Interview with Production Designer Maria Djurkovic (Oscar Nominated – The Imitation Game)

maria_djurkovic.jpgMaria Djurkovic is one of the most talented Production Designers in the industry today. She has created a multitude of worlds in many critically acclaimed movies and TV shows, including: Sliding Doors (1998), Billy Elliot (2000), The Hours (2002), Mamma Mia! (2008), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and Gold (2017).

Matthew Toffolo: Is there a film or two that you’re most proud of?

Maria Djurkovic: Yes – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

I also was very pleased with The Invisible Woman. I dont think you can tell we had a very small budget.

PHOTO: Still from the film”The Invisible Woman” (Director Ralph Fiennes)


MT: What is a director looking for in a Production Designer?

MD: I am certain each director is looking for something different. Wes Anderson will be looking for very different qualities in a designer than Ken Loach.

MT: What is a Production Designer looking for in a director?

MD: I am certain that everyone is different. I like to work with directors for whom visuals are very important. This may seem obvious in such a visual medium as filmmaking, but believe me it isn’t.

I will meet a director for a job with a very clear idea of how I see their film. I actually like to stick my neck out, because I really don’t want to spend the next 6 to 9 months arguing. If a director likes my ideas I will get the job. If they don’t, or if they are not looking for an opinionated designer, I won’t.

The best working relationships for me are the very collaborative ones. Tomas Alfredson is my dream director. We practically finish off each other’s sentences. I enjoy working with directors who are unafraid of bold visuals and who dont get caught up in stuff that actually doesn’t matter. Those who are comfortable cheating locations and are not too literal.

Obviously the material they are wanting to direct has to be good and I have to like their work.

A sense of humor is hugely important to me. We will spend hours and hours in cars, looking at locations. We need to get on.

MT: You were nominated for an Oscar for The Imitation Game (2014). How was the Oscar experience? You didn’t win, but is it just as good being nominated? Or, did you really want to win!?

MD: It was crazy from beginning to end. I knew I would not win because I was up against “The Grand Budapest Hotel” that year. Knowing that I wouldnt win actually made the eremony much more relaxing. The year I was nominated for a BAFTA for “Tinker” I was a nervous wreck during the ceremony and had an anaphylactic shock during the dinner.

I was working in Boston in the coldest recorded east coast winter when I heard about my nomination. I had one Saturday to find a dress. Flew to LA one weekend for the nominees luncheon, the following weekend to London for the BAFTAS and the one after for the actual Oscars.

I was tired and jet lagged but the whole experience was quite extraordinary, and i am thrilled to have had it. Hair/ Make-up / the biggest celeb count on the planet, all huge fun.

PHOTO: Still from the movie “The Imitation Game” Directed by Morten Tyldum:


MT: How early do you come into pre-production before shooting starts? When do your hire and bring on the rest of your key team members?

MD: I come on board very early, normally after the producer and director. The amount of prep I get varies from project to project. Anything from 10 to an incredibly generous 24 weeks I have had on the movie I am working on right now. The Art Dept. has a massive pyramidal structure and I try to secure my supervising art director and set decorator as soon as i am allowed, everyone else follows.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you watched the most times in your life?

MD: Probably Kusturica’s films.

MT: Do you have a Production Designer mentor?

MD: No

MT: Do you have any advice to kids currently in high school or in university who want to be a Production Designer?

MD: Be prepared to work insanely hard, be a monomaniac and really want to do it. Take every opportunity and be persistent. Be prepared to take knocks. Keep immersing yourself in visual culture, refresh your resources. I am always shocked how ignorant many students are about period. Period knowledge should run in your veins

MT: Where did you grow up? How did you get into the film industry? Was this something you always wanted to do?

MD: I grew up in Harrow, wanted to be a Production Designer from about the age of 8 – this is the Monomania I was talking about. Made period clothes for my Barbie dolls and loved going to the v& more than anywhere else.

My dad was an art director and hated the idea of me following in his footsteps. Said that the film industry was full of shits. He was right, but I persisted.

Studied fine art at Oxford. Did a post grad course in theatre design. Started at the BBC the day after I graduated. Stayed there for 3 years before I went freelance, built up my career step by step alternating between set decorating bigger films and designing small TV things and working my way up. I designed my first film in 1995…..


Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 20-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto, and Los Angeles at least 2 times a month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Story Artist Chris Paluszek (Robot Chicken, The LEGO Movies)

the_lego_movie.jpgWhat fun it was to sit down with the extraordinarily talented artist Chris Paluszek. In many ways his career is just getting started as he’ll be helping create all of the upcoming LEGO Movies in the next few years.


Matthew Toffolo: What job has been your most valuable experience so far?

Chris Paluszek: I think the first film I ever worked on, “The LEGO Movie.” The crew was relatively small and I had a lot of opportunity to work with really smart, talented people who were very patient and answered a lot of questions I had about storyboarding, storytelling, and the film industry.

MT: How is the LEGO MOVIE experience? It seems to be a franchise in the making and you’re on board for the creative experience.

CP: The first LEGO film was a bit of an outlier. The franchise hadn’t been established, so there weren’t many boundaries on what we could or couldn’t do. So, we had a ton of fun trying lots of crazy ideas that you just don’t usually have the freedom to try on other films. Definitely a highlight of my career.

MT: Is there a type of film that you haven’t worked on yet that you would love to work on?

CP: I would love to work on a short film, like the Pixar shorts that precede an animated feature. Small, self-contained narratives like that are great opportunities for artists to push themselves and experiment.

MT: What is the typical job storyboarding animation movies?

CP: It can depend, but usually there’s a working script that is constantly evolving in conversations between the writer and the director, and a story artist “boards out” a scene from the latest draft. The story artist draws whatever the scene calls for, whether it’s a high speed car chase, or two characters talking in a coffee shop. Whatever case, it’s up to the storyboard artist to depict the action and decide on what shot language best tells the story.

MT: What’s the general working relationship and process between a storyboard artist and the director?

CP: The director has a vision for their movie, and as a story artist you’re there to support that vision. When you’re given an assignment you meet with the director, who lays out how they imagine the scene. You ask lots of questions and at the end of the meeting you should hopefully have a clear idea of what the director wants to see. Within that framework, you can bring some of yourself into the scene, whether it’s acting choices, or maybe a really cool composition that frames the action, or even a small comedic beat (if it suits the tone of the scene).

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve working on, have you watched the most times in your life?

CP: I’m always awed by Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” It’s fantastical, yet down to earth. It’s lighthearted and also deeply emotional. Everytime I watch it I see something new.

MT: Do you have a storyboard mentor?

CP: My first story position was an internship on a TV show, and the Story Lead for that crew really helped me out. He was patient and helped me with the basics, like maintaining shot continuity as you “cut” (draw a new shot) around the action.

MT: Where do you see the future of storyboards in the motion pictures?

CP: Most story jobs are within a tight crew of artists that work intimately with the director, so they can nimbly address major story changes in time for deadlines. However, some studios have made whole films by sending work out to freelancers, working from home. While I can’t say I love my commute, working alongside incredible talent has been the chief way I’ve improved as an artist and storyteller.

MT: Where did you grow up? How did you get into working in the film industry?

CP: I grew up in Virginia, and always loved art as a way of telling stories. I went to school for animation, and moved out to Los Angeles thinking I could be an animator. Unfortunately my animation skills weren’t very good! But I was lucky to bump into someone at the right time, who took a chance and offered me a production internship at a small TV animation studio. While there I crossed paths with the Storyboard department, who were looking for extra help. I was able to become a full-time Story intern, which eventually led to an official job as a Story Artist! It was a strange path, threaded with a lot of luck and kindness.


Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-50 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to

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Interview with Set Decorator Lori Mazuer (The Mindy Project, Popstar)

Lori Mazuer is a pure talent. She has worked in the Art Department on over 50 productions in the last 20 years, including her recent stint as the lead Set Decorator for the hit TV show “The Mindy Project”. She was also the Set Decorator for the 2016 hit movie “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”, starring Andy Samberg. Lori also has worked on many horror films, including Lords of Salem, Halloween I and II, and Insidious: Chapter 2 and 3. It was an honor interviewer her. Enjoy!


Matthew Toffolo: How is “The Mindy Project” experience? What is your typical work week setting up an episode?

Lori Mazuer: The Mindy Project has been an incredible experience. We are headed into Season 5 soon which will be my 3rd season with the Mindy team. Our main goal is to make Mindy’s world come to life, every week with a very ambitious schedule. We shoot our half hour episode every 5 days. This means we are prepping, shooting and wrapping all at once. We often crossboard which means we shoot multiple episodes at once.

My typical work week involves Concept meetings with the creatives, midweek art dept. meetings, which involve detailed discussions with the producers and directors about how the sets should look. Weekly production and tech scouts. While all of this is happening I am shopping and dressing multiple sets at the same time. I have 2 amazing shoppers who help me find the best pieces for our sets and a team of set dressers who are constantly picking up furniture from vendors, dressing sets and returning furniture that has been shot.

We typically have anywhere from 4 to 10 swing sets.Depending on the length of the scene the built sets on stage are 2,3 or 4 wall sets. Once a week we usually dress the Universal back lot to look like a typical NY street. This could be one block, with multiple store fronts, or several blocks. Its a really challenging show but we all manage to rise to the occasion thanks to a great team. The entire crew is smart, kind and helpful. When you have these key qualities in any situation you can succeed in anything.

MT: What is the fundamental difference between working on a television production in comparison to a feature film? I’m assuming the hours are less hectic when working on a TV show?

LM: I think it comes down to the prep time and the amount of details you put into a set. I learned very fast that in TV.

Its head and shoulders. Layering the set with smaller personal items for the characters is my favorite thing to do but we often do not have the time to do this in TV . I have found in film that you are given more days to dress a set so there is time for everyone to see it, discuss it and make changes if needed. We are moving too fast in TV to do this.

I think the hours you work really depends on the TV show. I’ve worked on a few TV shows where we only have one or 2 small swing sets. So there is plenty of time to layer and even adjust if you want too. By comparison the Mindy Project has several more per week.

MT: You’ve worked on many horror feature films. What do you like about the genre?

LM: I fell into working on horror movies by chance. Its kind of funny because I am actually a huge scaredy cat! I am always the one with their hands over their eyes and screaming. I don’t see very many horror movies..they stress me out.

From a creative perspective I do enjoy working on them because of the often unrealistic charm they have. Some of my favorite sets were on the Lords of Salem. The Production Designer, Jen Spence and I have done a few horror movies together and we work very well together. We created a surreal apartment for Sheri Moon Zombies apt which was meant to give the audience the idea that she could actually be losing her mind. We found some images we liked and printed them 10′ x 10′ . Then stretched them on huge canvases.The end result was pretty fantastic. It added to the make believe, surreal world that Rob strived for. We also painted eerie trees on her living room walls. The entire apartment was done in grey, black and white with touches of red. This was something that evolved once Jen, Rob and I delved further into her character. You often don’t have the time for this creative process in great detail in TV. Its something I really love doing in features.

PHOTOS of the Set Decoration from the film “Lords of Salem”:

MT: Describe the working and collaboration relationship between the Production Designer and Set Decorator?

LM: The set decorator helps to fulfill the designers vision both creatively and logistically. We will meet and discuss how we see the character and the environment that the scene takes place in. He or she will give me a few visual references which can be anything from furniture pictures or wallpaper samples that might set the tone or mood for the set. I like to show the designer a few pictures before we begin locking everything in to make sure that we are on the same page and then I just run with it. Its a great feeling to create something with someone else. If a piece of art or furniture inspires me I love telling the story or reasoning to the designer or director on why I think it is right for them. Its an incredible creative process. Sometimes one piece of furniture that we both love can turn into a big back story just between the 2 of us,

MT: How soon before production begins does the Set Decorator begin working? What is your initial task?

LM: I usually start about the same time the production designer does whether doing a film, TV or commercial.

My first task is to break down the script and note any hard to find items. If I am doing a period piece I will immediately start researching that era and start sourcing the right pieces.

I start with broad strokes, the main pieces in the room and build around that. However, I have been known to be inspired by the smallest thing .I once decorated a set because I was inspired by a blanket I found in a thrift store. It was the perfect color and had beautiful stitching. Sometimes something will catch my eye and that item to me can tell a whole story for the character.

MT: What are the key qualities to being a Set Decorator?

LM: Observe how everyone lives. You never know what kind of apartment or house you will need to create. In a sense you have to be able to empathasize with every kind of character there is in the world..from a serial killer to a nun, to a single mom living off of welfare checks.

Organization and communication are very important. You need to be able to be clear in your instructions and what you want to achieve to your crew .I think the tiny details you put in are what make the actors feel that the set you created for them is right for their character. It can inspire them and if that happens you have done your job.

MT: Besides the films you’ve worked on, what movie have you seen the most in your life?

LM: I’m a girl from Pittsburgh who grew up one mile from a multi plex and 2 miles from the art house cinema. My taste in film is very eclectic. My inspirations run the gamut.

Female Troubles / John Waters
Dreams/Akira Kurasawa
Barton Fink /Cohen Brothers

I am, a huge fan of Dante Ferretti. I have watched the Adventures of Baron Munchausen too many times to count because I love the production design in that movie

MT: Do you have any advice for high school and university students who want to work in the Art Department in the film industry?

LM: Work hard. Draw as much as you can, it often helps in communicating your vision. Its important to understand design in film and to know your designers as they are often brought up as reference.

Pay attention to how people live. Not just in what type of furniture they would have but other contents, personal items, photographs, artwork that can tell a story. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box. You will be working with very creative people and new ideas are often found to be refreshing.

Watch movies and observe how they are designed. There’s a lot to be learned from other Production designers, Art Directors and Set Decorators.

PHOTOS of the Set Decoration from “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping:


Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Storyboard Artist Robert Castillo (X-Men: Apocalypse, Star Wars: Episode VII)

Award winning Director, Animator and Illustrator and Storyboard Artist Robert Castillo discovered his passion for art and illustration at the tender age of five. Nicknamed “Sketch”, Castillo would draw his way through his difficult transition of returning to the US from the Dominican Republic, mastering English, and acclimating to the mostly white environment of Chelsea, Massachusetts.

It was an honor sitting down with one of the more sought out storyboard artists in Hollywood. In just the last year, Robert has worked on “Star Wars”, “Fifty Shades of Black”, “Ride Along 2”, “Keanu”,  “Captain America: Civil War”, “Bad Neighbours 2”, “X-Men: Apocalypse”, and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles”.

Matthew Toffolo: You have worked as a Storyboard Artist on over 60+ productions in the last 15 years. Do you have a favorite experience?

Robert Castillo: I think that there are a few experiences but the one that sticks out to me would be working on the Ant-Man special features for Marvel. In the DVD extra example, they use my drawing of a Court room scene. It was great to do this job because I am a big Marvel fan and grew up with the comics.

Close second would be working on The Sopranos with Steve Buscemi.

Sopranos 1.jpg

MT: You are credited many times as being a Storyboard Artist: Promo Team. What does promo team mean?

RC: The Promo team would be whatever company is doing promotional commercials and advertising for the film. networks like VH1, MTV, TRU TV, Viacom etc.

They have me storyboards any advertising for the Film or TV show.


MT: You worked on three films that are about to being released for the 2016 summer movie season (Teenager Mutant Ninja Turtles 2, X-Men Apocalypse, Bad Neighours 2). Three different movies in terms of tone and genre. Did you have a positive time working on these films?

RC: Yes I did! I have the greatest job in the world! I read a script someone wrote and try to visualize what they are seeing in their heads. I get to use my imagination all day, as I am doing this interview I am working on a commercial. I am always drawing everyday and I can’t complain. Some jobs are tougher than others and more demanding but at the end of the day I am drawing.

MT: You have worked on a lot of action films. How important is the creation of the storyboard to the production team for the action and fight scenes?

RC: It is super important and crucial to storyboarding action scenes or fight scenes. It helps everyone to be on the same page. Storyboards also have a psychological effect in that when its on paper its just one step away from being a reality.

Bonnie and Clyde set 02

MT: What’s the general working relationship and process between a storyboard artist and the director? How early do you meet before production begins?

RC: I wish I could say we always meet early but sometimes they call me a day before its due! It can be a very stressful lifestyle but I try and do the best job possible.

When things go right I meet with the director at least a week or a few days before I start drawing.

Angriest man in brooklyn.jpg

MT: What are you looking for in a director?

RC: I look for a storyteller, someone that has a clear story in their mind and they know what they want to see on the screen but sometimes I get directors that don’t know what they want and it’s up to me to find that something they are looking for.

MT: What advice would you have for people who would like to do what you do?

RC: If you want to do storyboards for a living make sure that is what you want to do! Don’t do it just for the money! Take a lot of drawing classes or at least practice. Watch movies like Citizen Kane and Kurosawa films to learn composition and pacing. and practice everyday. I am still learning believe it or not after all these years.

MT: What movie have you watched the most times in your life?

RC: The one movie that I have watched the most in my life would have to be the first Star Wars movie, because in 1977 when i came back to the U.S. from Dominican Republic it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen on the screen.

Top Five Storyboards

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Emmy Winning Make-Up Artist Paul Engelen (Game of Thrones)

Paul Engelen is is 2 time Emmy winner, and 2 time Oscar nominated Makeup artist. He has worked on some of the greatest/most successful films and TV shows in the last 40 years, including: Game of Thrones (2 Emmy wins), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Oscar nomination), The Legend of Tarzan (Oscar nomination), Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (dir. George Lucas), Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott), Munich (dir. Steven Spielberg), Batman (dir. Tim Burton) and Reds (dir. Warren Beatty).

Many have stated that his makeup design for Nicole Kidman on “The Hours” is the key reason for her Oscar Win for Best Actress (see pic below). The same can be said for his work on Renée Zellweger for her Oscar Win on “Cold Mountain”. How those films received zero Oscar nominations for Makeup is still a mystery.

It was an honor to chat with Paul Engelen and talk about his art:

Matthew Toffolo: You’ve worked on over 80 Productions as a Makeup Artist in the last 45 years. Do you have a favorite experience?

Paul Engelen: Every new project presents challenges, experiences and memories. I would say I have been extremely lucky to have had a very wide variety and range of projects to work on. I suppose if pressed, I would mention working on ‘Empire of the Sun” and ‘Star Wars, The Phantom Menace’ to be particular highlights, but I would also name “Pink Floyd, The Wall’ to be a fascinating experience. My present project for NBC, directed by Tarsem Singh; ‘The Emerald City’ is proving just as interesting though!

PHOTO: Paul with Director George Lucas on ‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’:

PE & Lucas.jpg

MT: Is there a type of story/film that you would love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet? Or have you covered all of your bases?

PE: I think I have covered most bases! Contemporary stories to science fiction, several medieval themes which I must admit, is probably my favourite genre. I’d love to do a ‘western’, directed by someone like Tarantino!

MT: You’ve won 2 Emmys (for Game of Thrones) and have been nominated for 2 Oscars. Does winning or losing mean a lot to you? Or it is really just about the film?

PE: It’s great being nominated, but winning is a blast!! It means your peers think your work is worthy.

MT: What is the main job being the Makeup Department Head on a production?

PE: Well, I would say, it’s about all the aspects of the running a department. Putting a crew together that would be the best for the production. The conversations and collaboration with director, production and costume designers are all paramount in going into production.

PHOTO: Paul with Director/Actor Clint Eastwood on ‘White Hunter, Black Heart’: 

PE & Clint.jpg

MT: What has been your most difficult job and/or production to date?

PE: Movies generally have a specific format regarding the production structure, which is the area I come from, so it was quite a shock when ‘Game of Thrones” came my way, and I had to put my mind to working on 10 scripts, with two, sometimes three separate units shooting in different countries at the same time! Very testing. Since then, I am being offered more of this type of production, which, although very challenging, I do find stimulating.

MT: You’ve worked on many fantasy and action movies/TV shows. Is there a reason why you seem to love working in these genres?

PE: Again, I have been very lucky in the type of productions that has been offered to me. I am comfortable with the larger type of production with big name directors, irrespective of genres. Often the actors can be a contributing influence on the reason for working on a particular project.

MT: How has the makeup department changed from 35 years ago to today?

PE: I don’t think things have changed much over the years. It has always been ‘challenging’ to put creative people together for months on end, and hope that the peace can be maintained!! I like to think people who work with me look forward to getting together on shows!

PHOTO: Paul with actor Val Kilmer on ‘The Saint’:

PE & Kilmer.jpg

MT: Besides the films you’ve worked on, what movie have you seen the most in your life?

PE: I still absolutely adore watching Gregory Peck in ‘Moby Dick’, which, incidentaly had Charlie Parker as the Makeup Designer, who was one of the finest artists in our profession. Such a wonderful film.

MT: Do you have any advice for high school and university students who want to work makeup in the film industry?

PE: It’s a tough business to be in, but incredibly rewarding when you see your work up there on display. – and to be honest, there is a certain amount of luck involved with getting work in the first place, but perseverance and striving to be the best is essential.

PHOTO: Paul with actor Mel Gibson on “Mutiny on the Bounty’.:

PE & Gibson.jpg


Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

PHOTO: Nicole Kidman transforms via makeup in “The Hours”:


Interview with Production Designer Beth Mickle (Drive, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot)

I was fortunate to get an interview with the very talented and very busy Production Designer Beth Mickle. She is currently in the middle of production on the highly anticipated film “Collateral Beauty”. We talked about that film and much more in our chat together:

Matthew Toffolo: You have been the Production Designer on over 30 films in the last 15 years. Is there a film or two that you’re most proud of?

Beth Mickle: I’m incredibly proud of so many films that I’ve been involved with—fortunate to have had so many great opportunities! One that I’m especially proud of is “Lost River”, Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut. It was such a special project from the very beginning—Ryan wrote such a beautiful script with so much imagination, so many fantastical backdrops to play with. It was a smaller movie, and we all lived and worked together in downtown Detroit, collaborated closely to really shape that film as a team. I remember many adventurous weekends with Ryan and our cinematographer Benoit Debis, exploring the many awesome hidden areas of that great city. With limited resources, everyone jumped and got their hands dirty, and we built so many elements out of cardboard, tape, late-night pizza, and music…so proud of how every one of those sets came together, and the tone we found in that film. It’s one of my favorite films of all time!!!

PHOTO: Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes & Christina Hendricks on set in “Lost River”:


The other film I’m wildly proud of is “Only God Forgives”, which Nic Refn directed and Ryan starred in. This was another lower-budget film, this one in Bangkok, where we all lived and worked together very closely once again. Exploring every neighborhood in Bangkok was a complete joy for a gal who loves to travel as much as I do, and Nic gave me so much creative freedom with that film. My fiance Russell Barnes (an incredibly talented Production Designer) joined me on the project as the art director, and we had the most memorable 7 months together in Thailand. the lower-budget nature of the production meant that we did a lot of the heavy lifting along with our amazing Thai crew—building, painting, and decorating sets with our own hands. And the markets were phenomenal!! We ran around to tons of different vintage markets and flea markets every week, loading the trucks with so many beautiful and unique pieces. Bringing together these rich, vividly stylized sets in this unbelievable country where we were living was such an unforgettable time in our lives.

PHOTO: Set Design on “Only God Forgives”


MT: You started your career working on lower budget/Indy films as a Production Designer. Would you suggest other people who are striving to become Production Designers in this industry take this route? What are the pros/cons of taking this route in comparison to starting on the low rung and working on Union productions?

BM: I would absolutely recommend this route for aspiring production designers. The lower budget world is where you learn to be resourceful, where you can somewhat safely make mistakes which can be recovered, where you learn the complete fundamentals of how a film is made. I try to approach every production—large or small–with a calm nature, and I think that comes from being in the trenches for so many years and learning how to adapt to in all situations. The biggest con to this route is that formal “union” filmmaking can be a bit jarring when you do finally make the leap to the larger arena—but once you learn those nuances, the process really smooths out. That is definitely one pro if you do start in the larger union world—you learn those protocols right away, so you enter the film world knowing how union positions are categorized and how the different departmental responsibilities are broken down.

In terms of career growth—I also think designers can make that mental shift of thinking on a smaller scale early in their careers on smaller films, to thinking on a larger scale as projects grow in size. But I think it’s much more difficult for designers to start with thinking on a larger scale, then downsizing their approach and expectations on a smaller project. And as we’ve seen so much lately—some of the highest quality films being made right now are the smaller, independent projects (“Ex Machina”, “12 Years a Slave” to name a few), and if a designer catapults you to doing an $80 million film as his or her first film, downshifting to this smaller budget range can prove to be a difficult maneuver.

MT: What is the biggest difference when working on an Independent film in comparison to a Hollywood Union Production?

BM: Union rules and guidelines!!! On an independent film, everyone is moving and touching and painting everything…on a union film, none of that flies. this took me forever to learn!!!! I’m always eager to grab the other side of a couch, to rehang picture frames on my own, always telling the set dressers “this is how i keep my muscles!!”…some laugh and some are not amused at all:)…At first I resisted the union delineations, preferring the all-hands-on-deck team approach, but after doing over 20 union films, and seeing that crews are treated so fairly and safety is so championed, I do see the benefits of having a regulated system. Film productions are such incredible, finely-tuned organisms that function so efficiently….though I’d still paint walls if they’d ask me!..:)

MT: Some will argue that DRIVE is one of the best films in the last 10 years. Do you remember the initial conversations with the director and your team about the overall look, feel, and tone of the film?

BM: “Drive” is a film is very near and dear to me. It made my career the incredible adventure that it is right now. I remember my initial meetings with Nic Refn well. I think he’s one of the most brilliant directors working today, and seeing how he approaches filmmaking is nothing less than inspiring. He’s constantly striving to shoot scenes in ways they’ve never been shot before, to make every frame as great as it can be. And his mandate is always “more is more.” So for a designer, taking this approach is a dream…every set can be as elevated and amplified as you want it to be. Every color can be as rich as possible, the idea of “extreme” is always embraced. so making “Drive”—as well as Nic’s following movie “Only God Forgives”—were a career highlight for me.

PHOTO: Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan in “Drive”:


MT: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is out in theaters. What can people expect to see? How were your experiences working on that film? A lot of exterior scenes.

BM: “WTF” was another fascinating project to do. All but 4 minutes of the film takes place in Afghanistan, and we shot the entire film in New Mexico!!! It was by far the most challenging film I’ve ever done, but I was lucky enough to be working alongside the best art department I’ve ever had. We built 2 Kabul city street sets—both nearly a football field in size, and both almost built from scratch. Building so much scenery was such a great challenge on a relatively small studio film—we reused so many facades, repurposed so much architecture, repainted so many pieces….at first it seemed nearly impossible to pull off the tall order, but once we started improvising and playing around, the possibilities really became endless. Anthony Syracuse was our construction coordinator on that film, and I’m certain that he’s one of the best construction coordinators this industry has ever seen.

Lisa Sessions was our wonderful Decorator, and she really brought so much character and authenticity to every one of those sets. She balanced on the perfect line between decoration that felt unconventional, unexpected, and with a hint of kitsch, but all the while still being remarkably authentic. Her tastes and instincts as a Decorator are just spectacular. I was so lucky to have her talents on that project!!

And the film is just fantastic! the directors John and Glenn found such a rare tone in this film, balancing between drama and dry humor so well. It’s so immersive, and the many layers of the story are so well done.

PHOTO: Tina Fey and Billy Bob Thornton in “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”


MT: You are currently working on the feature film “Collateral Beauty”, starring Kate Winslet, Will Smith, Helen Mirren and Edward Norton. Quite the cast! How are you doing right now working on the film? Everything going on schedule?

BM: “Collateral Beauty” has been perhaps the smoothest, loveliest production I’ve ever been on. Our director David Frankel is one of the kindest, most sincere directors out there, and he’s made the experience a true joy for everyone involved in the show. He’s also a complete collaborator, and brings everyone into the process in such a generous way—so all ideas are considered, all suggestions are welcomed, and everyone comes away feeling valued. The storyline has a magical element to it, and we’ve leaned into that with the design and have some very beautiful backdrops for this story. it’s going so well so far, and I think it’s going to be a truly special film.

MT: What is a director looking for in a production designer?

BM: A director looks for a creative collaborator in a production designer—someone who can translate their words and thoughts into a 3-d space to create backdrops for the story he or she is trying to tell. The best production designers are those who go far beyond what’s on the script page and really try to create a full world for the film…shape the overall tone, create authentic and rich spaces for the characters, consider locations/sets that aren’t scripted but could help make the film best that it can be.

MT: What is a production designer looking for in a director?

BM: Likewise, a production designer looks for a creative collaborator in a director as well!…Someone who can offer a framework of what they want their film to feel like, to look like, and articulate those thoughts to the designer—and then let the designer take those ideas and run with them, and offer redirection or fine-tuning if needed. My best filmmaking experiences have been with directors who have a solid sense of what they imagine for their film, and who invite me to be a part of the creative process and give creative freedom to see where the sets go. I’ve been so lucky with the wonderfully talented directors I’ve come across over the years, have had so many inspiring and enjoyable experiences.

MT: How early do you come into pre-production before shooting starts? When do your hire and bring on the rest of your key team members?

BM: A production designer is one of the first people to hit the ground running in a film production. After the screenwriting phase and some key casting is done, I usually get involved when a film is starting to decide where the film will be shot (what state, what city, sometimes deciding which country.) I’ll look at location photos and do some preliminary scouting, usually about 12 weeks before a film shoot begins. Then my key team members (set decorator and art director) begin about 2-4 weeks after I’ve started, and so on. If the film is a small one, prep can be condensed to 6-8 weeks—just as on larger high-concept films, prep can last for 6 months or more.

MT: What film, besides the ones you’ve worked on, have you seen the most in your life?

BM: “The Never Ending Story” has always been a favorite. and now “Mad Max: Fury Road” is becoming an all-time favorite as well. I’ve already seen it 4 times and can’t get enough!! Other favorites are “Night of The Hunter”, “Far From Heaven”, and Joe Wright’s “Anna Karenina”

MT: Do you have a production designer mentor?

BM: I learned so much from George Allison, who was my mentor through my early twenties when I assisted him at ABC Television. Some of the production designer careers I most admire the most are those of Sarah Greenwood and Jack Fisk…such astounding work!!!

MT: What type of film would you love to work on that you haven’t worked on yet?

BM: I would love to do a lavish 19th century or art deco period piece, as well as a wildly imaginative futuristic film. I love the opportunity to be completely absorbed in worlds we’re creating!!!

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.

Interview with Set Decorator Ute Bergk (The Dark Knight, Enemy at the Gates)

Ute Bergk answered the set of questions I emailed her on the airplane on her way to Budapest, Hungary to complete the television mini-series “Emerald City”. Based on the “Wizard of Oz” universe, Ute promises that the series is “going to be something else” and that director Tarsem Singh is a delight. Two months in Hungary and they are wrapped.

She was happy to answer these questions on the plane and send them my way. In fact, I might have this interview posted before she lands.

ute_bergkMatthew Toffolo: You were the Set Decorator on the action/comedy “Grimsby”, which is currently at a cinema near you. How was your working experience on that film?

Ute Bergk: Yes ‘Grimsby’ came out a few weeks ago. I have been working with Sasha BC before- we build the stage for ‘FunkyZeit’ in Berlin for him /for the movie ‘Bruno’. It’s was just an introduction to the madness of a comedy. Sasha is very mesmerising – it’s more like a life event working with him , really. ‘Grimsby’ was scripted like a feature film, but that didn’t mean anything. The writers were on set all the time and creatively made changes continuously. Now- in hindsight- I can say, that one needs to have quite a team in the background to serve the needs. There is a lot of running around! My experience- interesting but very stressful and full on speed!

MT: Is there a difference when doing set decoration on a comedy film in comparison to a straight up action or drama film?

Ute: Yes- I guess there is. Every comedy I have worked on is always reassuring the moment (of laughter) and rightfully so. But on film all has to be managed the same way like a drama / action pic. The Set Dec. Challenge with Sasha was to decorate cool as always but at the same time having in mind, that certain furniture or dressing actually have a ‘role’ too. A sofa needs to be big enough to walk on or a curtain strong enough to swing from..

PHOTO: Sasha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong in GRIMSBY:


MT: How was the Batman Begins and The Dark Knight experience? You helped create a more grounded and unique comic book world that set the tone for this genre. When working on #2 specifically, did you know that you were going to be a part of such an iconic film?

Ute: Well, well – I am very thankful to have had the opportunity!

When we first arrived at the ‘stage’ where we build ‘Gotham City’ on “Batman Begins”, it took 15 minutes for the door to slide open. I was aware that this is going to be …big. But the process is the same take your piece of chalk and start outlying the sets onto the stage floor. ..Here is we’re the monorail will cross, here it’s ‘leg’ , a little further down ( a few mins walk..) the entrance to the opera.. We walked a lot!

On #2 we mainly did all stunts and action sequences there – the ‘stage’ was big enough to allow that. Not to forget the iMax cameras zooming by on wires every now and than.



MT: “Enemy of the Gates” is such an underrated film as the production design felt so real, almost like we were in 1940s WWII Russia fighting off the Nazis. What are your memories working on that film? Was the entire Art Department shocked that you didn’t receive an Oscar nomination?

Ute: I am really glad you are asking me this! It’s a long way down on memory lane but this was the greatest experience so far. I was very early into my career and it just happened that I was asked to join the team. We shot it in Berlin and the former East Germany. The set was enormous! Well… I thought so being a youngster. But truly it was. It was the biggest movie in Germany at the time. The logistics required to make it happen were just ..thrilling ..I would say now. The whole art department worked together and I can not recall any ‘counterproductive activities’ amongst us. I developed a close bond to the Russian community and still maintain friendships from those days. The Designer Wolf Kroeger came up with these amazing designs all drawn on paper – sometime a drawing would be up to 4/5 meters long ..on a paper roll. We had to create Stalingrad , destroyed by the war and did a lot of research on bricks and rubble. Wolf insisted to have bricks from a special factory in Russia and so we had lorryloads after lorryloads coming in. Container full of rubble! I earned my nickname ‘rubble-queen’ there- and if I may go to question 10 from here- if you find it thrilling to find yourself in freezing conditions somewhere far from home trying to explain to a Russian speaking lorry-driver on overtime to dump his bricks carefully – I guess you would make a reasonable good member of the art department!

PHOTO: The grand set design in ENEMY AT THE GATES:

MT: Describe the working relationship between the Production Designer and Set Decorator?

Ute: The Designer works very close with the Director. The Decorator works very close with the Designer, but the roles are quite different, I’d say. The Designer has a passion to create using his vision. The Decorator depends more on actual facts than fiction. Is a decor ..available. Do we need to make? Fabricate? What are the practical lighting requirements ? In what I am doing now this has become quite a ‘Emerald City’ is lit by the ‘Two Moons..’ But generally the Decorator has to be quite ‘realistic’ at some point and the Designer occasionally has to compromise , which they normally don’t like doing.

MT: How soon before production begins does the Set Decorator begin working? What is your initial task?

Ute: At least 3 months prior to the shoot and not long after the Designer is on board.

Initial task? Doing the job with full passion and ability.

MT: What does the Art Department look for in their Production Designer?

Ute: Not always does the Art Department choose with whom to work. An Art Department sometimes can consist of a lot of people and I cannot answer on behalf of all those involved. For me the person I work closely with has to be artistic, visionary, funny, entertaining, always switched on and human. At the end of the day it’s just a movie.

MT: What does the Production Designer look for when working with their Set Decorator?

Ute: You have to ask a Production Designer this .

MT: Besides the films you’ve worked on, what movie have you seen the most in your life?

Ute: Movie seen the most- u mean more than once? Probably “Mulholland Drive” cause I tried to figure out the architecture (there is none..!)

After having worked on “13 hours” – I thought the movie “Timbuktu” is just wonderful, but I have only seen it once- the soundtrack in on my Spotify playlist!

MT: Do you have any advice for high school and university students who want to work in the Art Department in the film industry?

Ute: If you enjoy all things weird and wonderful you have found your space. But only experience can tell if you succeed. It’s competitive and not easy to break into – if there is no other place in the world for you than go for it. Just like the Giant in ‘BigFish’ – see if you like it.

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.