“Time” at ESMoA: Into the mind of movie production designer Rick Carter

Installation photo of “Time,” featuring the artwork of Rick Carter, who has worked on films by Spielberg, Cameron, Zemekis, Abrams, and others. On view at ESMoA through Sept. 17. Photo by Mark Knight

Journeys past, present, and future

ESMoA’s treasure trove of artwork by film production designer Rick Carter

by Bondo Wyszpolski

There must be hundreds of people named “Rick Carter” but there’s only one Rick Carter who’s worked as the production designer for cinematic heavyweights Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Robert Zemekis, and J.J. Abrams. And it’s this Rick Carter whose personal collection of paintings, drawings, and collages form the basis of “Time,” an exhibition that’s on view through Sept. 17 at ESMoA in El Segundo.

My sit-down interview with Carter and with curator Bernhard Zuenkeler didn’t go quite as I’d hoped. The acoustics proved troublesome (I tend to record these conversations), there was background construction noises (which tape recorders love to enhance), and other people often filtered through the room. Furthermore, Carter, an amiable and loquacious man of 72, whose voice reminded me of the late folksinger Phil Ochs (look him up), often provided very long replies to very short questions. Good answers, but… I reminded him more than once that I still had to transcribe and then condense our interview. There was a sense that he was playfully testing me, and his last words on the tape were, “I know this is a big job but I’ve read you are the guy who can handle it because you kept going.” That was a bit of an implied challenge for me to carve a meaningful slice out of a very large pie. I’ll put this another way: if I printed everything that was said, questions, answers, asides, whatever, we’d have ourselves a little book. And so, that said, let’s get started.

Movie production designer Rick Carter. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

“Time” — where worlds (and images) collide

I’ve mentioned the key directors with whom Carter has worked (Hal Ashby is another), but perhaps the names of the films will resonate more. There’s “Forrest Gump” (one of four prop benches that actor Tom Hanks is seen sitting on in the film is in the exhibition), for which Carter received an Oscar nomination, and “War Horse,” for which another nomination came his way. And then “Jurassic Park,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” plus these other Spielberg films: “The Post,” “The BFG,” “Munich,” “The War of the Worlds,” “A.I.”, “Amistad,” and notably “Lincoln” for which he won an Academy Award.

Carter’s other Academy Award was for Cameron’s “Avatar.” His work with Zemekis includes “The Polar Express,” “Cast Away,” “What Lies Beneath,” “Death Becomes Her,” and the “Back to the Future” films. His work with Abrams includes “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” There’s more, but already the word count is perking up.

“Time,” the exhibition, is an explosion of images that cover every wall, floor to ceiling, of the cavernous ESMoA space. Zuenkeler then brought in eight local artists to interact with Carter’s work and to create a few pieces in response to or in dialogue with it. Carter is quoted as saying: “Over the past five decades as an artist and film production designer, I am frequently immersed in the realizations of visual concepts. This experience at ESMoA provides the opportunity to explore with younger L.A.-based artists the legacy of my artistic career as both a painter and visual collaborator with movie directors.”

Zuenkeler points out that Carter’s work opened up the minds of the invited artists, and then adds that “For me it was like a curatorial paradise because I could tap into all this inspiration from the movies.” He regards the show as an emotional translation of the theory of relativity, meaning that Carter’s production designs range from films set in the distant past to films set in the distant future, and here they are cheek-to-jowl in the same room. In essence, the presentation is just one large and mighty collage, a Big Bang caught in the temporal amber of the exhibition space.

The first question given to Carter is fairly basic. As a production designer, how do you get underway with a new project?

“Sometimes it’s sketches, almost napkin sketches,” he replies, “but often it’s a collage, and the collage for me would be actually cutting out things, or, in Photoshop, [because] now with the computer you can do anything you want. It’s a way for me to abstractly immerse myself in the world that the story seems to be wanting, because the world doesn’t actually exist yet.”

Referring to the précis, the outline, or the script, Carter says, “Essentially it’s just words on a page, so I’m sort of filling in the blank page as though there’s already a world that happens to be the perfect world for all that to happen — all those words lining up to make the plot, characters… I can do that in an intellectual way. I mean, I can do research on a period” — as he would have done, for instance, on “Lincoln” or “Amistad” — “but my process is very intuitive. I’m always just looking to find an avenue, a portal, and usually trying to find the thing that makes me feel something.”

The advantage of doing multiple projects with the same directors is that Carter could at times intuit what they were mentally searching for. He mentions Spielberg and Zemekis and that “I worked only with the two of them for 20 years.” He earned their trust and their support, and could go to them with ideas and not feel intimidated as might be the case with a novice or a new hire.

Installation photo of “Time,” featuring the artwork of Rick Carter, on view at ESMoA through Sept. 17. Photo by Mark Knight

Mosquitos and monsters

Often, in the films he’s worked on, Carter would thread in tiny recurring details that are also essential plot points. He’s done the same with repetitive motifs in “Time.” Referring to “Jurassic Park,” he points out that “the mosquitos that you see throughout the exhibit are a reference to the little mosquito that bit the dinosaur that had its DNA transferred thousands of years forward in time. There’s no story without the mosquito.” This is also an indication that “Time” is more than a heap of images haphazardly stuck to the walls inside of ESMoA.

“Jurassic Park” morphed into “Jurassic World” and it’s had several sequels and quite a run. Carter only went with it so far, but he was called back to advise on continuity, or, in other words, to pass the baton to the next person supervising the production design.

Now, if you dig around a bit on the internet you’ll find that Carter himself wrote a script for the first “Jurassic Park” film. He’s surprised that I ever knew about this.

“What happened was Michael Crichton (the novel’s author) did a version of the book for the script, but it didn’t have everything that Steven wanted to have in it.” Crichton apparently was fine with that and suggested handing it over to another screenwriter. That screenwriter, however, who was not in fact the final screenwriter, maybe didn’t grasp what was needed.

“And I felt like I’ve got to write these notes down,” Carter says, “all these sequences and ideas that we’re talking about so that they’re in some form that the writer can use.”

These notes evolved into a script of sorts which he then showed to Spielberg, explaining that he wasn’t trying to usurp someone else’s job but rather to preserve the ideas they’d been developing and their transition into other parts of the story. “It wasn’t a better script than what was actually written,” he admits. But the reason for giving the subject even this much ink concerns what happened many years later.

“The funny thing is,” Carter says, “I have an archive at USC and a guy went in there and found this script” — the “Jurassic Park” script he’d penned. “He photographed it and also took lots of photos of images that were in the archive. He read the script and dramatized the script in audio form with the illustrations.” It’s a couple of hours long, a strange creature with its own life, and true fans of the “Jurassic Park” and “Jurassic World” franchise can seek it out.

One might assume that Carter was a sci-fi and monster nut as a kid, but he claims that he was not, “not even science-fiction. I was a little more into Robin Hood, Zorro, and those heroes just kind of resonated strongly with me, like Davy Crockett.” If there was an interest in cinema’s prehistoric beasts it seems to have been more along the lines of what the creatures represented.

Mark Knight’s panoramic view of the installation for “Time,” featuring the artwork of Rick Carter, on view at ESMoA through Sept. 17.

Carter’s early film aesthetic could have been nurtured from working with Hal Ashby, who directed “Harold and Maude” and “Being There.” “He always played everything understated,” Carter says; “he didn’t make everything into a big deal.” The subtleties, he adds, “really fit much better with my own sensibility.” That has subsequently served him well, although when one thinks of “Jurassic Park” and “Star Wars” the word “subtle” won’t be the first one that comes to mind.

But it also seems that by the time Carter began working with Spielberg and Zemekis he had enough confidence to interact with them as a proven professional in his own right. What stands out is that the directors did not feel threatened by or averse to suggestions that went against their own ideas. Which is to say that they were open to input, to anything that would benefit the film regardless of who proposed it. Carter mentions that he was the person who suggested the shot of the fleeing jeep’s mirror in “Jurassic Park” in which the words “objects may be closer than they appear” provides some wry humor with one of the raptors in hot pursuit.

Was working with James Cameron (on “Avatar”) different than working with Spielberg and Zemekis?

“The answer is yes and no,” Carter says, “because the yes part is that he can be very harsh and judgemental in a way that can, for some people, really push them back in terms of ‘How much does he want me to be a participant?’ At the same time, his vision is so big he really does need the collaborative experience. He needs all the people around him and he’s come to realize that.”

It’s been a dozen years since “Avatar” was released and the sequels are still in the wings, with the first one slated to open this fall. Carter and another production designer, Robert Stromberg, had protégés, and apparently it’s the protégés (who may even have protégés of their own by now) who were hired by Cameron to continue on the much-anticipated sequels. “I had three-and-a-half years,” Carter says of working on “Avatar,” but I wouldn’t want to necessarily just do that for the rest of my life. But you can count on the movie being absolutely immersive — brilliant visualization of something that actually takes you there, and that’s wonderful.”

Working with Abrams on the “Star Wars” films was a new experience because, in this case, J.J. Abrams was 17 years younger — and thus from a different generation of filmmakers. Oddly enough, though, Carter and Abrams had the same high school teacher (at different times, of course), and there’s a character in one of their films who’s based on her.

Movie production designer Rick Carter. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

From the screen to the gallery

Although he’s been privileged to have a front row seat behind the scenes, Carter seems as fascinated and spellbound by the transformative power of films as the rest of us. “We go on a journey,” he says. “You find some place where something happens that leads to an epiphany about why you came on this journey, all this way. What did you discover? There’s a catharsis. That’s basically the journey of the movie, and almost every movie I’ve worked on has been a journey. Over and over again, but told from different points of view.”

Now, as Carter sees it, the exhibition is the same thing, a journey — and one of (self-) discovery. I believe he regards the huge wall-to-ceiling show as constituting a kind of fabric, that is, all those images from his many films, along with his portraits. “And you mix all those together in some kind of crazy narrative.” I mention that whenever pictures, photos, etc, are placed near one another they form a dialogue among themselves. And in this case, I continue, it can be overwhelming because you’re hearing all of these conversations, but of course in a visual sense.

“That’s a good line,” Carter replies. “I really like that. You’re overwhelmed but you hear it all in a visual sense. That means you’re already mixed up with your senses; you don’t know whether you’re hearing it or seeing it.” He then compares this with the moviegoing experience itself: all the information that comes to you, the viewer, is not just visual. It’s conveyed through music, the background sounds or dialogue, and this is apart from the editing, the lighting, and so much else. Subliminal effects, in other words.

And then, with “Time,” the contributions from the guest artists that ESMoA brought in: Alex Garcia, Luke Hayes, Muraji Khalil, Dalila Paola Méndes, Helena Park, Jacori “Aiseborn” Perry, Ivan “Mr Mustart” Petrovsky, and Carlos “Kopyeson” Talavera.

Carter, who makes several Beatles and John Lennon references during our talk, compares the barrage of juxtaposed art pieces to the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” where “you’re looking at all the lyrics, you’re looking at all that collage of stuff, and you can get into that state where anything’s possible; and you’re referencing what you’re looking at, but you’re referencing on the inside as much as you are finding on the outside.” It’s a trip, all right. Figuratively and literally.

Our references, and our reaction to what we see, is undoubtedly greater because we’ve seen many or most of the movies that Carter has worked on. And if we by some chance have not seen the specific “Star Wars” or “Jurassic Park” or “Back to the Future” films then we know them through other media or, viscerally, by the rides based on them at Disneyland or Universal Studios. Furthermore, the movie industry, by and large, is centered here, in L.A., and by default or otherwise we all bask in its shadow.

Zuenkeler acknowledges this, mentioning that ESMoA “has been more focused on the art world and maybe art and science and the space industry,” but “This is our first step more into the Hollywood world.” To Carter: “You’ve opened the door; you’ve opened people’s minds.”

“It’s the collaborative spirit,” Carter replies. And then the spliced-together word “Hollygundo” pops into the mix and it’s off to the races. “So it’s contagious. You end up with ideas because ideas beget ideas.”

Straight out of Kansas

Carter is asked what he considers his highest professional achievement. Could it be the Oscars he received for “Avatar” and “Lincoln”?

“Well, those two are definitely in that group,” he says. “There’s nothing that tops them but… It’s like having children” — implying how could he leave out “Forrest Gump” and “Star Wars”? “In a way those four, one from each of the major directors that I worked with, Steven and Bob and Jim and J.J.” But while he’s talking he’s also thinking: How can I leave out “Jurassic Park” and “Back to the Future”?

Asked to select a personal favorite, Carter replies, “They all really are very personal.” And he’s right, it’s too porous of a question, but he then begins talking at length about “A.I.”, which he made with Spielberg, and I would guess, at any rate, that it has to be a very special film for all involved, especially in that it’s a picture that Stanley Kubrick had planned to make and Spielberg, in essence, was paying homage to Kubrick when he took on the project (“A.I.” was released in 2001; Kubrick died in 1999).

Personally, I think that “A.I.” is a better film than any of the “Jurassic Park” films, because the latter, no matter how brilliant the special effects, have simplistic storylines and unbelievable characters. Is there even one actor, either in the original or in the sequels, who can hold a candle to Haley Joel Osment? Carter points out that “A.I.” “was a map of consciousness because it starts with existential question marks: Are you real? Are you worthy? And the only way you’re going to get through that is with love.”

Osment’s character is an android child named David that a family agrees to bring home because their own child is in a coma and not expected to come out of it. Fortunately (and unfortunately) he does, and the little brat is welcomed back and David is essentially sidelined. There’s some sibling rivalry for the love and affection of the mother, but naturally she favors her biological son. Eventually, the way someone might abandon an unwanted pet, the mother leaves David in a wooded area and drives off.

David is an android programmed to love, and he adores his mother. The one thing he wanted in return was her love, which it seems she could never reciprocate. David’s love for his mother drives the movie and Carter points out that there are many circles in the film, “like Olympic rings, only taking you through time.” The film ends up at the bottom of the ocean and now it’s 2,000 years later. “What a trip at that point,” Carter says. “So there’s that whole idea of it being like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’”

He then makes a “you’re not in Kansas anymore” comparison with “Avatar.” “And so all of these movies are journeys. You’re somewhere, and you go somewhere else.” This really holds true for “A.I.”

I mention that in the theater one quickly forgets that it’s merely a flat screen with projected images.
“Well, think about this,” Carter replies. “Where is the movie playing?”

I point to my head (not a bad answer), and Carter says that it’s vibrating back and forth between our heads and the screen. “That’s why it’s so powerful. Because you know that your head is not the same as the one next to you.” And it seems we’re back to another set of existential questions.

Installation photo of “Time,” featuring the artwork of Rick Carter, on view at ESMoA through Sept. 17. Photo by Mark Knight

Looking back, looking forward

For well over two years the pandemic has hobbled everyone and everything. Carter is asked how it’s affected him, personally and professionally.

“I’m not so much able to travel anymore nor do I want to,” he replies, “but fortunately last year I got to work on a movie with Steven Spielberg, an autobiographical movie about his growing up and how he tapped into cinema at a young age in order to deal with the life that he was living and all the issues in his family. It’s a very personal movie from his early childhood all the way to when he first comes to Hollywood. So I got to work on that locally with him.”

The film, being released this November, is called “The Fabelmans,” which is a pretty clever title coming from someone whose last name is Spielberg — Fabel as in fable and Spiel as in speech or story.

Spielberg may be pausing to look back on his life, and Carter, albeit a few years younger, has done pretty much the same thing with this exhibition, for it too is a pause and a retrospective of sorts. “I feel like I’m starting a new phase and Bernhard’s been very helpful for me,” he says, “to see what it might be.” In essence, it’s to focus more on what he knows he can do well and not so much on what he can’t — the kind of urgency that someone who’s older is going to feel as opposed to someone younger who still thinks they have all the time in the world.

“I just want to shift that paradigm because, as you know, just keeping your health is really the primary thing. It’s such a cliché, but it’s so true.”

And then, of course, one needs to uphold a certain spirit and idealism and imagination forged in the fires of one’s youth, and for Carter, whose formative years were the 1960s, there were role models aplenty, and he mentions The Beatles (“I call myself a DoJ — a disciple of John”) and an interview with George Harrison. “He said, ‘I think we made a big deal about “all you need is love;” I still believe it and I’m sticking with it.’” Carter reflects on this: “Maybe it is all you need at certain times.”

Bob Dylan, too, he says, has been someone who could convince you not to quit. And while these musical icons are largely beacons of a fading generation, their example lingers. “The way I feel about that,” Carter says, “is if you heard the message it’s impossible not to want to pass it on. That’s the best part of what I still feel.”

With “Time” he’s passed it on to the artists who’ve collaborated and contributed to the exhibition, and through them and through Carter’s immense trove of drawings, paintings and collages it’s being transmitted to the many individuals who walk into ESMoA and gawk in wonder and awe at the art-filled space. It really is like stepping into nearly half a century of someone’s astonishing array of ideas and imagination.

Time, featuring the artwork of movie production designer Rick Carter, is on view through Sept. 17 at ESMoA (the El Segundo Museum of Art), 208 Main St, El Segundo. Free admission. Hours, Thursday from 12 to 5 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free parking on nearby city lots. (424) 277-1020 or visit esmoa.org. ER


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