Bright Lights Film Journal

On <em>Sacred Deers</em> and <em>Ghost Stories</em>: Talking with Production Designer Jade Healy

Jade Healy

When it comes to design, I always try to get into the heads of the characters and then I try to map out the history of the location itself. Who lived there before? Where did these characters get their furniture, what can they afford, what was given to them and what did they buy? It’s so much about layering and creating a world that will help shape the characters and push the narrative forward.

* * *

Jade Healy is having a great few years. After coming up in the late-aughts with David Lowery, Ti West, Kris Williams, and Joe Swanberg – designing, among other things, the underground hit House of the Devil and co-writing and starring in It Was Great, but I Was Ready to Come Home – Healy has spent the past five years as a production designer on bigger and bigger projects, including West’s The Sacrament, David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Mississippi Grind. In 2016, a culmination of sorts came in the form of Lowery’s big-budget Disney film Pete’s Dragon.

In 2017, Healy’s work continues to impress in three films: David Lowery’s acclaimed A Ghost Story, now available on video and video on demand; Yorgos Lanthimos’ follow-up to The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in theaters now; and the Tonya Harding biopic, I, Tonya, out December 8.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things

So, your first work that I can find was as assistant producer on Asia Argento’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, and that seems like a fascinating first project to me. How did that come about?

I came to LA while I was still in film school and I interned for “Muse Films.” They were making some of the best films at the time and I really just wanted to learn about filmmaking. It just so happens that they were in soft prep for The Heart Is Deceitful. So I decided to make myself as useful as possible so that they would bring me to Tennessee and I could participate and observe the making of the film.

You’ve been the production designer on movies set in the 1970’s, ‘80s, ‘90s, our present. What’s the process for becoming familiar with a decade’s look and feel?

It’s a lot of research. Finding photographers from that era, archives, magazines, and of course also watching films from that era. But every film, whether it’s the same era or not, will have something that makes it unique in how it looks and how that look helps push the narrative forward. So for me it’s always an emotional and instinctive approach to storytelling and film language first and foremost. I love any film that takes place in a different time period.

You’ve worked with David Lowery on three features, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Pete’s Dragon, and A Ghost Story. How has that relationship evolved over time?

We have sort of adopted the same visual brain. We certainly have a shorthand that we have developed over time. I think when I read his scripts, I can see the world through his eyes, and it makes our collaboration very fluid.

A Ghost Story

How was an experience like Pete’s Dragon different from A Ghost Story? I’m sure the number of crew members, the constraints, the pace of work is all different from one to the other.

To begin with, just my set-dressing budget on Pete’s Dragon was bigger than the entire budget of A Ghost Story. I had no money to work with on A Ghost Story and no crew. Basically I was painting and shopping and doing a lot of the work myself, whereas on Pete’s Dragon, I had so much crew and so much money that I could do anything I wanted, which in effect can be quite a bit of pressure when you are designing your first big-budget studio film. However, sometimes monetary limitations can help shape the world in a good way.

The setting of A Ghost Story is as much a character as C and M – what was the design process like on the house? Did you build it or happen upon it?

A Ghost Story

When it comes to design, I always try to get into the heads of the characters and then I try to map out the history of the location itself. Who lived there before? Where did these characters get their furniture, what can they afford, what was given to them and what did they buy? It’s so much about layering and creating a world that will help shape the characters and push the narrative forward. Since there was little scripted backstory for our characters, it was important that the house fill in some of the gaps.

We spent a long time looking for the right house that would contain our world. We knew the house needed to be an older house and a house that had seen better days, but most importantly we needed a house that we could demolish.

I love the lived-in feeling of the house: the front yard is overgrown, the exterior paint is chipping, the mismatched hardwood floors in the living room. Was there a conscious effort to make C’s feeling of history and nostalgia visible?

Absolutely. David and I always strive for “timelessness.” We want to create a space that the audience can identify with, even when it is so specific to our characters. It’s always important for us not to alienate the audience. This way they can connect with the characters more. This is basically how nostalgia works: you create a sense of familiarity. A place that feels warm and welcoming.

Can you take me through the design of the ghosts, both C and his neighbor?

A Ghost Story

The costume designer really handled the ghost build. We did a lot of tests in prep to get the shape and build right. On my end we spent a lot of time discussing color and lighting with the cinematographer and how we wanted the ghost to begin to blend into his environment as time went on. So, I painted the house an off-white once the Hispanic family moves in so that the ghost would start to become one with the house. For the neighbor we discussed really wanting an old printed sheet. Something that would set the neighbor ghost apart from C’s ghost.

What was it like crafting the flashes of a future city and the settler’s camp that we see in the climax of the picture? They’re such extremes, in location and design.

We were lucky to have Weta Digital, who did our visual effects for Pete’s Dragon, come on board to help with the future world. At the time, they were working on Ghost in the Shell, and so I believe we used some cityscape from that film and then adapted to make it a futuristic Dallas. For the settlers we really just did as much research as we could and found what we could locally to create a simple settlers setup.

A Ghost Story

I’m not all that sure where The Killing of a Sacred Deer was filmed. Could you tell me a bit about the location choices on that film?

The location was based primarily around the hospital, so we were looking for a city that had the best hospital. Cincinnati has the best hospital hands down, and they were willing to work with us and let us shoot in most parts of the locations we wanted to shoot.

The hospital in The Killing of a Sacred Deer seems so clean and modern, it gives the impression that any illness could be cured there, which makes it all the worse when that turns out to be false. Was this an important decision, to find the grandest, cleanest locations for the hospital?

Yes, we really wanted a sterile and modern space. Something that almost feels alien. There was a constant joke that the hospital rooms were nicer than our hotel room.

Above two images: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

In Sacred Deer, the camera often glides way below or way above the characters. Did this decision alter your location scouting or how you made design choices?

Oh definitely. Yorgos is meticulous in his shot listing, and everything had to be considered. We needed long hallways, and we needed a house that we could move around in, so we spent a long, long time looking for that house. That was the hardest location to lock down.

Does the tone of a film affect your design? The emotional tones and rhythms of these two particular pictures are miles apart.

Yes, the design must reflect the tone, the design must set the tone. When creating the look for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, I was always looking for sterile environments, whether it was the hospital, school, or house. I wanted things to exist on the surface, to have an alien quality to it. Whereas in A Ghost Story we were trying to create a sense of nostalgia, in Killing of a Sacred Deer we were trying to create a sense of discomfort.

Above two images: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

I want to know all about the open heart surgery scene.

We shot a real open heart surgery scene! It was crazy. First, the hospital had myself, the director, the cinematographer, and the first AD sit in and watch one in a conference room on a live feed so we could get a sense of the process. So that when we recreated parts of the scene with our actor, we would have all the actions rights, what the nurses do, when they put on their gown, when they take off their gloves, how they scrub in … all of it. It was incredibly informative. Then we shot a real heart surgery for all the close-ups. Colin Farrell was there as well watching the surgery. I’ll never forget that.

I have a thing for lamps and sconces in movies, and the climax of The Killing a Sacred Deer features two incredible lamps spraying the craziest light onto the ceiling. Can you tell me about that?

Well, first of all, lamps or, as we call them, “practicals,” are a crucial element of the design process. How light falls, where it is placed, what temperature the light is, can all dramatically shift the mood or tone, and so lamps are carefully selected and placed. Of course, sometimes there is an amazing happy accident, like the lamp shades that my amazing decorator found. As soon as we put them on the lamps and lit them up, we both stood there and looked at the lamp shadows and we knew they were the right lamps.

Is there anything that you’re particularly proud or fond of in A Ghost Story, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, or the upcoming I, Tonya that an audience should look for and appreciate?

I, Tonya. Image courtesy of Clubhouse Pictures.

I am proud of all three of these movies, they all have a distinct look but I would say that I am really excited about how I, Tonya looks. It has a very stylized yet minimal look for a ‘90s film and I feel like we did a really good job at bringing that time period to life. We had so many sets, and recreating the Olympics was challenging and exciting.

We look forward to seeing it. Thanks for speaking with us, Jade Healy.

* * *

Note: Above images are screenshots unless otherwise indicated. Jade Healy kindly supplied the shot of herself at the top.