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MEET THE CREW: Production Designer: Thomas S. Hammock

Hello ladies and gentlemen, Muldoon here with a fun column I hope you fine folks might enjoy. Back in September I had the pleasure of chatting with the talented Director of Photography Robby Baumgartner about all sorts of interesting things. It's my hope that I'll be able to chat with all sorts of folks, the people who bust their butts to bring us our favorite make believe stories on screen. My thoughts are simple, we (movie lovers in general) always see interviews from a film or TV show's lead actors or the film's directors (this site, that site, TV, or in print). I just want some insight into the other folks involved, the different department people who help build these incredible worlds. By no means am I discounting lead actors or directors (at all), I just know that there's only so much they can say about a film based on their perspectives, and their perspectives get the most coverage across the board. I love movies. I love making movies. I love talking to folks who make movies. I'm hoping a few of you AICN readers feel the same and are just as interested as I am. I'm looking to make this column a staple here at AICN, one that you fine folks will see the first weekend of each month. I'm just too excited to wait until February to kick this off... I've held off long enough - I'm throwing my patience out the window and kicking this shindig off now!

Today's guest is actually a friend of mine, one of the folks I immediately thought of when toying with the idea of "Meet The Crew" way back when. In full disclosure, I worked with Thomas S. Hammock on a pretty kickass horror film a few months back (one you clearly won't see me reviewing/hyping/discussing for obvious reasons.). On a professional level, I don't think you can get much better than Tom. He's one of the most level headed men I've had the privilege of being around. He's a true talent, a powerfully creative force, and you'll never catch him in a bad mood. I can't speak highly enough about the guy. To be happy, talented, and do your job all under budget - that means you're doing something right. Across the board I judge (harshly) on how I see people treat their crews and Tom is the kind of guy to know everyone's name and treats each person with respect - that's a person to take note of, not the "too busy to know your name" types. The one fault of Thomas's is he's too humble. The guy's written graphic novels, designed incredible films/music videos, and even directed a solid film that blew up the festival world... I'm clearly a fan of his and think his experiences are incredibly interesting. I hope you folks do as well.


What are your notable credits?

The Well, You’re Next, The Guest, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, V/H/S/2, Inside, The Lie, The Key Man.

What the hell do you do? What is your position and what are the responsibilities involved?

I’m a production designer. Basically, I’m the architect of the film.  The responsibly can vary drastically.  I’m really responsible for the look of the film; giving the film a cohesive world to take place in and if possible giving the film a visual arc and backing up the characters and their arcs with design choices.  The simple responsibility list would include something like the sets, locations, set decorating, props, picture cars, and initial designs for visual effects.  However, how the responsibilities vary is there are really two ways to approach a film.  There is the way that references the list I just provided, where all the department heads start at about the same time and you all collaborate together and are responsible for your own areas of the film.  There is a different way to work where the designer stars very early and really guides the visuals for the entire film for everyone except for cinematography.  The look for the film, and the overall color palate, the textures, the design rules for the film and really the entire world of reference is built up encompassing everything from wardrobe and previs to make-up and visual effects.  Then department heads come in and work off that design work, bringing their own expertise to it, but sticking to the overall plan.  Which way you go is generally defined by the director.  Some like working one way and some like working the other; and a few directors, the David Finchers and Tim Burtons of the world, really hold that world together themselves, and provide a guide for the visuals which then everyone works off of.  Anyway, that was a long answer to say that I provide a cohesive world for the film to take place in.

No worries! So it sounds like there's a ton of work involved, but what’s the most enjoyable part of your job?

The first time on a film that a major set comes together. Everyone’s worked so hard and you get to see all those different areas come together like paint, construction, set dec, props…, quite suddenly and hopefully into a space that visually furthers the story and the character’s journey.  Just for people who haven’t been on set before it happens incredibly quickly.  Those last stages when it really comes together would be like if your house was remodeled, repainted and wallpapered, new curtains go up, it’s entirely decorated and then filled with little details to show that you actually live there, in the matter of a couple of days.

What would you consider to be your most mundane, but crucial responsibility? 

Since I’m not responsible for making sure the lens cap isn’t on when someone says “Action!” lets go with clearances (clearing products, wall art,… and similar for use on a film set). This is enormously time consuming, and doesn’t add production value to a film, but as society gets more and more litigious it is a necessity. One doesn’t want to end up with a famous sequence like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and their association with Baskin Robbins where the icecream cake box is involved photographically in everything from heroin use and murder to rape and cannibalism.

Yikes, clearances don't sound fun at all and it seems like folks only recognize products, brands, and labels when it's shoved down their throats (*cough* *Mountain Dew Transformer* *cough*). So how’d you come to that position? Rarely is someone handed a position straight off the street, you clearly worked your way to where you are – I’m just curious what that path was.  

I took a bit of an odd path.  My father is a Toxicologist and is in fact one of the few people with both spiders and radioactivity in his lab.  I had grown up around his lab so when Spiderman came calling and my dad was too busy to deal with their requests I was able to help them out.  Mainly I worked with the art department.  They told me I should try production design.  Concurrently I had gone to undergrad in Landscape Architecture at UC Berkeley and was working in Landscape Architecture.  They had had a design competition to redesign part of the building where some of the Maltese Falcon had been filmed.  I was lucky enough to win the design competition.  I was going to go to grad school in Architecture when professors at the American Film Institute saw my design and talked me into coming to study with them instead of going off to study architecture.  So long story short is I went to AFI, started designing films, and just continued with that path.

Did you have anyone in particular in your life who helped give you that “first break?” Are there any mentors who helped show you the ropes?

I’d have to separate this out. I was lucky enough to be mentored by Larry Paull (Blade Runner, Back to the Future) and Bob Boyle (North by North West, Cape Fear) who were both tremendous designers.  They helped me immensely getting started, including getting me situated with designer David Wasco (Pulp Fiction, The Royal Tenenbaums).  It was David, who actually forced me to take an indie movie, which I think equates to a first break. I had been going to work for him on, I believe it was Collateral, when I was offered a small indie to production design. David told me to be sure to take the film; he’d still be around when I finished.  Well, I designed the little film called Inside and it did well (It played Fantastic Fest and I believe was one of Harry’s picks for that year.). Then I got another film, and then made Mandy Lane and here we are.  I’m still a little bummed I didn’t get the chance to work for David, he’s a tremendous designer, but things worked out anyway.

It sounds like he was truly looking out for you, a rarity in film. Is there any project in particular you are proud of? Like if you had to pick, what three films would you say you’re the most proud of and why?  

Currently I’m particularly proud of The Guest.  I think it’s not only a really fun film, but we went all in to make it a Halloween movie and to try to give it this throw back Halloween look.  We scoured the country for the Halloween decorations of Adam [Wingard], Simon [Barrett] and my childhood.  I think it’s those decorations in particular, rather than the rest of the set decoration (which is present day), that give the film this unique timeless quality like it was a lost film from our childhoods.  So I think The Guest would be one film I’m really proud of.  Mandy Lane would be a second [as] it has a great look.  For the third I’d say You’re Next.  Again it was a film with severely limited resources and I think we pulled off something special.  It was a chance to use the design to breath extra life into the story.

Is there a shot/sequence/set that you can point to and say, “It’s that way because I was there and had it of been anyone else, it would have been different.” Not necessarily good or bad, but possibly something a lot of us movie fans would have seen and can find a little more appreciation out of.

For me I think You’re Next would be the most obvious one where I had a hand in a fundamental change. Adam (Wingard), Simon (Barrett) and I talk about this a lot. Originally that film was supposed to take place in a very standard 3 bedroom/2 bath track house so that it would be relatable (as the grown ups say); a house that every member of the audience could feel like they might own. However, with the number of characters and the chases and concurrent action within the house, I felt we’d be better suited for the horror by going for a really big house. Something that felt more like a labyrinth where the camera could get lost so to speak.  We started looking at larger houses and fell in love with the enormous Tudor mansion that you see in the film. Kind of a home invasion film in Gosford Park if you will.  That house gives the film such a visually different look than it would have had otherwise, it worked great for us.  It really elevated the film to have set in someplace almost distractingly beautiful.  As soon as we had pulled the trigger on that choice everyone rallied around it; costumes, make-up, lighting,… all changed to accommodate the unique setting.  Looking back on it none of us were sure the film would have been what it was without that house.

Adam Wingard and Thomas S. Hammock talk design with YOU'RE NEXT!

As you’re part of a giant team, what are things that help your department/position run more smoothly? Meaning, while staying on the positive, what are things you rely on in terms of making sure you’re covered and able to do your best?

I think running a group of departments where everyone can bring ideas to the table and can be invested not only in the visual, but ultimately in the film as a whole is the key.  That’s how people stay late, or bring in a really cool prop they found over the weekend happens.  Those details add up into a film with more life on screen.

What's your all-time best experience working on a film? And did it deliver a great film?

While I’ve had a lot of great experiences, I honestly think making Mandy Lane would have to be my all time favorite.  There’s nothing better than making a movie with friends.  That’s something worth remembering.  It was a group of us who were just coming out of film school together.  We had made a ton of shorts together over the previous several years so we had a great short hand.  We had way too few resources to make the film we set out to make, but we doubled up on jobs and did it anyway.  It was a magical experience and to have anything else happen with the film was just icing at that point.  For the film to get the response it got was incredible.  I don’t know that Mandy Lane is a great film, but people certainly seemed to like it and it has a special place in my heart.

What's your best war story from the filmmaking trenches?

I’d have to go with a short film I designed in grad school. I’ll withhold the name if you don’t mind since the chain of events is a little crazy.  We were allowed to shoot for 6 days.  It was a very exacting and visual film so sticking closely to the schedule and plan were very important to the director.  We arrive at the cemetery location on day 1 to find a cascade of water 50feet in the air. The backhoe digging our hero grave had punctured a water main, and then the force of the water had toppled the backhoe into the grave.  It was dug out with a tractor totally ruining the grass so we had to do an emergency re-sod of the lawn.  Finally we start shooting, but these guys in dark suits with telephoto lens keep getting into shot and won’t move.  Turns out they were federal agents.  A well known gangster had been murdered and they were photographing the mourners.  Finally they move on and we shoot.  During lunch someone leaving the funeral was speeding and crashed their car into our craft service tent hitting our supporting actress after we’d shot half her scenes. The car took off in a hit and run, and the actress had to be taken to the hospital. She recovered, but was done as far as our film was concerned so we’d have to recast and reshoot her part.  But we kept shooting and finished up our day.  How could anything else go wrong we asked ourselves?  The next day, day 2, we were supposed to be shooting in the high desert, but there was a lightning warning so our shoot got shut down.  Day 3 rolled around and everything was going well.  Our child lead ate a ton of peanut m&m’s for breakfast. I guess he was at the age where you learn if you are deathly allergic to peanuts.  His face became swollen; he couldn’t breath, and was raced to the hospital.  He survived and after a few days we got him back but his face was badly swollen. We shot the rest of the film with him from behind, in silhouette, or with a partially obscured face.  Anyway, it would have been hard for the shoot to go any worse, but we finished it off and it turned out great.  So I guess the moral of the story is just keep shooting and finding creative solutions no matter how bad it gets.

If you didn’t have the position you do now and you did not work in film, what could you see yourself doing for a living?

We’ll ignore “write comic books” as an answer since I already do that on the side (you can see here Let’s go with Landscape Architect since that’s what I used to be before stumbling into this film thing and who doesn’t love a good garden?  Many of the principles are the same like color theory, sequence of space, movement through light and dark,… its just with Landscape Architecture you are designing a sequence of space for a person to inhabit and with Production design you are designing a sequence of space for the camera to inhabit.



That's it for this MEET THE CREW article. I'd like to thank Thomas S. Hammock for giving me the time of day to chat about things that rarely get talked about. I can't wait to see what he's up to next, design, writing, or directing. His film, THE WELL, was acquired a few months back by Dark Sky, so hopefully folks out there (who aren't film festival goers) will get a chance to check out his kickass flick! At any rate, I hope to keep MEET THE CREW up. I'll see you folks next time with more insight from filmmakers you might not typically get to hear from!

If you work in production, in any aspect (truly!) and would be cool enough to give us film fans a glimpse into the innerworkings of your world, please shoot me an email at Mike@aintitcool with the subject line: "MTC - (Your Name) - (Your Position)"

This column is new and while I'd love it to be an "every Sunday" kind of thing, I have to wait and see first if it should only remain a "first Sunday of every month" kind of thing. Hopefully you ladies and gents got a kick out of today's chat. I'll see you fine folks later. (Now go out and make something awesome!) Be sure to check out our last article below:

Robby Baumgartner - Director of Photography

- Mike McCutchen


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