The Director. The DP tends to arrive pretty late on a picture, a few weeks before you shoot. Things are discussed and adjustments may well be made. If you’re good at it, you design your sets with a lot of flexibility for different lighting possibilities. Batman is the best example [and Company of Wolves because that was the kind of theatrical design and filmmaking that had its own integrity. You’re designing visual drama. Even the car. The Batmobile was more like a knight in armor, an extension, an expression of Batman’s costume—an intimidating, furious war machine. We didn’t spend much time looking at concept cars of the future. We went back in time. Tim Burton and I inevitably got together because he is firm in his opinion that film must have it’s own reality. The more you explain the more you have to explain. If you start explaining you have to explain loads and that gets off the event you’re actually reconstructing. Look at a Disney cartoon. Everybody buys that Donald Duck was steamrolled flat. Once it develops its own indigenous reality, who’s interested anymore in Jean-Luc Godard’s Cinema Verite? Taking a camera into real life, putting actors into it and shooting that? It was a big deal in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. I am not an exponent of Cinema Verite. That’s not what you can do with cinema. Full Metal Jacket describes a specific situation. But we augmented that to describe the actual situation more clearly. You’ve go to do it in an hour and a half, two hours. The strength of your graphic imagery is incredibly important. You must really ram it home hard and fast ‘cause you ain’t got time to go to it like in a book. It’s a two hour job, it ain’t a couple of days. You’ve got to really take ‘em in. But it has to be honest to the feel of the thing. Kubrick never takes film and says, I’m producing reality. He says I’m producing a movie which will describe the point I’m trying to fucking well make with everything I’ve got, visually, dramatically, cinematically, and graphically to get through major points—the frailty of the human condition or whatever. It’s purely an event.
LG When it comes down to designing an entire room, like the operating room in Awakenings, where the audience knows how the instruments are supposed to look …
AF I do drawings of things as a broad stroke scheme, I do actually go into quite a lot of detail on those drawings, because it’s suggestive. I project a perspective up on a 25mm lens so that a wide lens shot will be covered. No one wants to build more than they need. Going up the big Gotham Cathedral, we had to work extremely complex camera angles and draw it up. There’s a method, you project a layout up into elevated perspective 45 degrees through to 90 degrees and when you get it up there, take your measurements. I draw into that so I know what we’re going to look at in that shot. You’ve got to break it down into all the elements you need. I picture the batwings swinging round the Cathedral, going down the street, and think that street’s going to be the model street that we’re using. The foreground will be a foreground model of the Cathedral put in a different scale so it flashes forward and the background will be a matte painting from their eye-range. So you have to do axiomatic projections of the rest of the city beyond that and then you can shoot the batwing motion control in front of a blue screen and then matte that in afterwards, going around the Cathedral and down the street. You list underneath that one shot, all the elements you’re going to have to shoot and from what angles to make that one shot of four seconds. On a complex effects film like that, you have to literally storyboard the whole film shot by shot.
LG You don’t have a whole lot of special effects in Awakenings?
AF Maybe two matte shots. It is normal, straightforward filmmaking. Are you asking me why I’m doing this film? When I was in Hollywood at the opening of Batman, I had about 14 scripts to look through. And, quite honestly, I looked at this script and thought all the rest were second-rate compared with it. Penny Marshall came actually to the Batman opening and said to Tim, “I want Anton to design the interior, a mental institution.” He just laughed out loud. I went out to see Penny at her house in Hollywood, and said, “Seriously, you’ve just seen what I do, why are you asking me to do this?” And she said, “Why not? Why not? Is there something I should know? Have you got a problem? Do you have a sort of character defect that I don’t know about? I want it to look right. I want a world-class camera man…” Anyway I thought it was a great script. And to be absolutely honest, New York is something which can sustain you for six months of being on location. I hate location movies in the middle of nowhere, they send me crazy. It all sounds great, I’m going to the Seychelles for six months and after three weeks, you think, Four and a half months of this fucking place and I’ve already been to every restaurant? New York is great. It worked in well timing-wise, because I’m taking stock at the moment of precisely how I’m about to move forward. A lot of things were happening after Batman.
Jack Nicholson in Batman.
LG You must be besieged.
AF I wasn’t here; I was in L.A., and I was glad to be out of England when Batman opened there. I couldn’t go through all the same things again. Yes, it was big from my point of view, that film. Awakenings is being regarded with enthusiasm. There’s a general feeling that it’s going well.
LG It’s a good quality …
AF Whether it will make money or not I can’t tell but it has the spirit, I think Penny will make sure of that, and Robin as well. It’s a depressing, heavy story, but then, Cuckoo’s Nest was, too. Fucking lobotomy, the guy goes crazy, smashes the window and runs away. I mean terribly tragic, but there’s a spirit in the movie that was very successful, wasn’t it?
LG It’s really not predictable. They keep trying to make it predictable. They take surveys and do all this marketing, everything they possibly can to make it predictable and in the end, something comes out of left field, and that’s the big hit. How do you feel about American versus English movies, or do you care?
AF I haven’t worked for England for six years. I’ve been working in a manufacturing system for Hollywood on the films they decided to do at Pinewood or Shepperton because it’s more convenient to do it in England, or cheaper or better. Largely due to 2001 being made in England twenty years ago, many new systems and the highest standards of techniques were worked out. 14 new processes of special effects were invented on that picture. That legacy paid off. That’s why Star Wars came to England. So I have literally been working for Hollywood in England.
LG You have to assume that fairly international lifestyle. It’s a very modern way to live.
AF England is not the be all and end all. I happen to have been brought up and educated there, but I’m not English. My father’s Russian, my mother’s French. I like it, but I don’t like Thatcher’s England. You can record that. She’s killed the culture of the country dead. It’s much more interesting here right now.
LG Although politically …
AF What, here? Well, it’s not great here either. But at least there’s an appetite here. She’s managed to kill that for England. She’s given the city and the yuppies the money and dissipated the industries at every single level. The culture hasn’t been developed and now it’s really showing.
LG What kind of movies do you enjoy? I mean, what movies have an impact on you?
AF That’s a pretty tricky one, I have to cover the waterfront a little. In the end, it’s the movies with integrity of their own. It’s seldom that you see a little gem of a film, or big gem of a film, that’s got absolute integrity from front to back. The Last Emperor had integrity from front to back, in its stylistic approach. It was cinematographic, had wonderful acting and sustained three and a half hours of pure integrity. I like people who use the actual art-form of cinema: Kubrick, Fellini, Bertolucci, Tim Burton. It’s like, come and have a look at this event.
Furst drawing for the chemical factory in Gotham City.
LG Come, and enter my world.
AF Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander is a masterpiece. I liked Radio Days. All films that use cinema as the way of fundamentally expressing the points they’re trying to make, rather than then expressing a literary piece on film.
LG So let’s say, Sex, Lies, and Videotape?
AF Great. I thought it was great actually. The relationships were brilliantly manipulated and it was very clever. And boy, what a bird!
LG Which one?
AF Umm, the one that, the other one. She’s apparently very hot now in Hollywood. It’s like … they’re both amazing, but she’s got something which is unusual, there aren’t many around like her. The one who’s not beautiful but she’s got something. Like, here I am, fuck me. Indefinable really, isn’t it?
LG … openness, complete total openness.
AF There’s not many really, who have that kind of sexuality. Since the ‘60s, the whole Twiggy thing of everybody becoming thinner and thinner and thinner and thinner. Until you’re nothing. And that ain’t Marilyn Monroe. Ask any man which they prefer. It’s beginning to crack.
LG Well, yeah, Kim Bassinger.
AF Kim and Melanie Griffith and this girl. The Women’s Movement is probably the most significant movement of this century, but various elements of that got caught up in the-don’t-take-me-for-a-sex-object.
LG Who wants to be a man? I happen to think that men and women are different. All you have to do is be around little kids.
AF It’s a tragedy when you break that down. Equal rights, equal opportunity, equal everything, but let them wear a skirt or let them be women. Women do want everything men can have, which is dead right.