Designing a movie about 3 billboards is more challenging than you think
For Frances McDormand's new film, Inbal Weinberg leaned on her years of experience as one of Hollywood's up-and-coming production designers.
If you’ve ever watched a movie’s credits roll, you’ve seen the words “Production Designer” just below Director of Photography. But what, exactly, does a production designer do?
“A production designer is in charge of designing all the sets. If you take a frame from a movie and erase all the actors, everything else in the frame is the responsibility of the production designer,” explained Inbal Weinberg, whose behind-the-scenes work is visible on screen in the Oscar-buzzy “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” in theaters Nov. 10.
Whether it’s a street scene with cars, storefronts and signage, or an interior set of a house or public building, the production designer provides everything you see but the clothing. “I work very closely with the director, and often the cinematographer, on things like the color palette. I do historical research if it’s a period piece, paying attention to the smallest details and also the big things as sometimes you have to construct everything from nothing,” the Israeli-born Weinberg told From the Grapevine.
On “Three Billboards,” her challenge involved transforming Sylva, North Carolina, into the fictional Ebbing, “giving a specific character to the town and altering structures to fit a small town that’s stuck in time but not too dated.” For the police station, “We constructed a full fake façade on an existing structure, a vintage-consignment store,” Weinberg revealed. “Because it was going to burn down, we had to collaborate with the special effects department and had to build with fireproof materials in a way that would be safe.”
Not surprisingly, a lot of thought went into creating the three billboards that are critical to the plot. In the film, a mother (portrayed by actress Frances McDormand), angry and frustrated by police inaction in her daughter’s unsolved murder, rents the billboards in the first salvo in her quest for justice. Weinberg had to find the perfect road and the right position on it. She and director Martin McDonagh went through many color, font and layout design versions before arriving at the bold black-on-red combination they chose. Given the sensitive nature of the billboards’ message, the crew covered them whenever they weren’t being filmed so as not to upset the local residents.
Although the work itself is “high stress and moving very quickly,” requiring Weinberg to think on her feet and solve many problems every day, she enjoyed being surrounded by the “calming environment” of North Carolina’s valleys and mountains. “Overall, it was a really collaborative mood and experience. It was one of the more pleasant experiences I’ve had,” she said.
Having previously designed such films as “Frozen River,” “Beasts of No Nation,” “Blue Valentine,” “Half Nelson,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” “Indignation” and “St. Vincent,” she finds that she’s “drawn to stories of a realistic nature. Even though [‘Three Billboards’] is highly stylized in dialogue, it’s about real people and real issues. I find that much more interesting than building complete sci-fi worlds,” she explained.
“I love the landscape of a small American town, places that once were thriving and today are half-forgotten. But I don’t choose my projects based on the landscape. I choose them based on the script. I like non-conventional movies with stories that push the envelope, original voices and bigger risks. Films with smaller budgets tend to have more interesting voices.”
Weinberg grew up in Israel loving the country's food and nature, telling us she “hiked the entire country many times over” on trips in her youth. Interested in art and film growing up in Tel Aviv, Weinberg went to Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, knowing she wanted to combine both in a creative capacity on movies. She moved to New York City at age 20 to attend New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
After graduating NYU in 2003, she landed some internships and odd jobs on indie films, gaining hands-on experience while working her way up to set decorator, art director and finally, production designer.
Weinberg’s next film, director Luca Guadagnino’s remake of the 1977 cult horror classic “Suspiria,” was “a very tense and adventurous experience” for her because it’s set in Berlin in 1997 and was shot there and in Italy.
“In a different country, you’re outside your comfort zone. You don’t speak the language, you don’t understand the local way of working and customs, you have to find crew, and when you’re out of your depth it sometimes affects your self-confidence,” she said. But she welcomed the challenge. “It makes you hyper-aware of everything and you’re problem solving all the time. Your brain is always working.”
In 2015, Weinberg co-founded the Production Designers Collective, which allows colleagues in her field to network and share advice and knowledge online, via newsletter and in person at panels and meet-ups. “We have about 300 production designers from all over the world,” half of them women, Weinberg estimated. “The response is super positive and we hope to keep growing.”
While some production designers want to be directors, Weinberg doesn’t want the job or the responsibility. “I feel very privileged to be in a position where you’re very close to the director as a key collaborator and can make a difference and your opinion can sway things greatly on a film,” she told us. “I’m super happy where I am.”
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