Crew Role Profile: Grant Montgomery, Production Designer

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Our regular Crew Profile feature aims to showcase the various production roles that are crucial to a smoothly running film or television set.

For our second instalment, we talk to Production Designer Grant Montgomery whose past credits include World War One drama Bird Song,  Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing on the Edge and most recently, series two of Peaky Blinders.

Name: Grant Montgomery

What is your role?

“I’m a Production Designer and I suppose the best definition of what I do is I take care of the three dimensional visual look of productions. I never think of production design as just about sets, it’s more encompassing and about trying to create a vision for the show along with the creative teams. It isn’t just about designing a number of sets. You cover the whole look; from hand props to the carriages or cars. You are involved in choosing locations and converting them to suit the drama or the story. That is all your responsibility. It really covers that whole gamut; everything you see that is physical in the film is the responsibility of the Production Designer. There is a conscious decision that has gone on while you’re watching; every location fundamentally has gone through a design process.”

What does that involve?

“If you take something like Bird Song, you’re dealing with creating World War One trenches so you have to understand and know about that. You’re really mastering lots of environments and knowledge; you have to research and put that into action. One day you could be dealing with Victorian trains, the next minute you could be dealing with the Eighteenth century dining habits of the aristocracy and you’ve got to understand that in the morning they would have coffee, they wouldn’t have tea. You have to have all of that information; you have to be soaking all of that up because you are creating these worlds that don’t really exist. What you’re doing is creating fictional worlds,”

What are a few of your career highlights so far?

“Number one would be Peaky Blinders. I think it’s a great piece of work, I’ve loved doing it and loved working with the directors Otto and Tom and Colm and it’s great writing from Stephen Knight. What a wonderful canvas and an incredible story and time to work on, it was a fantastic experience. I adored doing Bird Song. I had always wanted to do a First World War production and to do the Somme was great; to build that size of set, which was the size of three football pitches, was brilliant. I really enjoyed it, even thought it was very hard work. I would say Crimson Petal and the White I adored because it was such a great book and working with Marc Munden and Lol Crawley the Director of Photography was just fantastic. To work with those guys on such an amazing piece of work and such an amazing story, I loved that. Recreating the Mid-Victorian 1870s but with a twist was so exciting to do. Dancing on the Edge with Stephen Poliakoff was definitely a highlight because he’s like an institution, he is a bit like the ‘Grand Old Man’ of British television, he has been there done it and got the badge. I had watched his shows when I was coming up and to have the opportunity to work with someone like that was amazing,”

How did you start out in this line of work?

“I went to the BBC Holiday Relief Design System way back when, that was basically where I started. Then I just went freelance and worked through the ranks and I think that’s the best possible way that you can learn the job. There is this natural progression and I think it’s good that you can go from Art Department Assistant through to Graphics, through to Stand By – through the whole gamut – because it gives you a much fuller awareness of what each of those roles are in the Art Department,”

What training did you have prior to starting out?

“I did a degree in theatre design. At that time there weren’t any courses in the UK that I was aware of when I was starting out, so the next best thing was doing theatre and I really appreciated it because it trained you in a different way. It trained you to deal with text, so I came in from that side of it and that’s where I started out,”

What key skill do you need in this position?

“I think the key aspects are that you have to be artistic, definitely; you have to bring that to the table. You have to have an artistic vision but coupled with that you have to have diplomacy skills to deal with the varying Heads of Departments, the Director, the Producers etc. You have to be able to navigate that. Also leadership for your own team – you have to understand how to lead a group of people. Those three aspects I think are key to the job from a purely practical point of view,”

What tips would you offer those interested in this role?

“Just apply yourself. Have a passion for product design, have a passion for art direction, watch as many films as you can and keep looking. For example, if you look at a fire place, you’d think it would be dark at the bottom, but actually it’s light because of the way the flames leaf. Keep looking, keep observing and just combine that with a passion for wanting to be curious about the world that we live in. Try and soak up a visual library of images around you. I think it’s an amazing job and I’m really lucky that I’m doing it. I’m passionate about it still and I think that’s exciting. I think that you have to be excited by it – I know that sounds extremely simple but it’s not, you still have to be excited by it so you can keep getting up at six in the morning and head out somewhere when it’s cold. If I was going to give some advice it would be that you have got to keep the passion,”

What’s the one thing people should be wary about when pursuing this role?

“It’s a long haul and it’s a vocation. I think there are too many people who dabble in the Art Department, they come in and think it’s just choosing soft furnishings – it’s not. I think the whole industry is a vocation, I don’t see it as just purely a job. You’ve got to be passionate about wanting to design and understand your design. I think people should be studying a lot more film design, you don’t need to do a course, you can study the great production designers a bit like you can study the great painters. People like Ken Adam – go and look at their work and find out why he is great. Why is Stuart Craig an amazing designer? You can even go further back to the history of the Golden Age of Hollywood and look at people like Anton Grot and all those incredible designers because that’s the heritage of the art. There are loads of books that you can get, I think it is a vocation and you should be coupling that kind of study with doing it. I think the only pitfalls are if you come into it thinking it’s a 9 to 5, I think you would get quite a rude awakening, certainly with the Art Department. I don’t think it ever runs like that.”

What do you wish you had known when starting out?

“I don’t have anything that I look back on and go ‘oh I wish I hadn’t done that’. I think if you are really passionate about what you are doing you will just go through the process to become the Designer or the Art Director you want to be, and good or bad, the experiences just help to mould you to do good work. I think the thing is people think it’s simple and easy and it’s not, I have never assumed it would be otherwise. I think you just learn by the process. Experience is valuable. As you go along just keep getting experience, I think that’s so key because it helps you to make better decisions. For example knowing what colours work next to each other and knowing what to do in a certain environment, looking for the right kind of locations that work, your instinct will tell you and that comes from experience.

“It is a process; just hang in there because at the beginning it may seem like a long way to go. Just keep working hard and you will achieve what you need to achieve. I think too many people come in, flirt with it and then go ‘oh I don’t quite like it’ and leave; they have to be committed and want to do it. And that brings its own rewards. This job is a different challenge every day, nothing is ever the same, as you go along you have experiences and you learn from them and try and answer the challenges of the film making experience.”

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