Production Designer Uli Hanisch: “We are the only real time-travelers”
by Viktorija Samarinaite
by Viktorija Samarinaite
Uli Hanisch is a German production designer who not only recreated almost every decade of the 20th century on set, but would also die for a chance to take a walk in 1920s Berlin - just to see how close to it he built the series ‘Babylon Berlin’. Hanisch’s latest project, ‘Queen’s Gambit’ was an international blast: everyone keeps talking about chess and analysing every single wallpaper throughout the series. So, what does it take to construct a fictional reality and make the audience go nuts about it?
That single moment
“I started working as a graphic artist when I was very young, I guess in my early 20s. At the same time, I met the German director Christoph Schlingensief, who became quite famous not only for his films, but also the artistic work and performances he did afterwards. He asked me to design the title for his very early movie. Back then the size and form of his projects were beyond small. They were homemade: there were no professionals, costumes, make-up or props, just a couple of friends with a camera, lighting and a microphone. As I recall even the actors came in their own clothes. I was a set manager for this film, taking care of everything around and dressing sets knowing almost nothing about it.
There was this one morning when a crew was shooting a scene in Mülheim/Ruhr, my hometown, just outside some villa with a beautiful park behind it. It was autumn: golden leaves were falling, sun was shining, not too cold. I was rushing to the set and walking down the park. I saw the crew and this crazy main actress screaming for whatever reason. The whole thing was so picturesque. I was under adrenaline, a positive pressure and it was so exciting. I think that was the moment, when I realised that I want to do nothing else for my entire life.”
From two-dimensional layouts to three-dimensional spaces
“So, I really fell in love with movie making. Back then I was still studying graphic arts in Dusseldorf and working for agencies, so I kept doing it for a little longer. However, at the same time I continued working with Christoph and got to know about the existence of the art department, the props. I became aware that there is always a set that needs to be dressed and design based work that needs to be done. I could never see myself behind the camera or even worse - in front of it. All of it came as a natural step for me - to go from two-dimensional to three-dimensional work.
I used to be interested in designing layouts or drawing and I found it all very close to making movies. Much later, when I already became a professional and started drawing or dressing sets, the precision, perfection I developed as a graphic artist and ability to deal with the small forms and tiny elements helped me progress from millimeters in two-dimension into centimetres or metres of the room and make any design a part of the cinematography.
Working as a graphic artist I did mainly advertising. Everything I was able to design was more or less just a boring product. Maybe the process itself was interesting, but the result - not necessarily. It became even less satisfying, because I knew the purpose behind each design [was to] to sell. On set I can actually connect with the content and the final product. Whatever we do here is made, designed or manufactured for a single purpose only - a movie. It is much more exciting than the bloody advertising, isn’t it?
To be honest, at that time I knew nothing about any kind of handy work. I had to buy tools for myself, so I went to the hardware store. I was pushing the shopping cart around the store and had no idea what that stuff was. Of course, I could recognise a hammer. But I had never possessed any kind of tools, I had never used them before. So, I decided to grab everything that looked interesting. This is how I put my first tool box together.
One of the things I enjoyed the most, was the research and collection of the props. Let’s say you need a stuffed animal head and have no idea where to get it, or if it exists at all. So, you need to sit down at the desk, make a hundred phone calls, talk to people in strange sheds, go to the places where you would never go willingly - this is the stuff I loved so dearly.
If a set of a bakery needs to be dressed, you have to talk to the bakers and see what they sell, what tools they have, you need to learn as much as possible about different kinds of breads or cupcakes. The secret behind every art department, is that one has to become an expert in whatever necessary subject for that particular moment.”
“When it comes to the director Tom Tykwer, the first film we worked together on was ‘Winterschläfer’. He started shooting the film somewhere in the Bavarian mountains. Due to the financial issues, the idea was to shoot the entire movie in Bavaria, come back to Cologne, then go on stage and film the interior. I was not quite available to be a part of this project, so I accepted to do only the interior in Cologne. When the crew came back from the mountains, tortured by the cold and snow, we had just finished dressing the set. Me and Tom Tykwer kind of instantly fell in love with each other. After this we agreed to never split apart.
We did. Immediately afterwards. Half a year after Tom started making a movie ‘Run Lola Run’ I was too busy to join him. So Tom told me: “Listen, it does not matter. It is just a small project. It might not even make it to the cinemas, anyway. We will have our gig afterwards.” The movie became a worldwide hit and it was amazing.
What I have with Tom is pretty rare: we share mutual understanding and the longer we work together, the more we find ourselves in situations where we do not need to talk anymore.
Usually, we discuss things in the very beginning of a project to crystalise what we are interested in or what is the meaning behind it, where we would like to end a story, what is the final statement we would like to come up with. Then, I can go back to my things, Tom goes back to his. Afterwards, we meet from time to time to discuss the progress. In the end, Tom just comes to the set and starts shooting. He kind of knows that he will find everything done better than he would have expected. Of course, it is a question of trust, a question of taste, which I find highly relevant while making movies together.”
Back in time to Berlin in the 1920s
“We started talking about the TV series ‘Babylon Berlin’ a long time before the scripts were done. I asked Tom, why exactly are we doing this. So, we agreed that it is going to be interesting to bring this period to the screen, because it is not so well covered in German film history. There are hundreds of films about the 1930s, but there are almost none portraying the 1920s.
In order to understand the Third Reich, one needs to understand what happened in Germany during World War I and the time after it. We had no intention to teach a history lesson, but sought to recreate the life of Berliners, show the things they were dealing with, and develop the ideas they believed in. Only in the middle of the process we ourselves realised how extremely interesting the 1920s were.
We got so excited not because it is believed to be the Golden Age, but because of the people. Back then a city was inhabited by the first generation which basically had to reinvent the wheel starting from politics and technical development to the cultural and artistic spheres. The growth progressed within a very short time, it was like an explosion and everybody was in mayhem. The main question still stands: how did this super modern city, the capital of Germany, managed to regress from this kind of development to the darkest hole of mankind?
In order to connect with the characters and the story, it appeared exciting to compare Berlin of the 1920s with our Berlin today. We were always trying to push this idea: when the audience sees a particular interior, it understands that it is a time-travel to the 1920s. At the same time, we tried to make them forget about it and look at the interiors as it would be just a random club which opened last weekend.
Sure, maybe one would not find a live band there, but the place would definitely have a DJ with a laptop. Besides that it could look exactly the same. On top of this, we realised that we inhabit this open contemporary city with a vibrant nightlife scene, drugs, independent, free people and whatever else you can think of. But looking back in time, it became clear that our grandparents were worse than us: they were the first ones to lead such a life; actually they invented all of that stuff, we are simply copying them. Everything we do today is based on what was happening back in the 1920s.”
“I was never a chess player. I learnt to play chess, because of my daughter. She asked me to play chess with her, so she had to teach me and we used to have a match from time to time. But I was the opposite of a good player. To be honest, even now chess does not mean a thing to me. I understood that to make the mini-series ‘Queen’s Gambit’, we had to get away from chess, though it is the counterpart of the story.
We had to make each tournament different and interesting, decide on how to develop them from the regional level to the highest national standard. It was never about chess. It was about finding the main character’s position on this planet.
When I was reading the novel, my memory created a link to the main character in a movie ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’. He was very much alike to Beth: a forgotten child, nobody ever took care of him, involved in life or taught the basic skills of humankind. He was a lost soul with a supernatural talent who tried to use it to establish a connection to this world. The character in ‘Perfume’ failed: he was slowly becoming a monster and was not aware of it. In ‘Queen’s Gambit’, we had the same set-up for the character and the same problem, but different conclusion - Beth came through.
The process behind making ‘Queen’s Gambit’ was no different to any other before. To dress each individual room, I came up with the system of characterising: what situation are we in, what do we want to achieve, what do we want to state, choosing one or other environment for the situation or the character, or both. Any colour, pattern or fabric resembles that.
I always try to implement the meaning instead of just having a red room, because, you know, I just like it. If there is no reason for a room to be red, there will be no red. All the details were chosen due to the psychological or other reasons instead of pure taste.
Actually, one can say that this show is kind of boring, because the main character is doing the same thing all over again and again. Usually, there is a story, where a character travels and then something happens, later - something else happens. In ‘Queen’s Gambit’ a repeating element of her traveling is well established: she gets on a plane, checks into a hotel, and goes to the tournament. Then, another plane, another hotel, another tournament.
This repeating system required us to do something significant, distinguishing and meaningful. On this overall journey she is taking, it leads her closer and closer to the world. So, every tournament and each important chess game means something symbolic and different to her.
Sometimes it is more like a battle or a romance. In one interview the director Scott Frank mentioned that it was important not to create a sports-genre movie, where the story is only about the winning or the competition. This series is not even about a game, rather about the encounters she had with the opponents.
When Beth was playing in Mexico, her opponent was a twelve years old Russian boy, kind of a wunderkind, but a narrow-minded one. He concentrated on winning only and how to become a grandmaster in two years' time. He was asked what he will do after becoming a master, he got totally baffled and speechless, not even understanding the question. Such encounters are a way more interesting than a game itself, right?”
Just another job
“Our crew was asked to make ‘Queen’s Gambit’ while we were finishing the last season of ‘Babylon Berlin’. According to the schedule, we were supposed to begin immediately after that. So, my whole department was saying: please, let’s not do it. Everyone was really tired and burnt-out. I liked the story and the novel so much that I asked the production to postpone it or delay for just a couple of weeks until we finish our project, rest for at least three weeks and start again. They agreed on these conditions. My team began complaining: oh, dear, another one.
In the beginning it actually was just another job for us. For the practical purpose I took the whole crew from ‘Babylon Berlin’ into the ‘Queen’s Gambit’, so we just continued working. I have already done almost every decade of the 20th century and wanted to leave the 1920s behind.
But I was thrilled to work with Americans and explore the consciousness of the main character. Every project has its limits, so we were also dealing with the limits of a budget, schedule, time and other usual stuff. Once we began the job, the whole crew got involved and became enthusiastic. The circumstances were really nice: we got to keep the same crew, we could be in Berlin. Also, we had a budget decent enough to do the series, so we went crazy and got big.
I really cannot tell the difference between this one and the other films I had done before. I do receive compliments for my work, but there was never a reaction comparable to the ado after the premiere of ‘Queen’s Gambit’. Not even ‘Babylon Berlin’ was cheered like this. What’s the difference? I believe that those phenomenal reactions came, because the whole story is so contemplative: it spares the audience a lot of time to look around. In addition, the narrative follows her point of view, so the audience experiences each situation or a place through her eyes, together.”
Fully licensed time-traveler
“A couple of years ago we came up with this idea that we - production designers - are the only real time-travelers. We actually create the circumstances to time-travel even though it is fake. I remember, when we had just finished building the set of ‘Perfume: The Story of a Murderer’, dressing the big downtown shopping street in the middle of Barcelona; there was this moment.
Before the crew with all the gear invaded again, I had this perfect set with extras, horses and all the props in front of me. For the tiny moment of time all of it was really there, nothing was wrong, displaced, no elements were disturbing. Suddenly, I found myself in 18th century Paris.
I love these moments, they are fascinating. Sets we build are very different to the ones a historian would do. Ours are a bit more shallow, kind of a fake in a staged place, but for a moment they are truly there. This is the chance to time-travel.
Honestly, I think I would agree to die for a possibility to make a real time-travel to Berlin in the 1920s, at least for a day to walk in those streets and see how it really was.”
This interview is a part of the educational workshop’s “Art Department Masterclass” project. It aims to spread the professional knowledge about the art department’s role in the filmmaking process, share authentic career and behind the scenes stories of art department heroes and introduce cinema-enthusiasts to this particular side of movie making.