Rick Carter interview: ‘The Fabelmans’ production designer
Two-time Oscar winner Rick Carter is more than just Steven Spielberg’s go-to production designer, as he was on the filmmaker’s semi-autobiographical Oscar contender “The Fabelmans”; he’s also Spielberg’s on-set budget cop, enjoying a professional shorthand that’s helped keep expenditures lean and efficient. “When we were working together on ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘Amistad’ and ‘Lincoln’ in particular, I saved him tens of million of dollars by making suggestions (about needing scenes), by reconsidering what our assumptions were,” Carter maintains. “In ‘Jurassic Park,’ it was whole sequences in the book that were going to be in the movie that we could do without.” The fact that the decision was made to shoot “The Fabelmans” entirely in and around Los Angeles made Carter a happy camper, since “we weren’t going to incur any travel costs related to going to another place. It was a good way to hold our costs under control while keeping the movie itself more intimate, which I think made for a better movie ultimately.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
Carter (who won Academy Awards for his work on “Avatar” in 2010 and “Lincoln” in 2013 and is nominated for a Critics Choice Award for “The Fabelmans”) and Spielberg have worked worked on 11 features together over the past 30 years, generating a trust that means Carter has Spielberg’s ear and understands almost intuitively what he wants. “He’ll say, ‘Here are all these ideas I want to put in the movie but we also have to cut the budget by 20 percent’,” Carter says. “Many people will hear that and think, ‘Well, he doesn’t understand how movies are made.’ But I get it. He and I have quite a mind-melding ability, and I knew going in that the design had to work on multiple dimensions for a movie as personal as ‘The Fabelmans.’ This was about going as deep as we could on an intimate level.”
The majority of Carter’s work on “The Fabelmans” involved designing the three houses that form the backdrop of the film, subbing as recreations of sorts of the actual homes Spielberg lived in during his youth in New Jersey, Phoenix, and the Bay Area community of Los Gatos. Little Sammy Fabelman lives in the Jersey house during his youngest childhood before the family moved to Phoenix for the majority of his teen years (played in the film by Gabriel LaBelle). The New Jersey house had more of a 1940s design even though the family was living there in the 1950s. “We knew from a floor plan drawn up by Steven where the living room was, where the dining room was, how the kitchen factored in, and the stairway in the middle,” Carter says. “In Phoenix, we did a little more work on the exterior so it would look more like the actual house he grew up in. “We had the most pictures and home movies of the Phoenix house to draw from,”
The “most dramatic” dwelling in terms of creation was the Los Gatos house, because in reality it never existed – the Spielbergs having actually logged their time in the community in apartments and temporary homes. “We made that up as a craftsman house and made sure it reflected the mood in the movie itself, which was more somber and gloomy,” Carter recalls. “So that production design wasn’t just a recreation but a true fable-ization of Steven’s life.” Fortunately, Carter had Spielberg’s three actual sisters from whom to draw information. “They all had their own lives growing up but recall (their brother) Stevie as this precocious person running around filming everything.” In many ways, he still is.
The three houses whose construction Carter oversaw were built on the same stage. But Spielberg had enough trust in Carter and set decorator Karen O’Hara to allow his sisters to do the first walk-through before he ever laid eyes on the home sets. Once the sisters gave their approval, Spielberg himself did the tour. Over the course of a few hours, he walked through alone, “and it was very emotional,” Carter says. “I think he really enjoyed the tour of his life. It had to feel like a way for him not just to recreate but to reexamine what his early years had been about.”