For over four decades, Oscar-winning production designer Dean Tavoularis has taken audiences to other worlds and times, whether it’s the bleak Depression-era Texas of Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic “Bonnie and Clyde,” the mob universe of the Corleone family in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” trilogy or the mysterious, shadowy jungle compounds in Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now.”
After spending the past decade concentrating on his work as a painter, the 79-year-old Tavoularis has returned to the cinema as production designer on Roman Polanski’s dark four-character comedy “Carnage,” based on Yasmina Reza’s Tony Award-winning play “God of Carnage.”
From his beautiful vintage home in the Fairfax district he shares with his actress-wife, Aurore Clément (she appeared in the redux version of “Apocalypse Now”), the soft-spoken Tavoularis explained that he didn’t consciously retire from films.
“The last film I worked on was with Francis on a film called ‘Megalopolis,” he said. “It was a terrific movie that was not made. We were based in Brooklyn, and we all had gone up to the twin towers about a month before [9/11], and there was some beautiful footage we shot of Manhattan.
“The film was about buildings and kind of a modern-day Rome — a big, operatic kind of approach. Then there was the bombing of the twin towers. I am not saying that kind of ended it, but he did set the film aside. And I got very involved in painting.”
That is, until he got the call last year from Polanski in Paris about “Carnage,” set in an older, well-lived-in Brooklyn apartment. The two had previously worked on the 1999 film “The Ninth Gate.” “You think great, you are going to do a movie with one set and a playground, but when you start thinking about it, is the audience going to be bored looking at one set? When I talked to Roman about that, he said ‘Forget it. There is a story and the actors, it is not just your set!’”
Born in Lowell, Mass., Tavoularis grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was in the coffee business. “We are Greek Americans, and one of his clients was Fox studio, that was owned by Spyros Skouras. In the summer sometimes I would go with my dad and spend a day going around on his deliveries. We would drive back to the commissary, and you saw stage pieces and ladies dressed in their period gowns. It was a mysterious, magical paradise.”
He thought he would love to work at a studio but had no idea what he could do. He got his break in the mid-1950s, when as a student at the Otis College of Art and Design, he and several of his fellow students took their portfolios to Walt Disney Studios. “I had a call saying you can come and work,” he recalled. “I was absolutely thrilled. I don’t think anybody else got the job.”
Tavoularis began as an in-betweener — a process in animation in which one creates intermediate frames between two images — working on 1955’s “Lady and the Tramp.” He segued to the live-action art department, where he worked on 1954’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” He also worked on such Disney favorites as 1960’s “Pollyanna” and “1961’s “The Parent Trap.”
Robert Clatworthy, the production designer who worked on those last two Disney films, had moved to Universal and invited Tavoularis to join him. After working on several films he got a call from a makeup man who was the associate producer on “Bonnie and Clyde.” “He said, ‘Go meet Arthur Penn at the Beverly Wilshire hotel,’” said Tavoularis.
There he met director Penn and star Warren Beatty. They offered him the job on the 1967 film, Tavoularis’ first as art director/production designer.
It was as a production manager on an Italian film he worked on that got him a meeting with Coppola at the St. Regis in New York for 1972’s “The Godfather.” It was the start of a rich collaboration, according to Tavoularis, who has earned five Oscar nominations and won for 1974’s “The Godfather: Part II.”
“He is the ideal director to work with on a film, very generous, very open,” he said. “I can’t remember him ever saying, ‘That’s too over-the-top.’ He is always pushing, you feel that open door, and it frees you.”
He admitted that working on “Apocalypse Now” for two years in the Philippines was a crazy, difficult endeavor. “You never had the feeling at the end of the day that it is one day less and you were one day closer to completion.”
He is still tight with Coppola. So will the two ever work together again?
“It’s possible,” he said with a cryptic smile.