Teaching The Master Cleanse

by Bill Clarke
Production Designer, The Master Cleanse

In the fall of 2013, about 6 months after our shoot, I got a call from my alma mater, the University of Virginia. The head of the drama department’s design program was on sabbatical, and I was asked come to teach their graduate design students a “segment.” For how long? And on what exactly? It was up to me. Which was flattering, I guess, but also kind of an extra challenge.

The standard way design is taught is to assign a “paper project” based on a hypothetical theater and a (usually) famous play. But leading them through yet one more Hedda Gabler was already as exhausting as it was uninspired. 

So I hit on the idea of giving them The Master Cleanse as their project.

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Their assignment would be: 

You’re interviewing with a film director for the PD position. He’s got an intriguing darkly comic script, set in Park Slope. But there are major obstacles to shooting it there, and he’s now in Charlottesville on a prelim scout for a possible local shoot. His heart’s not really in it though, and YOUR job, as interviewee, is to convince him that Charlottesville in fact is a GREAT place to shoot the story, as there are local equivalents for all of Park Slope’s eccentricities. And you’d be the ideal designer.

I emailed Daniel’s script well ahead of time, and I asked them to prepare for the mock interview; their job was to impress me with their knowledge of the script, their familiarity with Park Slope (Google heavily used here), and their argument for re-setting the story locally.

I threw out a bunch of questions: What is the character of the house? Who has determined that?  Dr. Emma Horowitz (the commune’s founder and leader) alone? Are residents deprived of their own personal belongings when they arrive? And so is there something visually uniform about the house? Or are they allowed to personalize their own rooms—with Emma controlling only the common spaces? How did she come to acquire the house? How old is it? How many total live there? What does it mean, a “commune”, today? Does it relate in any way, visually, to the stereotypical commune from the 1960s/70s? How is this commune funded? Is Emma wealthy? Do the residents have outside jobs? You have to think about the money to have an idea of how the house and furniture look: is it old and shabby? Eclectic and flea-markety? Fine antiques?

Larger question: what is the nature of group living exactly? How would a communal kitchen be obviously distinct from one in a single-family home?

For the second meeting I asked them to prepare a script  breakdown of all locales needed, and to carefully note any props or furniture either explicitly demanded or implicitly helpful. And to bring in pictures supporting their ideas—the things you’d need to give a prop department.

Meanwhile they were supposed to be scouting Charlottesville for suitable locales—principally, a house with the right character, and which they’d be able to get inside. Initially only photos of the exterior were required, but later they were asked to bring photos of the interior of the house, showing at least the main communal living area and its relation to the kitchen. Measure and draft a ground plan of same. Consider camera angles and where cameras/equipment are stored.

Maybe it was unavoidable, but my biggest disappointment was the lack of any particular bohemian flair in the houses they chose. Charlottesville may be best known for manicured Federal classicism, but a distinct counterculture is alive and well there, as it is in most college towns. I just don’t feel the students cast a wide enough net to find it. Possibly they would’ve needed to get outside the town’s limits a bit, and that might’ve been logistically tough. And they were first-year students, so still new to the area themselves.

On the other hand, I saw some terrific pictures of vegan restaurants; you could’ve shot the date scene from our film there pretty much “as is.” Most impressively, one came up with a super-creative alternative for the final scene, which (without any hint from me), had a great desolate-urban-blasted character, very much in sync with the actual location we chose for the film.

The final assignment involved using their scout photos as a starting point, and Photoshopping them to manipulate the images to show how they’d transform the locales to suit the film. Anything may change (no regard for budget!): wall color, furniture, anything on the walls, etc. I decided it’d be more interesting to untether their imaginations from budget.

The last thing we did was screen the actual film, which they were all eager to see. It was a huge hit, despite lack of popcorn—or spirulina. Of course they had some questions (and compliments) about the film’s look; they were really intrigued by the Manifest Refuge in particular. There clearly is nothing quite like an ornate Brooklyn brownstone in their experience. And they loved the actors, and found Brooke and Jim really appealing.

In short, I think (I hope) the project opened the scope of their thinking a little bit. And personally speaking, it allowed me to delve more deeply and consciously into the choices we make as designers.