Award-winning Canadian Production Designer Sakellaropoulo Explains Magic behind Set Design in movies like Interiors, The Human Stain & The Shape of Water
“A production designer (PD) is responsible for the overall look of a film/tv series. I always say, if you take away the actors, what you see is our work — not how it’s shot but the contents. Ultimately, we collaborate with the producers, director, DP and costume designer to create a vision. Sometimes, a director will have a very strong POV. Other times, it’s carte blanche for a PD to come up with a visual language.” — Award-winning Production Designer Zoe Sakellaropoulo
Every year at the Oscars, BAFTA or the Canadian Screen Awards, I always wondered, so what exactly does a Production Designer do? Recently, some outstanding and gorgeous looking films — The Great Gatsby, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Mad Max: Fury Road, La La Land — have been honored for having the best production design/art direction. But what did that mean exactly? Oscar nominated actor Michael Shannon told me that it was thrilling to step onto The Shape of Water’s “staggering sets.” Sure enough the movie’s visual sets earned Canadian production designer Paul Austerberry and his set decorators an Oscar for their “visual language.”
Well, fellow Canadian PD Zoe Sakellaropoulo’s description nailed it with — “if you take away the actors.” But there’s still more to how integral the PD’s role is in presenting that visual language.
Zoe has earned four DGC nominations, one Genie, one Gemini and a Jutras nomination for her outstanding work as a Production Designer. Previously, she whipped up her magical vision acting as a successful art director on projects for New Line, Sony Classics, and culminating with the compelling Anthony Hopkins/Nicole Kidman feature The Human Stain for Lakeshore and Miramax. As a production designer, she has served up her magic on the acclaimed indie feature Waking the Dead produced by Jodie Foster; the Kiefer Sutherland directed Woman Wanted; and, for the Denis Arcand feature Stardom. More recently, she oversaw the production design for the hit SyFy drama series Being Human, where she earned two DGC nominations and one win over its four seasons and fifty-two episodes.
So, we’ll let the Montreal-based Zoe Sakellaropoulo further explain the PD’s role:
“Ultimately, the designer is responsible for making each day of shooting work visually in regards to the demands of the script and the director’s vision. We deliver the set or sets each day and keep moving forward, always one step ahead of the crew. It’s like throwing a dinner party each day for hundreds of people with no hitches allowed, as any small mistake can be detrimental to the shoot.”
Having grown up with parents on separate continents, and after many moves and schools later, Zoe evolved into a “master observer.” The notion of “home” never really took form but made her curious to look into the worlds of other people:
“My journalist mother had remarried a documentary filmmaker, himself from a prominent film family, who enlisted all of us to work. So, I actually started my career at age eight, working for my family’s production company. While their world was rooted in reality, mine remained a rather dreamy fictional one. By eight, I’d written and performed plays and puppet shows, and turned a giant secluded rocky beach into my private village with its own shops. I know, right?!”
She credits watching Woody Allen’s feature Interiors with inspiring her and helping her understand the “power of production design,” explaining, “Mel Bourne’s monochromatic vision of a controlled and restrained order spoke to me as much as the other characters in the film. I was completely moved by this experience and knew then what I wanted to do with my life.”
Now, she’s worked all over Canada from coast to coast, as well as abroad including, New York, Boston, Hungary, France, Morocco and Fiji:
“In general, I love working for directors who understand that it’s a collaborative process and who ultimately have faith in the final vision. Lately, on The Bold Type — a series inspired by the life of Cosmopolitan magazine editor in chief, Joanna Coles — I’ve worked with some fairly young directors and many women which has been refreshing. What I do is like any craft, one gets better with experience and practice — some directors are trusting and flexible and those are always the best to work with.”
As for her future goals, Zoe Sakellaropoulo, who feels she’s at the top of game, wants to further expand her already extensive profile and “work on one or two fabulous projects.” But she never forgets to mention the collaborative key to her work: “I am nothing without my crew — what we do is real team work.”