Ryan Warren Smith: Production Designer

In every film we watch there are multiple working parts that go beyond the actors and director. It’s my wish to highlight the numerous key individuals that bring your favorite films to life. 

This interview is with Production Designer Ryan Warren Smith, and I am incredibly honored and lucky that he has taken the time speak with me. Ryan has worked on television series like True Detective, and films such as Green Room, Lean on Pete, and Hold the Dark.

What training and education is required to be a Production Designer? How did you get your start?

I’ve always made movies, since I was a kid with my friends. So we were always making sets, and writing stories and seeing them through. Then I moved to Los Angeles and started at the bottom as a PA. I worked my way up, under a lot of designers that were both good and bad – both helped me fine tune how I would do it myself. And now that I’m doing it full time, it’s all about following my instincts, that is everything.

When you’re watching a film, not just yours, what jumps out at you?

For me, it’s all about story. If I can get swept away and all the sets become invisible, that’s my ultimate goal – to never be obvious. So often sets jump out as being overly obvious.

Lean on Pete: Silver’s trailer

Production design, more than most aspects of a film, is tied to the budget. You’ve mostly made Independents. Has there ever been anything that wasn’t financially feasible in a film that you wanted to do, but couldn’t? (any examples?)

For sure, but I learned on small films how to skirt around this to get the look I was looking for. By finding great locations that already have built-in character you can save a ton of money. So for me, this was never a huge challenge. On the smaller films with less money and resources you are pushed to be more creative to get the look you need. That’s something I’ve taken with me into the larger budget projects.

When you’re reading a script, what are you looking for to inform the visual style of the film, say for something like Green Room?

When I read the script for Green Room, I was like “what the hell is this?” It was so out there and different than anything I [had] read, then I saw Jeremy [Saulnier]’s Blue Ruin which showed his talent and style and I realized there was much more than was on the page. I signed on immediately.

From there, Jeremy, Amanda (Costume Designer), and I pulled references from the real punk scene in Portland, which has a long history. From there, we would pick colors we liked and didn’t like to be around the characters. For example, I didn’t use much red; I allowed the red [to] be prominent in the shoelaces and the blood, which worked very well.

Lean on Pete: Portland Downs

What specifically stood out to you about Jeremy’s work on Blue Ruin? Also, do you try to watch Directors’ previous films before you work them?

I loved the style, pace and colors of Blue Ruin. It grabbed me and took me away and was unlike anything I’d seen. That’s when I knew Jeremy was doing something very special and unique.

I always watch directors other films before meeting with them, if I haven’t seen [them] already.

You were able to work on the third season of True Detective, a show that seemed to have a designated and distinct visual style expressing masculinity, ambiance, and psychological. For the third season, what did you try to do to make that unique from the prior seasons?

This is my first go at TV, and I took on the project as Jeremy was involved, and this season isn’t tied to the other seasons, so we could come in and have complete freedom to add our flavor. This season is also a bit softer, with a bit more heart, so that is informing the look in many great ways.

Lean on Pete: Art Director-Jonny Fenix measuring signage change from “Portland Meadows” to “Portland Downs”

Lean on Pete is based on a book by Willy Vlautin (coincidentally you also turned another of his books into a film: The Motel Life). Haigh ended up taking a cross country trip to recounts the steps of Charley, and I was wondering: 1. How much his notes from that trip informed the production 2. If I a film is based on a book, do you read the book in conjunction with the script too?

I love Willy so much. I was a huge fan of his books before I started making his movies. After The Motel Life, we became good friends. Lean on Pete was and is one of my top 5 favorite books ever, so I was already very aware, and excited about the project. When Andrew came to town for his road-trip, Willy had us both over for dinner and we met and laughed and talked. 4 years later I got the call for the movie, and couldn’t have been more excited to bring the story to life. While getting the film ready I’d have Willy around while dressing sets, which was always a lot of fun for both of us.

What specific direction(s) did Willy give you and Andrew for the adaption?

I’m not sure exactly what notes Willy gave to Andrew on the script, although I do know he was involved in the process.

Willy did give me specific notes on sets, like what items Charley would have around him, etc – I mostly picked his brain about Charley’s house, Del’s tack room, and Aunt Margie’s home.

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Lean on Pete: Willy Vlautin- By Pete’s stable and Del’s tack room

What other outside influences or films gave you inspiration for locations or settings?

Paris, TexasFat City – plus Andrew’s photographs from his road trip

You mentioned that in Green Room you tried to keep red at a minimum. What color palette was in your mind for Lean on Pete, especially in relation to Charley’s journey?

With Charley we knew he’d be wearing a red shirt in the desert scene, other than that we knew we would have dusty faded colors around him. Nothing too bright. And then feminine colors around him when he was in a “home” like environment.

We’ve talked about Green Room a bit, and as I understand you’ve just finished with Saulnier’s latest project: Hold the Dark. What were the advantages of working with Saulnier again? 

Our second film, Hold the Dark, was a hard one. It’s a snow movie, where we had to turn Canada into Alaska, and Morocco into Iraq. But [I] love getting to work together.

That being said, we had a great time and learned so much. Plus, we had a larger budget which was very exciting for both of us. Jeremy and I love all the same things. Our meetings all last 15 seconds. I already know which thing he will choose before he does, and that only gets more fine tuned over time. It’s a great working relationship & friendship. I wouldn’t be where I am without the opportunities he has given me.

Lean on Pete: Ryan and Willy-exterior of Charley’s house

What lessons did you take away from that film, that is, Hold the Dark? 

We learned a lot about having a budget, being able to control all the colors by painting cars, etc. we also learned about how to move and operate with a larger crew, which was invaluable.

What is it like when you watch your film in a theater?

It’s a very painful, anxiety ridden, prideful experience that I only like to do once for each film.

Well, I’d like to say on behalf of everyone else: a film like Lean on Pete is an experience that I’ll be returning to over-and-over again.

Once again, a massive thank you to Ryan. I would definitely recommend readers to keep an eye open for Ryan’s upcoming work, such as the aforementioned Hold the Dark. Also, check out his website: http://www.ryanwarrensmith.com/ 


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