Setting The Stage

Wynn Thomas On Designing Spike Lee's paean to jazz, MO' BETTER BLUES

Portions of this interview appeared in the June 1990 issue of Millimeter Magazine

beneath the underdog

Thomas served as production designer for director Spike Lee's first several films, beginning with SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT. The following is a transcript of an interview with Thomas at the Empire Stages in Long Island City in November of 1989, at which time he described the development of this modern throw-back to another era in music.

Thomas: This was a sort of typical film in terms of my relationship with Spike, in terms of the type of discussion that I have. I must say that with Ernest this was a different film in a sense that Ernest was not around, he was away making another picture. Normally he's around very early in the process and as a result of his presence he's usually involved in the whole design process a little bit more. Because he was away on this film, I essentially designed a set without his consultation. That is different then how it has been in the past. For example on DO THE RIGHT THING, I would speak to Spike, and then I would speak to Ernest, and as a result of that, for example with Sal's Pizzeria was originally a sort of boxy square room, and as a result of my conversation with Ernest I gave it more of an L-shape.

You know that the room leads off to other places.

Exactly. And that developed as a result of my conversations with Ernest. So we do work very closely in terms of planning the space together. Sometimes Spike is involved in these conversations, sometimes he's not. He has a tendency to leave me alone in terms of the whole design process. This film was a typical experience that way; we had our initial conversations at the beginning in July, and his feeling on the nightclub was that he wanted the whole space to be connected. He wanted to be able to have one continuous Steadicam shot. And the ironic thing here was that in my own head I had decided that, well, wouldn't it be neat if the whole thing were connected? So we were operating on the same wavelength, which is good. I mean, it just sort of confirms, I sometimes feel this group works now by osmosis as opposed to having hours and hours of discussion. I wish I could say we do, for some reason that seems to be interesting, but we don't. In my opinion we're kind of in-sync with each other. One of the reasons Spike doesn't have to say so much is that after all he is the writer of the script. He gives the script to us, and as artists or as craftspeople we are responding to what is in the script. He doesn't really need to elaborate that much more, because he's given us the blueprint in the script. And then we go to him when we need specific information.

My relationship with Ernest is a little bit more detailed in terms of the extent of the conversation because with Ernest I'm really starting to deal with shots, how the shots are going to work, the planning of the lighting, because one of the ways you can support your director of photography is to give him areas of motivated light. So as a result of that my conversations with Ernest seem to be a lot more detailed in terms of the specifics of the script. And that's because I think again he has to light it, at that point we really start talking about movement, in terms of the actors, the placement of scenes. But again, all of this comes from Spike's script, we're being stimulated by Spike's script. And at least with my relationship with Spike I go back to [him] when I'm unsure of something, of the way an actor should move in a scene, the details of the character that will be projected on the set. And that relationship has been consistent from the beginning. That's how we've worked since SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT.

When does Spike lets you know if something is or is not working?

You know how you know? Spike will ask a question. If something is not right, he will come to a room, he'll come into a set, and he'll have a question about it. It's very rare when it happens, but he'll come and he'll question something.

It just won't feel right?

Yeah, and usually 99% of the time that question is appropriate and correct because I've made the wrong choice. And it happens in reverse; usually when I'm unsure of something, about a choice that I'm making in terms of dressing a set or the placement of an object on that set, whenever I go to question him about it, I'm usually making the wrong decision, because he confirms that. Again, it's an instinctual relationship that we have here. I'm not being as articulate as I would like to be about it, but it's when I feel that something is wrong, it usually is wrong. And the times that he's comes to a set and has pointed out something he has felt is wrong, 99% of the time I end up agreeing with him, saying yes this is the wrong choice, and let's change it. And then all the other times, he walks into the set or he walks into the space and he doesn't have anything to say, it's fine, and it works. You can stage the scene, the atmosphere is right, it's working, it's functioning for the script, the details are correct.

Is that instinct common in your work with other directors?

No. What occurs here with this group is a very unique experience. I don't have it anywhere else where I work. Usually I'm talking to the director much more, trying to get more specific information out of him, because they have a tendency to be more, I don't want to say anal, they want to control things a little bit more. Spike is very easy, and Ernest is very easy about letting other people make the contribution. So that tendency to feel the need to control every aspect of the whole entire process doesn't exist here.

When someone expresses that need to control every aspect, do you feel it's because they know what they want, or they really don't know what they want, but they're unsure how to express that?

Again it depends on the individual. There are some directors who are just control freaks, they feel as if they have to be able to control every aspect, and sometimes directors are doing their job; they have a certain vision in their head and they just want to make sure that you are understanding it completely or that they are controlling that vision through every single department. There's less of that dynamic going on here. It's a very free collaborative process. In terms of the nightclub, this nightclub is the big set in this picture; Spike's only concern was that it was not dark — he didn't want to do a picture like BIRD, or ROUND MIDNIGHT, most typical jazz pictures where they're usually in basement environments and it's very dark. And the reason this is a two-story nightclub is because, knowing these guys, again having worked with them enough, I wanted to give them the flexibility of having some high angle shots, of being able to use the Louma crane to come in and have all those sort of sweeping shots that you can get with the Louma crane. That's a design decision that came about as a result of working with them all these years.

So the information I got from him about the club was that all of the rooms had to be connected and that we didn't want it to be dark, from that conversation, I designed this club. For some people that's a small amount of information. But again my whole point is I am responding instinctually to what's in the script, and that's really all the information that he needs to give. He didn't need to say I want it pink or blue, I want it to have this type of bar. He doesn't need to say that to me.

And he responded favorably to it?


On the first day when they were opening up the stage, and Ernest came in, I noticed that there were some discussions and then they started changing color gels.

Right, oh, okay. Well, there's a cityscape in there, in the club, and Ernest's initial response to that was to use primary colors up there. Well, this is a set that has no primary colors. There are no reds or blues or yellows inside. As a result of that, to use primary colors to light the cityscape would have been a mistake. You have to use a mixture of other colors. That was again a discussion that he and I needed to have. The director of photography really is the lighting designer on these things. But fortunately Ernest and I have enough respect for each other, and care enough about each other to listen to each other, that I think his feeling was, well maybe what Wynn is saying here is right, let me at least look at it another way. And that's exactly what he did. And as a result he ended up using different colors, and much better colors, than the colors that he had originally chosen. I really hated the idea of using red in there, and he ended up using a sort of red-orange, which works very well on the set. His blue is not a primary blue, it's kind of a blue-green or aqua. It ended up being very nice as opposed to too harsh.

Now what were your inspirations for this particular set? You were pretty much given free reign...

I wanted to do a nightclub that had an older feeling. The history sort of would have been that the club peaked in the sort of `30s and `40s and was still being taken care of even today and that the original owners had given control of the club over to their sons. And as a result of that I was able to design a club that had lots of Art Deco shapes, and to have more, again, we were trying to work away from the idea of doing a traditional jazz club. My whole thing is that at some point or another I stopped calling it a jazz club and started calling it a jazz nightclub because as a result of that it has a whole different feeling, it's a little bit more glamorous, more festive, I can light it, and I could paint it any color that I wanted as a result of changing that, of going away from that traditional approach. So as a result I was able to draw on all this sort of Art Deco lines and colors that, I would not have been able to do that if we had designed a sort of typical black box sort of jazz club.

And the murals that are featured, those you designed and had painted?

Right. My influences were people from the 20s and 30s. There is a graphic designer named Cassandre, I don't know if I'm pronouncing that correctly, who was really sort of my primary influence in terms of the style of the paintings. So almost all of the sources and the inspirations came from the `20s and the `30s.

What is your relationship with the set decorator? How much information do you give to him?

A lot. We talk about, the set decorator really is the right-hand person to the production designer in terms of dressing or giving the sets their character. A set like the nightclub for example, a lot of it is architectural, but the set decorator's job is to come in and give the set its specific details. When you go on locations and you're dressing locations what really happens is that again you're dealing with the art director, the production designer's dealing with the sort of broad strokes and bringing in the set decorator to deal with the character or to give the rooms their personality. So the set decorator is a big part of the conceptual picture, and also a big part of giving each set its own sort of individual personality.

Can you talk about the location work that was done for this film? Apart from the sets that were constructed, I understand that there was another nightclub.

Yes, there's another nightclub which we shot at a restaurant called America on East 18th Street, and the whole idea [scripturally] again it was one of the good reasons... it was good to do Beneath the Underdog as a sort of 20s period club because at the end of the script there's a character who represents what I think a modern force in the script who wants to be more contemporary, who wants to appeal to a larger crowd. And we found, the nice thing about America the restaurant was it was a restaurant that we changed into a nightclub, is that it has this big sort of open contemporary airy feeling whereas Beneath the Underdog is much more intimate, and more atmospheric. And we wanted to go with something that was in contrast to Beneath the Underdog. So we took this restaurant and changed it into a nightclub called the Dizzy Club and the elements that we used there were much more contemporary, more pop, the lettering was much more of a pop culture type of lettering. We added lots of neon lighting in the stage area, So it's kind of a contrast between what the traditional jazz world and this sort of new contemporary modern jazz world. And it also sort of shows the jazz musicians that we're dealing with, the differences involved. And then there were some other locations, the big location was the main character in the script is a character named Bleek, and we have, he had a loft apartment which we found at a wonderful building at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. And we spent a lot of time converting that space into his apartment, building glass bedroom walls, just bringing in a lot of furniture to give it details.

In a case where you're making changes to a space that already exists, did you have designs for a set and say, we have to find a place that will fit this?

No, I think what happened here was again everything starts with Spike. I have my initial conversations with Spike, and My initial feeling on Bleek was that I wanted to make his apartment a little slick, very sort of high techy, and I think this is an example where Spike raised the questions, he said, well, You know, this character makes that much money. Which when you think of high tech you think of Italian furniture, a lot of leather furniture, all of that stuff costs a great deal of money, and just by raising that issue, the fact that this character is successful but not that successful, really shifted my whole approach to designing Bleek's apartment. And as a result I found a space that was a wide open space but had brick walls instead of slick formica walls and was able as a result the apartment has this sort of gritty feeling, as opposed to a slick feeling, and my initial point of view of the character was that he was a little slicker. And clearly that wasn't what Spike wanted. We found something that had more of a textural feeling as opposed to a slick, high tech feeling.

But did it turn out so that it looked as if a slick character lived in a gritty place because he wasn't making enough money?

No, it turns out that it actually ended up having the right emotional feeling, it was really exactly right. There are scenes where you see this character walking home from the nightclub playing on the Brooklyn Bridge, and one of the things I wanted to do, my feeling is, if you're gonna shoot the movie where the character lives in Brooklyn, it's got to be connected to the Brooklyn Bridge. And fortunately we found this loft this space right at the base of the bridge, so you could see out throughout all his windows this expanse of the Brooklyn Bridge. But in terms of the character choice and the apartment, it ended up being a more appropriate choice as opposed to my original view on Bleek's loft. Bleek is a traditionalist, in a way he's a man that believes in order, and he's not a man that believes in clutter, there wasn't a lot of fuss in the apartment. He has only the essential things he needs to survive, And in restrospect I'm glad I didn't go with my more Italian line or more modern line because that says something else. That would have made the character a little bit too cold. and by having what happened was I essentially put together a mixed-matched furniture. Some stuff that he would have gotten from his mother. For example there is a whicker chair this wonderful old green whicker rocker, that we see in Bleek's house as a child. There's a scene with his mother when he's a child and that piece of furniture is there. That piece of furniture also is with him when he goes to his apartment. So he has this old piece of rickety furniture that his mother gave him, and then he has this simple leather sofa, so it was bringing in lots of different styles of furniture to express the eclectic taste of this character, as opposed to going for a very sort of modern and simple line. So all the elements of his past as well as a few of the things he would have bought that reflect his apartment.

What did the actors bring to you this time, things they had ideas for these characters? When Denzel Washington (Bleek) comes to the set, does he say this is the sort of place my character would live in?

I think he felt comfortable in this space, which is an example of it working, of it being a success. I had one conversation with him in terms of what he felt his character would have, what types of furniture, rugs, details, and then Ted the set decorator and myself did the rest. And fortunately I think we made the right choices because you know, when an actor doesn't feel comfortable in a space, you can kind of sense it right away. They have a hard time moving in the space, they don't know where things are, and they should be able to come into a space and figure out how they would live in it, and he was able to do that with ease, which again means that we just did our homework correctly. We made the right guesses.

Was there any technical challenge in getting any of your designs, your ideas to fruition? Was there anything you designed that couldn't be built or fitted into the budget?

Well, you know the nightclub was a big challenge. I had never built a two story set before, and also I had to design a ceiling to light it. I didn't want to show Ernest's lights, I didn't want to hang a lot of lighting pipes in the set because I thought that would destroy the architecture of the set so I had to design a ceiling which is essentially a grid and there's a series of panels that slide out and behind all those panels are the lights to light the club when we're not looking at the ceiling. And that was I didn't really know how to solve that problem but that was just a way I solved it and why. That just came about after my discussions with Ernest on in terms of how...

And it worked out okay?

It worked out fine. There was nothing that, I had a very good crew and there was nothing that seemed to be impossible. but uh I think also my crew has a tendency that when they have a certain sort of construction problems they sort of work it out and let me just deal with the graphics of it as opposed to the details on how to solve these specific technical problems. Or if they're having problems they will come to me with a variety of solutions and we will make a choice from the solutions that they've suggested for me. But when you look at the set it's really rectangular it's a very sort of simple set, there are built-in problems, but those are the problems that you run into whenever you build a set. when you construct some type of to hold 80 people--how do you construct a second floor to hold 80 people? You discuss those things with your carpenters before you go ahead and design the whole thing. At least I do anyway. I wanted to comment on something else. How it's changed, how the group has changed. As opposed to when you were first working with Spike, with no time or money.

Exactly. Also they, for example on SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, there was an art department budget of 800 dollars, which is impossible to work with. But also the group, Monty Ross and Spike Lee and Ernest, had a lot less experience than they do now. This whole thing, these last four pictures has been a developmental process for everyone. Some people in the group had a little bit more experience than others, some people had no experience, but I think we're all at the same place now, in terms of what we know, our knowledge. I think Spike really learned how to make movies on SCHOOL DAZE, SCHOOL DAZE was the film where he learned how to make pictures. Back at the beginning of the SCHOOL DAZE experience, for example just in terms of they used to hire people who didn't know what they were doing, they meaning Monty Ross and Spike Lee. They thought they knew what they were doing, but they did not. They don't make those mistakes anymore. The location manager was a friend of theirs who knew Atlanta, but who had never had any experience dealing with locations. Well, locations are essential, and so they're probably the most important part...

Especially since they were working with places...

Unaccustomed with dealing with movies, yeah,

And you're working with a very short time-frame, on college campuses...

We actually got thrown off locations and part of that was because of this inexperienced locations person. And there were other dynamics that were also part of this picture. But what I'm saying here is that when they were making SCHOOL DAZE, they felt that, well yeah, this is a person that's energetic and has ideas, this'll be a good locations person. and it doesn't work that way. It takes a very special personality and a person's who's experienced to do locations. As a result of that experience, there was a big change by the time we got to DO THE RIGHT THING. Cause they realized that they really had to get the team together that had the experience and the knowledge of how to do this so that we wouldn't have the problems that we had on SCHOOL DAZE. That was I mean there were a lot of things that happened on SCHOOL DAZE I think just in terms of scheduling, in terms of how to approach shooting for example I don't there was a time period, when I look back on SCHOOL DAZE, we built a lot of sets for that picture, but a lot of them weren't shot properly. That doesn't happen today. They make sure, Ernest and Spike make sure that they get every single value out of it, and I built this big Fraternity house for SCHOOL DAZE and you see maybe one wall, two walls, That doesn't happen today. Nowadays they go into a set, if they like it, they make sure they get the coverage that they didn't care about then. they didn't quite know how to take advantage of covering the set or how to stage scenes to cover.

Do you think it's because that at the time they were more concerned with other factors?

I think there were other factors, [for example] they were concerned about the actors.

In SCHOOL DAZE there was a lot of very theatrical lighting, in the dramatic or realistic scenes, scenes were shot in say all blue, or half the set was red the other half was really dark. Was that taken into account when you were designing sets for it?

No, that was not taken into account, and again I think that was the development of the relationship that we do talk a little bit more about those things, the cityscape being the prime example of it. Whereas with Ernest there was less talk back then. He is concerned now about my feelings about how things are lit or how things are being framed in the camera, and he wasn't as concerned back then. And we weren't having a terrible time, I think it's just been the development of the collaborative process. And I think that they've gotten easier, Spike's gotten better at staging things. I hope they don't hate me for saying this, but they've all gotten better at staging a scene within a set.

And as a result the set looks better?

As a result we are now getting all the values from the set. If I give them 360 [degrees] they now will do their best to get 360. Whereas when we did SCHOOL DAZE I'd give them this wonderful fraternity house, and they got a quarter of it, and they could have staged it differently where they would have shot [it all]. I think if we were to go back and shoot SCHOOL DAZE now, it'd be a completely different picture. SCHOOL DAZE was the picture on which we all learned how to make movies, that was the one, where we sort of fine-tuned the craft. That's been a change and a development. Like for example I was just talking with Monty Ross, the producer about this. Monty and I used to have fights all the time during SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT and in the beginning of SCHOOL DAZE. And we haven't fought in years now. And there are two reasons for that: primarily now because the team that we've put together is the right team. It knows how to support not just me but all the other departments. That wasn't the case back during those two films; and there's a lot more money now, so we're not having financial fights. I used to have to fight him for 50 dollars during SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT to get air to blow up balloons. Nowadays we don't have those types of fights. But more importantly than the financial thing is that they as a producing team are putting together the right craftspeople to make the picture. They didn't always do that.

So what are you looking forward to now?

I hope they continue to hire me, I'm very happy here, I feel very much a part of the family here. I hope they continue to hire me, but I don't take it for granted.

But also going out and working with other directors, other directors of photography.

I can only hope that my relationships with other people will be as good as they are here, and as open to discussion as they are here. Because there's a freedom here that is really wonderful, and there's a family atmosphere here. And because the core group has done so many films together now we're all aware of each other's quirks and personalities, which just makes working easier.

Since working on these films together, how do you think you've developed as an artist? What areas of expertise that you had have you felt have gotten better or brought to the forefront, maybe something you didn't know you could do and found that you could do it with ease?

Well, I think I don't know about other artists or designers, but you know I was never quite sure if I was a good production designer. I now feel that I am. The more you do it, the more secure you become in your abilities, and I am now secure in my abilities; I know that can do this, I do have the capacity to design a picture so that the look makes sense for the entire picture, that there's a thread throughout the whole film. There is a conceptual look through the entire picture as opposed to it being a mismash of sets or feelings. I've learned to trust my instincts, that my instincts never lie to me. I think what has happened is just a matter of me I've become a more secure artist or craftsperson, and the more work you do all your skills are being tightened. In terms of painting, in terms of decorating the set, in terms of working with all the people that I have to work with, I think my skills have gotten a lot better over the years. I don't think my relationships have changed with anyone. I still kind of relate to Spike the same way, and to Ernest the same was as I did on SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT, except that we're all now a little more in-tuned. When Ernest returned from his film that he was working on in Curacao, we had to show him all the locations, and you know the DP does have veto power, and nothing was vetoed. That's a very good sign. That says something.

Are you surprised that this shoot went as smoothly as it did?

No, because I think everybody is quite comfortable and competent at what they're doing, and it's how it should be: a set without any tension or madness, and people just doing their jobs, and doing their jobs well. This is how moviemaking should be. There's no need for the hysterics, and there's no hysterics on this set. You go downstairs and it's very quiet, there's no hysterics down there. First of all, because there's one person in charge and that's Spike. And I don't think

Is he serving as producer on this film as well as director?

Uh hmm. He runs the game down there, and there's no one else. Then there's Ernest, the hierarchy exists for a reason, and those people do their jobs well. Spike and Ernest do their jobs very well, they're very confident about what they're doing, they sometimes make mistakes or whatever, but you at least know who to go to to get an answer to your question. And that creates a certain comfort on the set.



For Related Articles on MO' BETTER BLUES by David Morgan:

  • Interview With Costume Designer Ruth Carter (for Millimeter, 1990)

  • Interview With Cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (for Millimeter, 1990)

  • Interview With Editor Sam Pollard (for Millimeter, 1990)

    copyright 1989, 1997, 2009 by David Morgan
    All rights reserved.