Creating the Visual Universe of Experimenter

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

“Good experiments, like good drama, embody verities." When social psychologist Stanley Milgram said these words back in 1973, he had no idea those verities would be explored on film over 40 years later. Enter Experimenter: a biographical drama illustrating Milgram's most notorious experiment. Deana Sidney, the film's Production Designer, talks about designing and recreating Milgram's world through heavy research, purposeful visual elements, and the power of color.

ProductionHUB: Has it become simpler for you now that digital cameras are much lighter and don’t take as much physical space as film cameras?

Deana Sidney: I don’t think I ever paid much attention to the size of the camera, but fewer lights and time needed to set up those lights has made things go a bit quicker on a digital set. This means that the art department often has a few more minutes to make any changes necessary. Since lighting crews take precedence, art wasn’t always given enough time to do what was needed – it’s a bit better now.

PH: How did you get involved with Experimenter?

DS: I have wanted to work with Michael Almereyda since he did Hamlet. We had a long talk about the play (I actually took a whole semester to study the play in college and was something of a Hamlet-nerd, and the producer set up a meeting between us). In retrospect, I am not sure he understood I wanted to design it as much as to discuss interpretations – but from the conversation, I discovered I really enjoyed the way his mind worked and hoped one day to work with him. That chance came 15 years later with Experimenter when producers I had worked with brought me in and this time, Michael talked to me AND hired me. It was a great pleasure for me and I think he’s brilliant.

PH: Were you aware of what locations you were shooting once the project was approved?

DS: Designers are very involved in choosing locations. It’s not just about liking the way something looks. It’s up to me to say what is possible with a space. For instance, yes an elephant can walk easily through the halls of this college, but she can’t get through the fire door into the building, so we have to build it. Or know if our budget can manage the changes necessary to get what is wanted from a particular location. Sometimes I see possibilities that others may miss. Other times directors feel drawn to a place and it’s my job to make it work.

PH: What location did you like the most/was easiest to work with?

DS: Like the most? I really did like the University settings. They were so visually stunning with the gallery overlooking the hall – a technique used again looking over the airport. Both were pretty much as-is locations I had little to do with but I did like them.

PH: Was there any particular set that was your favorite in Experimenter and why?

DS: The lab set and hall set were my favorites. I spent an enormous amount of time studying Milgram’s photos and films to get the lab as right as I possibly could (right down to the tweedy drapes). We constructed the shock machine using specs from the original that is in a college in Ohio. Because of this, I was very fond of the set in its cool blueness. I was also fond of the hallway set built specifically for an elephant. Truly one of the great pleasures of my life was meeting Minnie the elephant – a great and noble spirit. When she looks at you there is such profound eloquence – I don’t have the words. Meeting her was my favorite moment on the set bar none.

PH: How closely did you and the DP have to work together on set? What roles did you both play and did you help each other out in anyway?

DS: Ryan Samul (the DP), Michael and I worked closely on some things – as closely as schedules permitted. Color was very important to us all and we had the film move through an ever-brightening world. It had started as a yellowed, jaundiced world that we saw in one color photo of the lab but Michael at the last minute, literally just before we were buying the paint, decided to switch from alienating yellow-green to soothing blue-greens. It was a brilliant change. The characters (and audience) were lulled into a false sense of security in the cool rooms.

Also, I did a SketchUp of the hall and lab so that Ryan and Michael could virtually move through the set when they were doing their shot lists. The height of the windows was changed because of it. SketchUp is a great program because anyone can use it, and the 3D walk-through component is terribly helpful in a set that is really another character in the film—it was that important.

PH: The movie takes place in the 60s; how do you make sure nothing modern gets into the shot? Did you have a hard time with that? 

DS: We call them bogies – the term comes from UFA’s in aviation, unidentified aircraft – but for us it’s anomalies that don’t belong in a period piece (I don’t know where the term got started in film). It’s very hard when you don’t have a big budget but we try to catch as many as we can. Yes, Styrofoam cups were around in the 60’s but we used larger ones that were not – a mini-bogie. We did get many period objects to give a sense of time and even used objects from Milgram’s home (lent by his wife) to give a sense of verisimilitude for the actors. I enjoy working with actors to get things for them that make their roles more real for them.

PH: Are you primarily on set once shooting starts?

DS: I try as best as I can to “christen’ a big set and spent more time than usual on stage in Experimenter, since we were there for a good chunk of filming, but usually I am off working on the next set in the schedule when there are a lot of locations.

PH: Have you been affected by the transition to shooting digitally? Does it help/hinder you? 

DS: No, I really don’t feel the change much, but then I work on smaller projects. I worked with a film camera two years ago and loved the look (the brilliant DP Steve Fierberg shot it and it looked GREAT). Film is still richer in my eye but not much longer. Digital has come a long way.

PH: How does it feel watching the movie as a whole, since you have had the experience of putting it together, set by set?

DS: It was beautifully edited. The visuals came together better than I could have hoped. I was especially thrilled with the rear screen projection. We worked like mad to find images that were right for the mood and the action (people often had to walk through them) that we could afford. I also thought our set for the lab was very impressive. It was a fine film I am proud of – a New York magazine review called it ‘uncannily beautiful’, I liked that.

PH: What are some upcoming projects you are working on?

DS: I just finished doing four episodes of a TV show. Two set in the 1960’s and two set in the 1930’s. I love doing period pieces. I also write about food, places and history and the details of times, places, things and people’s lives and am trying to work on a book but having trouble with time – never enough. I am supposed to be doing a film that will take place in one house in a month… that will be a pleasant change from rushing from place to place.

PH: Anything else you'd like to add?

DS: The epilogue of the film has been fun for me starting with Sundance. At a recent festival, I got the chance to explain to an audience what I do – amazing how ‘civilians’ who actually love film don’t really have a clue what it is a production designer does. I told them that we were originally called art directors and that it wasn’t until William Cameron Menzies on Gone With the Wind that the term production designer was born. (Producer David Selznick said "Menzies is the final word" on everything related to Technicolor, scenic design, set decoration and the overall look of the production.) With the film’s many directors, Menzies was the guiding hand behind the look of the film more than most and was gifted the title (he also filmed the famous burning of Atlanta scene). Sadly, it didn’t exist in the Oscars so his art director, Lyle Wheeler, went home with the statue – Menzies got an honorary statue for his use of color instead. It probably helped that Menzies was a gifted film-polymath who could direct, produce, write AND design – he saw the big picture more than a set designer might. I think that’s what a great designer does. They are responsible for the visual universe of the film –– translating words into a world that transports actors and then audience into the story. The DP and the director focus the audience on what they want the audience to see in that universe. My fellow designers always sigh that half our stuff never gets seen, a tight close-up and the set disappears!

I tell aspiring PDs that the more you know about more things, the better you are at your job – the more crayons in your box. Most great designers didn’t go to film school! I’ve learned about everything from classical Greek pottery to the recipe for mud-wrestling mud.

I also enjoyed talking with an art magazine interviewer that asked questions about my work and had interpretations and observations about my motivation for many visual elements in the film that I had not planned consciously (lines in a pillow and rails on a stair?). I thought about it for a while and realized so much of what we do is through a filter of experience. Like driving, if you had to think about every action you need to turn a corner your head would explode and you would be frozen. Experience takes over. In my work, this translates to things that have meanings to me [that] I do not consciously understand in the moment – a lifetime of reactions to situations and places and things. Whereas you may choose a dress to make yourself look sexy for a date, I may choose a chair because it will be uncomfortable and change the dynamic of a scene. Often I do it because I unconsciously remember an interview that went badly because I was in a chair that was uncomfortable. Only later I consciously remember what had happened. It was an authentic choice. Many choices are made subconsciously, instinctually. Often they are the best choices because there is no filter – no little voice asking if they work  you know they do. 

About Deana Sidney

Production designer Deana Sidney’s creative process always begins with research. Whether it be searching for classical Greek furniture and pottery designs, running down the recipe for sludge in a mud wrestling scene, or learning N.Y.C. street gang sign protocols to deliver an authentic look – her research opens creative doors.  

She works with directors as a visual collaborator, where her research often provides fresh insights for the script. This collaboration and attention to detail helps create spaces for actors to better inhabit their characters. Her work enriches every project she works on. 

Her most recent feature, Experimenter, tells the story of Stanley Milgram who famously conducted shock experiments in the early ‘60s, which proved that ordinary people are capable of doing horrible things if they are ordered to do so. Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Kellan Lutz and Taryn Manning, the film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to great reviews. For the project, Sidney’s facility with research was invaluable, historical accuracy was key, and Milgram’s films were scanned relentlessly to capture all the details of his lab – even decorations from his house were borrowed to lend authenticity to the sets.

Sidney’s production designs can also be seen in the upcoming romantic comedy The Truth About Lies for director Phil Allocco and episodes of Investigation Discovery’s A Crime to Remember, an Emmy award-winning series that recreates famous crimes (her episodes involved cases from the 1960’s).

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

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  • Scott Hilburn said…
    Monday, November 16, 2015 4:28 PM
    This is So AWESOME!

    Thanks so much for sharing!
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