How former lumberjack Dennis Gassner conjured a forest for 'Into the Woods'

Posted by · 10:38 am · January 19th, 2015

Over the past three decades, Dennis Gassner has had a hand in creating many of Hollywood's most memorable on-screen worlds, from classic period (“Bugsy”) to surreal contemporary (“The Truman Show”) to other-wordly fantasy (“The Golden Compass”). This year, he's back at it again with “Into the Woods,” his first foray into the classic movie musical.

His work on the film earned an Oscar nomination last week, his fifth to date after “Barton Fink,” “Bugsy” (for which he won), “Road to Perdition” and “The Golden Compass.” Currently in Austria working on the “Skyfall” follow-up, “Spectre,” Gassner recently spoke to HitFix about crafting the eponymous forest environment for the Stephen Sondheim adaptation, among other elements.

The design began during a Skype chat between Gassner and director Rob Marshall that the production designer attempts to recreate. On his direction, I go to Google and type “Angel Oak.” My reaction: “Wow,” which was exactly the same reaction Marshall had when he got a look at the centuries-old Southern live oak tree that sprouts from the ground of coastal South Carolina, Gassner says. That sprawling monolith became the core of the film's organic “look.”

Having been born in Vancouver and then moving to Oregon, Gassner was always interested in trees and forests. He even worked as a lumberjack when he was 16. “I know oak trees,” he explains. “They have a particular character and age. I researched them and this one resonated with me, and everything went from there. I was familiar with what woods looked like but they're also all different. We had to make as many variations as you have room for in the story.”

The woods also needed to look the same, whether they were shot in rural England or on the soundstage. It was this, in Gassner's words, “blending of the external and internal world – external being the real forest and internal being the soundstage forest” that was another issue which needed to be addressed early on; there was naturally concern that the audience would clue in to what was shot on the soundstage.

“Granny's place where Little Red goes is a combination of both things,” he cites as an example. “There was a very ancient oak tree and I created a façade, which was the entry way. I wanted her to live in the tree and out of the tree. The exterior is a combination of set piece that's placed in the tree and out of the tree.”

Of course, a forest wasn't the only significant environment of the film, as village and castle sets also play integral roles in the film. England was the natural fit from a village perspective, as one-street villages have significant variety and character. Cinderella's family, by way of example, “were living in the high rent district,” Gassner says.

Despite the variety of films and sets Gassner has done over his career, it's ultimately story and a good time on set that keep him going, he says. He had been looking for a chance to work with Marshall, and “Into the Woods” provided it. Now it's back into the maelstrom of Bond, a considerably different design environment and aesthetic, to say the least.

“My approach is the same to all genres if you have a good story to tell,” he says. “I'm a designer, and if it's not fun, I'm not interested.”

“Into the Woods,” now playing in theaters, was also Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress and Best Costume Design.

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