A Chat With Dennis Gassner, SPECTRE Production Designer

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC A Chat With Dennis Gassner, SPECTRE Production Designer

We spoke to Dennis Gassner

Was the Day of the Dead sequence an idea from Sam Mendes or something that you brought to the table?

I can’t remember how it got to the table but it got there anyway, which is the way I think about everything. It’s a collective inertia! We had been talking about so many different festivals that it just seemed to be the right thing. I am passionate about it, of course. I live in California and have been part of that culture for a long time because of the tremendous Mexican population in Los Angeles. Obviously, we had to do the right thing and we did.

Were those wonderful maquettes inspired by the Day of the Dead celebrations you had seen in California?



Everything comes out of research through documentation and through videos we’ve watched, so really it came from the Mexicans themselves once we’d decided to collaborate and do the big adventure with them. They are the experts and you always want to go to the experts. We made a proposal and said, ‘Can you actually do this, considering the scale and the quantity that we want?’ That was our exercise. We had to do our work and then see if they could actually produce it, and they did. It was a great collaboration.

There are quite a few wedding dresses sprinkled through the procession…

There are so many festivals in the country itself and each city has its own themes so we looked at many of them and thought about what we’d like to use. It has a long history and is very interesting so it gave us so many options. We just had to pick through it all and find a rhythm with it.

Did you have any conversations about Live And Let Die? That also has a processional opening sequence…

That was subconscious. All of the prior films, to me, are part of the subconscious and we have to deal with the reality of doing it. There is so much information that we have to draw from but we never draw from it specifically. We always draw from an emotional place and then find our balance in our script. So my technique is a matter of finding a feeling that you are excited about.

Tell me about M’s office, which is back to the traditional Whitehall-style office…

Yes. In Quantum, Judi’s office was a whole different environment. So for M’s office in this we went back to the traditional, which we did in Skyfall as well. That tradition of the Whitehall scenario is still holding on and we wanted to root ourselves in that emotional feeling. In a way, Spectre is like a continuation of Skyfall in its rhythm and patterns. So that is why we stayed with what we knew well and something that the audience would understand. It would create a foundation. It would also the contrast with the Day of the Dead, which we knew would be very colourful and very textured and then we’d come back into the simplicity of Whitehall.

And then Q’s lab has more of the ‘mad professor’ feel with all those optical tables and gadgets and gizmos…

It is about different requirements. In Skyfall, his requirements were more about surveillance. This was a different movement. We wanted to say that his laboratory here was more about his inventing side rather than the tactical side. But again, the story predicted it, how he would be designed in the story and the emotional traction of that. We were still in the Churchill bunker kind of environment but coming off the river this time. The river has a very important thread. That was a good theme to come back to. That was a fun shift from the old Q to the more studied Q and that translates into the workshop. They are different sets showing different aspects of his life.

We also enter Bond’s apartment in this film…

I don’t think Bond has ever been settled. That is the nature of who he is. He is always going to be on the move and this is just a place to put the few things that he has. I don’t think we ever want to see him comfortable, at least not now. Daniel is a creature of movement and his character in the Bond films is always searching and exploring. He is an adventurer. Also, that is the life of an agent. If you get too settled you get too soft.

What mood did you want to convey when we get to Rome and the Spectre meeting?

It was all about power; that was what we were looking for. We found the original location [for the Spectre meeting] that we modelled everything on and it was probably one of the most powerful places that I had been, in terms of architectural history. There was a sense of scale that was massive and Rome really has a sense of that power. We wanted to convey that. But then, of course, we were limited by how big could we make the Spectre meeting room on the stages that were available [at Pinewood]. But I think that we achieved what we needed to and it’s a great entrance for Oberhauser.

In Austria for the Hoffler Klink you used the Ice-Q restaurant in Soldën. Was it difficult to find somewhere that clean and pristine?

The Klinik was the beginning of the adventure for me. We were trying to find something hot and then something cold. I went to Morocco and the desert and we found Tangier as a location, and we also went to the Alps in Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Luckily, I found Sölden and the restaurant at the top of the ski lift, so that became the foundation for what we needed. It was little bit of an ice jewel in the middle of the movie and for Bond it is the beginning of the journey in some way.

And you have Mr White’s isolated house in the middle of a snowbound landscape…

Austria is a very varied thing. You wanted a contrast with Mr White living on the lake in the isolated house in the middle of nowhere and we found a real location that was exactly the way I would wanted it designed, if I’d had to build a classic, isolated, lonely safe house. The village also had to reflect a little bit of the history of the culture. The village was the end of that sequence and you have got to go on a full journey within the country.

Speaking of going from hot to cold, you end up in Morocco and have that beautiful train journey. What were the design thoughts behind that?

It had to be romantic. This was the romantic section of the film. Tangier is a romantic image, it being the place of her [Madeleine] parents’ honeymoon even though it is faded love. And then, moving into the train, again, it’s the same period of time. You are setting up the contrasts for what you see at the end of the train ride, which is the small station that they end up in. And then all of sudden the Rolls-Royce comes out of the horizon and takes you into this volcanic kind of space that is magical and strange where we don’t know what it is we have discovered. This is the page-turning part of the film. Some things you are familiar with and some things you are not, and they unfold in the journey. That is what a Bond film is. It is about opening up the layers.

And Oberhauser’s lair has a very futuristic feel…

It is contemporary, slightly futuristic, yes. Basically, it is an information-gathering centre and an observatory. And the information is about the stars and the planets and it’s pulling in the satellite dish information. It is exactly what you would expect a Bond villain to have — access to everything. That is why he is so powerful. Information is power. And power is being able to do anything with that information, wielding it like a magic sword.

With the volcano set, did you think at all about any connection to You Only Live Twice?

Again, that is stuck in the subconscious. Sam and I are constantly mining different things. We are trying out all kinds of ideas. We’d get the visuals and the story would grow with each other’s ideas. We’d keep spinning things around. It was a long, long journey to get to some of these places and to get it right, so we were always exploring. My job as a designer and Sam as a director is the same that Daniel has as Bond. We are trying to incorporate the best journey that we can tell. That is the journey of a Bond film. That’s why people queue up to see a Bond movie.

And when you return to London for the climax to the film. Are some sections shot in City Hall?

We just used an element of City Hall. There’s an interior space that has an interesting staircase and when we found the City Hall location we incorporated that in. We needed to have something that provided another view across the river from MI6 that was less fortress-like. So the contrast of that was strong, the opposing images from across the river were strong, and they told the story of all the characters.

SPECTRE is available on Digital HD™ 19th February, Blu-ray™ & DVD 22nd February, from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment


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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

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