BWW EXCLUSIVE: Tony-Winning Set Designer Derek McLane Takes On the OSCARS
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by Caryn Robbins
Broadway production designer Derek McLane, who received the 2009 Tony Award for his scenic design for "33 Variations" has been selected by producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to design the set for the 85th Academy Awards.
The talented designer has been responsible for some of Broadway's most visually stunning and memorable sets including that of The Heiress, Follies; Anything Goes (Roundabout on Broadway & current US national tour); How to Succeed in Business; Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; Million Dollar Quartet; Ragtime; 33 Variations; I Am My Own Wife; The Pajama Game; and A Lie of the Mind. This spring, his designs will be featured in an all-new production of Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffanys.
In addition to the Tony, he has received Obie Awards in 1997; Lucille Lortel Awards in 2004; 2004, 2005, 2007; a 2009 Hewes Award; and a Drama Desk Award in 2011.
McLane took a break from his busy Oscar rehearsal schedule to speak exclusively with BWW about his illustrious career, and even gave us a sneak peek at what we can expect to see on Sunday night's big event!
What were your initial thoughts when you were first asked to take on the monumental task of designing the set for the Oscars? Did you have any reservations?
I didn't have any reservatations. I was thrilled but as soon as I said, 'yes' I realized how nervous I was about it. So thrill and terror I would say were both things I experienced! But you know to be honest, I like projects that are a little intimating and a little terrifying, so that's why it really excited me.
Did Neil [Meron] and Craig [Zadan] have a vision in mind for the show?
Well they had some very strong ideas about some of the themes of the show. One of those is 'The Music of the Movies' and that's not just film scores, that's also songs in films and also movie musicals. So they knew early on that they wanted to celebrate that during the show.
But one of the other things that Neil and Craig said to me when they asked me to do this was that they really wanted this to look like my work, and they didn't want this to look like any other Oscar show. They encouraged me to think along the lines of some of the Broadway shows that I had done that they thought really interesting, like '33 Variations,' and the show that I did with them, 'How to Succeed in Business,' and also 'I Am My Own Wife.' And they sited those designs as things they thought were really terrific, not that it should look like those shows, but they thought that kind of thinking would be exciting for the Oscars. And that was very encouraging because it made me feel like, 'Ok, I don't have to become somebody else to do this job.'
What have been some of biggest challenges you've come up against?
The schedule for the show has been really, really intense. The whole thing happens very, very quickly. I started working on it the beginning of October, so it's not a huge amount of time. And there's so many people involved, really the sheer numbers of people involved in the show is kind of mind-boggling. I got the latest contact sheet the other day for the show and it doesn't include any talent, it's just people working on it, and it's 64-pages long! It's really amazing. Of course I'm not involved with all of them but there's an awful lot of them that I do interface with. That's one of the challenges of the show.
And another big challenge is that we only get one shot at it. Unlike a Broadway show where we get many previews and then we open, and we continue to perform, this is really just a one shot deal. We do this once in front of a live audience.
And a much larger audience at that!
And an enormous audience - exactly!
What are some of the differences between designing a set for the TV camera and
Probably the biggest difference regarding the camera is that it operates from a long shot, which is sort of what the Broadway audience sees, but it also gets a close-up. Obviously Broadway audiences stay in their seats, they don't zoom in on the actors. So that's a real difference. The scenery has to look great both from the house, a long shot, but also it has to look great when you zoom in on an actor and you're just seeing little fragments of the scenery over the actor's shoulders.
Roundabout Theatre Company's ANYTHING GOES (2011)
Turning to your impressive Broadway career, do you have a favorite set that you designed?
You know I don't have any one favorite set. I fall in love with pretty much every show that I do while I'm doing it and some sets stay with me more than others, like those sets I just mentioned are some of my favorites. But there are many others that I'm really fond of. And I suppose that kind of lift is always changing a little bit.
Who do you feel are some of the people who influenced or inspired you throughout your career?
Well there are a lot of directors I've worked with who have been really inspirational. They've pushed me to do great things and I really appreciated that. There are also some designers that I worked with a long,long time ago when I first started. I apprenticed with Robin Wagner and that was an amazing experiencing. I learned a huge amount from him about not only how to approach a show but also how to deal with a lot of the people involved in a production. So Robin Wagner was one of the first people I assisted when I came to New York and he's remained a friend since.
Is there a musical you would love to see come back to Broadway so you could have a shot at designing the set?
(laughing) That's a great question. I've always wanted to design 'Oklahoma.' That's a favorite of mine.
Is there one specific element that appears in all of your designs, sort of a trademark of your work?
Not always, because every production is different. You know I just designed 'The Heiress' which is really quite a realistic set and some of the things that I like to do in sort of abstract design I couldn't possibly have done in 'The Heiress'. I have a fascination with repeating objects. That certainly was a theme in '33 Variations' and it certainly was a theme in 'I Am My Own Wife' and it's also a theme in this Oscar design, in the proscenium, which I think is perhaps a signature of mine, with the repeating objects, in this case repeating Oscars. Each one of those will be beautifully lit so that as individual objects they'll be gorgeous, but also, as a pattern they'll be amazing.
Rendering of 2013 OSCAR Set
And that leads me to my next question - what role does lighting play when you are designing?
Oh it's huge, it's absolutely huge. I always collaborate very intensely with the lighting designer because something like that can only be brought to life in the way that you light it - and that's sort of the technique of taking an object that wouldn't otherwise look like anything and sort of turning it into something gorgeous.
In my apartment in New York, I have this wall of lamps that I created, it's kind of an installation which I feel very much exemplifies that idea. It's about 35 industrial lamps, they're made out of cast iron most of them, but I've got them all arranged each in its own cubby, and they're all arranged so that they're aiming in the same direction. And they're backed with antique mirror. What I like about it is that the objects themselves are industrial, but because they all emit this sort of beautiful glow of light, each one has a dim, clear incandescent bulb in it, they create a very romantic landscape on the wall, but out of objects that you wouldn't ordinarily associate with that.
It sounds like a work of art.
It is, I think so. I'm sort of fascinated by that. That tension between the objects that are plain but can be made, in the right arrangement, to be absolutely gorgeous.
Do the costumes go hand in hand with the design as well?
Absolutely. I mean it depends on the project. Some shows, the costumes are enormously important and some shows the costumes are more realistic, or less a part of the design. But usually on a highly designed world, the costumes are also highly designed and so that becomes a very, very important collaboration.
THE HEIRESS (2013)
I read that you've been involved with Barry Manilow in his original musical 'Harmony.' Are there any updates as far as if and when it might come to Broadway?
You know I don't know the answer to that. I know there's talk about it but I'm not sure what the latest is. But I know it will be great because it's a beautiful piece and I hope people will get to see it. And I hope I will get to work on it.
Well best of luck and I'm really looking forward to Sunday's show.
Thank you - me too!
Photo credit: Joan Marcus