Lean on Pete production designer Ryan Warren Smith discusses how he created rich, detailed environments that subtly reveal character. This is the third feature in our Special Issue on Lean on Pete.
Lean on Pete is not a film with sets that scream for attention — but as the story of 15-year-old Charley’s (Charlie Plummer) search for home, the environments he inhabits are vital. Production designer Ryan Warren Smith creates spaces that allow Charley a certain degree of comfort, while never letting him settle completely. As he traverses the American landscape, meeting various people who offer him temporary support but can’t be the permanent parental figure he yearns for, we feel Charley’s despair in the drabness of his surroundings. But there’s just enough vibrancy for us to share his glimmer of hope, too.
I talked to Smith about designing spaces that reflect where Charley is in his journey, designing colour schemes that reveal and enrich character, and using director Andrew Haigh’s thoroughly mapped out blocking as a roadmap for location scouting.
Seventh Row (7R): How did you come on board the project?
Ryan Warren Smith (RWS): I worked on another Willy Vlautin adaptation called The Motel Life. I became friends with him, so I knew that this project was happening. I just loved the book. It’s one of my top five favourite books. I really, really wanted to work on it. When Andrew was coming to research the film in Portland, Willy invited us both over for dinner. We enjoyed each others’ company — and then I didn’t hear about it for another four years.
Typically, I get a script, and it’s something I’m not familiar with. With this one, I knew the material so well and knew the writer so well and had had many long, drunken conversations with him about the story and characters. I had a lot of insight going in.
7R: What initial conversations did you have with Andrew?
RWS: What I typically do, and did on this one, is come up with a visual look book of key locations and overall tones and colours for the film. I went around to the real places that are in the book, took photographs of my own, and sent that along. Before I [talked with] Andrew officially, I put that together and got that to him so he could see where I was coming from.
7R: The colours are quite muted and earthy.
RWS: That’s kind of my overall aesthetic. In stories like this, I feel as if bright colours are a bit distracting. Especially in this world — the underbelly of horse racing — the brightest thing I would want in any of these places would be a neon here or there. Everything else we wanted to be really toned down. We did have colours, but they were faded colours that had lost their lustre over time.
Production design is vital to building character and creating tone. Maggie’s Plan director Rebecca Miller talked to us about utilising slightly surreal sets to capture the tone of a screwball comedy. Crimson Peak also has more exuberant sets, this time to pay homage to gothic horror. Una used more naturalistic sets, but even these worked as a sort of emotional landscape for the two main characters, designed to facilitate and reflect their conflict with one another.