After studying architecture, Robert Cowper worked his way up from a draughtsman to become an art director on the sets of big-budget films. Monocle met him on the set of The Bourne Ultimatum in the week that the director requested reshoots – and some massive New York roofscapes.
“The overall design of any film is generally down to us art directors. We’re the front line for how things look. We answer to the production designer, who briefs us on the director’s big vision and it’s our job to interpret that in three dimensions. Of course, you normally find yourself at your desk at midnight, snagging it and thinking about how the drawings will work as a set, with cameras, actors and crew. I studied architecture.
It helps, but you have to unlearn things because it’s a different way of constructing. When you’re thinking of architecture, you’re thinking of flow through a building, but sets are all about façade. The joy of it is working on all periods: I could be doing Victorian, baroque fantasy, futuristic or contemporary. I’m not stuck in one style. On a set, you can realise dreams you had as a student – and to see your thing built is a thrill. You imagine, you draw, it’s there.
Paul Greengrass’s ethos for the Bourne films is to make things look as under-designed as possible. You don’t jazz sets up because the whole production can easily skip into fantasy or James Bond. Everything’s grounded – right from the camera department, which uses a lot of hand-held. It’s an unpatronising way of filmmaking.
Of course, we shoot a lot of scenes in real, sourced locations, too. Although film scheduling can be like a military operation, and you can run out of time in locations. You don’t want to send a whole crew back to New York to shoot again, so we end up here, at Shepperton, building or a stage. A roof scene, 10 storeys up, could be quite dangerous, stunt-wise, but here we can control it. But, wherever we can, we use a location. For The Bourne Ultimatum, the CIA headquarters was played by Welwyn BioPark – it just looked right!
Last-minute rewrites like this are common. The producers care so much about the final article and they don’t want the audience wondering, ‘What does that mean?’ or ‘Why did that happen?’ The reworking of scripts throws up new sets because the action requires it – just one extra line of dialogue can mean a new set build. We cater for whatever the producers want.
We work closely with the stunt department – all the positioning and distances have to be worked out with the stunt guys. Over at Pinewood, there’s a mock-up of this set so they can practise a particular jump. Today, they’re moaning about a parapet being too high for them, even though it’s been agreed at three metres – they’ve probably seen it and gone, ‘Oh God, that’s a pretty big drop!’ But they’ll put crash mats everywhere and they’ll be fine. Whatever we do isn’t just random design – it has to be coordinated with production, photography, lighting, stunts. Matt Damon might take the final tumble though – he’s not shy of that at all.
We’ve done a New York rooftop set here with pyramid skylights, huge ducting, boxes, control units, generators. It’s all timber so we’ll add dummy rivets and glaze it to make it metallic. We start off as if it’s off the shelf, baby’s bottom, then bring it back – give it rust runs and dust.
In the four weeks since we came back from the real New York, it’s been non-stop, seven days a week. But it’s usually a 07.30, 08.00 start. I might have a team waiting on a stage with a load of timber and if my drawings aren’t complete by the morning, 30 guys are standing around costing a fortune. It’s like a dam breaking and I’m right on the edge. Sometimes I have to work through the night to deliver the drawings. These are craftsmen, who need measurements to cut and make. If a set isn’t ready for an actor, it can cost a million pounds. If you’ve got a lot of people on set and you’re not filming, you’ve paid 500 people for nothing. So, the pressure’s on.
I do go home, though! I’ll leave the drawings and someone will take them down to set and I might have the morning off. We’re all freelancers, so there’s no set of people I work with all the time. I’ve had varied jobs, but all are American-funded films made in Europe – they’ve got the money to spend and we’ll spend it. On some films, we’ve had 12 stages and built everything from scratch; you don’t find spaceship parts in scrap yards or DIY stores.
I am a film buff, but mostly classic cinema from the 1970s. That’s not the reason I’m doing this, though. It’s a joy to see your set on screen if it’s well shot; but sometimes you work on a set and someone’s lit it wrong and it’s not quite right. It’s like the ugly lights at the end of a party.
Or you’ve built a half-mile-long set and all the shots are close-ups of an actor. That’s frustrating. The joy is conceiving something and working with craftsmen to build it. I still hand draw – it’s more expressive than a CAD, which can be sterile. It’s like a DJ not wanting to give up vinyl; wanting to feel something moving beneath his fingers.
The strike order comes when the director’s completely happy and the film’s not going to change. Sets are generally chucked. It’s a crime when beautiful pieces go to waste. Teams might keep key pieces and breathe life into them on another set. I kept a piece from Event Horizon that I did – this gyrosphere thing that sent you into the next dimension. I know people who’ve got doors from Star Wars clad to the back of their bedroom doors.”