Interview with Production Designer Jeffrey Beecroft

On Creating The Worlds Of

12 monkeys

Outside the shuttered Westport Power Plant in Baltimore, a musty industrial dinosaur in which a futuristic interrogation chamber has been erected, Beecroft talked about the influences on the film's design.

Beecroft: What Terry does is he gets the best out of you, by letting you go as completely as far as you can go. He doesn't put the brakes on. He lets you go and go, working and working, and making things better, and he challenges you. It's funny because Terry's talked about me as being the father that does say no. 'No, that's gone too far, we gotta stop. Let's get back to what we were looking for.' Because Terry also has that in him, too, that he wants to go as far as he can. He's a real perfectionist, I think, within himself, and so he's always torn, because he really wants it to be the very best it can be, all the time. There's always room for improvement, of course, with anything; once you're satisfied, you're in trouble.

Our relationship started out almost like kids in a playground, running around looking at all these locations together, because we didn't have any scouts on or anything. I looked at a lot of places, and then I told him about them.

I also scouted in Pittsburgh. We scouted in London, some of Los Angeles. A lot of things Terry remembered about London are not there anymore — a lot of power plants have been disassembled or gutted. So we lost some of that. Then we found this whole strange world in Philadelphia, and what Philadelphia means for America is also really an interesting play on this [story], too. It's great to be faithful to the script [being that it was written with Philadelphia and Baltimore in mind], though the writers have never been to either city, and had no idea how far apart they were!

I would tell him I found these locations, and some things weren't even in the script. I said, 'I found this thing, it could be a train station.' His answer was, 'We don't have a train station.' And I said, 'But this could be a great train station!' And so Terry came here, and said . . . This could be a great train station! So now we have an abandoned train station in the script.

We kept looking for haunted images. We had a couple of books we were working from. What's really great with Terry is he has such clarity in his head. It's funny because everybody kind of thinks he's this madman, but he's not; he's really a guy who has a clarity of idea and is trying to find a direction to take all that energy, [to] focus it somewhere.

I think that's why he uses me somewhat because I'm more rigid about certain things. So we talk a lot, a really heavy collaboration. Both of us grab all the books we can, get in a room, and start going 'I like this,' 'I like this,' so you get the feeling out. We're both drawing, and we just kind of put it together and throw it out to all my guys in the art department and set decoration area, and make a world.

Basically we're not going to build very many sets, so what we're going to do is rebuild them in locations. And I found these power stations that no one has ever seen in Philadelphia.

We tried to put it together like a backlot so that Terry didn't have to move very far to shoot scenes. So we were in a power plant for two weeks, shooting a police station, a hospital, an isolation ward — in future and present — and that worked out pretty well for us. So we have sets that look like $10 million but for less than two.

It is really ambitious picture. Though all his movies are ambitious, this is very ambitious. He was really concerned about staying within a budget; we don't have a lot of money, and Terry's very conscious about that. He's always worried about the money.

What is your department's budget?

Less than 2 million. It's really hard. It's the same money I had on THE BODYGUARD. Terry and I both come from backgrounds that are effects-driven so we know how to cheat. And so we did a lot of that, I reused things a lot, Reused parts of sets over and over again, you can't tell what they are. The airport became a lab set. The counters at the airport were turned upside down and sideways and became the walls of the set. It looks fantastic and you have no idea, Terry was like, oh come on, just go do it. Okay, take me a little time to figure out how to do it! Well this will be great wall material. The airport we spent a lot of money on, because I had to build an airport, basically. You don't shoot at airports, and [they're] so uncontrollable that we decided to build within the shell of a convention center, which is really beautiful, but we had to do a lot of work on it. And I have a crew that I've worked with for a long time and they all know what to expect if they do a film for me anyway, and this one they've just gone 1.000 percent to get it done. It's a pretty beaten lot, my gang, they've worked really hard.

How do the set decorators work within your department?

My job is sort of overseeing everything. Crispian Sallis, who I brought in to decorate, is a terrific guy, and he has worked real hard. He's got a gang together of four really intense people that just worked on machines and science tables, the chairs, and also the things for the time machine, the chrysallis. So I would draw it up or an idea, and then Crispian would go and make something like that or improve it, and every time I'd turn around he made it better. Those guys would always just improve, improve, improve, and Terry would come in while we were working and Terry would have suggestions, so everything became like a collaborative effort in three dimensions. They're all sculptors in their own right, so what you see there is sculpture, it's real pretty. And Crispian then had meetings with Terry independently as well as with Terry and I, and I do a thing I call the Bible, where I break down every scene, have a photograph of each location, and a sketch of what that will be, and then we would work from that and list everything we wanted to do in the scene, and go through it and that's pretty much how we work, he worked really hard, he was a decorator on JFK, he has a wide range, and I hired Crispian based on the detail that he does.

Terry believes in doing a lot of stuff in-camera, too. He tries to do a lot of effects in-camera, which is you know the old way, it's still a really great way to work, so we try to cheat all the time. I've been using mirrors nonstop in this movie to make the sets look twice as big.

Have you constructed forced perspective sets as well?

Oh, yeah. This show I did probably five or six forced perspective, maybe even more. There's forced perspective in this set. This set is tiny, only 50 feet by 25, that why I have the top curving like that, so that it actually seems to be higher than it is. It's only 24 feet, I think, but it looks much higher than that, and you know Terry uses the really wide lenses, he's able to make things look even bigger.

Kent Houston [Terry's partner in Peerless Optical] told me, you have the hardest job in the world; you have to design a Terry Gilliam movie. [He said,] 'What you have to do is design it for yourself, and if it passes your approval and you be as hard on it as you can, then it will probably work with Terry.' But you have to keep going at it that way. So he's really a tough master that way, it's like having a teacher. Every drawing that I did I showed Terry and he signed off on it, he'd pour over it with me any changes we would talk about, so that he understood exactly where I was coming from.

On this picture I'm running ahead of him all the time. This is the first time in the whole movie that we've actually been on a location two days in a row together, because there were 127 sets. So you're shooting two sets a day, usually. ... This is one time that we didn't have to do that, though we have seven sets sitting there, with all the blue screen stuff upstairs, and we have reshoots over here, and we're setting up the snow and things, 3so we see each other in-between things. We talk, and then I'm off. He says just go do it. He's a wonderful guy but he's also a tough guy. You work really hard when you work with Terry Gilliam.

And Terry can also look at a huge set and know when one little thing is out of whack.

OOOOOOhhh, yes! It's really about that. He'll walk into something and say, 'You know, that molding is an inch off, I think.' Oh, God! I mean this enormous set and he zones in on it. No one would hardly even notice it, but Terry would. I might notice but think, 'Oh, it's going to be okay.' Noooooo!

Were there specific artists whom you looked at for inspiration?

We looked at deconstructivist architecture. We were sitting in our first meeting, and Terry had a Labbeus Woods book and I brought Joseph Sudek, and we wanted the sadness of this photographer Sudek and the architecture of Labbeus Woods — he's an artist that no one's ever built anything he's drawn, because it doesn't stand up. So I built it! And it doesn't make sense, but it works. So what we did is, we saw this chair and this ball. But the ball had no video on it, and I said this being an interrogation chamber — [let's put] all this video on the ball so that the scientists are actually there. Terry said, 'Yeah, well, what if there are only parts of them, not the whole person? And then it became what if you can't really see them — the ball's always in the way? All you can see is the video image of them, you can't really see the scientists.

And then Terry and I talked about, well how do they breathe, how do you get air down below? Well, there's gotta be some kind of recycling thing. So we did constant changes on this thing — you saw the two breathers in there, the raspy voiced breathers we call them, they're pumping in and out.

They look like iron lungs.

That kind of idea.

What are they exactly?

They're a mixture of airplane parts. We went to scrapyards and got airplane parts and made that. I had this idea it was circular, that it would recycle the air. And Terry was really, 'I don't want fans, no fans in the movie.' Ok, ok.

I saw this book called "High Concepts in Architecture." It had this weird piece of sculpture in it that was very small. And I said what happens if I make this big, cause it looked like a shrimp, which became the video shrimps that breathe as well. We made those up; they also fly in the air.

Terry said 'Make this Labbeus-looking,' because power plants are recta-linear. and he wanted everything to be broken up and have weird curves.

Did you build models?

Yeah, we built a model of [the Engineering Room]. We built a model of the power station in Philadelphia, of here and an airport set, those models were built. I like to work by sketching quickly, to get the ideas out, and the models come later. But it helped everyone understand it. We made a model of the battlefield from World War I.

Working with Terry is difficult, because you're always trying to do your best, knowing that you don't have very much money, and make it really terrific and really special like no one else has ever done.

Were there specific films whose looks you or Terry wanted to recreate — or avoid, such as BRAZIL?

Terry wanted to keep away from any other films. I never really remember him ever saying 'Let's look at that.' I know he didn't want to do BLADE RUNNER, he didn't want me to do ALIEN.

It's really hard not to do some of BRAZIL. [Really wide] lenses now cannot be used by anyone except, you know, BRAZIL. It's like Ridley Scott with fan blades. That neon and fan blades is Ridley Scott. So we were trying to find another whole language for these people to live with.

To make Labbeus-looking things is very hard, so we used the language of tin, and things we could find that were not real expensive and had really good metal workers, and we started just forming stuff.

All of the technology is quite low-tech — there is nothing sleek, no futuristic computers or lasers or anything like that.

The reason for that was, if the world stopped today, and you can only take things down below now, what could you find down there? These people put all this stuff together, and then had to kind of make up things, gerry-rig together, so the shrimps seem like they're hydraulic and steam, electrical output to help generate their own power. And they have a lot of video, but I think that, because they're archivists, this set is basically about being an archive, and they've collected everything they could, all the remnants, it's almost like the Dark Ages being repeated. This is like the Church coming in after the sacking of Rome, creating libraries. And that's what these guys are. Though they're a little bit strange about it. They have all the video tape, all these headlines, [and] they're trying to piece together things. They're not really good.

So in terms of lasers and all that stuff, I mean we could have gone that way but it's not as fun.

Another fun thing is that Terry gets ideas from everything. Both of us watched "48 Hours" one night, the "Hot Zone" episode. And we kept trying to figure out a way for [depicting] time travel — but then, it became caring more about being sterile, and in this dirty world down below how do you keep someone sterile? And then we took this Hot Zone idea which is when you get infected they put you in this kind of strange bag, so that became the impetus for the Chrysallis.

The scene read — the notorious Scene 50 — "Cole is slid into a steel tube." That was it. Terry said, 'You know what? We're going to blow them away in the first 10 minutes of this movie. But we've got to come back and make another fantastic set, we've got to have another piece where it's coming from, this world.'

What about the sealed chamber?

That's the air lock. Terry had always said 'I want it to be really clean, because you can't find any germs.' He wanted something that was kind of special and what we did was we started with that but we found this other machine in the power plant that we combined with it, there was an enormous matte, and so the thing that he goes into is actually looks like it's 100 feet high. It's a big composite shot. That was sort of the last refuge between the world of germs and the free zone, which is what they're in underground. No one with the disease is underground, and they needed something like a chamber to go into, so that's more of a slick, high tech-looking thing, but I put in older, like gas powered stuff and some nozzles and dials that look more like hydraulic or air pressure.

Where were the surface shots done?

All in Philadelphia. The way that worked was Terry and I walked the streets at night and looked around, and during the day looked around, looking for all kinds of things that looked haunted or sad. The city empty was sad. And I took a bunch of cars out and had them sandblasted so that they went all real rusty, and put chemicals on them and they rusted in two days and ate away. So they became cars that had been left for 30 years and all the rubber was gone, and then trees were growing out of the streets and vines were growing on things. These animals were the only things on the top of the planet. And we wanted snow so it had this pretty quality to it, it's like the virgin snow when he comes up above ground.

But he goes on a big journey before he gets there, to get out, he goes through sewers, a tiny chamber, all kinds of different compartments. My whole idea for this movie was Cole is sort of a rat in a maze — not necessarily a rat because that's not what he is, but he is in a maze, and he's gotta get out, and he's taking wrong turns. Or he's sent there by scientists and hits a blank wall, he comes zooming back and he's in being interrogated again.

We wanted to keep the audience off-balance so that the story's not really complete. Also an idea that I came up with, is to take certain pieces from each set into the next set, so things follow through. What I did with scenery, with scenic materials, is that if Cole is in an isolation cell in the future, which looks like the hole of a ship, and there's all these cages, that same material is used in the holding cell in 1990, but everything around it is totally different because it's our world.

So it will look as if the future scenes are extrapolations of the present-day scenes.

Yeah, you can't quite tell what is the same. Actors will appear and reappear and they'll do double takes, and go, Oh there must be something wrong with them. Terry doesn't want to give it away too early, he wants people to think [Cole's] insane. The script is so well written, it's a wonderful script and Terry I think really just went into the script and really worked at it. And I know that Terry is really interested in the actors more and more now. I mean, he really likes to work with actors. You know the visuals always sort of come to him to his films, and he's really working with actors more now — I mean that's what he's always talking to me about.

Would you discuss your training?

I have a Master of Fine Arts in Design from NYU. Then I went to Oxford, and I have a teaching fellowship there.

I started working actually in rock and roll, and as an assistant to a lot of Broadway and opera, a lot of opera. I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, the West End, the Old Vic. I was also working on films as an assistant and worked my way up. I got a big break when I did DANCES WITH WOLVES, and that nomination gave me a lot of other work, and then I tried to go back to the smaller stuff that I like to do. And I do commercials because you work with a variety of directors and try things, and Terry was one of the directors that I worked with.

What was the Nike commercial you did with Terry?

It's a baseball thing, it's very funny. You see them all singing and dancing, kind of like GUYS AND DOLLS, DAMN YANKEES. We did it very '40s, it was really fun, it was really fun to work with him on it.

I've been working in a lot of different mediums, from theatre and film and I really like film because it lasts, it's always there, and it means something. And this will mean something.


Since TWELVE MONKEYS Beecroft has teamed up with David Fincher on THE GAME. He also designed MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE and MR. BROOKS.

For Related Articles on TWELVE MONKEYS by David Morgan:

  • TWELVE MONKEYS On Location — Production Story (Sight & Sound Magazine, January 1996)

  • Interview With Editor Mick Audsley

  • Interview With Producer Charles Roven

  • Interview With Terry Gilliam, March 1996 — Wide-ranging discourse on the fallout of MONKEYS, reminiscences on JABBERWOCKY and TIME BANDITS, and why he won't direct a STAR WARS film

    copyright 1995, 2009 by David Morgan
    All rights reserved.