"Into the Woods" production designer Dennis Gassner doesn't have much experience with musicals, but he has plenty of experience with woods. When he was 16, he worked as an Oregon lumberjack.
"I grew up in the woods, and so I got to kind of become young again [on this film]," he said. "And whenever you can capture your youth, it's quite divine."
In the years since he traded the woods for Hollywood, Gassner has earned an Oscar for 1991's "Bugsy" and nominations for 1991's "Barton Fink," 2003's "Road to Perdition" and 2008's "The Golden Compass."
His most recent Oscar contender, based on Stephen Sondheim's 1987 musical, sends fairy-tale characters "into the woods" to pursue wishes — which have giant consequences.
Where did you begin the design process for "Into the Woods"?
I live in Los Angeles. I met [director Rob Marshall] in New York, and I walked through Central Park to get to him, a half an hour walk. And I just wanted to have trees and the things in nature. And every morning, I would bring all these images in, and we'd talk about it. And it was a magical thing because you discover things.
How do you organize these images?
I have something called the Wall, which is every scene laid out in step-by-step processes. So it's a very pragmatic way of going about doing it; I can actually see all the movie at one glance in my office. They're sketches of every form — I mean, sketches and even a bit of bark or a bit of a leaf, something that I find that feels good to me.
What were some of these things?
The first thing I looked up in my research was Angel Oaks. It's in Georgia. Obviously, we couldn't go to Georgia to shoot it. So we ended up going to London because of the forests that were here. And we ended up in the Queen's Park in Windsor Park. And the ancient oaks that were there, that's what I was looking for — that Angel Oaks signature. [But] I'll just tell you, we built 50% of the trees in the film, if not more.
Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother lives inside of a huge tree. Was that tree built?
That was a real tree in a real location, but I had to create a passageway for her to go down in the ground underneath, because Granny lived basically under the tree. And [there was] also the difficulty of the fact that you're highly restricted in the queen's forest, because they're 600-year-old trees. So they're historic documents. They all are registered. They all have numbers on them. So you have to interface with them in a very, very delicate fashion. And the door was applied to the tree itself, but it never touched it. So it was all about camera positions and angles. You go through the door, and then you cut to a sound stage. The sound stage is where the wolf is in the bed and all that.
Your woods also feature a spectacular waterfall. How did you choose that as a setting for two frustrated princes singing a duet about Cinderella and Rapunzel?
It's good, isn't it? That actually is a man-made waterfall off one of the lakes that we found. Like Dover Castle and like the ruin for Rapunzel, those were all locations, and you can only find those in England.
It seemed like you used minimal computer-generated imagery.
And that's why it looked so real and looked so different, compared to most films. So it's really an old-school film in some ways, but it's an old-school story. It's really Grimm. He did etchings and put them in a book. That was cool at the time. So then how do we do things in a modern day to represent the story in our own way? So it was a non-CGI film. I think Disney appreciated it, that we haven't seen a film like this in forever. It was like doing "Wizard of Oz" again, in some ways. It was the magic of that, but we did it in quite a sophisticated way.
How did you choose the color scheme?
I work with color books. I look at a lot of references. You know, I go to [costume designer] Colleen Atwood, and I say, "What kind of material are you going to use?" I go to rocks; I go to nature. I had an amazing paint department. I say, "Can you do me some samples? I want it to feel like moss. I want it to feel like oak." What makes you feel good when you walk into a forest? And that's basically how I wanted everyone to feel. I wanted them to feel excited, stimulated, slightly scared, and mysterious, magical.