Camerimage Interview: Production Designer Rick Carter


Even if you’re not one to pay attention to the names behind the scenes, it’s a sure bet that you’re very familiar with the work of production designer Rick Carter. Carter began working with director Robert Zemeckis on 1989’s Back to the Future Part II and has worked creatively with the helmer ever since on films like Death Becomes Her, Forrest Gump and Cast Away. He has also teamed with Steven Spielberg on more than half a dozen projects, including both Jurassic Park and The Lost World and, most recently, Lincoln, which won him his second Academy Award. As if that’s not impressive enough of a resume, Carter won his first Oscar for his work on James Cameron’s Avatar and is currently hard at work doing production design for J.J. Abrams much-anticipated Star Wars: Episode VII.

Honored with a Special Award for Production Designer with Unique Visual Sensitivity at this year’s Camerimage Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Carter sat down for a brief conversation with about his career so far and where the future is taking him.

Check out the interview below and be on the lookout for many more conversations with Camerimage guests in the days to come.

CS: You have so many amazing credits to your name. Is there one in particular that you’re particularly fond of being recognized for?
Rick Carter:
People have asked me what film I’m most proud of, but that’s actually like asking about your children. I actually feel that I’m not the author of these movies. I was invited to be a guide by Steven Spielberg or Robert Zemeckis or Jim Cameron or Zack Snyder to help them visually recognize their dreams. In doing so, they invited me in such a way to participate that it’s not about any single movie. It’s about the whole sum of all of them. It means a lot to me to have been involved in so many amazing cinematic journeys. For me, I can look back at “Back to the Future II” and “III” and I can see all the exuberance. It’s like I’m in high school or just getting out of college. I’m exploring just like I’m in a candy store. All the possibilities with Bob Zemeckis of where we can go with time traveling all around in various ways and places. And yet, that reflects me back then. Even “Death Becomes Her” with exploring Beverly Hills and the vampires and the whole sense of decrepit under the surface idea of the formaldehyde that is vacuous living in Beverly Hills. Me being a young person looking at things a certain way. “Forrest Gump” opened up my heart because that was my life and times. I’m Forrest Gump’s age. Those are my times. I got to do, essentially, a self portrait through Bob’s vision and through Eric Roth’s vision of “Forrest Gump” and Winston Groom, the author and Tom Hanks who, by embodying Forrest Gump was giving a whole persona to something I could entirely relate to. It opened up how personal all of this becomes. It’s not just a candy store or trying to achieve something, but it’s whole stages of life. Then there was “Jurassic Park” with the whole digital revolution exploding out that I got to be a part of. There was soul in telling the story of slavery in “Amistad.” Each step has been further and further an exploration of the world, whether it’s the physical world in something like “Cast Away” or “A.I.,” going into a whole realm of artificial intelligence, but it’s really our intelligence. It’s a metaphor for becoming real. I would say that that relates to the digital revolution that we went into not only with “Jurassic Park,” but also at the end of “A.I.” and then “Polar Express,” “War of the Worlds” and finally culminating in “Avatar,” which is a huge hybrid of two types of filmmaking brought together. You actually transfer your allegiance and your consciousness from one side to the other through the hybrid state of the avatar, who’s half Na’vi and half Human. These are like metaphors for me for a journey that I’ve been able to take. What city do you wish you never went to? What country do you wish you never knew? Some might be more successful but, as you go along, you’re happy for all the steps, particularly if you’re given the opportunity to grow like I’ve been able to with Steven and Bob and Jim Cameron as they move through their lives and their cinematic expressions. I can’t really pick out one thing, especially when you think, for me post-“Avatar,” about where else can you go from there? But to express “War Horse” or even “Sucker Punch,” to get that crazy in a mental institution. Turn it into a brothel and go on all these trips with Zack Snyder and show this sort of sense of struggle of what it is to live and to be able to survive with something like “War Horse.” But to culminate in something like “Lincoln,” with Daniel Day-Lewis embodying that role. Right in front of me, he was a shapeshifter for three and half months. For all of us, he was Abraham Lincoln. To have that come across and to be a part of that takes me back to what I would have liked when I was a little kid. I would love to have been a part of Lincoln’s legacy in any way possible and I got a chance to do that. Of course, it all started, ultimately, with “Goonies.” That was where I found out I could get paid to be a swashbuckler. I would have loved that job when I was ten years old and I still like it now when I’m 63. That’s a real gift.

CS: What does it mean for you to have the opportunity to return to existing fictional worlds? Is there a very personal nostalgia in that for you?
I’m not sure I’ve ever fully returned. Even in “Back to the Future,” we went to a different place. It was a new iteration of Hill Valley back in the old west. If we went to “Lost World,” it was a different island. I never felt like I just literally returned. If I did return, it was always an alternate version. Even in “Back to the Future,” when we went back to 1985 after having been in 2015, it was a different 1985. The whole time travel aspect, whether it’s going into the future, going into the past or the present, I’ve almost had all of those in equal measure up until now. To be in the present day that’s not really the present day — It’s a metaphoric present day if it’s on a deserted south sea island or in the house in “What Lies Beneath” or the mansion in “Death Becomes Her.” It’s not really a real present day. It’s a metaphor. But I get to go into the past to places like “Amistad” or “Lincoln” or “Forrest Gump.” I get to go back into present day metaphorically with “War of the Worlds.” Those things didn’t really come, but it felt like that after 9/11. Then, to project into the future, I’ve done that with “Back to the Future” with Bob and I went into the future with Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick for “A.I.” I went with Jim Cameron in “Avatar” and I went with Zack Snyder in one of the segments in “Sucker Punch.” That’s where I’ve gone into the future. Now I’m actually heading into what people think of as the future, but is actually even further long ago in a galaxy far, far away, which is what “Star Wars” is. It’s sort of both at the same time.

CS: “Star Wars: Episode VII” was officially announced about a year ago. What was it like to get the call to work on a project like that and how long were you a part of it before the announcement?
I offered my services to Kathy Kennedy, who I had known for a long time. I said, “If you’re going to get involved with ‘Star Wars’ in this new generation, I’d love to be a part of the dialogue and help.’ She invited me in last January and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. Then J.J. [Abrams] came in and we hit it off. Along with Darren Gilford, who’s a younger guy, we’re kind of both production designing the movie as a team to help give J.J. the best of what his generation and the new generation can offer with Darren Gilford and also myself as a guide that takes us back to not so long, long ago, but the ’70s where I was around and making movies that old-fashioned way. Whenever we want to touch that level, it relates to something that’s not just being made up as though it’s new. It’s being rediscovered.

CS: You’re also working on “Jurassic World,” which is a return to an existing universe.
Well, I came into that one as a visual consultant. I just worked for four months to get it going. To try and visualize where this could go next and make sure it had some the same — literally the same — DNA of the previous movies. Ed Verreaux is the production designer on that one. He did the third “Jurassic Park.” We’ve worked together going all the way back to “Back to the Future.” It’s a real hand-off between the two of us. He’s the production designer and the director’s a new director named Colin Trevorrow. He’s a big, big talent.

(Photo Credit: Brian To /