If “Lincoln,” nominated for 12 Academy Awards, snags a statue for Production Design Sunday night, the men on stage accepting the honors will have a Cary native to thank for helping them get there.
Curt Beech, a graduate of Enloe High School and Wake Forest University, was an art director on “Lincoln,” a thrilling period drama about the abolition of slavery. Production designer Rick Carter (who Beech calls “one of the great designers of our time”) and set decorator Jim Erickson may get all the Oscar attention, but Beech is honored to have been an important part of the design team.
“It’s a good thing all the way around to get the nomination,” he said.
Beech recently won an Art Directors Guild award for his work in “Lincoln.” He was nominated by the Guild for “The Help” in 2012, “The Social Network” in 2011 and “Star Trek” in 2010. Beech was also an art director for “War of the Worlds.”
Beech’s parents, Jack and Sharon Beech, live in Cary. We spoke to Beech by phone this week.
Q: What exactly do production designers and art directors do?
A: A production designer is responsible for conceiving the look of the film, and the art director takes it from the page to the stage. So it’s our job to actually create the environment that the actors will act in. We deal with all the drawings of the spaces, the planning of them, and deal with construction, paint, decorating – all the different traits involved in making the sets of the shows.
Q: Were there any special challenges with “Lincoln” that you haven’t faced with other films?
A: It’s a very specific period problem, so the challenge of making it accurate to the period was the design of the show, really. It’s trying to make it as real as possible to support what’s going on in the acting. And as we know, Daniel Day-Lewis makes it as real as possible as well. Our job is to support that and try to make it look real.
We had three areas geographically that we were dealing with…. I dealt with the Richmond locations, which included Capitol Square, which was all around the capitol building. Ironically, it’s the capital of the Confederacy standing in for both the House of Representatives and the capitol of the Union.
Q: What kind of research did you do to ensure accuracy?
A: We had a full-time researcher, and we would kick things her way and she used every archive in the country that she could find. And then it became a matter of learning everything we could about every set we were dealing with. For example, the Telegraph War Room. We had the telegraph expert for the Civil War era. His expertise is how telegraph systems worked during the Civil War, so he came in and gave all the extras a lesson on how it worked, so it looked real. We had real coded and uncoded messages flowing through the telegraph machine, so the clicking and clacking sound was accurate. If anyone wanted to pick out Morse code from those moments, they could have done that. And then how that room worked, we read up on that so that we understood that when a message comes in it’s either coded or uncoded, and about 75 percent of the messages were uncoded and 25 percent were coded. So the coded messages then went to the code breakers, who would translate the code and then go from there to the head of the War Department and the map table, and the maps would get updated. Well, how did the maps get updated? We had to learn that as well, so we had a map expert come in and tell us how the maps worked and how things were noted on the maps. And what kind of pencils they used and what kind of markings were typical. So there was a ton of research.
Q: Is that level of detail unusual?
A: That’s typical…. If there is a story behind the design, the design is better. It’s absolutely essential, actually.
Q: Did your parents encourage your interest in the arts?
A: They did very early on. I started doing plays when I was 11 at the North Carolina Theatre in Raleigh. I was acting. In school, I did a lot of acting as well, and then I started working backstage because I needed a job while I was in school (Wake Forest), so my work-study was building scenery, and that’s where I started to get interested in what went on behind the scenes as well.
Q: What advice do you give to young people interested in art direction?
A: I tell them all to find out whose work they admire and then to gently stalk those people. Nine times out of 10, the people in our industry are very generous with their time and will sit down and have a coffee or a lunch and talk about how they got where they are and give them some advice. And that meeting leads to another one and eventually a job will happen. It’s basically the only way to do it. There’s no job board for this kind of thing, there’s only contacts and gumption.