Interview with Deborah Riley: Career pathways, Alejandro Inarritu and Game of Thrones
Screen NSW talks with Emmy Award winning production designer Deborah Riley about her career pathway, Alejandro Inarritu and her design process on Game of Thrones.
Congratulations! You backed up the Game of Thrones Season 4 Emmy Award with your win for Outstanding Production Design For A Narrative Contemporary Or Fantasy for Game of Thrones Season 5, specifically for the episode High Sparrow. What were your biggest challenges in the season?
The biggest challenge facing the art department in Season 5 was the volume of work that we had to achieve over three countries. Working in both Croatia and Spain, at the same time as having big builds in Northern Ireland is a huge challenge and logistically very difficult. The art department becomes spread very thin on the ground and it is a credit to everyone involved that we manage to make it through.
You studied architecture and have built a reputation as a hands-on designer and often use your very particular set of skills to build structures from scratch. What was your process like for designing the many worlds of Game of Thrones?
I don’t think the process for designing Game of Thrones is very different to what the process was when I was a student. It always starts with a lot of research. We then have concept art that has to be approved, construction drawings that have to be priced and approved and then we build the sets or work in the locations, in consultation with the producers and director and cinematographer who is shooting that particular scene. Sometimes the process seems easy, sometimes it is very difficult. There is such a huge range of work on Game of Thrones that we have the chance to practice across all sorts visually very different kingdoms. Like everything, the more we do it, the better we get at negotiating the process and the politics of having the sets built that have to satisfy the needs of so many.
You worked on many great Australian films before working in the US. How did your training and experiences in the Australian industry help prepare you with for designing the on of the worlds biggest series?
My training in Australia began at NIDA. It was there that I learned the skills necessary to survive in the industry. It is something to do with the rigor and the discipline of NIDA that has stayed with me. In addition to film, the Sydney Olympic Ceremonies was my first introduction to major special events that saw me no longer scared to tackle large-scale projects.
Conceptually and architecturally Game of Thrones has embraced quite bold and complex ideas. How do you stick to the rules of the architecture, colour and texture of its worlds?
Sticking to the rules of each kingdom is imperative for the art department. We are all very aware of the look of each kingdom and do not stray from that. Even in a mid-shot the audience should know where they are. We have to be very disciplined about what we do in terms of architectural style, colour, texture and set dressing. It is the first rule of the art department and my job to make sure that it never becomes diluted.
As production designer, how do you interact with directors?
On Game of Thrones, it is a very collaborative process. The producers and directors are very much a part of the design process and the directors can be as involved in that as they choose. Sometimes they have a very clear idea about they see a scene and sometimes they are waiting for the art department to offer up ideas. As we work with as many as five different directors at once, it can become very, very busy.
You have also previously worked with Alejandro Inarritu, what did you learn from each other?
I worked with Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu at a very formative time in my career. Firstly, he always speaks from the heart. He has a very strong vision and tells deeply emotional stories. He is always exploring and discussing difficult issues. From an art department point of view, he described the need to be able to “smell” a set. For this reason, he tends to work only on location. His process on 21 Grams was the complete opposite to what I had experienced on Moulin Rouge, where everything was much more controllable and built on stage. Alejandro taught me another way of working and about the importance of telling the truth, be it in how to dress a set absolutely authentically, or how to navigate through life with honesty and purpose.
Having worked on The Matrix and now working on Game of Thrones, both cutting-edge for their time, how have you seen the role of technology change in your workof visual storytelling?
The art department is certainly a much more digital arena than it used to be. It is because of technology that I am able to be looking at a build in Spain and at the same time as approve the set dressing in Belfast. More than that though, with the help of visual effects, they can not only build dragons, but they can also flesh out the worlds by adding sweeping establishing shots and “top ups” that would not be possible to achieve in set design department alone. In this way, storytelling has been greatly enhanced.
For anyone interested in pursuing a role in production design, what is your advice?
My advice to anyone wanting to pursue a career in production design, in addition to working very hard and honing your craft, it is important to be brave, not only in your designs, but also to be able to weather the life of a freelance person. Also, be good, kind and generous. No one wants to work on a team with someone who does not benefit the team as a whole. Finally, be optimistic and be enthusiastic!