A Pioneer of Korean Art
Words PLUS MAGAZINE
Photography ROBERT RIEGER
From the opening credits, a good film is completely 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 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 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, Nuremberg, 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. Soon after, I had to step back and think about how I could best utilize my existing skill set in the world of filmmaking. Because I was familiar with the design process, props, and art direction, I thought production design would be the most logical and shortest connection to what I had been doing before. It was 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 work.
P: What lessons did you take away from the early days of your career?
UH: When I worked on small-scale, experimental films with very low budgets, the advantage was that there was nobody around who knew what to do. We were all crazy, absolute beginners, and we were just improvising and pretending to know what to do. And I think pretending to know what to do is very important. That’s the only way you can accomplish anything.
It’s the simple fact of what we do in filmmaking anyway. I mean, look at any kind of film set. It’s like a very big 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 pretending, just the same as children do. The only difference is that we actualize what we imagine.
P: Are there any filmmakers, artists, or aesthetic movements that have had a strong impact on 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. 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: The professional production designer would answer that you walk through a city and scout locations or analyze architecture. But funny enough, I don’t do that because I’m not really interested in architecture or design. I think I have more of a tendency to look around and observe people. But I do have a unique place that I always think is fascinating and shows the dynamics of Berlin.
P: Where would that be?
UH: This may sound very odd, but I believe rundown courtyards and alleys truly capture Berlin. I think of them almost like the backstage of a theater. Every place has a backstage area, even restaurants. And I’m always very interested in that because that’s where the real story happens– behind the stage where everything is messy and crazy, and people are hysterical.
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 directors. If the project is a period piece, the first step is to research that specific time and place. From that, I develop a visual concept. Based on my visual ideas, I decide what kind of visual story I want to tell, and I think about how to manifest it. We discuss how we are going to build and design layouts. Location scouting happens at the same time. As easy as this may sound, the process is very complicated and rigorous. I have to think about the era and setting in which the story takes place and analyze how we can best represent that period.
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 really care how the audience perceives the work, and I don’t want to take responsibility for them. It’s not my intention. I think that when you do a period movie, you have to 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?” Of course, it’s never just about objectively representing this period, it’s about setting your own story within that period.
Queen’s Gambit is a pretty good example of that because we were strictly 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 that we represent the 60s in Queen’s Gambit is very different from the way 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 to translate. It was not because we liked it so much but because the story was telling us what to do with it.
Nobody really knows so much about it, so you have to translate your decisions about how you would represent or choose this, and that place in whatever kind of story you like in a contemporary way. We were not interested in what happened at that time. We were interested in how our character would feel about their surroundings. So you always deal with different kinds of aspects. That’s the main reason why we do films, for storytelling.
“We were interested in how our characters would feel about their surroundings. So you always deal with different kinds of aspects. That’s the main reason why we do films, for 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. The simple fact is that nobody ever took the time or the effort to understand them. Even emotionally, they are completely outside the world. In a way, the films are like 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 in Queen’s Gambit, she’s not the enemy. Nobody is an enemy. She’s very alone, but she finds a way to connect with others eventually. So I thought I could create a world that is pretty far away from her and she is pretty far away from everything. But I can create a world 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 together on a lot of films, and of course, we’ve had 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. Once we are on the set, we don’t need to talk about it. I just go along and do whatever I do. And he kind of knows that whatever I do 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 the feeling that we do it together. I rely on him and he relies on me. So, it’s just simply saying 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. You need to talk as a designer, producer, director, director of photography, etc. As the production begins, more and more people get involved. You have to deal with so many experts and talk constantly to the team because there is no single person who would know everything about it. So, the moment you lose communication, everything stumbles. I find myself doing nothing else but talking all the time because I don’t have all the information, and I need the idea of what we got to do or what the story is about. Everybody has more knowledge about what they would do specifically 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 actually believe that more is more, to be honest. I think that 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 to be a part of a story in a film, but I also want it to shape the story into something more unexpected.
I think it goes back to the question, “Why do you get up in the morning and have the desire to create something?” I think 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 15 years ago. We wrote the script and had the full 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 time. It’s still somewhere, slumbering at my desk, and maybe one day I’ll do it. It’s actually a funny story.
P: To end our conversation, can you share what the idea of love means to you?
UH: It’s very lucky when you have something in your life that fills you with interest. If you can find something interesting enough that you want to pursue it, 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. 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 that these kinds of moments happen. Production designers can come into projects and are required to deal with whatever kind of subject matter on this planet. Whatever story comes along, I’ll all of a sudden need to know everything about it. For example, maybe the next project I encounter is on a farm– I need to learn about agriculture. But maybe the next story is set in the 15th century, and so on. So, I always need to become a momentary expert on the subject matter, and sometimes, it’s something I know very little about. That is a gift and the reason why I love what I do.