For more than two decades, Little Rock native and current Fayetteville resident Merideth Boswell has been working to make movies look better.
She earned Oscar nominations for decorating the sets for Ron Howard's Apollo 13 and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and she also made sure the objects in the background for Oliver Stone's Nixon, Natural Born Killers and U Turn as well as Barry Levinson's Bandits and Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do! were appropriate for the unique environment of each film.
Since 2005, she has also worked as a production designer and has supervised the look of Bertrand Tavernier's Into the Electric Mist and The Last Exorcism 2. She has also done the same thing for Oscar-winning actor Tommy Lee Jones' directing projects: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the TV film The Sunset Limited and Jones' latest, The Homesman, which opens today.
Boswell, speaking from Shreveport, says, "As production designer, I'm on very early with the director, and we discuss the look of the film, the palette, the tones. In [the case of The Homesman], we made some early choices, that we were going to be very spare and that geometry was going to be very important to both of us."
The Lost Prairies
The Homesman, is based on Glendon Swarthout's (The Shootist) novel about a pious woman (two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank) in 1850s Nebraska who recruits a seedy claim jumper (Jones) to help her transport three women (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter) who've gone insane back to relatively civilized Iowa. Boswell says she and Jones didn't think the warm, even indoor lighting of a typical John Ford Western like The Searchers would have been convincing for their film.
"It's really more of a 'Midwestern' than kind of a Gunsmoke Western, so we just decided to make it incredibly spare. These people had very little. I wanted a structure coming out of the earth like a sculpture. I almost wanted [the sod houses] to be Monopoly houses," she says. "We cared as deeply about the negative space as well as any literal interpretation of 1855 Nebraska."
Following what she and Jones had learned from looking at the photographs of 1870s Nebraska from Solomon Butcher and the minimalist designers like Ai Weiwei (who designed the Olympic stadium in Beijing), Boswell says she and Jones were able to make a realistic interpretation of 19th-century Nebraska as they filmed in New Mexico.
Even then, she says, some liberties had to be taken to accommodate filming.
"The sod houses would not have had as many windows, maybe any. We had to do that even though we were shooting on a digital camera that allows you to get very low light filming," she says "Since we only had candlelight, we had to allow ourselves to have more natural light coming into the spaces. Everybody who had ever seen Little House on the Prairie reminded me that they'd saved up to buy one pane of glass. I said, yes, but if they had a handsome Mexican cinematographer [Rodrigo Prieto, The Wolf of Wall Street], they'd have given him more windows."
Keeping Up With the Joneses
Having successfully worked with Jones for several films, Boswell says that his formidable reputation belies his remarkable skill as a team player. When asked how the two get the best out of each other, she pauses and replies, "I tell him he's always right.
"No. I don't know. We just click. We seem to have great respect for each other. He trusts me. I'm not sure he's a man who trusts easily, which is not uncommon in Hollywood. But once he does, he's one of the most loyal people I know. It's such a joy not to be second-guessed.
"When you ask Tommy how we start, he'll tell you he just tells me not to do anything wrong."
The director and the production designer are also willing to work under conditions that are far removed from Hollywood glamour. "I was building outside of Santa Fe in zero degrees. The paint would freeze virtually every day," she says.
Resurrecting Hank Williams
Boswell is currently working with director Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius) and everyone's favorite Marvel villain, Tom Hiddleston, on I Saw the Light, a film about the country singer-songwriter Hank Williams. Thanks to tax breaks, the film is shooting primarily in Shreveport, where Williams first gained public attention on the radio show Louisiana Hayride.
That said, Boswell admits, "We don't even have one scene of the Louisiana Hayride, oddly enough. We are shooting the Municipal, where the Hayride was. We're cheating it for the Ryman [the onetime home of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville], starting this week.
"The interesting thing about Shreveport is that there are still a lot of people who went to see Hank Williams. There's still just the last of that generation here that saw him, so that's pretty cool. There's been so many encounters with so many people who had a discreet or poignant story about Hank Williams."
Doing justice to a musician whose work resonates for people who've never heard a note of country music (Tony Bennett had a hit with "Cold Cold Heart") has been a challenge for Boswell. Despite a modest budget, Boswell says, there are 62 locations, with work on 14 sets in one week. The filmmakers are also competing with other local films for resources.
"I think the set decorator [Alice Baker, 12 Years a Slave] ought to be treated for PTSD when this is over because we're living together on this one as well. At the end of the day, we kind of meet by the wine bottle and go, 'Ooh,' because this one's not letting up," she says. "We feel this tremendous responsibility to this film, this story."
Because of the constraints of independent production, Boswell says, her experiences are a far cry from working on movies like How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
"If we could think of it, we could build it. At that time people gave you the money you needed to make your film," she says. "It's happening in the big tent-pole films, but it's not happening in the under $20 million dollar films.
At the same time, she gushes about the work of cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential, Heat) and the film's leading man, who has managed to shed this British accent and do his own singing, with coaching from Rodney Crowell.
"Tom Hiddleston makes an amazing Hank Williams. It's just a joy when he comes in and makes Hank Williams come alive," she says. "He's such a pro. He's one of the nicest people I've ever worked with. We've had lots of Loki stalkers on this show. We've had to tighten security. There are some Loki freaks out there."
Back to Her Roots
Boswell grew up in Bryant and attended the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. She got into film work as a way to help pay for her pottery studio. Staying and working near home has its advantages. She says, "Fayetteville is a great place to be in between films. I do a lot of interior design between films. It's a nice tonic after a movie."
Despite all of the research and work she has to do to make a film look real, Boswell repeatedly mentions that much of her job is eliminating objects that don't help the story. While she might slip pickle jars on set to distract Oliver Stone, ticket buyers for I Saw the Light won't have to look at walls decorated with unconvincing snapshots of the actors in "family photo" situations.
"I eschew those whenever possible. I only do those when they make me do it. Those pictures never look right. What happens is you have one day scheduled for the still shots of your actors. They'll say, 'Stand by that tree' or 'Hold that tennis racket.' They just never look right. On the Hank Williams film, the only way we could possibly do this for the money is, again, to keep it spare. I'm not going to put everything in every room that would necessarily have been there. If you're doing a '40s or '50s film, it looks like a collectibles flea market," she laments. "I'd rather have one right thing than 40 things in a room."
MovieStyle on 12/12/2014
Print Headline: Arkansan makes movies look good