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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.

Rural Intelligence Arts

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

The Hollywood Horses of Amenia

By Sarah Ellen Rindsberg

In Winter’s Tale, the current film based on Mark Helprin’s gripping novel, a white horse plays a prominent role. Until his recent move to the west coast, when this equine wonder was not appearing in all his equine splendor in one role or another, he was an Amenia resident.

Listo on the set of “Winter’s Tale.” Photo courtesy Cari Swanson.

Listo is one of the many horses trained by Cari Swanson and Rex Peterson of Swanson Peterson Productions at Windrock Farm on Bangall-Amenia Road. The firm is known in Hollywood for training riders and horses for films and TV. Swanson and Peterson also conduct training for private individuals and horses in Amenia as well as in clinics nationwide and around the world. But it is their work for TV and film that has made them arguably the most popular horse trainers among the star set.

The roster of horses and actors they have worked with is as impressive as the list of Oscar winners. The Horse Whisper, The Black Stallion, Hidalgo, Secretariat? Swanson Peterson provided and trained those horses. Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Jeremy Irons, Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, among others, have been the riders/trainees.

Winter’s Tale star Colin Farrell (Peter Lake) rode Listo in several scenes of the movie. “Listo and Colin had a great rapport,” Swanson says. Unlike many actors, Colin does have some riding experience. “He’s very comfortable on a horse and has tremendous balance.” Co-star Russell Crowe (Pearly Soames) also came equipped with some riding skills practiced on his ranch in Australia. (This expertise aside, stunt doubles usually perform the jumping and running scenes.)

Sometimes the actors come to the Amenia facility for training. Colin Farrell and Jessica Findlay Brown (Lady Sibyl of Downton Abbey) came to Windrock Farm when preparing for Winter’s Tale.  Dan Stevens (aka Matthew Crawley of Downton Abbey) also came to prepare for his role in the upcoming film A Night at the Museum 3. (Herein lies one of the reasons these two beloved Downton characters had to perish during the series: other projects awaited and their presence was required in Amenia.)

The actors clearly appreciate the outing. “They love the farm and the opportunity to train in the facility without the stress and pressure of the set,” Swanson says.

Ang Lee and Swanson on the set of “Taking Woodstock.” Photo by Ken Regan.

Directors, too, have appreciated Swanson’s work. During a shoot for Taking Woodstock, shot in northern Dutchess and Columbia counties, director Ang Lee lamented, “Why can my horse hit his mark every time and you actors cannot?”

Both Swanson and Peterson have decades’ worth of experience in training. Swanson, a dressage trainer and competitor,  grew up on a horse farm in Ohio, and recalls that she was “always trying to teach my horses tricks.”  Peterson got his start in the movie business working with Glenn Randall Sr., who trained the famous Trigger.

Cari Swanson and Rex Peterson. Photo by Kathy Landman.

If they’re not on a set, coaching horses to feign a charging attack, play a dying horse or jump off a ferry boat, they’re back at the farm, training horses and riders in multiple disciplines: Western riding, dressage, jumping and driving.

When RI catches up with Swanson (not on horseback thank goodness!) she is enjoying the leisurely pace of St. Bart’s, having recently wrapped up participation in The Knick, a ten-part mini- series for HBO. Clive Owen and Juliet Rylance are featured in this period drama focused on the story of the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. Swanson, in costume (but not on screen), drives carriages during several scenes, taking the equines through their paces as she often does, before actors take the reins. When filming for season two begins, Swanson will return to the set.

As a child, Swanson was given free rein to bring horses into the house. It’s a practice she continues today in her effort to acclimate them to working in nontraditional equine settings that Hollywood requires. On location, they’re not in Amenia anymore.

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Posted by Lisa Green on 02/25/14 at 07:31 PM • Permalink

Stacking the Cards: Michel Gill and Jayne Atkinson Talk Rural Life and Conspiracy Theory

By Nichole Dupont

micheljayneGreat Barrington dwellers Michel Gill and Jayne Atkinson are not your typical Hollywood couple. Sure, they fly to New York and L.A. on a fairly regular basis, but this down-to-earth duo are always on the lookout for the next big role. They may have found it. Both actors star in the Netflix blockbuster politico series “House of Cards” (directed by David Fincher and starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright), which follows the dark career of Senator Frank Underwood as he vies for power in the White House. While Gill hails from a career in theater and Atkinson has enjoyed roles on several key television series including “Criminal Minds” and “24,” both agree that “House of Cards,” which just got the green light to start shooting a third season, is a game changer for them and for television as a whole. With a generous budget, film-quality cinematography for every episode and a cast of heavy hitters, the series is upping the ante for entertainment, one conspiracy at a time. The second season will be released via Netflix on Friday, February 14. Atkinson will be in town on Friday, March 28 at BTG’s Unicorn Theatre to present “Motherhood Out Loud” as part of the month-long Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

ND: What brought you to the Berkshires? It seems very un-Hollywood…and far away from the epicenters, so to speak.

MG: We relocated here seven years ago. It’s definitely not New York or L.A. I grew up in New York and my family would visit the Berkshires. Since I was a little boy this place has been my backyard. Jayne and I were naturally charmed by this area. When we first moved here my mom didn’t want to come visit us for a while. She had her mind set that this was the sticks and not the cultural hub that it has become.

ND: What are your local haunts when you want to get away from everything?

JA: The Old Mill is a favorite, it’s a nest for us. It’s comfortable and at the top of our list. We love The Old Inn on the Green and Café Adam. We like to mix it up.

ND: So, “House of Cards”…is amazing. How has landing a role on that series changed things for the both of you?

kevinspaceymichel400MG: Well, Jayne’s been doing some pretty high profile stuff all along while I’ve tucked myself away in the theater, doing that work in an insulated environment. When I first saw what was going on with the series, I knew already that I was in a situation that was quite unique and unusual. You’ve got people like Kevin Spacey – he’s a rock star in D.C., owns that town! – and Robin Wright and Jayne Atkinson (laughs) and the fact that Netflix has given full creative control to Beau (Willimon) and the others. The show isn’t beholden to ‘the suits.’

JA: Turns out the brew-ha-ha in Washington isn’t so different from the hierarchy in Hollywood!

ND: Speaking of Washington, how much of House of Cards is based in reality do you think?

MG: Jayne and I don’t live with rose-colored glasses. I’m a political junkie. We have varying different conspiracy theories.

JA: With House of Cards there is a different sobering quality to the material, maybe because we all think it could be real. Look at what’s happening with Chris Christie. This stuff is really going on. This is real corruption.

MG: I think with Kevin’s character [senator Frank Underwood] he’s sociopathic. We’re not talking just corrupt. He is a broken human being. This is classic Shakespearean drama. Is it happening now in Washington; who knows?

ND: What’s next? You’ve got this addicting series that everyone is anticipating, where do you take it from there?

JA: It’s exciting to feel like part of the hottest thing going but we’re still living a real life as opposed to a reel life. We’re so grounded here. And we try to find ways to pay it forward in our community.

MG: It’s such a self-involved world, the key to keeping us real is no drama. We’ve got a 14-year-old son. How’s that for keeping it real? 

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Posted by Nichole on 02/10/14 at 09:47 AM • Permalink

MASS MoCA Finds The Faith In Documentary Films

By Rachel Louchen

The Rural Intelligence region is flush with independent theaters that eschew the commercial box office smashes dominating the chain cinemas in order to highlight smaller fare like simulcasts and critics’ choice films. Documentary films are among the most popular, and MASS MoCA has long responded with a documentary film series of its own.

Starting next week, MASS MoCA will begin its 2014 film series highlighting a subject which man has been grappling with for centuries: “God is dead.” “God is love.” All five of the chosen films portray people struggling and accepting their relationship with God. Question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers will follow each screening.

“We’ve been doing this film series for over a decade,” says MASS MoCA’s Curator of Performing Arts, Rachel Chanoff. “Documentary film is such a vibrant and crucial storytelling medium.” Basically, these are not the black-and-white stuffy films you were forced to stay awake for in elementary school.

Why the theme of faith and God? “We chose religion as the theme for this season because we were seeing a lot of great and really diverse films in the last year where God was an integral part of the main characters’ lives,” says Chanoff. The series kicks off with this year’s Academy Award nominee for best documentary, 20 Feet From Stardom, which examines the lives of backup singers who added a distinct stamp on great recordings but remained anonymous, a process that certainly requires a lot of faith.

When I Walk is the February offering, featuring filmmaker Jason DaSilva’s story of declining health and hope after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In March, we’ll see the story of devout Christian basketball player Jeremy Lin, who became an overnight sensation when he joined the New York Knicks, in Linsanity, which highlights Lin’s ability to maintain his strict religious views despite the mania surrounding him. April’s film, The Light In Her Eyes, touches on a Muslim preacher at an all-girls school, who manages to encourage the youth to live a full Muslim life, while still pursuing their dreams.

The series concludes in May with Good People Go to Hell, Saved People Go to Heaven from Williamstown native Holly Hardman. Hardman’s film, which she will discuss post screening, examines an evangelical Christian community and its considerable struggles over the last century.

Having the filmmaker participate is extremely important to Chanoff, who encourages the artist to take part either in person or by Skype for a discussion after each screening. But most important of all, she says, is to “give documentaries and their makers a platform. It matches the mission of the museum to bring new art to its audiences.”

MASS MoCA Film Series
January 30 – May 1 @ 7:30 p.m.
Club B-10 @ MASS MoCA
Williamstown, Massachusetts
$9/general; $5/students

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Posted by Rachel Louchen on 01/20/14 at 12:41 PM • Permalink

Adapting to Ourselves: Williamstown Film Festival Celebrates 15 Years

great chicken wing 440 The Great Chicken Wing Hunt

By Nichole Dupont
He remembers the first year like it was yesterday. A few indie films sprinkled in with funny shorts and a documentary or two, the distinct feeling that this could be a “thing.” Now, Steve Lawson — veteran director of the Williamstown Film Festival — cannot imagine a Berkshire autumn without the brief interlude of comedy, drama, and premieres that bring thousands of moviegoers and dozens of (famous) artists to the county’s northern reaches.

“People are not just going to a movie,” says Lawson of the faithful and the new. “It’s an experience they can be part of. It’s more of an occasion. The audiences is being entertained and picking up knowledge.”

The festival begins on Wednesday, October 30, with a talkback with John Irving (yes, you read that right, John Irving is coming to town!) and runs through Sunday, November 3. While Images Cinema is once again home base for WFF, several ancillary feasts and fetes will be held at places such as MASS MoCA, Hops and Vines, and the Purple Pub. In fact, food is a pretty sizeable dish in this year’s film smorgasbord. Thursday night (Halloween) has been designated Food Film Night and will feature two very different directors’ cuts; the brutal quest to find the perfect chicken wing and the 25th anniversary of France’s most elegant picnic. Matt Reynolds, a former correspondent for Reuters (he spent several years in Slovakia), is a first-time director of The Great Chicken Wing Hunt about his odyssey to find the perfect chicken wing. For him, the documentary experience was driven by a personal quest. And an obsession.

“This movie was so close to my heart,” says the upstate New York native. “It brought me home. I guess because of that I was blissfully unaware of the whole filmmaking process — marketing, festivals — I wasn’t concerned about what normal filmmakers would worry over. It’s about going on this quest to find something perfect.”

diner en blanc nightThe Great Chicken Wing Hunt is strangely poignant, and ironic, as Reynolds amasses a group of experts and takes to the road, sampling hundreds of wings, sometimes hitting 12 stops a day. The result is, needless to say, messy. And a far cry from the festival’s other foodie film. Diner en Blanc, directed by Jennifer Ash Rudick, chronicles one night in Paris on the 25th anniversary of the city’s first secret dinner party that now amasses some 15,000 attendees, all dressed in white, all waiting to find out where to park their tables for the world’s largest clandestine dinner party.

diner en blanc plaza“A French friend told me about the dinner over 15 years ago, this was before flash mobs were a popular idea, and it was hard to imagine. She said there were thousands of people dining on the Pont des Arts,” Rudick recalls. “It really inspired me that so many people collaborate for the fun of it and I wanted to meet the man who took this on every year simply for the fun of it. I hoped other people would want to meet him, too.”

Despite the film’s elegant homage to serendipity and to the city of chic, Rudick faced some challenges, not least of which was unveiling the mastermind behind the dinner, Francois Pasquier.

“Francois had never spoken to the press and it took nine months to convince him to speak to me,” she says. “I tracked him down through Parisian friends who attend the dinner but they were very protective of him for fear of ruining the dinner and for fear of being taken off the guest list. When he did finally agree to meet, I went to Paris and he sent his neighbor and co-organizer to lunch instead.”

treat williamsThose reluctant beginnings melted into a gorgeous film, and as Lawson notes, perhaps the most “sweeping” among a roster of sparse humor and indie cool. But “there’s something for everyone to see,” says Lawson, who is particularly endeared to this year’s selection of shorts films. Actor Treat Williams, who lives in nearby Manchester, VT, stars in one of the shorts; Halftime, a 10-minute monologue directed by Joe Cacaci in which Williams is a basketball coach attempting to give a rousing halftime speech to his floundering team. Of course, the monologue turns into a tangential rage against his wife’s infidelity.

“It’s hilarious,” Williams laughs. “You can see where the coach really starts to lose it. The monologue is complete. That’s the beauty of the short. It’s a template for filmmaking as an art form. It’s the tapas of movie-going.”

birders 300The short film genre was what launched director Luke Matheny into the upper Hollywood circle. His Oscar-winning film God of Love was a WFF favorite before the “big time.” Now Matheny, in his role as a screenwriter, has produced a full-length feature about a group of students who go on the search for a supposedly extinct duck. A Birder’s Guide to Everything, which premiered at Tribeca, is “an accessible story.”

“It’s a coming of age story. It resonates and it entertains and has surprising heart,” Matheny says. “We left the specific birding details to the experts, and dealt with the emotion and the story.”

Matheny had an emotional moment himself while filming.

“Ben Kingsley is in the film, and he was reading the monologue that I wrote. It was surreal. I texted my mom right away.”

cherry cottage 300There is one unlikely star that closes the festival. This one lives in Stockbridge, MA and has the wisdom of age and experience that even veteran actors covet. Cherry Cottage was built in 1782 and has seen tumultuous times. It is also an ideal star to tell the tumultuous story of America according to director David Simonds.

“It’s the story of a house, really,” Simonds says. “We filmed the documentary parallel to the renovations of the house. We dug up information and literally left no stone unturned.”
What he and producer Hans Morris (who owns Cherry Cottage) found was a voluminous cache of stories about philosophers, artists, businessmen, psychiatrists, downfall, ruin, and resurrection.

“It’s all about the people,” Simonds says. “You have to get to the fabric of the house to find out about the people.”

Williamstown Film Festival
October 30 - November 3

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Posted by Nichole on 10/22/13 at 10:16 AM • Permalink