Production designer Robin Standefer and art director Stephen Alesch design the sets for Ben Stiller's new film, Zoolander.
Raul Barreneche -- Interior Design, 10/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
There's not much in the recently released film Zoolander to take seriously. Produced, directed by, and starring comic actor Ben Stiller, the film is an outlandish satirical send-up of the fashion industry. The comedy follows the adventures of Stiller's purse-lipped protagonist, Derek Zoolander, "the world's most famous and empty-headed male model," as he discovers "the horrifying secret behind why there are no male models who live past the age of 30." Derek and his bohemian surfer/model sidekick, Hansel, amble through an endlessly glamorous world of photo shoots, fashion shows, and nightclubs, while fighting the evil (not to mention campy) forces of the diabolical fashion designer Mugatu.
Despite the film's in-your-face comedic plot, the dozens of sets in which the on-screen antics take place are far from silly. Production designer Robin Standefer and art director Stephen Alesch designed the sets—which include the office of a leisure-suited modeling agent, Hansel's funky loft, a supersleek day spa, and an ultrahip nightclub—as if they were creating interiors for the real world.
As Standefer explains, "We didn't want the environment of the film to have a comic unreality. The sets are substantial and very 'real.' I think a lot of production design is done entirely for the camera. But I always design everything as if I were building it for real." Standefer's screen credits include last year's Caveman's Valentine and 1998's Practical Magic, for which she and Alesch designed an entire Victorian manse for the film's family of witches. "I think about who would use the space and what they would do there. The characters in the film become the 'clients.'"
Standefer and Alesch began the design process on Zoolander as they always do, by reading the script and reviewing visual concepts with the director, then researching images of architecture, fashion, film, art, interior design, and even science. They later sketch out their visions and build models of their proposed sets to present to the director. "Sometimes all this has to happen in three weeks, while an architect might have three years to design something," says Standefer. Once the design is approved, a team of draftspeople—many of them trained as architects and designers—sets to work to produce a full package of construction documents for each set. A single movie's worth of sets might require hundreds of drawings. The design phase can last anywhere from six to 16 weeks; construction can take from eight to 20 weeks. But shooting lasts only a few days per set—and the final scene on screen may last just a few minutes, or end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. Zoolander was on an especially compressed schedule: It was just under 14 months from the time Standefer and Alesch were hired last August to the film's release.
Time may be tight, but budgets usually aren't. Depending on the level of detail, building the average set costs between $200 and $300 per sq. ft., according to Standefer. "My biggest disappointment is that when I do 'real' projects, I don't have the same kind of budgets," she laments, referring to the design projects she and Alesch undertake when they're not on the set. Standefer, trained as a painter, and Alesch, soon to be a licensed architect, also have their own New York interior and furniture design firm named Roman & Williams, after their grandfathers.
Stiller, whom Standefer credits with a very sophisticated eye, wanted every set in Zoolander to be extremely stylish and fashionable, albeit in an ironic way. The designers responded with a range of settings. Perhaps the most architectural set is the sleek, minimalist day spa, which features silvery sheets of aluminum and stainless steel, milk glass, and concealed fluorescent lights. Standefer looked to a range of sources for inspiration: the buildings of Jean Nouvel and Peter Zumthor, early European modernism, submarine interiors, and even ice cubes. She designed a chrome-legged massage table with a clear nod to Mies van der Rohe's iconic leather daybed. Her design for a trendy nightclub, erected on a sound stage, draws on the light installations of James Turrell.
Fluorescent tubes, concealed between walls and ceilings finished in highly reflective blue and magenta enamel paint, cast a soft, luminous glow that reflects throughout the space, creating a hall-of-mirrors effect.
Their design for the on-screen office of the schmaltzy agent Maury Ballstein (played by Jerry Stiller) of Balls Models turns to a different page of modernist design: Sunset magazine circa 1965. Standefer used existing wood shelving in the shell of the former downtown Barneys department store in New York and put up walnut paneling and chunky wood-faced columns. The furnishings are heavy on leather and chrome, the colors predominantly orange and brown. Hansel's loft in the film was fashioned from an empty warehouse in Brooklyn and filled with a mix of earthy, ethnic elements—African stools and rugs, Indian lanterns, bronze buddhas, Noguchi lamps—as well as images of surfer and skateboard culture. Standefer and Alesch designed the wooden bed after the platforms of Japanese teahouses, and blew up a collaged image of an Indian deity onto the enormous skate ramp that dominates the loft.
Though Zoolander's sets run through a gamut of styles, they share a visual intensity and attention to realism that makes them believable environments, even though they grace the screen for just a few fleeting moments. That's because for Standefer and Alesch, designing the backdrops to even the silliest of comedies is no laughing matter.