Production Designer: Lilly Kilvert -June 2012

One thing Hollywood production designer Lilly Kilvert can not live without is her personal research library.

by: Terry Pommett

photography by: Terry Pommett

With over 25 feature films to her credit, many of them period pieces, she relishes immersing herself in old photo, architectural and historical books.

The visual integrity of a film is her responsibility, and perhaps even more than the director and cinematographer, she needs to create the look and style of what the camera will capture. It is a key creative role, and her great success over the past three decades has much to do with her attention to detail and preparation.

While Kilvert’s career in the film industry is all-consuming, she finds time almost every summer to come back to the island where she grew up with her brothers and sisters at the iconic family home at the corner of Main and Gardner streets. Those formative years, hanging out with a big, extended family, going to the beach, sailing at the Nantucket Yacht Club and exploring an island that was very different than what it is today – simpler, less affected – has shaped her views on what’s important in life and her work.

“As children we used to run around like lunatics on the island, but we were not completely out of control, so everything was great. There is a certain quality to New England people that makes me good at my job, and that is that I’m thrifty and logical,” Kilvert said.

“If something doesn’t feel right, I’ll take time and walk around the block to figure out what’s wrong. New Englanders tend to be cerebral when it comes to stuff like that. I won’t waste money on a building or a set if the scene can be shot in a phone booth. And I won’t make a movie I wouldn’t spend 10 bucks on.”

Kilvert’s first job as art director was on “Alambrista!” in 1977.

“I had no intention of becoming a production designer, but once I found out what a production designer did, it was like a bolt of lightning. I decided that was the job for me. I had studied architecture and I was a good photographer. So I hounded producer Michael Houseman for about six months and he finally gave me a job. I had no skills what-soever, but I learned fast,” Kilvert said.

By 1982, she had became a production designer on the feature “Loveless,” directed by newcomer Kathryn Bigelow. Since then it’s been an exciting ride for the Nantucketer and Bard College graduate. Her career includes work with many of Hollywood’s finest directors, cinematographers and actors.

Films such as “To Live and Die in LA,” “In the Line of Fire,” “The American President,” “City of Angels,” “Ghosts of Mississippi” and “Valkyrie” all bear her stamp.

Her first major award nomination came from the Art Directors Guild for her production design on “The Crucible.” Her knowledge of colonial New England and in particular, her childhood home at 105 Main St., gave her the visual platform to anchor her imagination.

“Probably the best time I ever had on a film was making ‘The Crucible,’ partly because I was in Ipswich, Massachusetts, partly because I was building a town that existed in 1696 and my dad’s home was built in 1692. John Proctor (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) was living in the home I grew up in.”

Like a general contractor, Kilvert’s role as production designer requires her to assemble a complex creative team to actualize her vision. It includes the art director, set decorator, stylists and construction workers.

The team she assembled for “The Crucible,” written by Arthur Miller and set in 17th-century Salem, Mass., has been with her now for over 18 years.

One of the few successful female set designers working in Hollywood today, Kilvert has received multiple nominations for awards for her work and received two Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction–Best Set Direction, for films that required her to recreate specific historical periods: 19th century Japan in “The Last Samurai” and early 20th century Montana in “Legends of the Fall.”

With the success of “The Crucible,” Kilvert’s focus on historical accuracy only intensified. For “Legends of the Fall,” set in Montana and starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, she defined the look of the film by scouring early Russian photography books.

“It was an incredible experience. I had never met (Edward) Zwick, the director, before, but he was so encouraging. I showed him a book of locations in turn-of-the-century Russia that had a number of photos of dachas. The truth is, a lot of Scandinavians settled that area in Montana and I felt if we put a Russian feel to the house we wouldn’t be doing the wrong thing. He said go for it and so I got to build this incredible house in the middle of nowhere.” Research for “The Last Samurai,” also directed by Zwick, was even more intense. A separate bookcase in her three-level West Hollywood home is filled with books of Japanese photos, paintings and history.

“I love to travel and I love traveling to do research. Who wouldn’t love to visit the emperor’s home in Japan?” Kilvert said.

Kilvert’s work is based on the premise that production design should not be so much about splashy art, but rather how it supports the storytelling of the film. All her films reflect that philosophy. Her sets are often striking, but never overpowering. They fit consistently within the framework of the story. They’re realistic.

“You can have a great design and artwork, but if it doesn’t advance the story, it’s worthless,” she said.

The collaborative nature of filmmaking is much like athletes coming together for an all-star game, she said. For Kilvert, it begins with the director and cinematographer. Prior to shooting they are joined at the hip preparing the look of the film. When filming begins, the three of them are on set together most of the day.

“As much as the director is crucial to me in prep, once the shooting starts, his focus shifts to the actors. He has other stuff to deal with, while the DP (Director of Photography) and I continue to discuss how to get our imagery into the camera. I talk to him every day. It’s the way I work. I go to Poland every year to a great international festival, called Camerimage, dedicated to cinematographers. I see a lot of my DP friends there. Cinematographers are generally on my side when I’m working. I look through the camera a lot, because I have to get the film to look like the way I designed it. I can’t set up a scene and then walk away. And DPs know this is in their best interest. If I need 15 minutes to adjust something, they’ll generally give it to me. We take care of each other.”

Observing the state of the industry, Kilvert has some opinions. Regarding big versus small or moderate, she contrasted the colossal failure of “John Carter” ($250 million budget) with the success of “Moneyball” ($50 million). She felt “John Carter” had bad publicity and relied too much on the ‘wow’ factor. “Studios need to have a big-name actor like Tom Cruise if they’re going to spend that much. Also, the director was unproven and cost overruns were astronomical. There’s always a point where’s it’s too late, and there’s no sense in stopping spending because there won’t be anything to show in the end. Everyone hates getting to that point,” Kilvert said.

On the other hand, she sees “Moneyball” as a people film, telling a story that transforms us as human beings.

“In the end we want to see how a journey is made. Brad Pitt was just so relaxed and full of vinegar in his role. Jonah Hill looked like he was holding his breath the whole time. The dialogue was great. Look at the list of films nominated (for Academy Awards) this year. Many were smaller, story-driven films. Studios are figuring out they can make five or six smaller films and have greater success than one big blockbuster for the same price. And the risk is much less,” she added.

Considering “Hugo,” Martin Scorsese’s film which won the 2012 Oscar for Production Design, Kilvert points to the excessive use of computers to tell the story.

“ ‘Hugo’ certainly won for the amount of production design, but I had trouble getting through it,” she said, explaining that when a scene has camera moves and background sets that don’t seem physically possible, it’s probably because it was stitched together with computers.

She prefers to control the imagery on the day of the shoot, not in post-production.

“I can correct or build something in 15 minutes rather than incur the cost to CGI it in post. And if you leave too many things to be dropped in later, mistakes can be made. Anyway, I won’t even be there. There’s a conflict going on in our union because we’re not present during post. Hopefully the director will stand up for you, but you can lose control of the visuals,” Kilvert said.

In her 30 years in the business, Kilvert said she’s seen a lot of changes in the industry.

“There was a time when you’d come together as a family, eat together and then sit down and watch the previous day’s dailies. Now you get handed a DVD and go home and watch it on your TV. It’s a different experience and I think it is a loss. You learn so much from watching dailies together. On ‘American President’ we had improperly lit the Oval Office the day before and in the dailies we caught it. I figured it out and fixed it for the rest of the movie.” Many of the productions Kilvert works on are no longer filmed in Los Angeles. She spends most of her time these days working in Spain, England and the Balkans. Films are generally made where it’s cheapest to make them, without losing the production values, or where there are hefty rebates given by the host country or state, she said. Think Mississippi, Oklahoma, Belgrade,

Barcelona. Detroit used to be a popular location destination for all types of films, but lost its popularity when the rebates were dropped. There’s been a lot of attempts at union-busting as well, Kilvert said.

The last film she worked on, prior to a television pilot for HBO’s “Luck,” was a smaller production shot in Spain, called “Lope,” directed by Brazilian director Andrucha Waddington. It was a period film chronicling the life of Spanish playwright Lope de Vega and right up Kilvert’s alley. She had decided that she wanted to leave big productions behind and work on smaller films. She had even scouted a couple of projects. But then a funny thing happened: A major studio came calling with a new Brad Pitt feature.

“All I can say is that it’s a thriller to be shot in six countries called ‘The Grey Man’ and has a great director, James Craig. I spent three weeks crunching numbers on this one. How to get the cost down to the lowest possible figure and still be able to accomplish what I need to do. It’s not the normal way to work. Usually they’ll agree to the money and then say, ‘OK, give us a budget,’ and then I’ll go step by step over it with my crew. But the business has changed. Now you have to back your way into it,” Kilvert said.

Fortunately, she has a feel for this type of thing. Growing up in New England and living on Nantucket has shaped her ability to find a way through the tall timber. 

Terry Pommett is a photojournalist living on Nantucket.

Latest issue...

To view the magazine full size, click the image above.