Through his work as a production designer, Michael Stevantoni combines both artistry and practicality to tell a story. He is responsible for the look and composition of everything physical in a scene. Sometimes making embellishments to an existing location to incorporate the personalities of the characters or the tone of the film and sometimes creating a whole new world. No matter the method, it takes a distinctive eye to know how to encapsulate so much of the story into the small details, and it is those details that truly transport audiences out of their theatre seats and into the world of the movie.
“Working as a production designer you are always tasked with creating different worlds and interpreting them through different styles. This means you are always being invited into different worlds, you get to see their back room and you have the privilege of getting to understand their inner workings. You then get to reinterpret this knowledge in a style suited to that of your project, it can sometimes be very expressive and exaggerated or you can work toward a natural looking result, whatever suits the tone,” he said.
Also an award-winning director, Stevantoni was drawn to production design while directing his feature film Salton Sea. He found while overseeing this project that was so close to his heart, he was most concerned with the production design. He saw how the decisions made by that department would not only embellish the world of the film, but also become characters themselves.
“I’ve always been drawn to how film can transport an audience to different parts of the world and to other people’s experiences. I think it builds empathy and helps us relate to each other’s struggles and shared goals,” he said.
Since that time, Stevantoni has become an in-demand production designer himself, working on popular music videos like “Bossa No Sé” by Cuco featuring Jean Carter, which has over 6 million views on YouTube, and “Blank Marquee” by Yuna featuring G-Eazy, which has over 2 million. His most recent endeavor as a production designer, however, is one that truly excites him, as it gave him a chance to work with some of the actors that inspired him to become a filmmaker in the first place. The upcoming crime drama Heirloom stars many icons, including the original Wonder Woman Lynda Carter, Cheers’ Shelley Long, and Luke Wilson.
“Getting to production design a feature like this that includes many actors I watched growing up is the type of opportunity you always hope for. Getting to design homes for icons such as Lynda Carter or Shelley Long was an exciting but daunting task. Shelley’s brown and earthy trailer park home is a great contrast to the affluent and plant filled home for Lynda, but both needed to feel welcoming and intimate in their own way,” he said.
Heirlooms tells the story of Buck Enderly, whose life hasn’t quite worked out the way he planned. He’s a part-time house cleaner looking at fifty and living in a trailer with his mother, whom he must care for along with her prized tomato garden, after she suffers a debilitating injury. When Buck takes on an eccentric new client, he gets roped into a side job locating her estranged son. With the help of Becky, his quirky twenty-something neighbor, Buck tracks down the troubled young man. But then in another twist of fate, he finds himself an accomplice to a violent crime. Now Buck must hide the truth from his family, including his younger brother – a local police officer.
Coming onto the project at the last minute, Stevantoni only had a short time to familiarize himself with the project and develop a design for the first sets that needed to be ready. He completed the main mobile home location just in time despite the difficult time crunch, and Stevantoni and his team made sure that they injected the character’s personality into every corner of the space and created an ideal environment for the story to unfold.
“The project was an incredible fit for my favorite style of design which incorporates a lot of elements of Americana and kitsch, as well as striving to make it feel lived in and personal to the characters. I was inspired by the photography of Stephen Shore and the rustic design of films like Paris, Texas and No Country For Old Men,” he described.
Heirlooms is in the final stages of post-production and will be arriving on the festival circuit in early 2020 before a wider release later in the year. It is one of two features coming out this year that Stevantoni put his design touch on, the other being Pop Verve, a film about house music in Los Angeles. Be sure to keep an eye out for both of these highly-anticipated films.