When I first went to Europe, I went to Paris on Little Boy Lost . It was incredible because I knew Paris from my studio work as a draftsman! . . . I had created it many times before in great detail—on paper and in actual sets.
Dear Bummy, You take the BS out of filmmaking!
—Clint Eastwood on Henry Bumstead's receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Art Directors Society
In early August 2000, Henry Bumstead, one of Hollywood's most celebrated art directors and production designers, walked on stage in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Film Festival Awards ceremony to receive a special award in production design for a lifetime of work. At age eighty-five, "Bummy" had spent quite a week, for his eighty-seventh film—Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys—had just opened to strong reviews and equally strong box office receipts. Bumstead could well afford to smile that week, for few individuals have left such a legacy in Hollywood. As Clint Eastwood made clear in a comment the year before, "I hope Bummy will work with me until I'm too old to work because I know HE will never be too old!"
This book is a study of Bumstead's career from 1937 to the present and his remarkable body of work, involving more than one hundred films (this number includes his early films as a draftsman and several television films). In addition to this impressive number of films, he has won Academy Awards for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962, dir. Robert Mulligan) and The Sting (1973, dir. George Roy Hill) and received Academy Award nominations for Vertigo (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock) and Unforgiven (1992, dir. Clint Eastwood).
Beginning at Paramount in 1937, Bumstead worked under German-born art director Hans Dreier at the height of the Depression, which he describes this way: "I was making thirty-five dollars a week when my classmates from USC who became lawyers were making ten to twelve and a half a week. In those days we did everything on the lot, so it was great training!" He went on to work with some of Hollywood's most talented filmmakers, making four films with Alfred Hitchcock, eight with George Roy Hill, and eight with Clint Eastwood. But that's only the beginning. For Bumstead has designed sets for Martin Scorsese, Abraham Polonsky, Franklin Schaffner, Michael Curtiz, Cecil De Mille, John Farrow, Leslie Fenton, Mitchell Leisen, Arthur Lubin, Anthony Mann, Daniel Mann, Delbert Mann, George Marshall, David Miller, Robert Mulligan, Paul Newman, Panama and Frank, Nicholas Ray, Mark Robson, William Russell, Mark Sandrich, George Seaton, John Sturges, Norman Taurog, Hal Walker, and Billy Wilder.
In short, Bumstead's career bridges the "classical" age of Hollywood set design within studios and the more location-oriented style of filmmaking that took hold after the mid-1960s. To trace Bumstead's work is therefore to track the changes in the field of Hollywood art direction over the past sixty-three years. What follows in these pages is an effort to capture part of the rich carnival of talent and experience that has made Henry Bumstead, or "Bummy" (as everyone who knows him calls him and as I will also feel free to do as well), one of the legends in the world of Hollywood art directors.
I had yet another motive in putting together this book, and that was to help shed more attention on one of the most neglected areas of film production. I would offer my own experience as testimony to this fact: before meeting Henry Bumstead, even after writing a dozen books on film and filmmakers, I was not aware of the nature and scope of the world of the art director or production designer.
Before going further, I would like to share a few words about how this study came about. I first met Henry Bumstead on the set of The World According to Garp when I was writing a book about director George Roy Hill. It was exciting to follow the pre-production as Hill refined the script with screenwriter Steve Tesich and author John Irving. I enjoyed watching a good bit of the shooting in a New York studio as well as at nearby locations as Robin Williams, Glen Close, John Lithgow, and the rest of the cast became the characters they played in Garp's complicated life. But the most unexpected pleasure of that experience was getting to know Bummy. When I watched the scene in which the airplane crashes into the house that Garp is thinking of buying, I realized that art direction was a world I was only beginning to understand, and I knew that someday I would have to devote a book to Bummy. After all, how do you design a set that an actual airplane can crash into safely and have the pilot climb out without a scratch? On that chilly morning at an abandoned New Jersey airfield, I was fascinated—or, to be more precise, I was hooked.
This book is thus the product of my fascination with Henry Bumstead and the field of art direction and production design. In a real sense, Bumstead is not only the subject of this book but also a coauthor, for his stories about his own work are so telling that I have balanced each chapter with a section featuring his comments as well as my study of his craft.
A final note: the terms "production designer" and "art director" mean basically the same thing. The early "stars" of the field, such as Hans Dreier, Cedric Gibbons, Richard Day, and William Cameron Menzies, were called "art directors." But with Gone with the Wind and a special award for "production design" to William Cameron Menzies, the term "production design" became the guiding label. Several of the studies listed in the bibliography (such as Beverly Heisner's Production Design in the Contemporary American Film and Vincent LoBrutto's By Design: Interviews with Film Production Designers) reflect this title, which has applied for more than fifty years.
The union for these professionals began in 1937 as the Society for Motion Picture Art Directors. Then in 1957 it became the Society for Motion Picture and Television Art Directors. Very recently, however, the union shortened its name to the Art Directors Guild. According to Scott Roth, the executive director, there are currently more than nine hundred members, who represent art directors and production designers as well as assistant art directors. "Many come from a background in theater, but theater designers have their own union, as do set decorators," comments Roth (personal interview, September 2000).
The Oscar and screen credit label is still "production designer," however, and in screen credits "art director" refers to the production designer's assistant.
As we turn to the career and craft of Henry Bumstead, we do so with the wise words of Robert S. Sennett in our ears: "Any attempt to generalize the working habits and personality traits of the great art directors and production designers is likely to fail" (27).
Biographical Notes: "I Want to Be a Cartoonist!"
Henry Bumstead was born March 17, 1915, in Ontario, California, the youngest of three children (a brother four years older and a sister eight years older). His father, Lloyd, ran a sporting goods store and his mother, Emma Langman, was a schoolteacher. Ontario was a sleepy orange grove town of 10,000 at that time, roughly thirty-five miles outside of Los Angeles, and Bummy clearly remembers the presence and smell of smudge pots used in cold weather to keep the orange trees from freezing.
He describes his father as "a great guy," 6'2", who had very little schooling but was fluent in Spanish, which he had learned from spending years in Mexico with his father. His mother was born in Golita, California, north of Santa Barbara, of British parents. Her family owned a ranch in Golita, and she graduated from what is now UCLA.
Bummy inherited his father's build (as did his brother) and became captain of the high school football team, a track star, president of the student body, and valedictorian of his class. But from early childhood he had a burning ambition. "I wanted to be a cartoonist!" he remembers with a smile. "We had no cartoons at the movies, and no television, not even radio at first, but we had the Sunday papers with all of those wonderful cartoons!" And while most of his friends must have remembered him for his athletic and intellectual skills, he always enjoyed drawing.
He got straight A's in art at school and enjoyed simply copying cartoons to get the feel for drawing them. "Barney Google, Blondie, Gasoline Alley, Little Ab'ner, Mutt and Jeff, the Gumps, and all of those great cartoons. I loved them all!" he remembers. Then in his senior year he found himself being courted by an impressive list of universities with athletic scholarships. "I was looking at offers from Iowa, the University of California, and somebody showed up at the house from the Naval Academy!"
But his final choice was USC, which was a football and track power in those days and which offered him a four-year scholarship. USC had two major additional advantages: it was close to home, and it had an outstanding fine arts and architecture program. "God bless them," he says of USC. "If I had not gone to USC, I would probably never have become an art director in the film industry."
As a freshman, he played football but immediately found that it was difficult to maintain his standing in the architecture program and play sports because "in architecture, you had classes and workshops from morning till evening." The conflict was, in a sense, resolved when he badly injured his back in a football game and spent almost two weeks in the hospital. In later life this injury continued to bother him, leading to two back operations. Thus for his sophomore year he dropped football but continued to run hurdles in track until he tore a ligament in his left leg at the Long Beach Relays. Then he made a fateful decision: "I'm going to go for an education" rather than sports. He is very grateful that USC continued to honor his four-year scholarship even after he dropped out of sports.
It was then that Bumstead, nearing the end of his sophomore year, began an internship that he calls "my first big break" and that led to his Hollywood career. "At that time there were only about eighty art directors in Los Angeles. Now there are nearly eight hundred," Bummy remarks. John Harkrider, who had just finished The Great Ziegfield at MGM, asked his assistant, Jack Martin Smith, a graduate of the USC School of Architecture, whether there were any good architecture students at USC. Smith answered, "Yes, there's Henry Bumstead." He was hired by Harkrider, who was by then at RKO.
So he started interning at RKO in the summer of 1935. Bummy makes it clear that drawing wasn't his only strength. "I tell you, I was very good at lettering. For instance, I used to do all the lettering for the university. I did the lettering for Dean Weatherhead, head of the College of Architecture. So I just fit right in at RKO and made a hit with Harkrider."
Then in the summer of his junior year he got a call from Jack Martin Smith, who was now at Universal with Harkrider. "One of my fraternity brothers was Von Paul, Deanna Durbin's first husband. And Von's father was in charge of the lot, so he kept telling me his dad would make an art director out of me, and I said, 'I don't know enough to be an art director.'" But Bummy learned fast, met the stars, and enjoyed his work immensely when he finally began working for the studios.
Meanwhile, he was working on the side for a well-known interior decorator, Paul Frankel. Frankel designed furniture for films and for individuals who wanted custom-made furniture. Frankel sold to most of the studios and came to highly regard young Bumstead's work. When Bummy graduated from USC the next year, Frankel offered him a job designing and building furniture and wanted him to take over the business when he retired.
Bumstead turned him down, however, saying he wanted to have a go at working in the movie business. At that point Frankel said, "Then I will introduce you to Hans Dreier at Paramount because they are better than the other studios at paying their bills on time." And the rest is history, detailed in this study.
In his personal life, Bumstead married Betty Martin in 1937, a marriage that lasted until 1983. They had four children: Bob was born in 1941, Ann in 1944, Marty in 1949, and Steven in 1952. In 1983 he married Lena Stivers, and they have lived in an attractive home in San Marino since that time. An avid golfer, Bummy has not been a joiner of organizations or causes beyond those of the Art Directors Guild and the Academy of Motion Pictures.
Hollywood Art Direction Up Close
Let us ask the obvious question that actually has a rather complex answer: what exactly is an art director? No one answer encapsulates the whole profession or job description. But Jack De Govia, whose credits as art director include Die Hard, Speed, Bowfinger, and Volcano, puts it well when he says that Hollywood art directors are "architects, alchemists, illusionists; the modest creators of Heaven or Hell on demand. Eden or Gomarrah or Bedford Falls to your specifications, and we'll have it furnished for you and the utilities turned on, but don't open that airplane door, for you'll run into the stage wall" (2).
In short, it is the art director who stands between the screenplay and the director of the film, turning the printed page into a place real or fanciful, constructed or found, and who does so for a price the producer can live with.
To focus on art direction as the major part of the filmmaking process that it is, furthermore, demands a particular frame of mind. As C. S. Tashiro notes in his groundbreaking study of production design, Pretty Pictures, "Film design works from the difference between the physical world as it exists and the requirements of a particular narrative" (xiv). On the one hand, if an art director is doing his or her job well, we as spectators are not consciously admiring the "look" as separate from the story unfolding and the characters involved. In this sense, any set that calls attention to itself as a set is most likely disrupting the narrative by pulling us momentarily out of the story. Thus, as Tashiro suggests, to discuss an art director's work is to explore the gap between the "physical world" and the cinematic story being told.
The skills needed to create the cinematic environments in which stories take place require the art director to be a-jack-of-all-trades. Vincent LoBrutto comments, "Production designers utilize imagination and technique, illusion and reality, and apply discipline and financial restraint to enhance the script and the director's intent visually" (xiii). There is therefore no bachelor's degree in film design yet in place at any school or university in the United States, as Ward Preston has made clear. In What an Art Director Does (27), he playfully but accurately explains what such a curriculum should be if one were to appear:
- First Year
- Evolution of the Motion Picture
- Music Appreciation, Philosophy
- History of Art, History of Architecture
- Architectural Drafting, Perspective Drawing
- Designing for Motion Pictures I
- Second Year
- Introduction to Motion Picture Production
- History of Motion Picture Design
- Interior Decoration, Creative Writing
- Computer Drafting, Perspective Drawing
- Designing for Motion Pictures II
- Third Year
- The Business of Motion Pictures
- Set Construction, Location Facilities
- Special Effects, Computerized Photo Effects
- Illustrating and Storyboarding
- Designing for Motion Pictures III
- Fourth Year
- Budgeting and Breakdowns
- Computer Design and Electronic Media
- Designing for Motion Pictures IV
Except for computer work, the list above represents Henry Bumstead's expertise. Art director Ken Adam (Dr. Strangelove, Goldfinger, Barry Lyndon, and many James Bond films, such as You Only Live Twice) states the basic qualifications for the profession more succinctly. "The sketch is the all-important tool of the art designer," he says. "I think it is advisable for anybody who wants to be a production designer to be able to freehand sketch, to have an architectural understanding of space, and then learn all the tricks of the trade" (LoBrutto 46). Once more, this sounds like a direct description of Henry Bumstead's major talents.
I wish to introduce from the beginning a term from the recent critical tradition of production, architecture, and cinema that says much about the whole territory of film production design: "cineplastics." According to architect Robert Mallet-Stevens, writing in 1925, "It is undeniable that the cinema has a marked influence on modern architecture; in turn modern architecture brings its artistic side to the cinema" (Vidler 14). This cross-pollination of art, architecture, design, and cinema is truly "cineplastics"—or in Hollywood's terms, production design.
As I pointed out earlier in this chapter, production or art design has been an underdeveloped subject in cinema studies. LoBrutto, in his collection of interviews with production designers, notes, "A mysterious veil hangs over the magnitude of the production designer's role in the filmmaking process" (xi). Michael L. Stephens is even more emphatic on the lack of awareness of cinematic production design: "When it comes to public notice and acclaim, perhaps the most neglected of the cinematic crafts is that of art directors" (1). We are used to examining films according to who directed them, who starred in them, and even who wrote them. But very little attention has been paid to a critical aspect of filmmaking: how a film looks.
That lack of attention is explained, in part, by the skill of production designers: if they have done their job well, there is the psychological reality that the audience accepts the set or location as "real" within the story unfolding on screen. Thus the muddy street in To Kill a Mockingbird looks as if it were shot in the South and not in a Hollywood studio (which it was), and the entrance of the American prisoners into Dresden in Slaughterhouse-Five looks like "Dresden" before the firebombing of the city, even though the actual location of that shoot was Prague. As Tashiro comments, "Part of the designed image's power lies in the environmental unconscious it creates, in which objects seem to sit naturally, just there" (172).
Bumstead on Bumstead: An Overview
Before taking a closer look at the various phases of Bumstead's career, let us hear from Bumstead himself on a number of issues related to his overall experience and vision.
- You began work in 1937, but you first began to receive credit in 1948 with Saigon, starring Alan Ladd. Can you talk about how credits work for art directors?
- Bumstead: What you have to know about the credits is that for some time, even after Gone with the Wind, the head of a studio art department got his name in front of yours even if he did almost no work on your film. So many of those early films that I deserved really full credit for listed Hans Dreier or Hal Pereira ahead of me. But finally that bubble was burst. For instance, Pereira had his name on Vertigo, but he never had one thing to do with the film or Hitch! And he also had his name on The Man Who Knew Too Much since he was head of the department, but again, he did nothing on the project. This was true at every studio. That was just the way it was. Of course, this caused a lot of resentment over the years.
- The amount of detail in your sketches is amazing. Is everyone that detailed, or are you special?
- Bumstead: Those of us at Paramount did more detail work than those at some of the other studios. But also I was just brought up that way, to be aware of so many things such as texture and aging, for instance. One day things were slow when I was a draftsman, and I was working on a Victorian baseboard, which was about fifteen inches high going around a room. I was adding some detail work, and Hans Dreier came up and looked at what I was doing and said, "Henry, is this for the shot in the film of the mouse running along the baseboard?" Of course, there was no such shot! And I realized right then that I was too fancy! Not everything you draw in a detailed piece shows up in a shot. So I simplified the baseboard.
- How big a crew did you have working for and with you in the old days, and how big a crew in more recent years?
- Bumstead: Very few, then or now. Because Paramount had only eight or ten draftsmen, period. And MGM had forty! You see, most set drawings are done at a quarter inch to the foot, then to three-quarter inch, then to full size. But at Paramount we worked at half inch. That is, a half inch to a foot scale, you see. And then we went from half inch to full size, skipping the intermediate drawings that MGM and others did. Of course, I've always been known for being able to work with very few people. In fact, I've probably been known to have the fewest people of anybody. For many years I never had an assistant. However, since 1960, we have usually had an assistant, so I selected an assistant who could draw. For me, it wouldn't be useful to have an assistant who couldn't draw. My assistant cleans up my rough sketches and then turns them over to a draftsman [now called "set designer"] to make working drawings for the construction department.
- From the times I've watched you on the set, I've seen that when they are filming and everything is going well, you leave and are busy getting future sets ready, so you really don't watch much of the shooting. Is this correct?
- Bumstead: Correct. I hardly ever watch the filming. I'm always "working ahead." My routine is usually to check with the director or his assistant in the morning, and if they give the okay, then I work all day on future sets. I usually try to check with them at night, at the end of the day, too. So that if they need something for the morning, I can have it ready for them.
- You should also have the title of location hunter as well as art designer.
- Bumstead: Yes, I think looking for locations is lots of fun, especially if you find what you are looking for. I have acted sometimes, too. For instance, in Yugoslavia, on A Time of Destiny, I played a two-and-a-half-page scene with William Hurt and Timothy Hutton. I played the part of a colonel. The film was directed by Gregory Nava, who did El Norte. I was freelancing then, working for various studios. And we built sets in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, and Trieste, Italy, and then we returned to San Diego to complete the film. I liked the film even though it didn't do very well at the box office. My acting day began at six A.M. to get a hospital set in a Zagreb church ready for my interior scenes. At three P.M. I had to get into my colonel's uniform to do exterior shots. I returned to the church around six P.M., but my scenes were not filmed until after midnight. A very long day, indeed. So I think I will stick to art direction!
- Did you have a very different feeling about working with black and white as opposed to color?
- Bumstead: Painting sets for a black and white film was hard. I was doing Little Boy Lost in Paris. George Barnes, a great cameraman, was lighting Bing Crosby. Crosby was getting older then, and Barnes was using scrims, etc., to make Crosby look younger. Barnes said at that time that black and white was tougher than color. It was tougher for the art director than color, because you had to be very careful what colors you chose to help the cameraman with his lighting. Cameramen had to separate rooms and sets by light. But good black and white films are gorgeous.
- You jokingly say that George Roy Hill and Clint Eastwood have both playfully said to you, "Bummy, you are trying to direct this picture!" Did you ever get the bug to direct a film?
- Bumstead: (laughter) No, no! I've never wanted to do that. You know, I've had fun doing some second unit work on Slaughterhouse-Five and on Slap Shot. No, I've never had the bug to do that. I think I would know how to direct because I couldn't lay out a set if I didn't know all the action required for a scene. But whether I could get the performances out of people, that's another thing.
- What about the Art Directors Guild in its various forms and titles over the years. Have you been an active member?
- Bumstead: You have to belong, and although I've always made over scale in my pay, I do feel the guild helps members get more money. I was very active in the union when I was at Paramount. Because I was the youngest—the "boy"—in the art department, they sent me to all the meetings! So I went for years. But in 1960 I had moved to Universal, and I've cut down on meetings since then. Mostly because of my age and being out of town. But they still honor me, for instance, with a lifetime achievement award in 1998, and they were nice to feature me at the Hollywood Film Festival Awards in August 2000. I thank them very much.
- When you first started, were there ever many women in art and production design, and is it different now?
- Bumstead: (laughs) In the old days, I think there were probably three or four women designers and decorators, and they were good. Now it's the opposite. I would bet there are maybe more women decorators than men. And there are many good women production designers today, too.
- Do you ever get a script that you say you can't do for whatever reason?
- Bumstead: No! You never do that! But I do remember when I was doing Absolute Power with Clint, we had a lot of work to do on that picture. The actual production had not started, so I told the production manager, "Look, if you give me everything I need, crew included, today, I can have the film ready on time, but if not, I don't think I can do it." That scared them! So my crew and I left for Baltimore the next day and began.
- What is the secret to such a long career in a business that has chewed up a lot of talent very quickly? You have worked steadily and successfully for over sixty years.
- Bumstead: I remember when I was making A Gathering of Eagles, a B-52 picture with Rock Hudson, and our technical advisor was an elderly four-star general. I asked his wife how her husband got so high up in the air force, and she answered with two words: "He lived!" Yes, he had survived World War II. And I thought that was marvelous, so I do relate that to my successes. I lived! I survived! I'm an old-timer. And I'm still around! That's why I get some awards.
- What do your Oscars and Oscar nominations really mean to you and to those you know?
- Bumstead: Well, I think they are like any other business—75 percent or 80 percent of those given are well deserved. I mean, take those big companies in America: not always does the right person become the CEO of General Motors or president of Time Warner, you know what I mean? But then there is that 25 percent that can depend on sentimentality more than merit. When I told Morgan Freeman he should have won an Oscar for Driving Miss Daisy, he said he thought what really counted was just the nomination by your peers. And that's how I feel, too. But winning the Oscar is something else. It's a dart game. You have a one-in-five chance if nominated, and not every member of the Academy knows about art direction. So in a sense you are lucky when you win.
- What do you see as changes in the young art directors coming up in the industry today compared to those of your generation?
- Bumstead: One of the changes is that many of the new members aren't required to draw and detail different styles of architecture like we had to do in the days of the studio system. That's because so much of what is done today is location shooting. When I did Vagabond King, I had to be able to do all the Gothic sets and details. It's a tough style that I learned in my years at Paramount. Nowadays they would probably go to a castle in Europe to shoot! We had to know all styles, but that's not required anymore; yet it helps. It's all changed. For instance, in the paint department, it's hard to find anyone who knows how to "age" a set correctly. There just aren't many interested in being painters anymore. But in the old days, you could work steady as an "ager," and that holds true today.
- So much of Hollywood cinema today seems to depend on special effects rather than art direction. What is your feeling about computer graphics and special effects?
- Bumstead: Space Cowboys was my first film with Industrial Light and Magic and the kind of special effects they do. They did a wonderful job, so it does seem as if anything is possible these days! But I am glad I was able to work during the studio system. In those days you worked out effects with the studio effects department, as I had to do on The Bridges at Toko-Ri.
- You have just finished Space Cowboys and you are eighty-five years old. Is there anything you wish to say about your age and your work?
- Bumstead: Clint just turned seventy, he asked me, "Bummy, how would you like to be seventy again?" And I said, "Clint, I'd settle for being eighty again!" He got a kick out of that. It's a wonderful life! I feel so fortunate to still be working at eighty-five, and I give thanks to all the talented people who worked with me and who make it all possible.