FILM BOOK REVIEW: Designing Movies by Richard Sylbert

My love for the 1967 hit film, The Graduate, has been continuous since I first watched it many years ago. Therefore,  I was excited to come across Designing Movies, written by the esteemed production designer, Richard Sylbert.

Designing Movies: A Portrait of a Hollywood Artist (Praeger Publishing)  by Richard Sylbert is a fascinating book that claims to be “An eye-witness account of movie-making from one of the most influential artists in Hollywood history, featuring interviews with some of contemporary cinema’s most famous directors, actors, and artisans”.

designing movies

Richard Sylbert

This claim might appear an overstatement at first but within the pages of this book the claim is upheld. Consider Richard Sylbert’s career–his list of Production Design credits include The Graduate, Chinatown, Rosemary’s Baby, Reds, Dick Tracy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and even that fantastic set for the long-running TV show Cheers.

The book is structured in chronological order, aside from the first few introductory chapters,  following the films the designed, which makes it easy to hunt down the sections you might be interested in. In my case that is The Graduate – and I was not disappointed. I had long wondered about locations used in the film versus which sets were built. Sylbert’s candid, no nonsense approach to talking about his work reveals many facts and observations. Sylbert reveals his theme for the overall approach to this particular film was “Keeping up with the Joneses”. He details how this was thematic inspiration was applied practically and the influence that this idea had on the entire production.

richard sylbert

Sylbert’s sketch for the Rosemary’s Baby apartment

For a book about a visual artist, there are disappointingly few images on display, none of which are in colour. In fact most photos feature Sylbert sharing the company of various celebrities including Mike Nichols, John Huston, Peter Sellers, Peter O’Toole, Warren Beatty and Elia Kazan. Indeed, “Sylbert liked to schmooze with celebrities” as the book admits.

richard sylbert

Sylbert’s book cover

Sylbert must have been working on the book, published in 2006,  right up until he passed away in 2002, as most of the chapters are written by him in first person. Others are completed by Sylvia Townsend with the assistance of Sharmagne Leland-St. John-Sylbert, presumably a relative. The chapters written by Townsend perhaps give a better insight in the personality of Sylbert, however the inside knowledge of the films and events surrounding their production are what make this book interesting.

The dedication to Richard’s grandchildren is followed by one to “Production Designers, whose work is too often undervalued”. There may be truth in this statement and Sylbert, one of the best there was, makes a good effort in correcting that oversight.