There were two farmers with time on their hands so they built a scarecrow and called him Harold. One day, Harold grunted.
That scarecrow story is an old tale, the kind still told over flashlights and around campfires. It’s one of the folktales author Alvin Schwartz gathered up like a poacher plucking herbs from the countryside when he wrote three volumes of his now-classic book series: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
And when it came time to bring those frequently challenged but rarely banned books to the big screen, director Andre Ovredal reached out to Capilano University professor David Brisbin.
Despite working as a production designer on horror films like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, Brisbin was reticent to sign on. Ovredal convinced him.
Ovredal talked about how important the movie was for him and described his passion for horror filmmaking.
But what really struck Brisbin was when Ovredal talked about what America would look like in the movie, and about photographer William Eggleston.
“I was absolutely seduced when I heard that,” Brisbin laughs. “When that word came out of his mouth, immediately there was this enormous shared visual dialogue between us that had to do with colours and the way you capture light and the way you see environments but all connected to, rooted in, this period version of the American landscape.”
Eggleston is known for, among other things, photographing the Mississippi exemplified by William Faulkner’s famous phrase: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Set between Halloween and election night in the fall of 1968, the movie veers between main street, the drive-in, a creepy old house with rooms that ooze death and jump to life.
After deciding to climb aboard the production, Brisbin took a look at the books and especially Stephen Gammell’s illustrations of trees that bend like arthritic fingers and skeletons that stare right at you.
“I slowly began to realize: this guy Gammell, he’s a genius. When you look at what he can do with black and white and shades of grey and the way he manipulates light . . . and the way he delivers depth with these very, very limited tools, I was astounded.”
Film is an odd career path for a former architecture student who once considered himself “above movies.”
“I didn’t watch movies. I didn’t care about movies. I thought it was a waste of time,” he recalls.
But he loved photography, and when a photography teacher told him to see The Passenger, a Michelangelo Antonioni film starring Jack Nicholson, he went.
“It just became one of those seminal movies that changed the way I understood the making of art and seeing the world,” he recalls. “As much as I loved architecture, I needed to be in film.”
Under the tutelage of Alexander Mackendrick, a filmmaker best known for his work on the noir classic Sweet Smell of Success, Brisbin learned how to combine architecture, art history and storytelling into visual logic.
Currently, Brisbin is in the middle of controlled chaos (“Which is every prep on every movie,” he adds) as he works on the Netflix movie Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting.
In a career that’s ranged from the Jesse Owens biopic race to Dead Presidents to the neo noir of After Dark, My Sweet, the high water remark of Brisbin’s career remains a pair of movies he made with Gus Van Sant: Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho.
He describes Van Sant as a circumspect artistic genius reminiscent of Andy Warhol. Even the environment felt like Warhol’s factory, he says.
“The making of art was the reason to be there. That, in a Hollywood context, is pretty weird.”
There was an inventiveness in the storytelling and a boldness in the subject matter, “probably in a way that I’ve not had a whack at since.”
After getting the script – which is hopefully finished – the production designed is charged with creating the world of the film.
“The production designer is responsible for everything physical before the camera except the actor’s bodies,” he says.
The job is rarely understood.
“The basic misconception is that people don’t have a clue,” he says. But when it comes to the audience, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, he adds.
“I don’t want them to be thinking about the production design. I want them to be thinking about the story.”