• INTERVIEW – Matt Putland – production designer – PREDESTINATION

Predestination was partly shot at APDG sponsor – Docklands Studios Melbourne.
The reviews of Predestination have been most favourable! What were your thoughts when you first read the script?
Reading the script for the first time was quite an involved process, lots of backtracking, flipping pages and double checking I had it read it correctly.  I read the script once through completely then sought out the short story “All You Zombies!” by Robert A Heinlein from which it is based.  After reading this (written in 1958) I had another go at the script and the puzzle started taking shape.  The script definitely blew me away as I hadn’t read anything like it before.  It was fascinating what Peter and Michael Spierig (writer / directors) had extracted from the short story and how they had expanded it into a feature length screenplay.
I was also very excited by the design possibilities that the script was offering – multiple time periods, 1945 through to 1990’s, a 1970’s New York Dive Bar, a Mod 60’s Space Centre and a Hi-tech 80’s Underground Govt Facility all in the one project.  I was also a little nervous as I knew the size of the budget and the ambitious expectations of Peter and Michael.
How were the sets divided into locations and studio builds?
It was decided very early on in preproduction that the shoot would take place in Melbourne and, after an initial recce, this was definitely the right choice.  This project was pitched to me as an entire location shoot, so finding the right locations was very important.  Very quickly a lot of the key locations dropped into place – in particular the RMIT Design Hub Building as Spacecorp and the Abbotsford Convent.  The Convent acted as a sort of back-lot, providing several of the locations within a stone’s throw of each other.  There were over 50 scripted locations – so having many of them in one spot was essential if we were to achieve the ambitious schedule.
The bar ‘Pop’s Place’ was a major set piece and substantiated the expense of a constructed set and therefore studio hire.  This allowed us to create a bar environment that best suited the narrative.  Giving flexibility with coverage and lighting, without the restrictions of an actual location.
The prosthetic procedure and therefore actors’ turnarounds determined another set needed to be built in the studio – the crew needed to have something else to shoot whilst the actors were in the makeup chair.   Stretching our construction budget, the Sub Rockies set – an underground Time Travel Bureau – was also constructed.  Janie Parker (Art Director) and Ross Murdoch (Const Manager) made a lot of wise choices with the limited budget, ensuring money was spent only where we would see it.
Did Michael and Peter create any Pre-Viz for this film, and if so, did you refer to it frequently?
The VFX component of this film was very minimal and so Pre-viz sequences weren’t used extensively.  The opening sequence was the only section of the film pre-visualised as it involved an action sequence, stunts, sfx and gun fire.
In preparation for the project, the Spierigs gave me a look book they had compiled of visual references for the film. This was quite an inspiration for the Noir style and was a great base to build on.
As the narrative was quite complex, a palette was developed for each time period that would help assist the viewer in identifying where they were in the time arc.  Keeping these palettes quite traditional made them easy to recognize:
1940’s – Washed out murky greens and cream, timber tones.
1960’s – The Mod Space era – Streamlined Blues, Silver, Glass and lots of Reflections.
1970’s – An Autumnal Palette – Burnt Orange, Browns, Brass, Oak.
1980/90’s – Monochromatic – Cement, Black, Grey and timeless.
What was the brief for Pop’s Place?
Pop’s Place’ dominates the film, taking up over half the screen time.  Being such a prominent location we needed to create a believable setting for the Barkeep and the Unmarried Mother to exist in.
The bar is essentially a 1970’s New York dive bar.  To give it a history the foundation of the bar is modeled on early 1920’s New York bars – lots of timber paneling, exposed brick walls and an entrance via stairs from the street level above.  Over the years modifications were made, exposed air-conditioning ducts and the pool table area out the back, a cheap renovation added in the early 60’s. The bar was to be dark and smoky, neon light from the alley above struggles through small dirty arched windows.
How did the design and dressing of Pop’s Place support the story and characters?
This a place for the locals to escape their everyday blues, never full of the rowdy younger types, comfortably rough around the edges, like a well-loved armchair.  The palette was warm Autumn tones, dark earthy timber hues, rich red walls, tobacco stained creams with highlights of orange glass and burnished brass.
The lighting design played an important role as Ben Nott (DOP) wanted to light the scene predominantly by practical lights built into the set.  The light box above the bar had panels that could be removed or repositioned to change the light depending on what scene was being shot.  Vanessa Cerne (Set Decorator) did an amazing job of bringing in moments of life and making sure every surface was covered with history.
So, let’s go back in time, to the 60’s. What was the story behind Spacecorp, and processes did your design work take?
Overall, we tried to keep a realistic depiction of the time periods throughout Predestination.  With Spacecorp being a facility to train astronaut “companions” we were able to push the envelope a little and have a bit of fun.  NASA and the Russian space program in the 60’s was a great reference for the look.
And the RMIT Design Hub Building provided this.
When the RMIT Design Hub building was offered up, it immediately became Spacecorp and is a prime example of how a location can be the driving factor behind the design.  It was fascinating that such a modern contemporary building could pass for a Mod 1960’s environment with very little alteration.  The controlled lines and repetition of patterns / circles was very fitting for the period – as was the use of a limited number of industrial materials throughout the entire building.  From the moment we walked into the building we knew it had to be Spacecorp and were very fortunate to be given permission to film there, as no other production had done so.
The envelope was pushed further still with the virtual reality helmets.  This technology didn’t exist in the mid 60’s but at Spacecorp, they had all the latest space age gadgets.  The Flos Snoopy table lamp, designed in 1967, inspired the shape of the helmets.
The Sub Rockies – why was this a bunker?
The Sub Rockies was pitched as an underground / bunker facility from the start.  This was a great idea and formed the basis of my design.  Nothing says secret government agency more then a cement bunker buried deep in the Rocky Mountains.
Were there specific references that inspired its design?
The amazing French apartment “Maison De Verre” built in the 1930’s, uses grids, glass and industrial materials – all elements I wanted to use in the Sub Rockies world.  Concrete slab walls became the foundation for the facility, strong and impenetrable.  The industrial grids and glass defined the various spaces and gave function.
(As it happened Spacecorp was full of spheres / circles which contrasted perfectly against this world of cubes and squares, almost like is was predestined……. )
“Maison De Verre” – inspiration for Matt Putland’s Production Design of the Sub Rockies set.
Three different areas of the Sub Rockies facility – Locker/Prep Room, Hospital/Recovery Ward and Arrivals Area were scripted but proved too expensive to build as stand alone sets.  Instead these were designed into one modular structure that, after a slight rejig, moving a few walls and changing dressings, achieved three sets in one.
The day / month / year dial – what were the thoughts behind using a simple briefcase lock?
Initially the mechanism for the Violin Case Time Machine was written as an LED screen and dial to change the settings. After thinking about the practicality of having a LED screen in the 1940’s and the attention it would grab a different approach was devised.  All the technology for the temporal agents needed to be kept timeless and low tech so they could hop from one period to the next without being noticed.  In the end the briefcase tumblers were designed into the control mechanism for the Time Machine, one set to indicate time of arrival and a second set to determine location [barely noticeable in the film].  Lisa Brennan (Props Master) then had the challenge of making them spin and operate practically on set – not wanting to handball this effect to the non-existent VFX dept.
What were the most memorable challenges you encountered working on this film?
Other than the sheer scope of the project and the budget constraints, funnily enough it was the Fizzle Bomb itself that presented a prickly challenge – well the countdown timer anyway.  The look of the timer needed to be period correct [early 1970’s]. LED technology was unusable as it wasn’t officially invented then and a second hand ticking down was not dramatic enough.  To solve this we sourced some old ‘7 Vane’ display units, similar to those used in early petrol bowsers and decided to use these as the timer count down.  Unfortunately wiring these up and getting them to work practically on set [again trying to avoid costly VFX shots] was an enormous headache.  The individual units had to be shipped in from Latvia and the technical specs were sketchy at best.  After lots of late nights with the soldering iron and many fused circuit boards, the contraption was finally operating and to my knowledge no VFX help was required.
Predestination was an extremely rewarding job, working in Melbourne with a small but very dedicated crew was a highlight.
Thanks very much for sharing this with us, Matt.
Predestination’s global premiere was held on 8 March 2014 at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, United States. The film was then selected for the opening night gala of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), in July 2014. It is showing in cinemas now.
You can see Matt’s initial proposal of the various colour palettes here:

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