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Carl Sprague’s Concept Illustrations Come To Life In ‘Grand Budapest Hotel.’

Sprague’s concept drawing for the hotel model in The Grand Budapest Hotel

By Jeremy D. Goodwin

It was a bit chilly to be out dodging paparazzi.

Carl Sprague was in Görlitz, Germany last winter, on the set of Wes Anderson’s latest essay of beguilingly affected cinema, when an anonymous bomb threat (later seen to be a hoax) sent the cast and crew out to shiver on the street.

“We were shooting this funny scene where all these army officers are half-undressed, jump out of their hotel rooms and start firing their guns. Everyone fled the building and went out to the street, including all these poor extras in their underpants,” Sprague recalls, before mimicking the avalanche of whirring camera shutters that accompanied the assembled paparazzi’s efforts to take their best shots at the exposed actors. There was particularly good hunting, with Adrien Brody, Jude Law, Bill Murray and many other household names among the cast.

Sprague at home (Photo: Jeremy D. Goodwin)

Sprague sits in his Stockbridge living room on a bright winter afternoon as he recounts some more-pleasant events during the shoot, including bowling expeditions with the cast (“Jeff Goldlbum turned out to be a very impressive bowler,” he recalls with admiration), or anytime Anderson looked over Sprague’s shoulder, as he sketched out his proposal for a set model, and offered approval.

Anderson, of course, is famously preoccupied with design aesthetic, including the obsessively detailed sets that articulate the carefully curated world of his imagination — a familiar but disorienting place, where oceanographic documentaries are received at lavish premieres like the magnum opera of auteurs, and there’s good swimming to be had at the 375th St. YMCA.

Sprague was concept illustrator for Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, sketching out designs for key elements like the titular hotel’s façade, seen above. (The film did remarkably well in its initial, limited release, and opens locally at Great Barrington’s Triplex Cinema and in Pittsfield at The Beacon Cinema on March 28.) He did the same for Anderson’s previous film, Moonrise Kingdom; their relationship began with the director’s 2001 breakthrough The Royal Tenenbaums, for which Sprague was art director.

Sprague is on a hot streak. After Budapest, he was brought on as concept illustrator for the eventual 2014 Best Picture Oscar-winner 12 Years A Slave. The Anderson connection is a particularly fashionable one, but Sprague cut his teeth on the sets of a couple fairly well-known folks named Spielberg (Amistad) and Scorsese (The Age of Innocence), both of whom employed him as assistant art director. He even wound up onscreen in Budapest, securing an acting credit as Distant Relation (seen in costume below) in a will-reading sequence.

Sprague’s concept drawing for the dock set in 12 Years A Slave

The glitz of these types of film shoots is certainly fun, but he has a freer hand over the look and feel of a production when he works closer to home, in the theater. Sprague is familiar as the set designer for innumerable productions at Berkshire Theatre Group, Shakespeare & Company, Oldcastle Theatre and elsewhere. He’s clearly an adaptable guy when it comes to this stuff; he was even production designer for Gregory Crewdson’s signature series of conceptual photographs, Beneath the Roses. (For that project he built some sets at MASS MoCA, where Sprague Electric Company once ruled the roost.)

Though his family goes back awhile in the Berkshires, this Sprague spent his childhood on the Upper East Side, summering in Lenox before his family moved back full time when he was 12. He wasn’t satisfied with just one concentration as an undergrad at Harvard, so he earned a double major (in film and philosophy), graduating magna cum laude.

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Wearing his actor hat (literally) on the set of The Grand Budapest Hotel

His brother Kevin is well known locally as the marketing/design guru of Studio Two. But Carl cuts a lower profile, quietly dispatching to movie shoots when not working at his drafting table at home, where he lives with his painter wife Susan Merrill, their three corgis, and a slightly claw-happy cat.

It’s particularly satisfying, he says, to work on projects where he’s truly telling a story through his work. He confirms something we’ve long suspected from looking at the onscreen results: Anderson has particularly specific tastes when it comes to art design. “He’ll tell you what he wants,” Sprague explains, “and he’ll tell you if you’ve gotten there or not, and then he’ll keep on tinkering with it absolutely right up until the moment it shoots. With Wes’s stuff, everybody — from the production designer down to the standby prop man — is really working to execute his vision. He really is driving the train.”

He’s seen other approaches. On the set of Amistad, Sprague remembers the extensive prep work that went on before its legendary director arrived on-set. “When he arrived, it was sort of like the world-famous heart specialist who walks into the room at the moment the surgery is supposed to be performed. He stretches on his gloves,” he says, mimicking the gesture, “and the whole staff is lined up with all the instruments all clean and perfect, the patient all draped and ready.”

But Sprague was stunned to watch first-hand as the maestro’s personal touch transformed a scene into something indelible. “Then there’s a little fog, and Mr. Spielberg pulls together a little crowd of actors and they’re walking up into this courthouse, and you suddenly think —  ‘Oh my gosh, this is one of those archetypal Spielberg images.’ The whole picture falls into place, where every little piece is just right.”

Sprague has paid his dues, translating other directors’ visions into reality. But he wants to turn his attention next to a long-simmering project of his own — a film adaptation of Edith Wharton’s Summer, which he aims to direct.

You can safely say he’s learned from the best.

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Posted by Jeremy D. Goodwin on 03/17/14 at 07:28 PM • Permalink