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Out of This World

The Designer Behind 'Lemony Snicket'

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 18, 2004; Page C01

LOS ANGELES -- The critics like the new film about the perilous pursuits of the Baudelaire orphans in "Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events." But they love the sets -- the otherworldly concoction that feels like the designers put Charles Dickens and Edward Gorey and Edvard Munch in a blender and punched "puree."

Shot on 10 soundstages on the Paramount lot here and at a retired aerospace factory in nearby Downey (where Boeing made space shuttles and where the filmmakers built the largest indoor water tank in North America), the environment created for "Lemony Snicket" is entirely the handmade creation of Hollywood: Not a scene was filmed outdoors or on location.

"Lemony Snicket" is a showcase for Hollywood set design. (Paramount)

Wha-huh? Watching the film, that seems impossible. There are cornfields and lakes and beaches. But it was all indoors, everything: The burned-down Baudelaire mansion, Briny Beach, Curdle Cave, Count Olaf's vain lair, Uncle Monty's reptile romper rooms, Lake Lachrymose, Aunt Josephine's tilt-a-whirl cottage, Damocles Dock, Captain Sham's fishing village, the near-fatal railroad crossing in the cornfield beside the Last Chance Superette -- it is all wonderfully fake.

This is Hollywood set design at its most ambitious. Months ago, as principal photography on the $125 million project was finishing, the mastermind beyond the look, production designer Rick Heinrichs, walked a visiting reporter around the sets.

Standing in the center of the converted and cavernous aerospace assembly room, we look out onto a cornfield: The withered stalks, the train tracks, the Superette are normal, human-scale. But with each step away from the center of the set, the corn, the telephone lines, the fence posts, the train tracks all decrease in size, until at the edge of the set, you stand like a giant, towering above inches-high telephone poles.

It is a funhouse illusion, of course, of forced perspective -- a three-dimensional trick similar to what a painter does to create the impression of space and distance on a canvas. Walking around the space feels druggy and off-balance and the illusion is further enhanced by the fact that the set is ringed with giant curtains of billowy silk, which absorb and diffuse the light. You have to keep looking straight up -- at the ceiling and its banks of lights -- to keep from toppling over.

"The idea," says Heinrichs, who won an Oscar in 2000 for his production design for Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow," "is you create a world, with all the details, and you let the director walk into it, and use it just as if he were someplace real -- but of course, in this movie, unreal -- and then the director and the actors can play in it, work in it, and maybe they even forget they are in an old factory."

Imagineering the look for the movie began nine months before the photography began, when Heinrichs and his art designers and set dressers read the first three "Lemony Snicket" books (upon which the movie is based) in the popular series penned by the 34-year-old San Francisco novelist better known to the IRS as Daniel Handler.

The stories are rich in descriptive detail and include a few illustrations by New York artist Brett Helquist, who drew the characters with kind of arch-Victorian sensibility.

The novels, though, are not set in a specific time. Do they take place today? Or a hundred years ago? You're never quite sure: Everything is mixed up -- like the cool cars. The dim-bulb, rotund banker/guardian of the Baudelaire orphans, Mr. Poe, drives the insectoid Soviet-era Czech Tatra, tricked out with a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The vainglorious failed actor Count Olaf has a 1961 Chrysler Imperial limo, with six eye-shaped mirrors, and a car phone that is actually a clunky black handset with a spirally cord.

To create the sets, Heinrichs began researching images -- from architectural books, photographers, artists, pieces of furniture, old cars, paintings, movie stills -- that felt to him like the books.

"We have this weird period issue. I think the illustrator [Helquist] really nailed it, so we were looking for a feel that was pseudo-Edwardian, the starched collars, the formalism, but something we began to call Dickens New England," Heinrichs says. "We wanted it to look theatrical. But not too theatrical, because the audience would have had to suspend too much belief for that. You couldn't go Fellini. But we felt like we would succeed if the audience is never quite sure what they're looking at."

In a studio at Paramount, the team erected "inspiration boards," free-standing cork bulletin boards, each representing a scene (there are more than 70 sets for the movie). Upon each board they would tack a jumble of research pictures that conveyed the vibe they were searching for: morose, inventive, dark, fantabulous.

Tacked to the inspiration boards, for example, are the surreal photogravures of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison, contemporary black-and-white creations that show men dressed in black suits and white starched shirts in fallow fields, creating inventions out of twigs.

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