A Movie's Look, From Toilet To Villain's Lair Lighting, props, sets and costumes all contribute to the "look" of a movie — and production designer J. Michael Riva, the grandson of Marlene Dietrich, makes sure all those elements integrate seamlessly for a film. He has worked on blockbusters such as The Goonies and A Few Good Men.

A Movie's Look, From Toilet To Villain's Lair

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Nearly everything you see has been designed by someone, from the microphone I'm speaking into, to the radio you're listening to. In a movie, everything you see has been designed by a team that reports to a single person, the production designer. In her annual pre-Oscar screening of little known movie jobs, NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg meets the man who designed "Iron Man," several "Lethal Weapons," and "The Goonies."

SUSAN STAMBERT: Eight weeks before a shooting begins on "Iron Man II," J. Michael Riva has just gotten the first real script, but he does have a list of sets, of plot points. The first item on the list reads, Tony, in the Iron Man armor, pukes in a toilet.

Mr. J. MICHAEL RIVA (Production Designer): I design a toilet, what a big job for the day. Now after I'm done with that, I can go home and see the kids. Now, what did you do today? I designed a toilet. That's great, Dad.

STAMBERG: As production designer J. Michael Riva is responsible for the look of the toilet to make sure it fits with the look of everything else in the film, doesn't stick out.

Mr. RIVA: It's like a marionette theatre. You want to look at the puppets, you don't want to look the strings. So my job is to keep the strings and the hands off camera and keep the puppets doing what they're doing.

STAMBERG: There are times when Michael Riva likes to do hands-on-work. In "The Goonies," a beloved 1985 kid flick that one fan says was the "Casablanca" of her generation, the kids go in search of lost treasure.

(Soundbite of "The Goonies")

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, Mike found a map.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #1: Hey, look, look, look. That says 1632. Is that a year or something?

STAMBERG: The prop people have made a map, but Riva thought it looked too new.

Mr. RIVA: So I spent the day in my hotel room dumping coffee on it. I wanted it to have some blood and we had no paint. So we actually had to cut our fingers and edge the sides of it with blood. You do do these crazy things? You know, you get so into it, you just, okay, let's cut our fingers.

Mr. RICHARD DONNER (Director, "The Goonies"): Oh my God.

STAMBERG: Richard Donner hadn't heard that story. Donner directed "The Goonies." He also did "Lethal Weapon" with Mike Riva and knew his father, a Broadway sect designer. Every year, Bill Riva would redesign his son's bedroom.

Mr. DONNER: They would have a motif of some sort. Now that year that I met Michael, his room was a American desert with tents and cactus. It was a rubber floor that was molded like sand dunes and there was sand on it. Imagine that inspiration, that creative push so early in life.

STAMBERG: There was another family source of inspiration. Michael Riva's grandmother was Marlene Dietrich. They adored each other, went to movies every Sunday. Little Mike Riva, the production designer-to-be, learned a lot from Dietrich - Grandma's tricks of the trade.

Mr. RIVA: She never had a really full head of hair, for instance, so she would brush it up or tease it or whatever, this golden mane that she and von Sternberg was…

STAMBERG: That's director Josef von Sternberg.

Mr. RIVA: …and lit her from behind - by hitting her hair made her look like she had tons of hair.

STAMBERG: Grandma Dietrich, he says, was a big lighting freak. Lighting, props, sets, costumes, they all contribute to the look of a movie, the planned visual narrative, Mike Riva calls it.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Few Good Men")

Mr. TOM CRUISE (Actor, as Daniel Kaffee): Commander, do you have some sort of jurisdiction here that I should know about?

Ms. DEMI MOORE (Actress, as JoAnne Galloway): My job is to make sure that you do your job.

STAMBERG: In the 1992 film, "A Few Good Men," Tom Cruise and Demi Moore play antagonists trying to make amends over dinner. Riva had to decide where to shoot the scene.

Mr. RIVA: I went one night to this lobster restaurant where they serve you this giant lobster on the table with mallets where you smash the lobster to get at the meat. So it just struck me that this was the perfect thing to do. Because he's angry at her, she's angry at him and they're doing to the lobster what they'd like to do to each other. So I took Rob Reiner and Tom Cruise, we all sat around and smashed lobsters for hours and at the end of it I turned to Rob Reiner and I say, why don't we do it at someplace like this? He says, I love it, smashing the lobsters, and so we did it.

(Soundbite of movie, "A Few Good Men")

Mr. CRUISE (As Daniel Kaffee): Why are you always giving me your resume?

Ms. MOORE (As JoAnne Galloway): 'Cause I want you to think I'm a good lawyer.

Mr. CRUISE (As Daniel Kaffee): I do.

Ms. MOORE (As JoAnne Galloway): No, you don't.

STAMBERG: Riva and Rob Reiner, Riva and Dick Donner, when it works well, the production designer and the director are joined at the hip, or really Donner says, the imagination.

Mr. DONNER: All the sudden, through their eyes, your vision starts to come to life.

STAMBERG: Does it ever end up being better than you imagined it?

Mr. DONNER: Ninety percent of the time, they're bringing something fresh into the look, whereas I may have been restrained by the words that I was reading in that screenplay.

STAMBERG: In 1976, Richard Donner directed "Superman," the first modern superhero movie. He and production designer John Berry prowled New York for weeks, desperately hunting for a location for their villains' headquarters.

Mr. DONNER: One day we were taking a train from Grand Central Station, and he just started - he - oh my God, he started yelling, I turned around, I said, John, what is it? I thought he was ill. And he said, this is it. I said, I know. There's where we're getting at. He said, No, no, no, no. He said, under here is the old Grand Central Station. I said, it is? I was born and brought up in New York. He says, no you dummie, it's in my mind. And it became Lex Luthor's lair.

(Soundbite of movie, "Superman")

Mr. GENE HACKMAN (Actor, as Lex Luthor): How do you choose to congratulate the greatest criminal mind of our time? You tell me that I'm brilliant? Oh no, no, no, that would be too obvious. I grant you. Fiendishly gifted...

Ms. VALERIE PERRINE (Actress, as Eve Teschmacher): Try twisted.

STAMBERG: For all the aha discoveries and leaps of imagination, there are times when even the best production designer can go, shall we say, astray. On "Lethal Weapon II," Dick Donner and Mike Riva had very different ideas about the look for an evil ambassador's office. Donner saw it as somber, gray, foreboding.

Mr. DONNER: And I came in in the morning and ready to shoot and the set was Pepto-Bismol. And I'm not a temperamental guy. I like to laugh, I like to enjoy it, and - well, this moment I walked in - I went berserk and I said, Mike, what the hell is this? He said, I just thought I'd make it different. I said, no, it's too different. It stinks, it's terrible, and we get in this terrible argument. The next thing I know, Riva had sent over a bunch of painters.

STAMBERG: Donner went for coffee. When he got back, Riva said, don't anybody touch the walls. The new gray and somber colored paint was still wet.

Mr. DONNER: I won, because I was director.

STAMBERG: But Richard Donner is the first admit, he couldn't - can't win without the help of the production designer, the person who takes the work of the cinematographer, the costume designer, the set, prop, lighting people and so many others, and weaves the magical look of every movie you see.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

SHAPIRO: You can hear director Jon Favreau on the role of directors in the movies at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro.


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