HomeStreamingOscars 2023: ‘The Fabelmans’ Production Designer Rick Carter Interview
Oscars 2023: ‘The Fabelmans’ Production Designer Rick Carter Interview
February 22, 2023
The director’s origin story was the biggest highlight for the Oscar-winning production designer, who broke the Spielberg code connecting his personal life to his films.
Although Oscar-winning production designer Rick Carter (“Lincoln,” “Avatar”) worked closely with directors Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future” sequels, “Forrest Gump”), James Cameron (“Avatar”) and JJ. Abrams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “The Rise of Skywalker”)’s biggest collaboration spans 11 films with Steven Spielberg, from “Jurassic Park” to “The Fabelmans.”
In fact, Spielberg brings out the best in Carter, who likes to explore characters through the spaces they inhabit. It’s a form of world-building based as much on psychology as visual design, and has led to many of Carter’s self-discoveries about his own Goya-like artistry and conscience in the post-9/11 war film cycle: “War of the Worlds,” “Munich,” ” War Horse’, ‘Lincoln’ and ‘The BFG’.
But “The Fabelmans” — the director’s most personal film and nominated for seven Academy Awards, including production design — marked Oscar-nominated Carter’s biggest breakthrough because of his ability to crack “the Spielberg code”: the themes and motifs set. that recur throughout his films, such as the disintegration of the family unit, characters chasing their dreams, or venturing into fantastical realms to escape their home lives or restore a lost connection. This allowed the production designer to make clearer the connection between the artist and the work—specifically, that Spielberg’s entire life was a tug-of-war between artistry and pragmatism. It’s part of his DNA, inherited from his late parents: his mother, concert pianist Leah Adler, and his father, computer engineer Arnold Spielberg.
Read more: Weaving Fables from Steven Spielberg’s childhood memories
“I was wondering how he was going to handle that tightrope of how much is real and how much is fictional,” said Carter, whose immersive art exhibit of his production design “Time” runs through March at ESMoA in El Segundo. “I think that’s one of the things I really enjoyed about the movie was that I really knew some of it, just being around Steven for so many years and meeting his mom and dad. But I also knew that we were making a fairy tale version of the gap between reality and fiction.
“The Fabelmans”: New Jersey diner
While Carter has always been aware of the code, which he picked up intuitively during their collaboration, he was unaware of the origins of certain scenes until working on “The Fabelmans,” which is full of Easter eggs for Spielberg fans. For example, the scene in “Lincoln” where Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) talks to General Grant (Jared Harris) about the horrors of war after the Battle of Petersburg was a direct reference to the climax of Spielberg’s early world. The second war film, “Escape to Nowhere”, where the guilty sergeant walks alone after leading his platoon into an ambush.
“Part of the reason Steven has such a diverse film to deal with is that once he knows he’s got something round, he doesn’t run away from it,” Carter added. “There might be a case where he turns it into an adventure, but think about the (capuchin) monkey and how he plays in ‘The Fabelmans’ where he takes on that crazy energy. The monkey was his mother’s favorite during his time of loneliness in Phoenix. But it’s the monkey that saves Indy’s life in Raiders of the Lost Ark. You realize: what if we have a scene with a monkey? This will be fun. And you see it in an adventurous way when the monkey eats the poison date meant for Indy and dies.”
“Fabelmans” is the first time Spielberg has made a film devoid of metaphor, because his life is the subtext. Carter was inspired by the director’s creative self-reflection to reflect on his own artistic development. As a result, the experience of planning a trip for Spielberg’s alter ego Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), who travels with his family from New Jersey to Arizona and Northern California, became his own nostalgia trip. However, due to COVID, they were forced to film it all in California. It reminded the director and production designer of how they started their careers in the early ’70s, when LA was the center of production and a stand-in for any part of the country. “We also became aware of our own mortality,” Carter added.
“The Fabelmans”: Phoenix House
The most important set were the three Fabelman houses in Haddon Township, New Jersey, Phoenix, Arizona, and Los Gatos, California. Their many chambers contributed to Sammy’s psychological, emotional, moral and artistic development. Carter and the art department (including set designer Karen O’Hara, supervising art director Andrew Cahn, and prop master Andrew Siegel) drew on a wealth of photographic reference material from the Spielberg family archives, as well as visits to the director’s childhood homes and haunts.
More: How ‘The Fabelmans’ Editors Helped Spielberg Deliver the Emotional Truth of His Personal Story
But their primary point of reference was the memories of Spielberg and his three sisters, Anne, Sue and Nancy. In fact, Carter’s designs for the New Jersey and Arizona houses were based on floor plans that Spielberg drew from memory (mainly the lower level of the New Jersey house). The goal of the production design was to interpret the space in a way that captures the spirit of memories. “You develop a relationship together and you know pretty well what he needs and what he likes and doesn’t like,” Carter said. “But he likes to be surprised by the interpretation you come up with, as long as it hits the emotional core.”
The first Fabelman House in New Jersey was designed to capture Sammy’s inner life and how his love of filmmaking permeates every corner. The garage becomes a soundstage filming the toy sets falling down; a small dark closet becomes Sammy’s private screening room. “Aesthetically, we had a lot of leeway with the colors, but there was one color that was based on something that she remembered, and she had a photo of green in the living room,” Carter said.
“The Fabelmans”: Sammy’s Phoenix’s bedroom
The Phoenix house was an elongated, one-story, ranch-style house. Her bright desert shades with splashes of blue were a favorite of Leah Adler. They even copied a bronze image that sat above the piano in the living room. “What became really interesting about Phoenix is that he became more of himself as a filmmaker,” Carter added. “So it wasn’t just the equipment that was accurate, it was all the scripts that Steven drew to match the shooting of the film within the film and the way he still draws today.”
The third Fabelman house was a Northern California craftsman. The design was older, gloomy and gentle. This was not determined by specific references from Spielberg’s childhood, but was chosen to reflect the Fabelmans’ darkening mood. The mess of unpacked moving boxes reflects a family in physical and emotional transition.
“The Fabelmans” Steven Spielberg Storyboard
“Each house has a different sensibility,” Carter added, “because it’s not just moving through time, it’s almost a three-act structure: It started on the East Coast and crossed the desert to California in the sense that it’s the Promised Land.” .”
Carter describes Sammy’s hero’s journey as Manifest Destiny to find himself. He turns to Hollywood, where he meets the legendary director John Ford (the wonderfully ferocious David Lynch), who sums up the importance of composing the image with the right placement of the horizon, whether above or below. Spielberg actually improvised the shot in the finale of Sammy happily leaving the area with the horizon overhead. “I think of the production design of ‘The Fabelmans,'” Carter said, “visually, it’s as vertical as it is horizontal, in terms of where it goes.” From the landscapes of the John Ford series to the film, within the film, what you’re watching.”