What I Have Written

A filmography covering Sarah Stollman’s work as Production Designer is below.

Production designer of Radiance (Rachel Perkins, 1998), What I Have Written (John Hughes, 1995) and One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins, 2001), Sarah Stollman, engaged in a late night telephone call with Mandi Bialek-Wester to discuss her work, process and relationship with some of Australia’s leading cinematographers and directors.

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Mandi Bialek-Wester: So this is the question that everyone asks – how did you get into film work?

Sarah Stollman: I was one of the last in that period – that crossed over without going to film school, like NYU. I was trained as an architect and was working in New York. I was pretty unhappy. I had two friends who were 1st ADs and I was interested in doing some film work. In NY, you have to work for free on the first few films. I tried to keep working at the architect firm but I had to quit to get the film work. My first film was a really strange and funny short called Davey and Goliath by Todd Haynes [Velvet Goldmine (1998), Far From Heaven (2002)]. Initially, I was helping paint the sets when the props guy left, then I ended up doing Standby Props. I had to pick it up as it went along, as I didn’t know much about the job or protocols. Then, still through my original contacts, I became involved in Hal Hartley’s first feature The Unbelievable Truth (1988) as Art Director/Set Designer. This was still for free but with deferred wages which were, unusually, paid out. I went on to design a short for David O. Russell [Three Kings (1999), Spanking the Monkey (1994), Flirting With Disaster (1996)] which then led onto Todd Haynes’ first feature Poison (1991).

MBW: Sounds like you had a pretty good start?

SS: I was lucky to work on these films. It all came from my original contacts and through friends of friends. So much of film work is luck. It is about who you know. Of course, once you get started it is also talent. Without that you won’t get anywhere. But I was lucky and had good contacts. I was also happy to work on low budget films. This requires a lot of enthusiasm and the producers see that you work hard; after a few, you then have the experience needed to go onto bigger films. It was luck that those projects came along because you aren’t always given that much choice when starting out. I did miss out on other jobs, earlier on, because of my inexperience.

MBW: What do you look for in a project before getting involved?

SS: If I have a choice, ideally I look for the more interesting stories or those that take a different approach. So this is usually a more artistic film, not necessarily a big film. I have worked on bigger movies but this is usually as an Art Director, like on the Jackie Chan movies, or doing Drafting and Set Design on Pelican Brief (Alan J. Pakula, 1993). The reality of working is finding a project that has some value. Obviously it should have some satisfaction monetarily but it still needs to be of interest artistically. And if it isn’t interesting I will find some element to focus on as the point of interest. Like on the Jackie Chan movies, it was an eye opener to work with the Art Directors from Hong Kong and to see the techniques for shooting the stunt sequences. That in itself was interesting. It wouldn’t have been the kind of project I would have sought out but it is good to have a variety of experience including Art directing and Designing. Now, because of the kids, I also look for projects that offer a level of flexibility, like with television.

MBW: How do you find the transition between the larger, big budget productions to the smaller, more independent ones?

SS: Mainstream is ok if the director is really into the story or there is a strong intellectual basis. Recently, John Hughes asked me to do an interview for the DVD release of What I Have Written. I realised how much of that film was ‘art’, especially in my work with Dion Beebe [DOP]. I was so involved in every layer and the concepts were so strong intellectually, even in things that might not be necessarily noticed by the audience. It is unusual to be making a piece of art. It was pretty amazing and probably the most satisfying film I have designed, on that level.

MBW: That film was shot almost all on location. How do you find that compared with a studio-based production, like Life (Lawrence Johnston, 1995)?

SS: What I Have Written was all shot on location. Most people think that this means less or no control for the design but actually there is a lot of control. I can change a lot of elements in a location. But I also spent a lot of time looking for the right location. This can take as long as designing and building a set. Not all producers understand this. A location still needs the same amount of time to be dressed and prepared but the key to maintaining a design concept is to spend a lot of time finding the right location. As for a studio set, it is usually more fun. You can do anything and you are starting from scratch so the control is there.

MBW: Once on a project, how do you begin the design process?

SS: It is different with different directors. It depends on what interests them and how they work. If they have no visual capacity and are unable to imagine how the film is to look, or are just much more in to the story, then it is a very lengthy process. When there are no tools and little communication it is very tiring. It can take a while to establish how to see things in the same way. Even then, with sketches and drawings and photos, it isn’t fool proof. A director can still be surprised by what they see when they are in the actual set.

If a director is a visual person then it is like you are starting on a higher level. There is more opportunity to develop and is much less limiting. Like on Life with Lawrence Johnston, in a visual sense, it was more like the workings of an artist – it was very clear and definite. Then there are the directors that are in-between. I find these to be the most “fun”. You are working with them together and making a cohesive vision. When there is a lot to work out, then preproduction is very intensive. On What I Have Written, there were three distinctive styles to the film and John Hughes and myself had many discussions about what they would be, how different they were. We would come out of some of more conceptual and philosophical discussions and decided to keep it to ourselves. We weren’t sure how all of this would go over with the producer, for instance.

MBW: Where are you finding your source material and references?

SS: I like to start with a ‘visual shorthand’ before delving into intense drawings. I look in books and magazines for images that might convey the feel or texture of the film. I try to glean as many images as possible. This is so as not to waste time on generating drawings too early. Then when it is established and we’re on the right track I will start on drawings and collages. Usually, I will look in bookstores and the search is quite aimless. I am not sure what will inspire me. It is important to keep an open mind. When it is a period film or focuses on say a profession then I will also seek out specific material relating to that. But the amazing part of working in film is discovering new things, and looking at new ways of approaching film.

MBW: As the key crew to develop and execute the ‘look’ of a film, how would you describe your relationship with the cinematographer?

SS: Ideally, we have had meetings early on in pre-production in the development of the look of the film. I like to know we are looking at the script in the same way. This makes it easier when we get on set. And more consistent. I like to make them aware of what is important in a set, both from the larger overall look to the smaller details, like the furniture. I like to have daily discussions but they can be too busy. With communication, the design can help them with their job. With Dion, on What I Have Written, the relationship was so successful. He used the set to help him decide what he was doing. He didn’t mind ‘difficult’ material like white on white or mirrors or glass. In one of the sets, there was a picture I had in a glass frame. I wanted to keep it, keep it as a reality but I asked him if he wanted it taken out. [It is a common request of DOP’s to remove glass from framed pictures]. He declined and decided to shoot the whole scene in the reflection of the glass. Instead of seeing problems in the set he used them.

MBW: Are you looking down the camera often?

SS: I do look in the camera. Sometimes I am very busy and can’t but I should make time to do it. Most DOPs are happy to let you look even when there is a video split. The split isn’t very good for showing colours or lighting and I find it better to look down the lens.

MBW: So are you a presence on set, continually in discussion with the director and DOP?

SS: It really depends on the crew size. I can’t be on set all the time because there is always something else to be getting ready and questions to be answered. Or they are shooting nights and I have to work the days. Ideally, I try to go at the beginning of a set, when it is being established. Then I feel better about going. I like to be there for any special scenes or if there are stunts or special effects. To be there all the time, that is difficult.

MBW: One of my favourite film quotes is “all you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun”. What kind of relationship do you have with the actors and their props?

SS: I would like to have a closer relationship but actors are quite wary of the sets and props. There is a distance. I’d like them to have more interaction, not just with their props but also with the sets. We’re all trying to answer the same questions. Usually, they will come in and have a ‘little’ look. As for props, I decide on them and give it to them. They might suggest something and I will try and get it for them. I’ve never really had any problems. If they weren’t happy with something I’d expect them to make suggestions.

MBW: Although you are well established in feature film you still do work on short films. How has that come about?

SS: I do enjoy working on shorts. They are usually with someone starting out and it is more concentrated, more intensified than a feature. I find it is harder to do them now because of the kids. They might only last 2 or 3 weeks but often they are day and night so are harder to do. Last year I did Mr. Wasinki’s Song (MIFF 2001) in Melbourne. It just came together as I happened to be in Melbourne and I was friends with the producer. Laszlo Biryani was shooting it and I had enjoyed working with him before. There was a little bit of money so it had enough of the right elements. I have to weigh up these considerations. Something has to make it worth it.

MBW: And you have designed for documentary. This is pretty unusual….

SS: There are two elements to designing documentary, as on Bitter Herbs. There is the docu-drama element that might need to be designed or if there is a re-enactment. And there is the design of the overall look to it. More people are doing this as docos are taking a less journalistic approach and are set up more like a feature. Creatively I approach it the same way but practically it is different. I am not usually designing a set and thinking of character but the overall look to the film. So it might be set pieces or locations or even editing, where images are introduced.

MBW: Recently you have worked on a few films with indigenous filmmakers. How have you approached this work?

SS: Well, it is only Radiance and One Night the Moon, with Rachel Perkins. Although, for Yolngu Boy, the actors were indigenous and so was the story, the director and writer were not. In the US, there are a lot of DOPs from Eastern Europe and their point of view is often described as quite refreshing. To have an outside viewpoint without the emotional involvement helps see the reality much more clearly. I found this to be true for me. I don’t have a political and emotional history, or any guilt. I’m not from Australia. This was a very fresh way of dealing with these films. This is not why they chose me for the films but I think it helped me cut through the stereotypes. I found some of the crew would treat the local communities with kid gloves which I find quite patronising. For me people are people. I didn’t have any blocks. It can be quite emotional and a lot of people have a lot of hang-ups so I think I found it easier as an outsider.

MBW: I’ll finish up with finding out what are you up to now?

SS: I am teaching at AFTRS, on a few different courses, in the Design department. I enjoy the work. It gives me a chance to re-evaluate my thoughts on films and my own work. It is really valuable, otherwise I might never analyse it. And I enjoy having an input in teaching others. Filmwise, I have just finished working on a telemovie called “Temptation”, produced by Penny Chapman. It was great fun. It was all about food and we built two restaurant sets and the rest was on location. We had a food consultant and a food stylist. I found that for my first television experience, Penny wanted to do something stylistically unique. It was structured like a feature film only less emotional and more flexible. I will do more television. It is definitely more do-able for me it terms of flexibility, at this time in my life.

Filmography

[Australia]

Temptation
One Night The Moon
Soft Fruit
Yolngu Boy
Radiance
A Nice Guy
First Strike
What I Have Written
Life
Baby Bath Massacre
Bitter Herbs and Honey

[US]

Serial Mom
Pelican Brief
Poison
Unbelievable Truth

About The Author

Mandi Bialek-Wester is a Production Designer. She first met Sarah Stollman as an assistant on Life and went on to become her attachment on Radiance.