From the opening credits, a good film is completely and totally immersive. It invites us to momentarily forget our egos and fall into a new and imaginative world. But how exactly do films transport us to this alternate realm? Actors bring the script to life, and the musical score provides visceral emotional cues. But the literal construction of an engaging filmic world begins with production designers like Uli Hanisch. Hanisch transforms imaginative ideas into carefully designed sets, drawing viewers into the characters’ worlds. Well known for his work on Queen’s Gambit, Perfume: The Story of a Murder, and Babylon Berlin, Hanisch’s whimsical and vibrant sets become characters in their own right. Though his work in production design began as a casual interest, he fell in love with his career and with the imaginative, filmic worlds he has forged over the years. We talked with the Berlin-based production designer about his unexpected sources of inspiration and his desire to carry his ambition to a new purview.
PLUS: You worked in graphics before getting into production design. How and when did you make the transition? What attracted you to the film industry?
ULI HANISCH: I started working in graphics when I was young, probably around 20 years old. Around that time, I met Christoph Schlingensief, a German filmmaker, who asked me to help him with film titles and posters. Not much later, he was shooting a film in our hometown, Mülheim an der Ruhr, and he asked me to join him as part of the crew. We had no budget and improvised everything, but I immediately fell in love with the process of filmmaking. At the time, I had to think about how I could best utilize my existing skillset in the world of filmmaking. As I have just become familiar with the filmmaking processes of props, locations, and art direction, I thought production design would be the most logical and shortest connection to what I had been doing before.
I found it pretty easy for me to translate what I did in graphic design on a two-dimensional layout–talking about centimeters or millimeters–to a three-dimensional process on a much larger scale. Everything I did in graphics was foundational for my production designer work.
P: What lessons did you take away from the early days of your career?
UH: When I worked on these small-scale, experimental films with meager budgets, the advantage was that there was nobody around who knew “better” what to do. We were all crazy, young, absolute beginners, and we were improvising and mainly pretending to know what to do. I think pretending is a very important tool in every artistic and creative process because there is hardly any given truth. You always have to try, invent and claim you are right. Somehow.
It’s a simple fact of what we do in filmmaking anyway. I mean, look at any kind of film set. It’s like a massive playground with expensive tools and a lot of actors pretending to be certain characters. Actors are not the only ones acting and pretending. Everyone is. We are all pretending, just the same as children do when they are playing. The only difference is that we actualize and physically visualize what we imagine.
P: Are there any filmmakers, artists, or aesthetic movements that have substantially impacted your style as a production designer?
UH: I don’t have a specific filmmaker, artist, or individual that I can think of, but I am heavily influenced by the 1920s art scene. Walking through museums at a young age, I fell in love with all the German painters from the 20s, especially German Dadaists. Dadaists were much more radical than any other artists at the time, and they addressed serious subject matters while making jokes about them. I always related to that because humor is an important aspect of my life and my work. I’m not able to take things too seriously. I’d rather laugh about something than worry about it. That’s what the Dadaists did.
A lot of people ask me about what films I’m inspired by, and the classic intellectual filmmaker might refer to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but to be honest, I would say Star Wars or Brazil. I was always more interested in escaping into unknown or unreal worlds than dealing with our ongoing reality.
P: In your daily life, what details do you find yourself paying attention to?
UH: As a professional production designer, I would tell you that I walk through a city and analyze architecture. But I don’t do that because I’m not really interested in architecture nor design too much. I tend to look around and observe people, imagining a story around them. Besides, I love lost places and always think they are fascinating and really show the dynamics of a city, for example like Berlin.
P: Where would that be?
UH: I believe rundown courtyards and strange, almost forgotten alleys truly capture places like Berlin. I think of them almost like the backstage of a theater. Every place has a backstage area, like a restaurant kitchen. I’m always more interested in that because that’s where the real story happens– behind the stage where everything is messy and crazy, and people are busy and hysterical. Or a place, quiet and deserted, just around where everything is happening, inhaling all our secrets.
P: When you’re approached to do production design work on a TV show or film, how do you begin to develop the project’s visual concept?
UH: It all begins with reading a script and understanding the story, as well as analyzing, thinking, and talking to producers and the director. The first step always is to research the specific circumstances, places and content. What is it all about? This is the main question. From that, I develop a visual concept.
Based on the chosen visual references that we select, we start to built a path and decide what kind of visual story we want to tell, and how to manifest it. We discuss what we are going to build and design layouts. Location scouting happens at the same time. When we go into a specific period of time, the process is very complicated and rigorous. I have to deal with the availabilities of period places, meanwhile thinking about the setting in which our story takes place.
P: You’ve mentioned that production designers are, in a sense, like time travelers because they create environments that transport people in time and space. In doing so, it seems like production designers shape how moviegoers and TV watchers see the past. What does it mean to you to have this power to shape people’s impressions of history?
UH: To be honest, I don’t want to take responsibility for any kind of history, or how it really was. That´s impossible in any way. It’s neither my intention, nor my job. I´m not creating a museum, I´m designing a movie and I´m trying to tell a story. When I do a period movie, I start with the question, “Why do we want to tell this story, and why do we have to travel back to this period to tell it?” It’s never just about objectively representing this period; it’s always about setting your own story within that period, for a reason!
Queen’s Gambit is a pretty good example of that because we were obviously based in the 60s, but at the same time, we were showing a very strange, fairy tale kind of version of the 60s. The way we represent the 60s in Queen’s Gambit is very different from how a period film centering on political activism movements would represent the 60’s. We weren’t super interested in objectively capturing the cultural zeitgeist of the 60s. We were interested in visually illustrating our character’s internal state. That’s why we came up with this strange, over-styled version of that period, basically to illustrate her struggles. It was not because we liked it so much, but because the story was telling us what to do. You have to translate your decisions about how you would represent or choose this period alongside your character and your story, like in whatever kind of contemporary story. For Queen´s Gambit, we were never interested in what happened at that time. We were interested in how our characters would feel about their surroundings. We always deal with different kinds of aspects. That’s the main reason why we do films, it always is the storytelling!
P: There are a lot of similarities between Queen’s Gambit and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer. In both works, the protagonist is a prodigy who struggles to find themselves in the world. But Beth of Queen’s Gambit overcomes her struggles while Jean-Baptiste of Perfume fails. How would you compare the way you visually represented a character’s descent vs. a character’s rise to power?
UH: When I first read the script for Queen’s Gambit, there was this moment when I suddenly realized how similar the stories are, just as you said. In both, you have this kind of outsider hero who is forgotten by the world. This simple fact is that nobody ever took the time or the effort to take care, or even remotely understands them. Even emotionally, they are utterly outside the world. In a way, both these films are like strange superhero movies. The characters are like Spiderman because they are not strong and shiny, but they have these supernatural gifts, and they have to figure out how to deal with them. In that way, the characters are alike, and the problems they face are very similar. But each story does something completely different with these characters.
In Perfume, the world is dark and negative, and very harsh. Everyone is the main character’s enemy and he almost has no other choice but to get it all wrong, do terrible things and fail. But in Queen’s Gambit, nobody is a real enemy, still, most of the people around are careless and every place seems far and unknown. She’s very left alone and truly forgotten, but she finds a way to connect with this unknown world eventually through her talent. So, I thought I should create a world that is far away from her, but a world of possibilities and attractions for her to enter.
P: Your relationship with film director Tom Tykwer is very unique. Since the beginning of your collaboration, you have been involved in the ideation phase of his projects. What is it like to collaborate with a filmmaker in the early stage of developing a film? What sorts of things do you try to figure out with Tom at the beginning of a project?
UH: Tom and I worked together for more than 20 years on many films, and of course, we share a long life of friendship. Tom involves me in the very early stage of a project, and he shares his ideas with me and sometimes gives me the first version of the script so we can discuss it. And that’s a very joyful process. Through this, we already nail our mayor headlines of attempt and meaning, getting our idea what the story is all about. Later, through the whole process, we don’t need to talk about it so much more. I just go along and do what I do. Tom knows that will be in his spirit and vice versa. From the moment we start, we roll into that process. But it’s not only a level of trust, it’s knowing that we do it together.
P: Producing a film requires teamwork and the capacity to interface with various departments. What have you learned from the process of collaboration?
UH: Producing a film is never based on a single person. It’s about a group of people and departments with different skills working together. As a production designer you will talk to the producer, writer, director, director of photography, etc. As the production begins, more and more people get involved. You must deal with many experts and talk constantly to this elaborate team, because there is never just a single person who would know everything about it. So, the moment you lose communication, everything stumbles. Mainly, I find myself doing nothing else but talking all the time, all these various experts have more knowledge about the specific details, than I do. So, it’s crucial to constantly communicate with the team and rely on everyone’s expertise.
P: How would you describe the style or visual language that links all of your production design work together?
UH: I believe in overacting. I do not believe so much in being subtle and that less is more. I think that more is more, to be honest. When you make an effort to invent and create something, it should be visible. That’s my style. I like to show off. Not only do I want my design just to be a part of a story in a film, but I also want it to shape the story into something more unexpected-very clear, significant, and maybe even meaningful. I think it goes back to the question of, “Why do you get up in the morning and have the desire to create something?” I believe that we want to create things because we get this feeling that this thing doesn’t yet exist in the world and we want to put it out there. A production designer wants to create a world or image that doesn’t already exist. Maybe it’s about correcting the existing world. You just want to do it better. When I start creating a world, of course, I do it the way I feel it should be. That’s my freedom in a way. And my joy.
P: Do you have any unrealized projects or film genres that you would like to explore in the future?
UH: Well, I started to write an animation film with a friend of mine almost 20 years ago. We wrote the script and had the entire storyline. It was supposed to be a stop motion film, but we never finished it.
The script is ready, and we were trying to bring it to production, but then I got really busy and didn’t have the time to follow it. It’s still somewhere, slumbering at my desk, and maybe one day I’ll do it. It’s actually a funny story.
P: To close this interview, can you finish this sentence: Love is ________
UH: It’s fortunate when you have something in your life that fills you with interest. If you can find something interesting enough that you want to pursue, not necessarily for your entire life, but at least for this moment in time, whatever that may be, then that to me is love. A passion is something that helps you get through your entire life. Production designers can come into projects and are required to deal with whatever type of subject matter on this planet. Whatever story comes along, all of a sudden, I´m expected to know everything about it. For example, maybe the next project I encounter is on a farm– so, I need to learn about agriculture. Perhaps the next story is set in the 15th century, and so on. I always need to become a momentary expert on the subject matter, and most of the time I´m fascinated and very curious to learn more about it, whatever it might be! That is a gift and the reason why I love what I do.
On top of that, how great is it for me to discuss and do an interview with someone who is interested in what I do? I mean, how fulfilling is that? It’s fantastic for me, that these kinds of moments happen.
This story is from Issue Three.