Creating utopia

Former Punk devotee and graphic designer Alex McDowell talks to Yolanda Zappaterra as his latest venture is unveiled; Steven Spielberg’s chilly, futuristic thriller Minority Report

Such was the buzz in London’s Leicester Square a few Sundays back, I thought I must have stumbled into the wrong film premiere; a sneak preview of Harry Potter 2, maybe, or even a big-screen viewing of Ireland’s World Cup tie against Spain. But surely not Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Minority Report?

Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1954 book The Minority Report, and starring Tom Cruise, Minority Report is a potential successor to Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott’s 1982 futuristic extravaganza based on Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Hence the Leicester Square buzz: 20 years on, Blade Runner is a dauntingly hard act to follow.

With nods in its direction, Minority Report bears its own darkly distinct look. Set in Washington DC circa 2054, the film’s design intelligently takes Dick’s premise – the prevention of murders and apprehension of would-be perpetrators through, as it transpires, fallible precognition at a Precrime Unit headed by Cruise’s character John Anderton – to create a look that is all about transparency, reflection, distortion and visualisation. Previews suggest it is the closest Hollywood has come to capturing Dick’s dystopian, persecuted worlds.

Comparisons with Blade Runner don’t faze Minority Report’s British production designer Alex McDowell. He insists his futuristic world, which was over two years in the making, is more utopian than dystopian, environmentally and socially conscious and technologically advan-ced in a direct line from the present day.

And, after all, this is the man who art directed more than 200 music videos, including Madonna’s Vogue, directed by David Fincher, and has designed films such as Lawnmower Man, The Crow, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas and Fincher’s Fight Club.

McDowell studied fine art and painting at Central St Martins College of Art and Design from 1974 to 1977- London’s Punk years. Here a series of events led to a serendipitous meeting. ‘My final exhibition so incensed the school head, Marc Vaux, that he threatened to call the police, tore down a couple of pieces and diverted all visitors away from my show,’ McDowell recalls.

‘But this introduced me to [i-D magazine founder] Terry Jones, who was making the rounds of the art schools and was attracted to the anarchy. He asked me to help him set up i-D magazine and I worked on the first three issues. At the same time I was working with [former Sex Pistol] Glen Matlock, and when he left to start the Rich Kids I collected together a group of ragamuffin designers and set up Rocking Russian Design with Matlock’s backing to design the band’s campaign,’ McDowell says.

‘I was ill-equipped to run a business. But we had a great time riding the wave of corporate insecurity the Punk movement had engendered in the record industry,’ he adds.

As was the way back then, one band led to another, which suited McDowell’s eclectic style of design. He took a little bit of Russian constructivism, some Eastern bloc and mixed it with an ornate Viennese style and even woodblock printing to produce consistently arresting work that defied an identifiable style in favour of experimentation and gleeful inconsistency.

McDowell puts this down to the fact that he was untrained in graphics. ‘I studied painting and fine art and was a music fan. While Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett trained in graphics and knew one typeface from another, I studied painting and goofed around,’ he says. His scattergun approach formed one part of a dual-pronged methodology, the other being confident experimentation that seems to have e e permeated his career. A willingness to try anything raises itself again and again in conversation with him, as does the influence of his past experiences and his love of music. ‘As a touchstone for my work, it’s driven the design of The Crow and Fight Club in particular. I equate [music] very closely with design – they have the same visceral effect when they work. Punk design remains a powerful influence too and, along with the political awareness Punk brought to the surface, continues to inform the content of my work in film,’ he explains.

His work as a painter and designer informs his current work as well, McDowell says. ‘Printmaking layering techniques such as screenprinting, litho, woodblock and the way printmakers work in negative space and tone relate closely to the way I work with surface and light in film. Similarly, my process consists of a visual coding for every film that represents atmosphere, colour, character, history and texture,’ he says. McDowell says his art department for each film looks like a museum of images, spread out for all the creatives to cull from. ‘This gives each film a visual consistency,’ he says.

Visual consistency is clear in Minority Report. Glass and lenses proliferate in a Gaudi-esque, organically shaped future. The approach was driven by McDowell’s first meeting with Spielberg, ‘who wanted to develop a realistic future that would resonate directly with today’s audience; a “future reality” film rather than science fiction’, says McDowell.

‘We studied contemporary technology, architecture and design, from individual architects to corporations. Every prop had to be thought through functionally. In developing this approach you find you’ve created an inner logic to every aspect of the imaginary world, so if a new problem is thrown up by the script you instinctively know how to solve it and fit it into the design fabric of the film,’ he adds. ‘It was important to create a world so familiar that it draws the audience in – so that when it implodes and the implications of a murder-free society become clear, the audience cannot so easily extricate itself,’ he explains.

Following extensive research, McDowell decided to design the film using digital tools not yet absorbed in the film industry in order to physically produce some of the set designs.

‘I wanted to develop organic architectural forms that reflected the direction of contemporary architecture, which could not be designed or produced conventionally,’ he says. ‘To a large extent we threw away the pencil, and worked with a combination of physical and 3D models. Digital tools have opened up exciting possibilities that I’m continuing to explore, such as creating the chaotic world of Dr Seuss [for McDowell’s next film project, The Cat in the Hat],’ he says.

‘Film is the first medium I’ve found that I didn’t get bored with after a couple of years,’ says McDowell. ‘I enjoy working in an art form that’s still hardly a century old and could go anywhere. The trick now is for me to retain enough innocence and ignorance to continue learning, and enough wisdom not to go off the rails.’

Minority Report goes on general release in cinemas nationwide from Thursday.

Latest articles