Production designer Alex McDowell has one strict rule: Don’t repeat the same genre. His eclectic work history ranges from the graphic novel adaptation Watchmen, to the animated children’s film Bee Movie to the futuristic world of Minority Report, proving his rule has served him well. McDowell is also an advisory board member for The Exchange and as you can read below, he is not shy about expressing his love for science and science consulting. Plus, find out what Minority Report science fascinated him the most and what suggestion was cut for the sake of the story.
Tell us about your background. How did you start working in the film industry?
I had no intention of working in film. I was trained as a painter, went to art school and, really, my career has been a series of accidents. The accident that got me into film was that I started designing record sleeves for my friends who were in bands. I was working with Iggy Pop, doing a campaign for him and he asked if we knew anyone who did music videos. We said “Oh, we can do music videos.” But I ended up, without really knowing what the job of production designer was, I ended up becoming a designer on the first video I did. We launched into music videos and eventually I started making the migration to film. So, I kind of fell sideways into it all.
You’ve worked on some really amazing movies in several different genres. Does switching from one genre to the next keep you on your toes?
I’ve found that, in some ways the way I got into film, through music videos and through this accidental process, meant that I was sort of trained to be badly behaved. I had been bred to not pay a great deal of attention to the rules – and the rule I’ve set myself has been to not try to repeat the same genre twice if possible. I get easily bored and film is the one medium I’ve found that keeps me on the edge of my seat, keeps me at risk, keeps me from getting bored – so I do what I can to stimulate that state of rest and chaos. So when I go into an interview for a film of a genre, or a type, or a director I have not worked with before, we tend to have a good rapport because I’m very enthusiastic to be working in any new space.
What are the benefits of science consulting for filmmaking? Are there benefits to the science consultants?
The dialogue between science and entertainment works both ways. There’s a great deal of interest from my side, as someone working in entertainment media, in the stimulation that science provides. I’m very interested in real world solutions to narrative problems. I’m not interested in making it up. I like the idea that we have to connect to the human experience to be able to tell good stories and that has a great deal to do with knowing about the human experience.
I think entertainment provides science with this stimulation in exchange – that we can ask questions that would not be part of the everyday questions that science might agenda and we can ask “leap of faith” questions. I think it is a very vibrant exchange and very necessary.
You worked with a think tank of scientists for the futuristic film Minority Report and with physics professor Jim Kakalios for Watchmen. What’s been your experience with science consulting?
The scientists that I’ve worked with on and since Minority Report have always been incredibly generous and interested and giving of their great intelligence to the projects. I personally believe that the art–science exchange is a much closer dialogue than people might imagine. I always find that there seems to be a great deal of surprise on both sides when you see how easy it is to create a dialogue between the art community and the science community. Because I think we all kind of think the same way, in fact.
Specifically for Minority Report, where there was no script in the initial stages, how did science consulting shape the story?
Because there was no script, our agreement with Steven Spielberg was that we would build a world that would allow the story to unfold. We’d build the world based on the story logic that we knew: it was Washington, DC, 50 years in the future, which allowed for a new kind of police, allowed for the premise that precognition exists, and this scientific experiment was taking place and taking hold in a society you could actual imagine. That sort of story logic has to become the underpinning of all the logic.
What science concepts or technology did you find most compelling in Minority Report?
I was most interested in the precogs’ condition. The quantum physics that allowed for these paired events to exist in time and space that would allow you to imagine that precognition could occur. The floating in milky fluid came directly from physics, from Neil Gershenfeld saying photons are slowed down in a translucent liquid and so they’d be captured in this milk. The surface of the precogs’ chamber was designed as a kind of sound booth for the mind, so that it had insulation in the surfacing that allowed you to imagine the data the precogs were receiving were being filtered through this womb bubble.
We spent a lot of time thinking about how that small environment, which was the core of the story, could function and the architecture followed from it and the story followed directly from it. It’s the most unbelievable component of the story, that these three mutants are driving a police department, and so to me that’s where the most attention had to be paid in terms of creating a narrative logic that allowed the audience to suspend their disbelief. We need the audience to say, “Okay, that makes sense. I understand that this is in the future. I can see there’s enough logic going on here that I can believe in this core idea and it doesn’t take me out of my safety zone.”
Were there certain technologies or sciences that were suggested by the consultants that were not used in the film?
I would say we rejected some things that were brought to the table. The urban planning consultants said very strongly that the future would be lateral. There was a trend toward building communities that were traditional and based on houses with porches, green space. It was a setting compelling to storytelling but the vertical transport between the top and the bottom was actually a more compelling space for storytelling than if it was out in the suburbs and walking down green streets. That’s something I think will always happen during the exchange. At some point you’ll say “That may be good science but it doesn’t support our story.”
That’s valid. Story trumps science.
That’s it exactly. No storyteller is going to go into a scientist’s lab and say “Your experiment doesn’t look cool enough.” You take on board each others’ set of conditions. I’ve found there’s a fantastic appeal for scientists to come into the narrative-media space and let go of some of the rules and do the “what if” or “why not.” I think that’s the strongest drive of my craft, is to say “Why not?” That sort of questioning is the way into problem-solving. Great science comes out of that challenge, and so does great storytelling.
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