Digging into the Production Design of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’
Production designer, David Brisbin, shares his experiences
by Laremy Legel
Production Designer David Brisbin walked through the door and proceeded to talk for 24 minutes straight, without taking a break, without taking any questions. If you think that’s easy I urge you to give it a try. So clearly the man is excited about the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Here’s what he had to say:
How He Got Involved
I had done a movie with [director] Scott Derrickson before, so I was thrilled to get invited on another adventure with him. But this was not what I expected he would call back with. The elephant in the room on this one is the original film. When we looked at it we see this stuff that matches today so nicely. The whole obsession with media. The wartime setting. The just being on the threshold of mass paranoia. It’s nice that that matches today. It’s also sort of interesting that that was during the fear of nuclear annihilation where now we’re at the threshold of annihilation from eco-something. In both cases you could sort of argue that they’re self-inflicted dangers somehow.
The Difference Between Then and Now
There’s one huge difference between the audiences of then and the 2008 audience. Every single person in the 2008 audience has been to outer space. And they’ve been to outer space a lot. They’ve been there with Lucas. They’ve been there with Spielberg. They’ve been there with Stanley Kubrick, with Ridley Scott. It’s a known thing in a way that in 1951 it just wasn’t. So if that’s the big difference it already said to us that we had to make a completely different kind of film.
Studio Input and Support
There was a weird thing for me in how the studio treated this. We went to these meetings to present all this stuff to the executives. And later on the head of the studio came to this room to look at all the stuff. There was this reverence / affection for that original movie. Here we were stuck with this thing that everybody in the whole studio wanted to get right. They want to do that thing that serves that new audience which has nothing to do with the 1951 non-space traveler but which has everything to do with what the audience loved about the first one.
So the stakes are enormously high. Who knows if we’ll get it right. But everyone on the production is obsessed with hitting the target to get both of those things cooking. Scott’s take on this also has an interesting parallel to the original one. It may have something to do with why he let me come to the party. It has to do with realism. You think about it, it’s hard to put realism with aliens, but the truth is the original production designer, Lyle Wheeler, he and the special effects people really tried to think what would be the real space ship. I think they tried to figure that out. So we [also] tried to figure it out with this completely new post-space generation. Where can you go and find the reality in this intrusion from an unknown planet?
The Technology of The Day the Earth Stood Still
One of Scott’s first decisions that roped me in was that the Earth’s existence had to feel like a real place. We spent a lot of time talking about the visual clues that put us in that place. Aging the walls, finding locations that make sense. Getting the right sort of patina. That’s how I approach my production design work. There’s some people who are really into fantastic places. I’m into real places. For me it’s certainly normal to think about the real place this space ship can land. But you’ve got to take some pretty enormous leaps when you think about how these people come. What do they look like? What do they do? What are their weapons? There was a lot of hashing we went through trying to find the right seat for all that stuff.
The other thing Scott made a big deal about is how we might approach technology. He had an appetite for a particular kind of technological place that was a few miles down the track. Not so far that it couldn’t make sense to anybody. But just far enough down the track that people could say “Yeah, I can picture that might be coming, I kind of get it.” We actually went so far as to go to Microsoft in Redmond, WA. They showed us the spread of what they think they’ll be putting on the consumer table in near future years. One of the things we tapped into was that the female lead, Helen, should be quite technologically competent. So we’ve grouped some of the technology around her scientific specialty. That’s one extrapolation from the first story. In this story the Helen character is a trained scientist. She’s not just some numb nuts housewife that’s coming into this thing. She becomes involved in the whole process of figuring out Klaatu. So for Scott the technology that surrounded her was important.
How Would Our Military React?
The other side of the technology was the huge military industrial complex. What do they do at this FEMA moment when they have to respond? The alien is coming, it’s landing in this many hours, how do you make up some sort of response. We took the posture that they would do it better than FEMA, but they would do it with a FEMA approach. Such and such people from each agency, they show up. This place was another important center of technology represented by the Kathy Bates character, Regina, who is the secretary of defense. They both had to be on the pulse of what’s coming next. So for example Microsoft is about to roll out this thing called a surface table. It’s a coffee table they are planning to put in bars and restaurants because it’s so expensive. You put down your drink [on it], it cost three dollars. So we though about how to introduce that. So they plunk down a little bit of the alien meat specimen and out spills the DNA information.
The Colors of The Day the Earth Stood Still
Another big zone of collaboration between Scott and I which started on Emily Rose and that’s really important to me is the world of the palette. There is something, I don’t know if it’s DNA, I’m not sure, there is something about color in Scott that is off the charts. He is obsessed with color. You can have an enormous football stadium and they’ll be one red tomato and he’ll say “Brisbin, what’s that red doing there? We don’t do red!” He’s so obsessed about condensing it to the very specific space that he thinks is right for the story. We went through this in Emily Rose, where there’s a courthouse in a brown wintery world and he said “Brisbin, no brown!” An amazing challenge. Anyway, we figured it out.
On this one we came to it almost like dealing with a deck of cards. What are the pieces that would give us the palette that would resonate with the story? He would bring in images and I would bring in images until we finally arrived at this sort of spread. We’d go through ten or fifteen rounds of this stuff until I’d take it to Scott and he’d say “Yes, that’s our rule.”
But he’ll catch me. “Brisbin, why is that stoplight red?” “Well, because stoplights are red. But maybe we can gel it, maybe we can fiddle with it so it’s not so red.” He’s that attentive to it. In a way it’s the same kind of compression that they had to live with in the years of black and white.
On Past Experiences with Keanu
One of the other times I got to do this was on another Keanu movie [My Own Private Idaho] where we had no money and no time. There was this known scene where Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix have their love conversation by a campfire. Gus said “I need a day and half to shoot that, I’m not shooting it outside, Brisbin, figure it out.” So that was one of my first experiences was with Keanu making a painted night drop. A lot of people don’t realize that the scenes was done on a stage. That was on a low budget movie. This is a medium high budget movie so it’s a little bit easier to do.
The Orbs That Bring Klaatu
The orbs are the conveyance in which Klatuu arrives. There are different Orbs in the picture. He does come in a space suit and by means of surgery achieves human form in Keanu. It’s organic.
How Big is Gort in This Version?
He’s big. He’s really big. In the realm of 25-35 feet, though he may not be the exact same size in every shot.
To Use a Flying Saucer or Not?
It’s a really important question. The reason that I don’t think you can do the same thing [as the original film] is that for a lot of people there is nothing more old fashioned than a flying saucer. It’s funny. Flying saucers, 2008, are a little bit funny. The original wasn’t meant to be funny. It was meant for people to say “Oh shit!” So how do we get people to say “Oh shit!”