'Take it upon yourself to study' Fifty Shades Freed production designer Nelson Coates talks to Mandy
Nelson Coates is a film production designer known for his work on erotic romantic dramas Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed as well as Robert Zemeckis's Flight, starring Denzel Washington, and a string of studio comedies including Hot Pursuit with Sofia Vergara and Reese Witherspoon, The Guilt Trip starring Seth Rogen and Barbara Streisand and The Proposal with Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Bullock. He is also President of the Art Directors Guild. Here Nelson shares his career path with Mandy News and offers tips to those hoping to follow in his footsteps.
Nelson, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the industry please?
Well, I started out as an actor when I was six and acted professionally for most of my earlier career. I started designing for the stage when I was in college. I’d be in a show and have a set going for another show. My degree plan, because I didn’t know anybody who actually made their living doing this, I was a pre-med in college and then at the last minute I stayed on a little bit longer and got a degree in mass communications with a minor in biology.
I had done 30 collegiate professional shows while in college, including spending a summer doing Shakespeare in the park with Morgan Freeman before everybody really knew who Morgan Freeman was. Funnily enough, I ended up designing movies starring Morgan in the ensuing years.
So anyway, someone my set design at the Dallas Theatre Centre at Equity House in Dallas. As an actor, I’d been doing things off-Broadway, national tours and all that sort of thing, but someone saw this set and asked me to design a pilot for a television series that they were pitching to PBS. So I did. They basically had no money – I think I made $1,200 for three months of work – and designed sets and costumes, wrote some music for a kids’ show with the main character designed by the same gentleman who did Snuggles and Big Bird which was kind of crazy.
It got picked up by PBS and since I was getting paid so little I said “hey, if it does get picked up, I want to have the option to go with it or not.” So I ended up designing that for two seasons and, through relationships with the different episode directors, I met an Emmy award-winning director/producer/writer who had some movies.
Then I did several smaller projects for TV until I got my opportunity to do my first feature as the assistant art director. It was a movie called Problem Child at Universal and, during shooting, there was a parting of ways with the production designer and art director and, all of a sudden, I was finishing this picture! Then it came back, after they’d been editing for several weeks, having decided to re-write and add some new scenes. They came back with about 30 new pages (approximately 30 minutes of new material) and I designed all of that. Then they went away and came back and did an additional 20 pages of new photography and then went away and came back and did another 12 pages. So we literally shot another half of the movie again and, in that last 12 pages, was a three-ring circus mid-way in a backstage area. It was pretty crazy and we had under two weeks to prep that!
So, after pulling off that, the line producer and the unit production manager said “OK, why aren’t you based in Hollywood? We better get you there!” They set up meetings for me. Moving to Hollywood is scary when you’re still trying to figure things out but I got my things packed and put things in storage or in my parents’ garage. At that point, my family was in Texas so I dropped everything there and drove out.
When I got there, the unit production manager from Problem Child was now Production Executive at 20th Century Fox and she and I were going to get together for dinner to try to work out the plan for something. So I stopped at a floral shop on the way to going to meet her in Santa Monica for dinner and got some white roses because I knew she liked white roses, just to thank her for having dinner with me. At dinner, she tells me one of her good friends is starting to prep a movie and they’re looking for somebody. She gave me the information and the next day I called and set up the meeting and about four days’ later I drove back out to Santa Monica! So, here’s the fun part! When I got the flowers, the girl at the checkout counter had a T-shirt on that said "I survived the San Francisco earthquake" and I’m like “Wow! Were you in The San Francisco Earthquake?” and she said “Oh no, my Dad is this TV and film director and he did this movie about the earthquake and I got the T-shirt from the show." I replied, “Oh, that’s funny! I’m a new production designer in town. What’s your Dad’s name?” “Gary Sherman.” I responded “well maybe I’ll get to work with him some day, ha ha ha!”
When I go to this meeting for this show four days later in Santa Monica, I’m sitting in the waiting area and a guy walks down the hall with a "I survived the San Francisco earthquake" T-shirt on! I said “You wouldn’t happen to be Gary Sherman would you?” and he said, “Well, yes I am”! So, all of a sudden I was working in Hollywood!
From there, connections happened. I knew that I had done enough designing but it was not in LA and it was not at this level. So I knew I had to do whatever I could to get work and to see how other people did it. I did a couple of art director jobs, working with a production manager, just to see what they would do, including a movie called Universal Soldier with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. There were three different producers working on that show and each of them liked my work so much that each of them hired me to design their next movies, independently of each other. That kicked it off and started me on my way out here as a production designer on my own.
So now, I’ve been doing this for and am now even the President of the Art Directors Guild which is one of the eight major Hollywood unions covering 2500 people in all of North America for production design or art direction, illustration, graphic design, model making, set design, scenic title artists, illustration, all that sort of thing.
So now, I have Fifty Shades Freed out. I spent the majority of 2017 in Singapore, Malaysia, doing a movie for Warner Brothers that comes out later this year called ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. That’s based on the first of a trilogy of books set in Singapore. It’s a romantic comedy. It's hilarious, just great fun. A crazy experience to try to do three generations of Singaporean family and convincingly do a whole different culture, of food, architecture etc. I’m really excited for that to come out.
I finished up last year doing a period movie about one of the US Supreme Court Justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and her early work before she was on the courts, getting the first case successfully through the Supreme Court, combating gender discrimination. It was actually the first law that got passed that said that men and women were equal under the law and, of course, that then affects and changes gender laws for people in other countries as well.
A very amazing lady and an amazing period. That’ll come out later in the year as well. It’s set in the '50s and the '70s, has Felicity Jones in it and Armie Hammer.
How did you get involved with Fifty Shades and what’s the difference between the two you worked on, if there was any?
Well one of the things that the studio was very interested in doing was going a different way for number two and three. The first one had been very successful at the box office but the studio wanted to have stronger movies going forward. I guess there was a lot of press about the rows or the disagreements in direction of the first movie between the author/producer and the director. So, in order for the other two movies to be successful at the box office but also for the fans to be happy with where it was going, the choice was made to have a completely different director and a completely different creative team.
Once director James Foley was on board, they sent the word out to various folks and they said that they wanted to meet me and I thought “This sounds intriguing!” because we were going to do two movies at the same time.
So you shot them at the same time?
Yes, we actually shot two movies at the same time! They weren’t back-to-back, they were actually cross-boarded, in that you’re some days doing one movie, some days doing another movie. But some days, you’re doing scenes from both movies so you’re having to deal with continuity, hair or where does the furniture go, wardrobe. We were flipping back and forth in mini-shooting days between movies. That was quite a challenge.
We shot in nine cities, three countries, for about 125 days of filming in Canada, the US and France. It was quite an undertaking and that, in itself, had its own challenge. The next thing was how to shape the movie. The director and I had a great conversation when I was interviewing with him. I said that I was really not interested in replicating the look of the first movie because I thought that it could look so much better and feel more specific to Seattle and feel more specific to Christian Grey. The director agreed, saying that he actually didn’t want to replicate that and really wanted to give it a heavier dose or romance, warmth and visual depth. He said “the only thing is I want to make sure that it doesn’t look like that he just totally moved. I want to have some recognisable elements, just so that we know kind of where we are and it doesn’t just totally jump.”
Scenery had been put into storage from the first movie and, of course, there’d been a two year gap. They were not stored in particularly climate-controlled spaces and as we got looking at walls and things, after they’ve been in the weather of Vancouver, it became “What can we use? What can we not use?” We examined the first movie and, at first, made my own ideas based on that. I took huge walls of our production office and mapped out the movie on the walls. The showed every set, the order they appear, what I want to do with the fabrics, the colours, the layouts, the construction drawings.
I had to make a presentation to E.L. James, the author, James Foley, the director, and Dana Brunetti, one of the producers who worked on the first, just to make sure that they liked where I was going. You don’t know who loves what the most and here I am doing wholesale changing of things. The presentation lasted almost two hours, going through all the sets of the two movies and they loved it. I then did a pared-down version of that presentation and flew down to LA and presented it to all the execs at Universal. There’s a lot at stake when you’re on a franchise. They wanted to make sure that it was going in the direction they wanted it to go in and they loved it!
I then jetted from there to Paris and Nice and scouted those elements and came back to Vancouver and started going. Some of the big noticeable changes that occur between Fifty Shades Darker and Freed is: I literally did every wall surface, every floor surface, all the furniture, all the art but two things that the fans go crazy over is the whole fireplace wall. It’s a huge fireplace now. There was a tiny one in the first film and not much furniture.
There was also a staircase that looked kind of like a cruise ship but I wanted to have something that was more complex and looked more of a sculpture. The first movie had orchids and everything all around the apartment and that was not the guy that I would know in Seattle. I wanted the staircase to be on its own, almost like a Jenga game or a piece of sculptural DNA, just to feel a little dangerous and also if you have the money of Christian Grey you would have something at the centre of your living space that’s awesome and crazy. I was looking at this going "I need to have something for the guys that watch this movie as well!"
Behind the staircase in the first movie was a solid wall and it was like "No, it needs to be a huge floor-to-ceiling wine cellar, it needs to be gorgeous with onyx in it and also become a light source. The lighting could emanate from that and influence the rest of the light so that it’s warmer because who doesn’t look gorgeous in warmer light?"
Also, the apartment wasn’t set in one sound stage so we actually built lots of new rooms that appear in Darker and Freed. There’s a beautiful dressing closet for Anna, an office and also a billiard room which, in the cut you don’t see a lot of but connected up the bathrooms and other spaces. I was trying to make it feel more like you could know the geography of where you were in the house.
There are 120 pieces of art in his apartment alone and we took a trip to all the galleries in Seattle and found artists that either were from the pacific north west or were working and showing in galleries in Seattle. We thought "What were the things that he would see that he would go 'oh my gosh I love this, I want to use this, I want to have this".‘ It just makes it more specific having things that are from his region, where he lives. Of course, he supposedly travels around the world and but I wanted to make it a much more masculine space, not antiseptic.
I think that we’ve succeeded. The sort of thing that the actors responded to, the fans have really responded to. It’s more romantic and more Cinderella-like for Anna’s journey!
How long before you start shooting do you come and get involved?
Believe it or not, we only had about 12 weeks plus holiday so it was like 14 calendar weeks before we started filming.
That’s from location scouting, presenting and everything?
Yes, that’s from me jumping on board! It was only about 12 weeks so it was rock and roll! Then the rest of my crew was primarily Canadian but I did have a crew in the south of France and also in Paris. We were pretty lean and mean, though. I had a supervising art director in Vancouver and two art directors, the supervising art director and then a couple of assistant art directors, a couple of people doing graphics, a co-ordinator, two PAs and then three other set designers. That was it.
Of course my set deck team and my props team. Cal Loucks, she’s Canadian but lives in LA, was my deck writer. We’d worked together years ago on Michael Douglas movie Don’t Say a Word and she’s always booked but was available for this. The rest of her team was from Vancouver and so then, with lead men and set dressers and folks, she probably had about 12 to 16 depending upon what we were dressing or doing.
Then we had four props people and then you have your construction co-ordinator and your painters and those folks. We probably had, at our greatest, 75 carpenters and about 15 to 18 painters.
It sounds like with a movie so vast, two movies like that shooting at once, a typical day wasn’t typical.
It was really crazy different because there were so many decisions to make. To decide what should be a location and what should be a set. You’re just trying to keep up. It’s like a big Rubik's cube. How to best schedule certain sets together and how does that fit into something else depending upon when a location is.
In a sense, they go to Vancouver and they go to Aspen in Freed. The best place to go is up to Whistler because there are a lot of beautiful and large-scale houses in that Whistler blackhome ski resort. That, of course, has to be in a period after the snow has melted because they’re supposed to have gone up in the Summer. At the same time, for Fifty Shades Darker, you’re trying to find a huge sailing yacht and for Fifty Shades Freed you’re trying to find a huge luxury yacht deck that’s going to be near Monaco. You can identify these boats but most of the people that own all these luxury things tend to have a broker who’s leasing them out when the family or owner’s not using them.
If they’re going to be in the Aegean sea and they don’t want to come all the way over to Monaco the week prior, then you have to make a different selection of boats. So we went through negotiations on 3 boats before we landed on the one that is in Freed. And yet, at the same time, there’s the inside of the sailing yacht in Darker and the inside of the luxury yacht in Freed and I was actually designing what the insides looked like before we even had the boats. We were building those in Vancouver and I was having to make educated guesses on the style of the boat and deciding what's characteristic of that boat. In that case, I was basically building and shooting before we’d even locked down what the exterior looks like. That can get a little scary.
Wow! What was the hardest or biggest challenge on the movie then?
You want to get everyone onto your same level of completion. I guess that’s probably the biggest challenge of a movie like this where everything is tailored and has a very particular look. Some people think that the work’s finished and it’s not quite and so part of the challenge, when you have multiple crews and multiple places, is making sure that the level of quality is consistent across all aspects of things.
Early in Freed, you see the wedding and the honeymoon. We were actually in Nice on both sides of Bastille day when the catastrophe happened there with the truck coming through! That was very emotional and very shocking. When you have crew coming up to you early the next morning saying the movie saved their life because they didn't go to see the fireworks in front of the Negresco because of the early call time the next morning, those were really emotional moments.
We filmed all across the Riviera and we were trying to find places that not only allowed us to come in but allowed us to re-dress. Then there was the issue of where you find certain pieces because obviously you can find pretty much anything in Paris but down in the South of France it’s more challenging to find certain types of furniture or fabrics.
To me, that’s the fun of it. After you’ve been doing it for a while it’s like, "how do you make your day different? How do you make this set different and specific?" Anybody can just build a set but how do you make it work perfectly for this story and for these characters. I don’t want to repeat myself. I don’t want somebody to go “ oh look, it’s a Nelson Coates movie. It looks the same as the last Nelson Coates movie."
The only consistency should be quality and detail.
Working on two films that were so vast and had so many locations, how would that differ to working on something like Flight?
Well Flight had engineering and a technical quality to it. You’re having to deal with huge safety issues and figuring out rigs in order for the plane to do one thing, shaking, rattling and tilting with a lot of people on it. "What is the next rig to be able to flip things upside down and how much weight?" It was really technical and involved a lot of safety meetings about how to hang people upside down etc. And it also became an issue of what you could actually afford to do because the church in Flight that the plane hit sis only two sides. The rest is built in the computer as it's flying over. You have the technical challenges of it raining in the opening of the move and you have a cockpit set that needs to come apart so that a camera can get in and get shots and yet it also needs to be watertight because it would kind of blow the gag if all of a sudden you see water dripping in, when it’s raining outside.
It was so, so incredibly technical to pull it off.
But the complexity of the Fifty Shades movies was really keeping an enormous amount of detail and construction and painting on track because it does keep going on. Just when you think you’re through, you’re not even half way through! A lot of what a good production designer does is not just about how it looks, but about how it works. It’s about how you actually accomplish your filming day.
What advice can you give to aspiring production designers or filmmakers?
Find people that do what you want to do and surround yourself with people who are doing excellent work and are at a level above you so you’ll always have some place to reach. And no one’s going to make you be better at what you do, except you. So, if you know you don’t know something about art or architecture or history, take it upon yourself to study so that you're ready when those opportunities arise.
So, if you want to go into the production side, you know how to do Photoshop, Illustrator and Sketchup and Maya and Rhino. The more tools you have, the more valuable you become and then when you get the shot to work with people, put in the extra time and the extra hours to show them how much you really want to be doing what you do. It gets noticed.
I always tell people to do whatever they can to get on set and to do whatever they can to work with the person that they want to have as a mentor. If you make yourself valuable and invaluable to that person, they’re going to find a way to take you on to the next show because you’re going to be an indispensable member of their team.