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Production Design Interview: Building the World(s) of "Room"

Once you've seen Room, you're unlikely to forget "Room". To Jack (Jacob Tremblay) "Room" is the entire world. He names everything in it and says hello each morning to the only (inanimate) friends he has ever known. The space had to be tight, visually distinctive, and emotionally specific. And you had to have cameras function inside it. A tall order. For the challenge of designing Room and the world outside of it in Room, a Golden Globe Best Picture nominee, Lenny Abrahamson entrusted the ingeniously creative designer Ethan Tobman who had previously worked in low profile indies before attracting much attention for high profile work for music superstars like Beyonce, Eminem and Madonna.

We had the pleasure of talking to Tobman about his process, his time in music videos, and how he got emotionally inside and outside of Room to design it. 

NATHANIEL R: Room has such a memorably specific set, how do you even know where to begin on a project like this?

ETHAN TOBMAN: The way I approach any project, but specifically Room, is to read the script and put it away for a week and think about the things that inspired me about it. The research begins immediately, but I need to allow myself to think pretty abstractly about some of the emotional and thematic concepts. [More...]

Ethan with Brie and their director Lenny Abrahamson on the set of Room

In this scenario, I start before I meet any of the crew, by doing copious amounts of research on captivity. What does that look like? Of course you can start by looking at the Fritzl case and all the news reports that came out of that, and then you can move on to the Castro case. And those are extraordinarily different physical manifestations of captivity. But then, I found myself looking at, and what it’s like to be in some of the tiniest apartments in Hong Kong and Tokyo, and what it’s like to live in the impoverished mud huts in Kenya, and then solitary confinement in the American penal system, and then the Holocaust.

NATHANIEL: This does get abstract.

ETHAN TOBMAN: It’s very abstract, but it provides you with -- I call them nuggets of truth. What do the walls looks like? What are some of the personal affects that have been accumulated? What haven’t? What little objects of hope contribute to the survival, and what lead to their demise? And remember that while we were shooting Room, there was an extraordinary amount of back and forth about the coyotes, and immigration, and the crossing of the border, and we found horrifying evidence of confinement.

So the project is reverberating all around you while you're working.

In this case I actually did the research before I even met the director – it was part of my presentation to get the job! We found that it was a gold mine that we kept getting inspired by.

So then when does the team come in because production designers oversee so much.

In interviewing and hiring set decorator, prop master, art director, I tried to codify the visual language of the movie prior to their hire. They can add to it, and it can change as we cast and shot list and rehearse, but I think it’s really important as a designer to establish some visual research. That’s my job to inspire people above me and the people below me, in different methods.

That makes a lot of sense actually. So when it comes to like specific elements in movies that become – I don’t want to say iconic, but they become talismans for the audience, objects that you think about all the time when you think of the movie. Like "rug" for me. So is that something where the prop person or set decorator will pick one and show it to you, like, 'is this what you want?' How does choosing individual pieces work?

You never know what iconographic moments you’re going to create. I’ve done an incredible amount of music videos, either between these movies or prior to getting into movies. You never know what image is going to encapsulate that period or that story. Because Jack in the novel and in the script personifies every object, they’re all of equal import. Rug was extraordinarily important and my decorator and I would obsess over it, but then we’d obsess over the night stand and the lamp. They all have these backstories and these personalities; they are his friends.

Rug and Egg Snake

Rug comes up so frequently in interviews and talking to friends! But in the process of making a movie, it’s just as important as something you might not have noticed. Like the egg snake under the bed that took ten days of playing. My decorator and I, we’ve worked together before on this film, and there’s certainly a shorthand we’ve developed. I trust her implicitly and we both really inspire each other. In the case of Rug, we cast a really wide net, and just started ordering things that appealed to us, mostly online at first. And they’d show up. And we’d 'audition' them. We had ten beds, and ten lamps, and ten side tables, we had ten rugs. I do remember that we ordered five or six rugs and immediately jettisoned them, and we thought, 'None of these are going to work'. And the rug that ended up working; I knew I wanted to do a rope weave, a woven rug. I knew I wanted to do that because I wanted many, many colors in it that would be quite muted, and I wanted to show the weird tear, the blood stain of Jack’s birth to mirror his rebirth in the back of the pickup truck. That rug was a character: it needed to roll up at a certain speed, it needed to roll out at a certain speed. He needed to be able to breathe in it, but it couldn’t communicate any movement inside. It needed to be semipermeable. So, we auditioned them. My decorator and I rolled up in them, and I think we have videos of me rolling Mary up in a rug! (Laughs]

I want to ask you a little bit about your career in general, you’ve had this sudden flurry of film work in the past couple of years, but before that there wasn’t so much. What propelled all that? 

Ethan Tobman designed this Beyonce video, too.

Yeah, well, I was frustrated by independent film. At 22/23 years of age, I always wanted to tell stories, and I always wanted to tell stories where characters changed, and where people could be moved in one sitting. That was always the type of fiction that most moved me as a child. Certainly music videos and commercials were enormously inspiring. But they didn’t change me emotionally the way traditional narrative filmmaking did. So I got into independent film, and I discovered that I would pour my heart and soul into these movies and sometimes they wouldn’t come out, or they’d go to Sundance and they’d get distribution and come out for a week and be missed. Or worse, I would choose projects based on the design without considering how the character and the story were. As a result, I was frustrated.

The other thing that I learned in that period was, I’m the type of designer that really likes to create things from scratch, if they’re required. I’m not going to impose a build, but you don’t find a lot of that in independent film. You do, on the other hand, find a lot of that in music videos, commercials, Super Bowl Shows, and rock concerts. So we just sort of found each other. And I became very creatively fulfilled by shorter mediums. But it was never a means to an end. I always intended to get back into film, and once I started doing very large music videos and commercials that were getting notice in the film world, it did end up bringing me back.

I was gonna say -- that OK GO video that you did. I watched that so much. I can’t imagine how much work you had to do for that.

ETHAN TOBMAN: It was like a movie! [Laughs] That was my last job before Room, and Lenny saw it and was just so inspired by it. I don’t think it in any way got me the job, but it certainly created a delight for Lenny and I to talk about when we first met. You know, it was one of those things – in fact, it’s a brain tease not unlike how we approach Room, where we had to create an entirely permeable, modular set. I think jobs like that find you, you don’t go after them. The way my brain and heart likes to work as a creative is I like obstacles, I like restrictions. You need a box to think outside of it.

I'm guessing it might be a little annoying to never be asked about the second half of Room but people get hung up on the the title space because it's so memorable. just so memorable that first title space. But before we talk about the rest

There was nothing harder than creating the world outside of the room! Room has the obvious difficulty, but the subtlety required to communicate that people had been liberated from one space only to be held captive by another, that was an extraordinary challenge for filmmakers.

So can you give me an example of that, of how you did it?

The answer is we didn’t know at first, but it sort of happened organically. For example, we built the bedroom set, and there is a closet there, and the doors there are very similar to the doors of the wardrobe in Room. There is a tree collage in Room, which is a natural manifestation of a mother trying to capture a child without a camera, so she’s drawing pictures of him and putting them up on the wall, it’s a collage. But then we see that as a 16year old in her bedroom, she had a collage.

And that’s what you do, when you have an extraordinary amount of time on your hands and you’re in a confined space -- you mirror behavior of a place where you felt comfort and safety.

And you found that in your research initially?

You know, I found that out when I was a college freshman and people made their dorm rooms look like their bedrooms. There’s all different kinds of captivity and expressions of loss, and I think as a creative it’s our job to translate them and to find truth without beating people over the head with it. We approached it as inverse. So as a designer, I thought Room should be warm, and textured, and layered, and safe and intensely personal. And the world outside is cold and monotonous, and monochromatic, and deeply impersonal. So in a hospital, we create a white on white and white room with reflections and everything’s the same color: the blanket, the chair, the blinds. And in the house, we took the fact that Bill Macy has moved out as a natural excuse to provide starkness. The house is half empty. So, despite Joan Allen’s efforts to comfort them, there’s something missing there, and that’s very disturbingly unsafe to a child, I think, whose been in such an intimate and warm place his whole life.

This has been so fascinating, thank you.

More articles on Room here. And readers in Los Angeles, we urge you to take the opportunity to see the recreated set at the Landmark this weekend after the Saturday afternoon showings of the movie. Report back. We'd love to here from readers about seeing it in person.

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Reader Comments (3)

What a fantastic interview. I really hope Tobman gets recognized for his work in creating the world of Room, the film wouldn't have worked otherwise.

December 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterRami

It's certainly disheartening to see the film being largely ignored by awards voting bodies when it comes to the craft elements. Does the film really just elicit powerful emotions automatically? Are the editing, camerawork, score, production design, etc. not absolutely integral to its effect? Abrahamson deserves more credit than he's being given, too.

December 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Contemporary production design needs so much more recognition than it gets. The Oscar nom for "Her" felt like a huge leap forward for the branch's consideration of non-period, non-genre design.

December 15, 2015 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

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