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The Vision Is In the Details: On Working With David Fincher

We’ve pieced together comments from production designer Donald Burt and property master Hope Parrish of working with the supermeticulous and precise David Fincher on perfecting the atmosphere and historical accuracy of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. You can click here for a closer look at one particular aspect of Parrish’s astonishing work: Benjamin’s postcards and diary. And our special edition DVD and Blu-ray releases feature hours of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage exploring the Academy Award–winning visual effects.

Donald Burt: Working with David is rewarding because he is so very detail oriented—and always for the purpose of the story. He absolutely knows his film and is able to clearly articulate it. It is a wonderful experience to work with a director so committed to his vision and with a passionate work ethic.

Hope Parrish: I think that one of the reasons I love to work with David Fincher is that he is so meticulous. As I said in a Christmas letter two years ago, David pushes me beyond best. He has an amazing eye for detail. I am not always sure when I have nailed it, but he lets me know when he says, “We’re done.” He sometimes can be a real challenge for me, but he has hired me to make it happen for him and his film. This was my second film for him, and each time I know I walked away having learned more from him. To me, he is a prop master’s dream.

Donald Burt: Our initial visual approach to the film was based on historical research of scripted locales, within specific time periods. Restraint was as important as consistent tonality in representing the passage of time visually in the film. We were especially conscious with the set dressing and propping in this regard, not wanting to proliferate sets with objects that blatantly reflected an era but rather to have a “progressive mix” of elements that would show a change in period without disregarding the history of things that are carried through life. We also wanted to maintain a certain mundaneness to this expression, so as to keep it very real and subtle. This approach was particularly important in portraying New Orleans in the story. New Orleans is very much a city of suspended time, not only socially but visually. It was important for us to keep the visual language of the film simple and consistent.

Hope Parrish: When it comes to doing a film of this kind, research is the most important tool, and between the art department, the set decorator, and myself, we showed David tons of images to get his take on what he liked for the film. It is important not to cross the line and make the set feel forced. The art department and I were very careful not to have anything stand out of place. David has a great art department that I always take my lead from.

One thing that I knew was going to be important, with one hundred years, was the license plates on the vehicles. We made plates and changed them on the cars for every time change. Back then, they changed the entire plate on the cars each year; they hadn’t come up with the paper tabs yet. So it was important to us to make sure they were correct.

When it was time for me to make a cake for the general’s birthday, I showed David photos from research of the types of cakes that might have been made for such an occasion, keeping in mind that Tizzy probably made it in the outdoor kitchen. Benjamin’s wheelchair and his walking sticks were perfect examples of the process. I showed David choices, and he picked the final chair and sticks, and I think they are unique and perfect.

Grandma Fuller’s suitcase was layers of clothes with bottles and trinkets that she might have had. This was a tool for Kate and Brad; the audience hardly saw it. But one of my jobs is to make sure that the actors have what they need to be that character, and I know that David will look through it and maybe find something in there that could be useful.

I constructed a diary for Brad’s character, and it was supposed to be taken out of a beautiful velvet bag I made for one scene. Again, it was a process with David to pick the color of fabric, the cording for the drawstring. Well, when it came down to shooting, it was in the way of the performance. Things like this are great while in the process of designing the scene, but when it comes to the timing or the ease of removing it from the bag, if it looks forced, we lose it. And that is what happened with the velvet bag. But only when you get there do you find this out. So it is important to have choices.

Donald Burt: As far as visual effects, the art department would conceptually work out in illustrations—and sometimes in more specifically designed formats using drafting programs, as in the case of the interior train station—what we envisioned the CG set extensions to be. This, coupled with the established tones of the film and research, provided a foundation for the visual effects artists to work from.

Most of the tugboat scenes were filmed onstage. We built a full exterior tugboat on an EFX rig for movement onstage, surrounded by blue screen, so as to add CG backgrounds. We also built, as separate sets, the interior wheelhouse, cabin spaces, and galleys, on an additional stage. All of these were on EFX rigs as well.

The gazebo was a location that we amended with simple set construction. The beauty of the location was its simple elegance. The New York exterior (Majestic Theatre) was filmed at an exterior in New Orleans and was later enhanced with CG set extension.

Hope Parrish: I love the scene at the beach with Elizabeth Abbott in 1911. The cameras, the boats, the flares. We needed a light source out there. Don Burt found a photo of an old Edison arc lamp that we re-created, and he also showed me photos of boatmen with flares. So I had them made, and to me the lighting of the sunset and the flares just made it one of the most beautiful pieces in the film.

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