From the underwater cityscapes of Aquaman to the glamorous Malibu mansion from Iron Man 3, production designer Bill Brzeski has had a hand in creating the visual aesthetic of countless beloved stories. Brzeski, whose vast work catalogue also encompasses over 800 episodes of television, got his break into the cinematic landscape as the production designer of Matilda. Since then, he has gone on to work on many more popular films and TV shows, becoming one of the biggest names in the industry when it comes to production design and art direction.
His work over the last four decades can be seen in some of the most iconic blockbuster films of all time, from The Fast and Furious franchise to The Hangover. Easily one of Brzeski’s most impressive feats is DC’s Aquaman, which features a stylistic, diverse assortment of unique undersea environments in addition to many impressive, realistic land-based locations.
With the DC FanDome event among us, we were thrilled to sit down with Bill and reflect on creating the iconic scenes of Aquaman. He reveals some of the unique and fun challenges posed by the film’s subaquatic story, his experiences working alongside Wan, and his hopes for the eventual sequel.
The film industry and world at large is undergoing a crazy time right now. How has work been during quarantine?
BB: Actually there’s not too much work. I mean, I’ve been pretty fortunate. I was working on an architectural piece, something totally unrelated to the entertainment industry, that I worked on into the early spring. And then I was helping on Space Jam 2 with my friends at Warner Brothers. They said they needed somebody to help put some concepts together and I did that, but I’ve been not working now for about six weeks. Which is fine. It’s hard though. It’s really hard because everybody has to work from home. Everybody’s got to kind of develop a home office and a home system of working and we’re used to working in little pods and groups of people like I’m sure you are too.
It’s been a whole challenge and people are just starting to get over it. The movie business hasn’t really bounced back the way I think people thought it would. There aren’t any real shows being shot right now. I mean, there’s always a couple of outliers. People are trying things and they’re doing things in Atlanta right now with a couple of movies again going, but it’s all very difficult. There’s no real method that’s really been working super good. I don’t believe, anyways. And so it’s been kind of slow getting those back going because a lot of television right now is really not going. That’s the crux of that; there’s just empty studios right now. There’s nobody working on soundstages. A few big movies with big movie stars are kind of poking along, but there’s nothing the way it used to be. I’m hoping that changes, but I don’t know. It seems very slow.
In the past, your career has brought you to work on countless TV show and movie sets. What’s your process for developing the visuals of a project?
BB: Well, it’s kind of the same way our production designers would say we have a process and everybody’s got their own that they use. Mine’s pretty straightforward. You’re learning the material really well, so you do a lot of work to learn what they’re working on or the specific kind of show you’re doing, regardless of if it’s an Aquaman DC comic movie or Marvel, or anything. I’ve done pretty much all the kinds of movies, down to a little TV show, and you have to know what your beast is and you have to learn it and then you have to kind of break it down.
Then basically it’s a bunch of little pieces that you have to start to build. It’s kind of like LEGOs; you get a box full of pieces and you start to put it all together. You make a roadmap for yourself, and that’s kind of how I’ve been doing it for years. And Aquaman is a good point. You know, I’ve known James for a long time and we did Fast and Furious together, and I know how he likes to work. So we put together a visual team and then the team broke down the elements of what we thought might be in the script. But the scripts change on movies always like that quite a bit as they’re going along. And then we kind of presented it slowly piece by piece until it was built up and then it turned out rather nice.
What was the collaboration process with director James Wan when you were designing the overall underwater and above worlds of Aquaman?
BB: James is real great. He’s one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with. He really gets involved. He really does his homework. He knows what wants. He comes to me with styles and visual imagery that he’s interested in. He relies on me to help guide him along with the other people we have to get the look he wants for movies like that. There’s no one person to design every little nook and cranny of the movie. You have to develop a style to then start to plug things into it and what doesn’t work you throw out because it’s so big. There’s so many people working at it. You’re like an orchestra. You have to kind of keep it all going and you have to score. So that’s kind of what I have. I do the visual score with James. James is obviously the conductor and he’s got all the different departments he’s working with. I mean, there’s a lot of analogies, but that kind of thing.
Aquaman balances a lot of fantastical and real elements. How did you go about balancing those and making the visuals feel unique at each location?
BB: Well, first, we make ourselves believe that it can really happen. “Okay, that’s a big thing you have to do.” You have to have this willing suspension of disbelief and you know you can’t live underwater and do all that stuff. We just say he can, and just let it go. Then you kind of bring the elements together, that in our imagination look real. You just have to kind of like say, “Yeah, this can really happen. And this is how it would happen.” You don’t get too mired down in the weeds, you know what I mean?
Throw a little bit of science into it to help yourself out. You have to answer questions to make choices. It’s all about making choices – from colors to textures to elements. And you have to make those choices. With Aquaman, we knew that it had to be done in a kind of Hellenistic Greek traditional look because the fable is based on those myths, from Homer and all that stuff. That was our driving force. So we went way back in time to that kind of thing. And an off-shoot of that had created this culture. You know, it was kind of an analog culture that came up. So they may have ended up living underwater for whatever reason, I don’t know, but they liked it down there.
But it’s actually a lot of fun to do. I think everybody does that. We start extending our imagination, especially when you’re a kid, you create your own little worlds that you had your own little rules for. For this movie I spent a lot of time making a whole book, “How does this work? How does it do that? This is how they do this.” You do that even in a very realistic movie with very realistic characters and very realistic situations that are going on, because you still have to put down the rules of how, why these characters do what they do.
What were some of your inspirations for the Atlantean world?
BB: Well, it was really important to us to keep an eye on the DC version of the movie. What had come before. A lot of times with comic book movies, people go off on a tangent that has nothing to do with the source material. The people that really follow the material want us, they want to be represented. We don’t need to be exactly like what the comics were, but people do want to feel like you paid a little attention to it. So we used the source material of the DC comics for what Atlantis looks like and then we just tweaked it.
After, we then brought in kind of an organic thing and said, “Well if this was real, how would people really live there?” So we then brought in this whole organic nature to the thing, like they live under water, they would use underwater ways of doing things. Especially in Atlantis, it was more grown. Everything was like coral, like an organic world. Just like the way things do look under water, it would follow the environment.
I mean, if you look at indigenous peoples in whatever environments they live in, they use whatever there is to create their world. In Aquaman, we overlaid it with the Greek tradition and brought in the kind of architecture that we then said split off from the people that stayed on the land. Then we had to create seven different kingdoms underwater, so that was kind of fun. We broke each one off, like the fishermen kingdom. They were the peaceful guys and they kind of evolved into fish-type people. So we created a fish-type world for them. The crab people, they were down at the bottom. They were more in the rocks and that kind of culture. It’s actually fun to try to figure all this stuff out. But once you figure it out, you just follow the rules and it all kind of comes together. And you have to communicate that to everybody in the group, why this costume looks like that and so on and so forth.
Working on something like Aquaman or Iron Man 3, did you notice any differences in your creative process when working within a cinematic universe?
BB: Not really, no. All people that design architecture and all that develop a process that they kind of have to fall back on. I mean, a script is a script. A Marvel movie is not unlike a DC movie in reality. They’re different corporate cultures, but the basis for creating Iron Man… there is some of the basis for creating Batman or it’s the same kind of thing you get down. In Iron Man, I was fortunate because there was a body of work to pull from that had already been established as the look of the Marvel universe. And as they’re changing now too, their universes are starting to change too. So they’re very similar is what I’m trying to say. I’ve done two or three superhero movies – some that were not very successful – but it was still always the same process.
Would you be interested in returning to that environment with something like Aquaman 2?
BB: Oh yeah, I would love to. I feel that it’s like my child. I’m looking forward to hoping that we get the other one going so we can build on that. Now that we know what we’re doing, you know… It’s funny. If you make a movie, the first one’s the hardest one, and then once they start getting made over and over again the style evolves. When you think, Oh, they’re up to like 22 James Bond movies, it’s not like you reinvent the wheel every time. So it’s really a lot of fun to do. The second one, like I did the Stuart Little movies, 1 & 2, it was really a lot of fun to create the world that Stuart started in, but the second one was fun too because now we had that problem solved. Like, what does it look like? Now we could get into some of the specifics and nuances of it, which we couldn’t really do on the first one.
So the same thing with Aquaman 2; we know what they eat, how they live underwater. We have a feeling for what it could look like. Now, we’ll take it to another level and it’ll be really a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to, again, working with James. He’s a lot of fun to work with and he takes it very seriously. He’s like a really devoted fan. That’s the kind of person that should direct those kinds of movies. Somebody that really believes in them.
For sure. Let’s quickly discuss Thunder Force, your next film for Netflix.
BB: That’s a comedy that was actually a lot of fun with Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer. It’s kind of a spoof on the whole genre of superhero movies, especially women in superhero movies. They take two unlikely characters, and it imbues them with power. One of them is a scientist and she creates this methodology to become a superhero because superheroes are kind of running rampant and they’re not nice superheroes. So they decide that they need to get involved to save the planet in the sense that they need to have a counterbalance to the bad superheroes. So they riff on a lot of the jokes superhero movies make, especially from a woman’s point of view. And they’re not like, like Gal Gadot type woman, you know what I mean? They’re more like a normal type of woman. So there’s a lot of comedy in there, that was actually a lot of fun to do. Melissa is a very sweet person and they really take their work very seriously, their comedy very seriously. It’s pretty broad, but I think it’ll be cute. I’m sure people will enjoy seeing it.
I had not done a Netflix project, so that was kind of fun to try to do and to work with that company. It’s actually a great company to work for. They take their movie-making very seriously and they treat it just like you’re making, whether it’s on television or it’s in the theater, it’s treated the same way. There’s no, “this is a TV show” kind of attitude. That’s why I think they’re very successful. They’re just making entertainment, which is, you know, the way it is. It all ends up on television eventually. I don’t think of movies any more than specifically for the genre. It’s all just entertainment.
To end the interview, are there any upcoming projects you’d like to mention?
BB: No, I would just like to say, I’m hoping that we get acclimated to up and going. The pandemic has kind of slowed everything down, because release dates are being squashed. So there’s a stack of movies, you know? I would like to be doing – I’m not, we haven’t been in contact – but I’m hoping Jumanji, maybe the 4th or the 3rd Jumanji. That would be a fun one to do too. I really enjoyed working on that. It’s funny, I’ve been in the business for almost 40 years. The work only fully presents itself right before you start it. People probably think, well, there’s all these projects way out there. You’re on board and you’re going to do it when you have all these choices.
Essentially the way it works, a movie starts when they call you and tell you we’re starting tomorrow. Even, Aquaman, the most successful Warner Brothers movie almost ever made. Actually Aquaman is like, I think one or two movies ever made any more money at Warner brothers. You would think it would be scheduled out, but you know, there are still issues. So you never know. I’m waiting and I think we’re pretty confident we’re going to be making the second one. I think in FanDome they’re going to talk a lot about that. I think they’re going to talk a little bit about what might be in it and stuff. That’ll be exciting. So I’m up to try to watch several panels.