Interview – Production Designer François Audouy talks about The Wolverine

With Hugh Jackman’s latest X-Men outing set to open in cinemas this week, we chat with production designer Francois Audouy about how he created the distinctive look of The Wolverine, filming on the streets of Tokyo and remote Japanese fishing villages, designing the spectacular sets and working with director James Mangold…

Darker than ever before, Logan/Wolverine has lost his connection to the world at the start of James Mangold’s compelling film, which is more film noir than classic comic book movie. A man unmoored, deeply troubled, angry and in crisis, Logan, played once again by Oscar nominated actor Hugh Jackman, has lost everyone he has ever loved and no longer has a purpose or reason to live. Summoned to Tokyo by Master Yashida, an influential Japanese businessman, he is immediately involved in the complex web of intrigue surrounding the powerful family.

“It’s a journey picture in which we are taking Wolverine out of his turf to another country and that changes the tone and allows the film to have a different vibe,” says James Mangold. “Wolverine is someone who is looking for a way out, he wants to die but is indestructible. What a wonderful and interesting contradiction. The change of location in the film gives us permission to go darker. This is man who ends up on the run. There are several different forces and factions all after different things and they all threaten the things that Logan cares about. People are lying to him. Who do you trust and who is telling the truth?”

Helping James Mangold to create his cinematic vision was gifted production designer François Audouy. “I had to figure out the world of this story and how to use the setting of the film to relate the emotions of the narrative so that the audience would feel something real,” says Audouy. “I worked very closely with Jim Mangold in his office in Santa Monica for a few months before we started filming. I had to deal with a complicated equation: how to get the film done using the resources we had to the best effect. I used color, texture and style to create feeling and atmosphere. Part of the challenge was that we had distant Japanese locations and locations in Sydney. I had a totally independent crew in Japan and a separate crew in Australia. Working with these two very different cultures and settings at the same time was very challenging.”

François Audouy was born in the south of France and raised in California. At 20 years old he began to learn the craft of art direction by apprenticeships with production designer Bo Welch (Men in Black) and then Alex McDowell (Minority Report). He worked as an illustrator and graphic designer, eventually moving into art direction on films including Green Lantern, Watchmen, Transformers, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Terminal and Spider-Man. He began working with progressive film design tools and was one of the first all-digital concept designers working with both digital and traditional artists. He recently designed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Audouy sat down for the following interview about his work as The Wolverine’s production designer…

Q: What attracted you initially to The Wolverine?

A: “I was excited when I found out that the story was set almost entirely in Japan. It has been a dream of mine to work on a Japanese themed film. It’s such an endlessly fascinating country, culturally, architecturally and historically and I really wanted to find out more about it. Japan was isolated for hundreds and hundreds of years until the 19th Century and as a result the culture has been protected and it is still pure. It hasn’t been diluted by invasions and the influences of other countries. That is because it is an island that’s fairly remote and difficult to get to, 100 miles off the coast of China.”

Q: What factors did you have to consider for the design of this film?

A: The Wolverine is a very different kind of superhero film.  It’s unique because it’s a stand-alone story. It’s not relying on audiences having seen the previous Wolverine film (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) or any of the other X-Men films. This is Wolverine’s story. It doesn’t have flying jets or blue haired mutants or anything like that, it’s really grounded in reality and it has themes that you can relate to that are actually deep. We find Wolverine living like an animal up in the mountains, the Canadian Rockies and we feel that he’s almost reached the final chapter in his life. He is at a crossroads and a vulnerable place because he’s immortal and he’s lost friends and lovers and he’s questioning his existence. There is an interesting undercurrent.”

Q:  How did you collaborate with James Mangold?

A:  “It was the first time I had worked with Jim and he has a very specific way of working that I really enjoyed. Everything revolves around the story and the actors. One of the biggest things I learned was to pay a lot of attention to the choreography of the narrative, in other words, how the camera is following actors and revealing actors within the setting. Jim has a unique way of moving the camera, which I would think about a lot when designing the sets in order to give him interesting opportunities in terms of composition. I really thought about how the camera could reveal the characters. For example Jim tends to favor diagonal cross-angles. He’s always looking for dynamic compositions and depth as opposed to more symmetrical composition. It makes the scenes more energized.”

Q:  There are some highly impressive sets in the film. Can you talk about building the Yashida compound where this powerful Japanese family live?

A: “The Yashida family compound is the biggest set in the film which we ended up constructing on a stage set in Sydney. The Yashida family is very private and powerful. The family members live in a rarified world that you don’t usually get to glimpse. So it was difficult to do research about how this kind of family actually live.”

Q: So what level of research were you able to do?

A:  “The Japanese are incredibly private people by nature so I ended up going to bookshops in Tokyo. I found one book about a modern state guest house in Kyoto and it was a really great moment when I found it because it gave me huge inspiration for the style of this compound we were creating in the film, which is a mix of modern and traditional architecture.”

Q:  Can you explain a little more about the specifics of the Yashida compound?

A:  “As a production designer I get to become a kind of expert in certain areas and I had immersed myself in Japanese architecture. What is really fascinating is that it’s still based on traditional rules and techniques. In Japan they have their own unit of measure called shakkan-ho that’s used exclusively in building and architecture. It is unique to Japan. Everything within Japanese buildings is based on a grid.  In other words in Japanese rooms, both traditional and modern, even the floorboards are of certain widths and the doors are certain sizes. If you get anything wrong it just doesn’t look right. So we did a lot of research to make sure that all our architecture was built according to this very formal grid. Also the materials that are used in Japanese architecture are standardized and based on locally sourced materials like teak, Japanese maple and granite. The Japanese are forward thinking in that way. We paid a lot of attention to materials in order to recreate an authentic look.  Everything is very clean and refined. We ended up making most of the set dressing from scratch. We built a lot of our own lamps, lanterns, couches, chairs and tables. One of things that makes The Wolverine unique is that it provides peeks and insights into a world that you normally wouldn’t have access to and wouldn’t see even if you were in Japan.”

Q:  How did you convey the affluence of this super-wealthy family?

A: “A lot of the rooms had beautiful hand painted screens on the walls.  Several of them had references to the historical lineage of the Yashida clan going back generations and there’s even an allusion to that in the dialogue in the film.  One thing that I do as a designer is to create a back-story for all the characters, which isn’t included in the script. Ideally you want to hint to the audience about what happened before the movie. In the film Logan shows up at the Yashida compound. He sits in the foyer to take off his shoes and glances over at a handmade coffee table book.  It is the history of the Yashida Corporation. We actually made an entire book that foreshadows a few moments in the film. Also, when we were making this book we had to create an entire history for the family and for the corporation and ask ourselves: when was this corporation founded? What products does it make? How does it make its billions? Then we also created the strange inter-family dynamics. Each person has rooms in the compound. Jim was very interested in the eye-lines at play across the compound, the diagonal views of these family members looking across at each other. Jim was intrigued by this complicated family dynamic that creates an odd suspense in our film. Some of the inspiration for that came from Chinatown.”

Q:  I believe you looked at some other old films for inspiration in terms of the style of the film?

A:  “Absolutely!  Working with Jim Mangold you have homework to do (laughs) and you watch a lot of classic movies, which is great. Jim was inspired by Clint Eastwood films like The Outlaw Josey Wales and Dirty Harry. In The Wolverine Logan is very much a man with no name.  He comes into town western style.  He doesn’t say much and when he does say something it carries great weight. Those Eastwood films have got a great vibe to them. They’re evocative and that western style works perfectly for the kind of narrative we wanted for The Wolverine. Also I watched Wong Kar-Wai films and Yasujiro Ozu’s Floating Weeds. I was not trying to imitate any of these films but I wanted to kind of create a world that would keep surprising the audience.  What’s also interesting is that The Wolverine is a road movie. It goes through a variety of settings so that each chapter is different from the previous one. Logan and Mariko go on the run and there are stops along their journey.”

Q: What are some of those stages in the journey?

A: “They hop on a bullet train and so we actually built a bullet train. They get off the train and they’re in a city inspired by Osaka.  So I had to create a city that was very different from Tokyo, more textured and a little bit more dangerous. Logan and Mariko spend the night in a ‘love hotel’ because Logan is wounded and tired. So we created a seedy and very surprising love hotel. Love hotels are unique to Japanese culture, designed specifically for couples to be intimate.  They’re an accepted part of Japanese society. There isn’t room for intimacy in many apartments in Tokyo and other cities so often couples will go to a love hotel on Saturday night. That was an interesting aspect of the design because you don’t see those hotels in America or anywhere else.”

Q: You are known for your work in concept illustration. Can you explain that and how it relates to The Wolverine?

A:  “My background is in concept illustration and I’ve become known for digital illustration and using 2D and 3D programs to communicate settings in a realistic fashion. We use a lot of digital design software in the art department because it’s efficient and you can build on it, but also because it creates an immersive design process that involves the director, the DP (director of photography) and the visual effects supervisor, before we make the film. In other words, we can interact with 3D models and look at location photos that have been manipulated to show what we’re going to do during filming. That means we can really plan for the shoots in a very clear and immersive way. It also means we can explore new ideas before arriving on set, as if we’re already on set. Jim was very open to the use of 3D models and all the technology that we had at our disposal.”

Q: What was the most memorable set you built for the film?

A: “Without spoiling the story, in the original script one key scene was going to be set in a cave beneath an ancient Japanese fortress. As our work on the film developed and the style of the film changed, I convinced Jim to change that setting to the Yashida lab, a secret research and development lab for the Yashida Corporation up in the mountains above a Japanese ice village that is covered in snow. The process of designing a film is actually quite organic and you have to be open to change as you discover new things about the story. So that set completely changed as the style and the look of the film changed. We decided together to construct it (the research lab) as a hyper-modern pagoda-like tower. It was amazing.”

Q:  Why did you decide on a tower?

A: “There is an important fight scene and Jim was excited about the idea of creating a vertical fight instead of the standard kind of traditional fight sequence in an arena style setting which is very common in this kind of film. By moving the fight into a vertical tower it created a lot of interesting dynamic opportunities for the choreography of the fight sequence.”

Q: Can you discuss your experience of working with Hugh Jackman who is also one of the film’s producers?

A: “He’s the nicest working actor in Hollywood. I was really blown away by his lack of ego. He says hello every day and he becomes a member of the crew and you just forget that he’s a movie star. He ended up being one of my primary cheerleaders. He loves his job (both as producer and actor) and so you would see the excitement in his eyes when he would come to set and there would be a new piece of scenery. His enthusiasm was infectious.”

Q: Were there any particularly memorable moments during filming?

A: “There were two moments that come to mind. At the beginning of principal photography it was a race to complete the Yashida compound. That was the biggest set I’d ever designed. We were down to the wire. We opened the set on a Saturday for rehearsals and all the actors came and rehearsed with me and Jim and the DP (director of photography). I remember looking around and witnessing everybody’s excitement. It felt real.  You could look in any direction and it felt like we were really in the story. Hugh took me aside and gave me a pat on the back and said ‘mate, this is truly one of the best, most beautiful sets I’ve ever worked in.’ That felt great and gave me a rush of energy to make it through the rest of the film. I could tell that we had something special, that these actors were really going to create a unique and really special story.”

Q: What was the second experience?

A: “We went to two fishing villages in southern Japan, Tomonoura and Ina-machi. It was quite special to bring the crew to those remote villages. We were shooting an intimate scene with Logan and Mariko (Tao Okamoto) in Ina-machi. Mariko has brought Logan to her grandfather’s summer cottage and they open up to each other for the first time. They were strolling along a Japanese walkway and it struck me that I had scouted 50 fishing villages in Japan looking for the perfect location for this precise moment. This is the moment in the film when Logan is the most sensitive and vulnerable. The setting was real and authentic in the sense that we weren’t faking it. It wasn’t phony. When we were filming for those few days in that fishing village I think there was a real shift in the whole atmosphere of the crew.  We felt like we were living a dream in a way.  I was so proud that we were able to do it the right way. It was beautiful. There were fishing boats and a stone walkway hugging the shore, which was lined by granite lanterns every ten feet. The two of them are walking past the boats, past an apple vendor with a cart (an actor who was locally cast) and the light was low over the islands in the distance, cutting across the trees. I could tell that it really meant a lot to the actors and even to Jim to do that for real because it was the heart of the film.”

Q: What would you say from your perspective people can look forward to in The Wolverine?

A: “What’s really unique and rewarding about this film is that this is the first time that we’re going to be able to follow Logan on a very personal journey that reveals who he is. The focus is where it should be: on Wolverine. ”

Q:  What was the whole experience like for you?

A: “It was absolutely extraordinary. I had the opportunity to make a movie like films were made back in the Golden Age of Hollywood. We were constructing everything for real. We had hundreds of craftsmen building the sets.  That doesn’t happen much anymore. Working on this movie was the best experience of my life and of my career.” 

Many thanks to Francois Audouy for taking the time for this interview.

The Wolverine is released in UK cinemas this Thursday (July 25th) and opens in North America the following Day. Read our ★★★★★ review here.

Elaine Lipworth