2 March 2024 The Irish Film & Television Network
Mark Geraghty – Production Designer Q&A
01 Nov 2007 : By Angela Mullin
Mark Geraghty
With his latest work on Paddy Breathnach’s horror feature ‘Shrooms’ hitting Irish screens later this month, IFTN talks to Dublin-born Production Designer Mark Geraghty.

Geraghty’s screen credits include many Irish productions such as ‘Dead Bodies’, ‘The Actors’, ‘Dancing At Lughnasa’ and ‘In America’ as well as Jim Sheridan’s ‘Get Rich or Die Tryin’, which earned him a Best Production Design Irish Film and Television Award in 2007.

He has worked on the Irish filmed period features ‘Tristan + Isolde’ and ’The Count of Monte Cristo’, while his international credits include Liev Schreiber’s ‘Everything is Illuminated’ and Michael Winterbottom’s ‘Welcome to Sarajevo’.

Mark is currently in pre-production for his next feature project ‘Rani’ (Queen), to be filmed on location in India. The film depicts the Indian 1857 revolution against the British, and is due to begin filming in mid-January 2008.

IFTN: What inspired you to work in production design?

Mark Geraghty: I was brought up in a film family, so I was sort of born into film in a sense. My father was a location manager / production manager who used to look after all the big American projects that came in years ago like ‘Barry Lyndon’, ‘Flight of the Doves’, ‘Ryan’s Daughter’ etc. so I spent my life on a film set, I sort of grew up on one. I didn’t initially think I’d end up in the film business though, I wanted to be an architect.

Do you have any training or education in film?

No, what happened was I had a summer job on a movie called ‘Brian Boru’. The film never got off the ground, but I spent 14 or 15 weeks working as a trainee in the art department on that picture and I worked with a designer called William Creber who was one of the top American designers at the time, he designed ‘Towering Inferno’ and ‘Planet of the Apes’. I just fell in love with the business, and that was it, I knew exactly what I wanted to do after working on that for the summer. I had just finished school at that time. The film collapsed due to financial reasons, but that’s the business, and I never had any illusions about the glamour of it at all, this can happen, sometimes films don’t get made.

Would you recommend people wanting to work in production design to get some sort of training?

Yes, you do need a certain amount of training. At school I studied architecture and building construction, then, when I finished school I went on to study architecture at night in Bolton Street. You do need some basis to work in an art department, you’ve got to be able to understand construction, construction drawings, set design. Just generally, though - I don’t think you need a Master’s degree in it.

I think for most people you will learn within the business. You learn a lot more working in an art department on a film as a trainee than you will stuck in a college. I think that’s really important in our department, I don’t think you can really pick too much of it up on college. There’s other film department’s that you can learn, such as directing, writing, editing, but for production design I recommend getting out and doing it, just have a basis and get into the business as quick as possible.

Do you think studying architecture helped you working in production design?

It helped an awful lot, it got me in the door and I came up as a trainee and then I was an assistant art director. I spent a lot of time at drawing board drafting sets and that’s where the education really came into it, and I sort of progressed from there. As an art director you still spend a lot of time at the drawing board, as a designer you need to be able to read drawing. You need to know what everyone else does in the department, so when you ask for something you’re aware of what time it takes, how much it’s going to cost, what it’s going to look like etc.

Do you think you need a technical or an artistic mind for the role?

I think you need a mix of everything. A lot of people are career art directors; they are sort of second in command in running the art department after the production designer, so you can go that far technically.

To be a production designer, I think a lot of it does come naturally. And you can get to a stage where if you want to get to a higher level, you need to be very lucky and a lot of it depends on what directors you work with and how the films do. I think definitely there is a natural ability you need if you’re to go beyond being an art director. To be an art director, a lot of that is technical and organisational skills, you need a bit of flair but it’s primarily organisational and technical rather than artistic.

You’ve worked on a lot of Irish as well as international projects. How would you compare working at home with working abroad?

The thing about filmmaking, it’s a universal language. It’s great to get to different countries because one, you can bring the things you know about how we make films in Ireland and Britain when you go Russia or you go Central Europe or Asia, and you can learn how they make films. You’ll always learn a lot, you can bring a lot and take a lot back, so it broadens your horizons. I don’t think there’s a preference though, I think it’s more to do with the project, the script and the people you’re working with it. A location is a location, we’re there to work. Of course, it’s a lot easier to work at home!

Do you think that it’s necessary for someone starting out in production design to move abroad to establish themselves, or do you think it’s possible to establish a career based in Ireland?

I think you can do it in Ireland, you can definitely do it in Ireland. There are a lot of projects there, the industry seems quite healthy, but you will broaden your horizons and you will learn more if you do get the opportunity to go away. But it’s certainly not a necessity, you can do it in Ireland and make a good career of it and be a very good production designer. It just limits you in your choice of productions in if you decide to stay in Ireland.

You recently completed worked on the upcoming Irish feature ‘Shrooms’, can you tell us about that?

I always wanted to work with Paddy Breathnach, because one of my favourite films is ‘I Went Down’. I knew the producer Robert Walpole from old, we sort of grew up in the business together, so I really liked the team and I loved the script and it was a great opportunity to work with a home grown Irish project that was shot in Ireland. It was an absolute pleasure to work with them, Paddy is a very talented Irish director and there were great Irish producers involved, I had a great team on it. It was sort of a horror movie/ slasher movie so that was fun, something I’d never done before. We’d a great time making it, and I haven’t seen the finished product, but I’m sure it’s going to be brilliant.

Does your job require you to spend a lot of time on set?

Generally what happens is you don’t spend a lot of time on set as a production designer. In pre-production you spend a hell of a lot of time with the director, planning and later on towards the shoot you spend a lot of time with the cameraman and costume people, it’s planning, planning, planning! Once you get into the shooting mode though, the relationship becomes between the cameraman and the director, that’s the most important relationship on the set.

We just don’t have the time to be on the set all the time as we’re one step ahead getting next week’s work ready or the next day’s work ready. We’re always ahead of the game, trying to get things done so when the cast arrive it’s ready for them.

What is a typical working day like for you?

What I normally do is I’d arrive on the set in the morning, make sure everything’s okay, wait for the first set-up and shot, and when they’re all up and everyone’s happy with the sets I’d move on and try and get the next set ready. I’d come back at the end of the day to make sure everything went okay and talk about the next day’s work.

Do you prefer working on films with a contemporary or a historical setting?

Personally, I prefer historical, there’s more scope for a designer and you’re work is critically recognised more which is really nice. It’s not necessarily a harder thing to do because in contemporary pictures everyone knows what they should look like so you’ve every critic in the world looking at your picture. In a period picture, believe me, you can get away with a lot because not everyone know what it looks like! For me personally, I prefer the period movies, you’re researching and learning all the time and you can give it a particular look. But contemporary films are challenging, as I said, your audience and your critics are wider.

What qualities do you think are important in a production designer?

You need a visual sense, when you read the script you have to be able to see it off the page, you’ve got to be able to feel it and see it. Sometimes I say to people; “Unfortunately, nowadays designing the film is ten percent of the job - the other 90 percent is organising and making it a reality.”

You’ve got to be a people person as well, you’re dealing with a lot of different personalities and different people, directors, producers. You have to understand budgets and schedules, a lot of it is that too. You’ve got to be organised because you’re spending other people’s money and have tight schedules, you never have enough time to do what you want to do.

You’ve got to be clever about spending the money in the right places for the look of the movie. I think it’s very important that you have a sense of colour and texture, and you can deal with costumes, sets, props, lighting. I think the best training for any production designer would be fine art, because that will give you a sense of colour and detail, I think you need to understand that. Some people are just natural at it though, they can take it up from day one, you don’t necessarily need four year’s in college to do it.

What final advice would you give to someone starting out in production design?

You’ve got to be patient, I say that to everyone. Don’t rush up the ladder too quick because you’ll get caught out. Take your time. Production designers don’t retire, they die in the business! The more experience you have, you’ll get offered better jobs. But you’ll only gain that experience by slowing down, learning every department a step up at a time and don’t take anything that’s too big for you because this business doesn’t forgive mistakes. So I’d say work on as many diverse projects as you can, period, contemporary, TV, commercials, and listen and learn and be as diverse as possible with your projects.

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