Interviews – Eugenio Zanetti

Eugenio Zanetti is a successful commercial director and an Academy Award winning production designer. He has also directed and designed numerous commercials and films as well as more than forty theater and opera productions in Europe and South America. He won the 1995 Academy Award for Best Production Design for Restoration, the lavish story set in 18th Century Europe that starred Robert Downey Jr. and Meg Ryan.

Other awards include an Academy Award Nomination for Best Production Design, and the Art Directors of America Best Design for the film, What Dreams May Come. Mr. Zanetti has also received the Thalia Award for directing the stage productions of They’re Playing Our Song and Dracula, and another Thalia Award for Best Playwright for The White Queen. In addition, he is a four-time winner of the Star of the Sea Award in Argentina for Best Director.

With a multifaceted career that spans three continents, Zanetti is internationally recognized as an artist of extraordinary and versatile qualities.

How do you feel about your achievements to date in the film industry?

Because I wasn’t born in the USA, I’ll probably have a different idea—different expectations—for the so-called artistic achievement. In general. In America, if you get an Oscar, you could think you are somewhere in your career where you have achieved “success.” But even then, I honestly hope that the best of the creative aspects of my career are yet to come.

Let me better explain my understanding of what achievement is. First, I’m grateful for the possibilities I had. Having being born in a small town in Argentina, just the fact of having a career in the First World implies two things: one is a sense of destiny that we all should have; the other is a sense of who we are as artists. The 21st Century’s idea of the artist as some sort of tortured creature isolated in his or her creative dreams has passed, fortunately; but remnants of that thinking still impregnate our perception of art. The one aspect that I value most in an artist is the capacity to perceive—express things that are invisible to the eye. Many times those things are not necessarily what people expect.

Where do your images come from? The script or the characters?

In the friendly battlefield that a film is, one has to choose all the time between the possible and the impossible. Ultimately, one has to sacrifice many things to be able to maintain some images one thinks are crucial to narrate the story. Many times a script has few or no description of the universes where the story takes place, so in reading it, one has to extrude the setting from the character’s dramatic arc. This is a process that is both conscious and unconscious. The conscious aspects include an understanding of the period, location and tone of the piece, as well as the budget and other practical considerations. The other is the way we connect with the material in that secret area we call “intuition.” For an artist, intuition is key.

A designer’s work is conceptual. We are storytellers; we should be. Design is poetic, visual storytelling. There is a great need when you are given material as a director or writer or painter or whatever area you work to maximize what is given to you. “Maximize” means using whatever intellectual, monetary, economic, time and space considerations available to express your concept in the best way. What counts is how well you develop your concept first. It should come from your heart, go to your mind, and come out through your experience. If there is no money, there should be ideas, and if there is not time to build, you should use the little time you have to destroy! Do whatever you need, but remember that you need to create images that will stay in people’s lives!

Designing places that do not exist is a favorite of mine. Presently, technology allows designers to explore—to walk through digital effects— through spaces that before could only be perceived in a two dimensional way. Scale is also a concept that has changed radically with the advent of digital effects. But the dilemma still is how to give the actors, the director, the director of photography, something real—tangible—so they can develop on it, emote on it.

Also, we must give the audience a sense of being there that sometimes digital paintings cannot provide. The answer is a combination of the possible set that the budget allows, plus the use of miniatures, plus digital paintings—in that order. For example, in What Dreams May Come, there is a library in Heaven where people fly around carrying books. None of these things were actually requested in the script, but I fought hard for those images to be there because of a series of dreams I’ve had of such a place. It seemed to me that a new version of The Divine Comedy needed inner images—things that came directly from dreams. So a substantial amount of sketches, convincing, and money went to build a gigantic set.

When I was conceiving it, I’d already decided that water was the element that should connect many sequences in the movie. I’ve done something similar before with Restoration, where every location is connected with the others through water—a metaphor for the River of Life. So we created a large tank in a hangar and put the library there on the water. But even though the set was enormous, it was not nearly like the one in my dream! I thought, ‘We have to be able to turn around and create a virtual extension of the set that goes for miles.’ So we did it digitally—but only after the actual physical set was created. The actors were there, hanging from wires, feeling it, flying between gigantic walls of books. It could all have been done by visual effects, but I thought that it was important that a substantial part of it be real.

The full interview is in “The Art of Manifesting: Creating your Future”