A career in production designer was not always Paul D. Austerberry's intended path. Growing up in the burgh of Sault Ste. Marie in northern Ontario, Canada, Austerberry set his sights on architecture at an early age. He eventually found his way to the film industry in the 1990s as a set dresser and assistant art director on films like Blown Away, Trapped in Paradise, and A Pyromaniac's Love Story.
By the aughts, Austerberry was production designing films of all genres: The erotic thriller Mercy (2000), the martial arts comedy The Tuxedo (2002), the vampire romance The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010), and the historical epic Pompeii (2014). His work soon caught the eye of Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro, who tapped the production designer for 2017's The Shape of Water.
For The Shape of Water, Austerberry won the Oscar for Best Production Design, shared with set decorators Shane Vieau and Jeffrey A. Melvin. "Guillermo, may you keep dreaming up your monsters and their wonderful stories," he said on the stage, "so people like us can help shape their worlds."
Following the Oscar win, director Andy Muschietti enlisted Austerberry for 2019's It: Chapter Two, and the two collaborated again on the multiversal superhero flick, The Flash. Which is all to say, it's been an unpredictable yet rewarding journey for the Canadian production designer, whose work can be seen later this year in Blitz Bazawule's musical adaptation of The Color Purple.
Below, Austerberry shares with A.frame five films that inspired him — sometimes unconsciously — to become a production designer.
Directed by: Lewis Gilbert | Production Design by: Ken Adam
I wanted to be an architect from the age of 10. However, as a kid, one of the few kinds of movies I was able to stay up late and watch were James Bond movies on The ABC Sunday Night Movie. I didn't know anything about film. I grew up in a small northern Ontario town. But seeing all the Ken Adam designs from back then and the locations that they went to, I said, "Jeez, it would be amazing to be the person who chooses all these locations and makes these crazy sets." So, I would say that there are a number of James Bond films that are pretty influential in making me end up where I am.
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick | Production Design by: Ernest Archer, Harry Lange and Anthony Masters
I always have had a fascination with sci-fi stories and worlds, and I've dreamed of designing spaceships. I had an Orion III Pan Am Space Clipper model in my room. What is amazing about 2001 is that it's a very believable type of sci-fi, born out of a lot of ideas from NASA scientists of the era. I think that is one of the reasons it is so successful and stands out as one of the icons of modern space films. Strangely, now that I have done a number of different types of films, I am not as excited about an entirely spaceship-based film. I prefer films that combine landscapes, fantastical architecture as well as spaceships — like Dune, for instance.
Directed by: Jean-Jacques Beineix | Production Design by: Hilton McConnico
Diva is a very stylistic film, shot all on location, that was quite beautiful. I looked at it a few times in architecture school. I still had not thought at all about film, but these things put an impression in my mind about it. I haven't viewed this film in a long time, but what stuck with me was the use of really rundown found locations with minimal dressing: A black-painted, empty loft with a wave machine and a massive, almost-finished jigsaw puzzle on the floor; or a Wes Anderson-like symmetrical shot of a straight road with a 1950s classic Citroën driving towards a phallic lighthouse, mixed with some pretty frenetic chases and an operatic soundtrack. These are the images that stayed with me. I listened to that soundtrack so many times while trying to meet a design deadline at architecture school. It may not hold up to my memories of it, but it was pretty influential at the time.
Directed by: Ridley Scott | Production Design by: Lawrence G. Paull
In architecture school, we referenced many things out of Blade Runner. It was one of the key sci-fi films to really depict a dark dystopian future. It was quite a departure from Star Wars and Star Trek. It was wildly futuristic in its designs, yet filled with architectural and cultural layers from recognizable cities of its day at its lowest levels. It was visually so dense and combined with all the neon, the constant rain, and the aural bombardment. It stood out in its time, it still stands out today.
Directed by: Zhang Yimou | Production Design by: Tingxiao Huo and Zhenzhou Yi
This is a super epic, very, very stylized movie. It always blows me away. I ended up scouting a lot of those places on a film that never happened with Guillermo del Toro. We visited a couple of epic landscapes that Yimou Zhang used, located in Inner Mongolia and the edge of the Gobi Desert. I think landscape is definitely integral to the design of a film, and as an extension, mostly falls into our camp. Landscapes also heavily influence the architectural designs that might invade them, but I think mostly they remain an extension.