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SPOTLIGHT

PATRICE VERMETTE: PRODUCTION DESIGNER  

In terms of cinema, you’ve worked on some legendary films in the Quebec cannon – C.R.A.Z.Y, Enemy, Sicario and Arrival to name a few. What is the process for creating these striking visual worlds and how do you find inspiration?

I always take the same approach, more or less. After I read the script for the first time, I instinctively start collecting images and making sketches. It’s sort of my scrapbooking phase. I sort them according to where the action takes place: images of textures, light, places, colours, art installations—everything that comes to me and that was influenced and inspired by that first read‑through. I then move into an intellectualization phase. I try to get at the symbolism to create visual metaphors to support the scenes and character development. These two steps come fairly easily and naturally. I build mood boards, which help me communicate and dialogue with the director, cinematographer, location managers and, of course, producers. It’s the critical phase of my approach, and it’s what determines what comes next. After that, everyone can build in the same direction. I really get the impression that the sets, just like the cinematography, music, costumes, etc., exist to support the story, not to monopolize it; it’s important to be invisible and remain at the service of the film. It’s all a question of modulation—a bit like a bass line. 

What are some tips you would give other production designers for doing a great job? 

 In short, don’t change who you are. It seems silly, but you have to be honest in your approach. That’s the best support you can give to the director. That’s what we’re there for. Our opinion is a tool, so never second guess yourself in order to please others. That’s the worst mistake you can make. Or just don’t take the job. I couldn’t give the best of myself if I didn’t 100% believe in the project. The other tip I could give is to be aware of your strengths, but especially your weaknesses, and surround yourself with the best people possible who will be able to compensate for them.

What is your typical day like on set?

A typical day on set is relatively simple for me if everything has been well prepared. In theory, there shouldn’t be any surprises for anyone. So, I present the sets with my set designer and my art director, and we explain the latest details to the team. We then have to head out to prepare for the coming days and iron out any problems so that everything runs smoothly for the technical team on the next shooting days. In fact, the art and set design teams very often work in advance of the shooting team. 

How did you become a production designer? What steps did you take to get to where you are?

When I was a student at Concordia University, I dreamed of writing music for films and to make albums. I kind of missed out on my career choice… But actually, I find it’s very similar. You have to create moods and try to understand the deeper meaning of scenes to give them their own flavour. I started learning through video clips, short films and ads… Lots of ads… Way too many ads… It was through those experiences that I met the amazing people and directors with whom I’ve had the immense pleasure and chance to develop affinities and especially to share dreams. What I take away from this is that through clips, you learn from your mistakes and also to develop your own style. Ads teach you precision, the art of selling (which is no small feat) and to perfect a certain signature. Short films get you to tell true stories and apply what you’re learned.

How has the DGC helped in your career as a Production Designer?

The DGC helped me broaden my experience once I entered the world of feature films. The DGC is a vital association for further advancing our profession, for us and for generations to come. As other associations have already started to do, it is critical that the DGC be able to represent production designers beyond feature films. 

Can you talk about your involvement in the DGC Awards and the inaugural DGC Discovery Award?

I’ve always been interested in Canadian film in general. In Quebec, we are extremely lucky to have our own language and, by the same token, we have developed our own “star system.” This has enabled us to showcase our identity and that of our creators.On the other hand, I really get the impression that it’s a huge struggle in English Canada. There’s so much talent, but that talent has a tough time surfacing because it seems to get drowned out by the US film industry, which has much greater financial means for promotion. I find that sad. We need to work together to find solutions to bring more visibility to Canadian talent.We are lucky to have the opportunity to create within a fully subsidized system that isn’t based on box-office success. That’s huge; we have to continue to use this leverage to develop our own identity—a strong signature. The films submitted for the DGC Discovery Award were simply confirmation of the immense diversity and promising future of Canadian talent.

What has been your favourite project to date and why? 

Honestly, they’re all different. I put 110% into all of my projects, and they’ve all brought me something new. I grew through each and every one of them.It’s like a chain: every link is important. Without Les mots magiques, there would be no C.R.A.Z.Y. That film gave us wings and the desire to go further. Without that film, there would be no opportunity to goof around in England on The Young Victoria. Without that film, there would be no Oscar nomination. Enemy is an artistic meeting and a liberated approach. A buddy trip. Without Enemy and The Young Victoria, there is no Prisoners, and so on. 1981 and 1987 are films that did me enormous good. Arrival was an extraordinary and deeply personal experience last year.There is cinema, but across the films, there are the encounters, the friendships and the sharing between people with the same passion. That is the most beautiful thing about this profession. The energy of all these people heading in the same direction. It’s not a profession, it’s a calling.

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Patrice Vermette is a Canadian Production Designer/Art Director who has won numerous awards including the Genie Award for Best Achievement in Art Direction/Production Design and a Jutra Award for the Best Art Direction for his work on C.R.A.Z.Y. His other work includes 1981, La Cité, Café de Flore, Enemy, Sicaro and most recently Arrival. Vermette was nominated for an Academy Award in the category of Best Art Direction for his work on the film The Young Victoria.

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