HOLLYWOOD BEHIND THE SCENES WITH PAUL SONSKI Hollywood has been fascinating us with great movies and special effects for decades. Many of us can credit the great movies of Hollywood for our sources of inspiration, memories, and emotions, but behind the silver screen and the fancy red carpets, there are people whose imaginations soar far and high to create some of the details that make some of our favorite movies so wonderful. From The Help, to The Amazing Spiderman, to Jurassic Park, Paul Sonski has been one of those people. As both a set designer and art director for some of the most famous Hollywood movie sets, Paul has plenty to say about the fantastic world of Hollywood. Interview by: Massiel Mancebo
MM: How did you get started in the film industry? PS: It was something that came about in a roundabout way. The first thing that happened was that I was born in 1954, and in 1964 The World’s Fair came to town, to New York City. I grew up in Connecticut and we took a family trip to New York for The World’s Fair. I was familiar with the Disney company through Walt Disney’s TV show The Wonderful World of Color and we had a neighbor who had the first clip he had made and I got to see the program in color on their set. I became really attracted to the show and to the different projects that were on that show, and then when we went to the New York’s World Fair I discovered that there were four attractions that were designed by the Disney company. One was the “Small World” ride, another was “The Carousel of Progress”, I think another was “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” and another the “Ford Magic Skyway”, and those particular attractions really stood out in my mind. When I discovered later that he had designed them, I thought that would be a really great company to work for. I was also inspired by my uncle; he was a contractor builder who designed his own home, so he had all these drawings that he had done, and my dad was an industrial art teacher who was interested in construction, wood working, metal working, photography and electronics. With that inspiration, I think I came away feeling interested in architecture and ended up going to school in Boston, Massachusetts for architecture for two years, then Syracuse University for three years to get a Bachelors of architecture degree. In the process of all that, I really wanted to discover more about California, and when I graduated College, I decided that I wanted to move to California, Los Angeles more specifically and work for the Disney company. I pursued them but I didn’t get in right away, I sent my portfolio from Connecticut to what was then called the WED (Walter Elias Disney Enterprises). That was the theme park and architectural division of the company which was separate from the film and animation studio. Eventually a friend and I drove to California in 1980, I settled in Los Angeles and by being here I was able to pursue the WED enterprises again (I remember they were working on the Epcot
center at the time). When I first moved I was needing money and so I ended up working at an architecture firm similar to the one I had left in Connecticut, all the while I pursued work for the theme parks. I actually had an interview at Disneyland and they said I was overqualified, but then when I tried to get work at WED they said they didn’t have anything for me, so I was kind of stuck in the middle. One of the things I had done out of college in Connecticut was join an architectural firm, and I wanted something more creative, so I got involved in a community theatre group. When I moved to L.A. I ended up joining a community theatre in Santa Monica as well. I think the combination of working for the architect in Santa Monica and then working in the community theater helped me to get some more credentials to get the job at Disney to work at Epcot; I worked there for about a year from 1981 to 1982 at the Horizon’s Pavillion, it was Disney’s idea of the future. I think that my whole career has been me being at the right place at the right time, the whole concept of one door closing and another window opening. While I was working at Disney, I met a couple of people who were working alongside me who had also done film and television, and it was common for designers to go back and forth between projects. In 1983 I ended up working for another small theme park design company and got more experience in set design. At that time I was interested in creating architectural drawings of sets. I discovered that there was a position in television and film called “set design” which was doing the architectural drawings for the construction department of the sets. I also worked for a company called Showscan, it was a highspeed, high-resolution, film system, which had taken all of Thomas Edison’s basic film making system aspects, and make an improvement of them –which they did. Anyways, I worked for them for a bit and eventually someone said to me: “Hey you should talk to this guy Hank Meyer at Universal Studios Television, he’s looking for people and you could get a job there.” As I took my time to figure out how to make it in the film industry, I realized there was a bit of a trick. You had to get a job in the union to be able to work in the film studios, but you couldn’t get into the union unless you were working… It was a bit of a catch-twenty-two. So what I did was I went ahead and called that guy Hank Meyer, and when I called him he would
always say: “I have nothing this week, call back the next.” Meanwhile I needed money, I needed to work, the company I was working for was changing. About a year passes, I was sort of running out of work and someone tells me to call Hank again. I called him and I said: “I heard you were looking for people” and he said: “Not this week call back next” and see, what he did was he used the same exact tone of voice, same words, same phrase –just like he had said it over and over thousands of times. I heard that and thought hmm… that seems odd, I heard this last year, so I called him back and I said to him: “ I don’t want you to lose out on an opportunity to work with somebody good, I’d like to come in and show you my work.” I think he was kind of intrigued by that. He didn’t have any positions at the time but I thought, let me at least get in and make a contact, show him my face and see what happens. MM: That definitely took a lot of confidence and guts to say that, after being rejected. PS: I don’t know where that came from, there have been two things that have happened to me that I have been surprised at doing. I’m really not an outgoing person, I am not a business man sort of person, I’m really more creative. I had this strong interest to drive cross country from Connecticut to California, that was one major thing I did, and then to call him back and say that. I don’t know what came over me, I just sort of said it. So I came in and I showed him my drawings and I ended up starting at Universal Television back in the fall of 1985. MM: Growing up did you know this is what you wanted to do? PS: My early feelings were influenced by film, and architecture. I liked watching TV, I liked movies, and architecture. As a kid I would find myself in the backyard building little things out of sand and water. Growing up in North Central Connecticut had something to do with it. I loved the idea of architecture, so I went to Architecture school but then I found that it wasn’t as creative so I got involved in theatre. I could relate better to the weirdo people who were the black sheep of the town. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, so my dad asked me: “what do you like?” I told him I liked film, and TV, I liked being creative and building things, so he suggested architecture school. He said: “it’s only two years, see if you like it” and I did.
The World’s Fair in NY 1964-65 for Disney really inspired me to continue as well. Eventually I liked the speed and creativity that film offered. You kind of draw and design and build something and film it, then you take it all down, so the creative process is constantly moving. I always knew I didn’t want to stay in “boring” Connecticut, I wanted to go to Los Angeles. I liked the variety that the city offered, it wasn’t the prettiest city in the world, but I’m not looking for pretty. L.A. was like a working industrial city that generated fantasy, and generated creativity. It’s all these creative people in these sort of oddball neighborhoods. Some people come here be-
and then he hires a team of people to make that vision happen; he hires illustrators, set designers, and artists to develop the idea. Sometimes an illustration or a photograph can be a bit vague, but the specific translation from fantasy to the hard reality of a having a construction team build something goes to the set designer. So we have to translate the information from the illustration or the photograph and make it a reality. For Jurassic Park for instance, I was assigned to the “visitor center” interior, and someone else was assigned to the exterior. The interior was made inside of a soundstage at Universal Studios, and we built different entrances and rooms. In
still the same. For instance, the theatre in the movie is original. We had to build another entrance that said “colored only” to show the segregation that was happening at that time. They also discovered the city of Greenwood, MS was good because it had the plantation, the exteriors, and all the sets were built on location. Minny’s house and Aibileen’s were built inside of a warehouse because they didn’t need to be outside for those, and also they were kind of intimate scenes where they were talking about important things. You want to have a much more comfortable and safe place for the actors to be in those kind of scenes. An interesting fact about this
the finale there’s a scene where our cast runs downstairs, they jump into a jeep, the dinosaur screams and then a banner comes down. The jeep was actually off set inside our soundstage. We had the actor driving inside, so we had to do this a few times to get it all in the right spot. He had to drive off and stop at the right time in order to not run into our service table and run over all our donuts and coffee. There was an exterior set in Hawaii, but there was no interior set on location there. See for Captain America: The Winter Soldier there’s a lot more visual effects. My project on that was to make the design for the control panel room, and the big screen for the wall. There was a large group of people working on this movie and that was just my one piece. For The Help it was very interesting -The director grew up with the writer of the book, they both had lived in Jackson, Mississippi, and they both had similar experiences with having nannies growing up. One of the things they wanted to do was to keep the movie set close to where they originally were, but Jackson had changed a lot from the way it was in the 1950s. They managed to find one street and a couple of buildings that were
movie was Skeeter’s house for instance: The exterior was a plantation that we had found in Greenwood. It had the right look outside, but the inside was dark and had a lot of the owners stuff inside, strange wall paper, it didn’t fit, so we ended up finding a house that belonged to a retired state congressman that was used for the interior. There were things we had to do to make both houses similar. We were very lucky to find so many locations that had stopped in time. Of all my films, I think The Help was one that really photographed well.
The essence of Paul Sonski: Collage of some of Paul’s favorite moments.
cause they want to be here, and that’s me. MM: You’ve gotten the opportunity to work on films like Jurassic Park, The Help, and most recently Captain America: The Winter Soldier, What does your work on these films consist of? PS: Well I ended up being on a list from the union that said I was available to work on different projects that I was requested for. I was recommended by different people, and so from working on television I ended up moving on to working on feature films. One of the first projects that I did was a Leave it to Beaver remake, I worked on a show called Murder She Wrote, which was very popular at the time, I also worked a lot on Air Wolf which was a helicopter adventure show. I eventually got to work on Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, and that was great for me because I eventually got to network with people who worked with Steven. That’s how I ended up working on Back to the Future 2 and 3. The art department works as a team led by the production designer who is the creative force behind the department. Creatively he interacts with the director. He has a visual concept of what he wants the film to look like,
MM: What are some of the elements you look for in creating the perfect ambiance for a movie set? PS: I guess it would be lighting; if you have good lighting and good color, the DP can photograph it well. Having a lot of interesting textures, anything to create an ambiance, you want it to photograph well. You need good shapes and proportions that will work well within the frame of the camera. You always want a room to be the right proportions, the right colors and textures. For example, the set decorator is in charge of all the loose stuff: furniture, paintings,
-pictures, anything that’s on shelves, anything that’s brought in. My work is to do the architectural building part of the design of the set so you want to accommodate them. You want to create spaces or nooks on shelves, so that they can place things in the right place; you want to make their work look good as well. MM: What has been the most challenging film to work on? PS: It’s funny… one of the most challenging films that I keep going back to is a movie called The Indian in the Cupboard, it’s based on a book. It’s about a little boy who finds this magical little cabinet off in an alley somewhere, and he finds that he can put his plastic Native Indian toy in there and he comes out alive (the same size) but alive. For this film we were working a lot with scale and small spaces. Most of the movie takes place in the boy’s bedroom which is this 12 x 12 room and we had one actor which played the boy so we created 3 identical rooms, matching everything. One of them was up on a platform where you can put cameras in the floor, so you could lift the floor boards so when the Indian was running around, you could see the Indian’s point of view. We had to also create oversize pieces. The Indian was a 6’ft actor played by a 3” inch plastic toy so everything had to be 24 times full size. So if he’s going to be standing next to a baseball or birds nest… just imagine what it had to be like for him to be standing next to a light switch. Everything that the Indian actor has to be next to, was made that much bigger. We had to build a giant bed post, a giant window sill, everything had to be bigger, including the dirt, the scratches, everything. In order to get it to look right we had to use the right lighting to make it look like I was looking down at a little actor, not that an actor was standing next to giant pieces. The trick was to make things look normal, that was a challenge. MM: What was your favorite or some of your favorite films to work on and why? PS: I don’t have a favorite… They are all great experiences, they are all interesting. Even if they’re not such successful movies. Some of my favorite movies to work on are some of the biggest box office flops. I worked on two Adam Sandler movies, That’s My Boy, and Grown Ups 2, they were really great people to work with, really fun. They both took place in the Boston
area which is where I went to school, and my family went on vacation there as a kid, so the experience was really excellent. War of the Worlds was really fun. I was working on a segment where they were climbing up a mountain with the military and they’re fighting off aliens; we did that on a hillside north of Los Angeles. It all had to tie in with a farm house that was filmed in Virginia. It all had to blend well together. MM: What are some of the films you enjoy and admire creatively? PS: God that’s a good question, I haven’t seen many films in theatres. I’ve sort of stopped doing that recently… I think I’ve gotten spoiled using DVD and DVR, I’ve also gotten a bit cranky around people who are chewing and slurping while I’m watching movies (laughs). I could go back to the classics: Wizard of Oz was very striking when I first saw it as a kid, I was also a big fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey but I didn’t understand it and I was a bit put off by it, I was maybe a Freshman in High School when I saw it, but when Star Wars comes out in 1977, it was so much more relatable. Jaws was a really good film, it had an impact on me; I was actually in Cape Cod near Martha’s Vineyard reading the book on the beach before I saw the movie. I also enjoy and admire creatively the films that I’ve worked on. MM: What are some of the artistic skills you cultivated to become a set designer? PS: One of the skills I cultivated was to not take everything so personally. I’m somewhat low-key in my personality, I don’t have a lot of ego that gets in the way, and I’m quite agreeable, but I do have ideas, and so I know when to be of service to my bosses and when to support them, so I can help people to do their job. Sometimes I find that I have to read the designers, and see if they’re looking for advice and suggestions. The trick is to find the right time to say: “how about we do it this way, what about this suggestion?” Some encourage input, but some have specific ideas and suggestions, and I try to do it the best I can. Keep your ego in check but pull it out when you need to. Try to keep a calm balance in the chaos but always take action to support people you are working for even when you don’t agree with them. Another advice is you never know who you are going to work with, some of the simplest production assistants have recommended my name to some of the
biggest jobs. You want to help them and guide them. They are appreciative, which is natural, it’s basic good will, and in turn the good comes back which has happened a lot in my career. If you have a personality that’s caring and loving towards all of mankind, that’s your formula for success. MM: Any big goals, projects, movies coming up? PS: I have a possibility of working on a musical, but I’m not sure, so that’s all the information I have on that. The last thing I worked on was a TV series called A to Z, I think it’s a sitcom built around two people: Andrew and Zelda. The last thing I worked on was doing drawings for the construction of that set, and that’s coming out on NBC this Fall. I worked on a movie called American Sniper based on the story of Chris Kyle, America’s most decorated military sniper, who ended up writing a book about it and then was shot and killed by one of his service men friends about a year and a half ago. It’s going to be played by Bradley Cooper and directed by Clint Eastwood. MM: What are your words of wisdom for young creatives? PS: First of all you need to be punctual, you need to be on time. Be passionate, find out everything you can about the aspect of the business you want to be in by researching it online which is now available (I didn’t have that when I was growing up) and by talking to people that are actually in the business. Everyone’s got a different story and everyone’s got a different experience but they are all part of the same world. You’ve got to keep pursuing it because if you don’t pursue it you don’t get it. MM: A quote or statement that you live by? PS: Lately I try to keep my sanity from getting too overwhelmed and confused by using the phrase: “what’s the next best thing?” so I can kind of keep order and not start opening 3 and 4 projects at once, not get scattered. I always say: “If you’re on time then you’re already late” hmm… I don’t know if I have an overall sentence that says my philosophy. I’d say stay positive, and stay interested, and stay passionate, I’d say those three things because I struggle to hold on to those, I have to remind myself to hold on. I’ve learned that some of my best surprises are when one door closes and another one opens, which is completely out of my control.
Published on Jan 12, 2017
An amazing interview with one of Hollywood's leading set designers and art directors Paul Sonski. He worked on the art and sets of movies li...