Jess Gonchor: Production Design in Action

Slide 1: Jess Gonchor, Production Designer

Jess Gonchor’s first love was theater. Growing up not far from New York City, he could come down to work on off-off-Broadway theater. Then, as he recounts, “one day I worked on a film for the BBC and I saw all these lights coming in, all these big sets coming in. I was like, ‘Wow, what is this? I got to try this. This looks like I could maybe make a living out of it.’ Soon after that, I drove out to Los Angeles to work in film. It really helped me working in the theater, because there you only have $.50 to do something, and you have to make it work. So once I had a little bit of a budget I could really do something.”

Slide 2: A Serious Man

A Serious Man was the third film Gonchor had done with the Coen brothers. For this period piece about a Jewish family living outside of Minneapolis, Gonchor needed to design not just a set, but an entire neighborhood––and on a budget. He asked himself, “How am I going to tell the story of suburbia in 1967, some 40 odd years later?” As he realized, this was a time when developments were just going in: “We needed something with a one-car garage, a single car driveway, fresh lawns, newly paved street. I finally came upon this neighborhood in Bloomington that a tornado had blown through eight years earlier. And there was a little pocket of a block where all the trees had been blown over. I went in and there were eight houses, four on each side of the street. With a bit of careful tree removal, we got a brand new community. And people were actually happy us to remove some of the more dangerous remaining trees leaning on roofs. Then we sodded all the lawns and where there were two car driveways, we had to make everything a little bit smaller. Make double garages into single. We put chimneys on and repaved the road and got the period cars in there.”

Slide 3: A Serious Man

In doing the interiors, Gonchor was careful to maintain sight of the film’s historical and geographical context. While it was set in the sixties, he explains, “This wasn’t New York or San Francisco in 1967. So I kept with those pale colors. I took a bit of liberty with Mrs. Samsky house, where we had some crazy orange interior wall paper. But the other stuff was subtle blues and greens.”

Slide 4: Burn After Reading

In Burn After Reading, Gonchor designed the mood for the Coen brothers’ spy comedy, a story in which spies turn out to be as befuddled and boring as the rest of us. In creating the look of CIA offices, Gonchor emphasized their inhabitants’ powerlessness. “The offices,” he explained, “just held with the character development of who they were. They were supposed to be top brass at the CIA but really who were they.” As he points out their attitude was more apathy than patriotism: “‘Don’t call me. Sweep it under the rug,’ they say. So the production design had to support that dialogue. Make these people so that we don’t know how high or low on the totem pole they are.”

Slide 5: No Country For Old Men

As with westerns in general, the Coen brothers’ dark drama No Country for Old Men takes its tone from the landscape. And in designing the spaces for No Country, Gonchor needed to find a link between the land and the people who lived on it. He saw his primary purpose in “just driving the point home of the story being in western Texas, of it being hot and sparse”. So Gonchor focused on Texas tones, “just having those colors of west Texas, browns and earth tones. I didn’t go outside of the palette of those colors. And I tried to give everything a sun-burnt, dusty look––dusty in a working way.”

Slide 6: Away We Go

In fashioning the moods of the different spaces that the expectant couple in Away We Go consider making home, Gonchor focused less on objects and more on light. “As soon as you saw Burt and Verona in Colorado,” he explains, “you had to know they were in Colorado. I studied the light. For this I was interested ‘What is the light like in Colorado? What’s it like in Arizona? What’s it like in Florida?’ I tried to tell through light what those places could be like. Colorado is sort of dark and overcast in a dark blue, and when we get to Arizona, it’s bright with sunshine and glass. I assigned each place one image in my head. In Arizona, it was glass––it was all about glass buildings with reflections.”

Slide 7: Production Design as storytelling

Gonchor perceives production design as a form of story telling. “As a production designer you have to support the story,” he explains, “and make it exciting without going over the top. In each film, I take the same approach. How do I pull an audience an hour and half and two hour movie without upstaging the story? Of course, in the Coen brothers’ movies you can push it, but at one point, just before you are about to going over the top, you have to step back, and look at it and say, ‘That’s enough.’”


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