These six artists helped make most of your favorite movies, but you probably have no idea who they are.
Dir. Daniel Raim, 2010, 78 min
People tend to underestimate just how much of a collaborative process filmmaking is. Passionate fans and causal viewers alike generally chalk all of a movie’s quality (or lack thereof) up to the strength of its director and stars, sometimes with the screenwriter thrown in. But it takes from dozens to hundreds to thousands of people to make a film, and changing any one of them could easily change the whole picture.
Take, for instance, the production designer. The person in that position is responsible for the entire look of the movie. It’s their job to pay attention to all the details that go into every shot, whether you the viewer are likely to notice them or not. If even the slightest aspect of scene is off, if a house looks too clean for one inhabited by small children, if it doesn’t make sense that a certain character has so many books, the scene itself feels off. Even if you can’t consciously figure out why, you know that something’s wrong, and it causes your suspension to disbelief to decay. You can’t invest in the world of the film. From densely detailed productions like The Lord of the Rings to sparsely decorated movies like Dogville, the production designer always has an important role. Cinema is a transporting art, and these are the people who create the destination.
In Something’s Gonna Live, director Daniel Raim gathers six legendary Hollywood artists, half of whom are production designers, and sits down with them for conversations about their crafts. He’s paying tribute not just to an under-appreciated profession, but also to a bygone way of making movies. These old men aren’t here to decry the loss of “the good old days,” but the most of the best American film certainly doesn’t come from the big studios anymore. They harken to an era when artists were empowered in their collaborations by the system, and it helped rather than hindered them, even if it was always a profit-driven machine. That time’s gone now, and it isn’t worse now in the film world overall, but it’s still worthwhile to observe the passing of the old days.
After all, five of these six men died between the filming and release of this doc. The production designers are Robert Boyle (The Wolf Man, North by Northwest, The Birds, In Cold Blood, Fiddler on the Roof), Henry Bumstead (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Sting, Vertigo, Unforgiven), and Al Nozaki (The War of the Worlds, The Ten Commandments). Joining them are cinematographer Conrad Hall (In Cold Blood, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty), storyboard illustrator Harold Michelson (From Here to Eternity, The Ten Commandments, West Side Story, Ben Hur, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate), and cinematographer/director Haskell Wexler (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Medium Cool). Between them, these guys have centuries’ worth of experience. They are the last remnants of a creative generation.
The doc has a very loosey-goosey, free-form structure. It’s built around vignettes that mostly see the artists reminiscing about the productions of their various movies. At one point, Boyle leads us on a tour of the filming locations for The Birds, and reveals various behind-the-scenes details of the shoot there. He muses not just on the technical challenges he and the rest of the crew faced, but on how they strived to ensure that every shot meant something, that every story beat held its own thematic weight. That’s a depth of consideration that we now consider reserved for the art house.
The artists also reveal biographical details about themselves. Nozaki has the most interesting story, having had his career interrupted by a stint in the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and later suffering from a degenerative eye disease. But if there’s a main character, it’s definitely Boyle, who gets the most screen time and whose thoughts often narrate the film. Nearing a hundred, he’s heavily contemplative about philosophical concerns. The title of the movie comes from one of his soliloquies. He’s a true believer in film as an art for exploring the human condition, and he sees his art as a way to transcend death and time. Even if no one remembers his name, I’d say he’s succeeded in that.
Something’s Gonna Live is the last epitaph on the old Hollywood system. It’s a lovelorn letter of farewell, written by the men it’s addressed to. It’s unbelievably sad, but it’s also rather uplifting. After all, as the title reminds us, there’s always something to remember them by. But then again, the immediacy of film means that, since we can interact with their work again and again at any time, we can also renew our sorrow over their passing just as quickly. It’s a heartbreaking, beautiful thing, and no other art form affects us quite like it.