Walking into the film

Nathan Crowley on production design for Costume Institute exhibitions and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Nathan Crowley did the production design for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, starring Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and John David Washington: “We just wrapped that two weeks ago. So that's going into post-production; it'll be out next summer.”
Nathan Crowley did the production design for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, starring Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Michael Caine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and John David Washington: “We just wrapped that two weeks ago. So that's going into post-production; it'll be out next summer.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

After speaking with Shane Valentino at the press preview for The Costume Institute’s In Pursuit Of Fashion The Sandy Schreier Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, he introduced me to Nathan Crowley, his partner at LAMB Design Studio. Nathan is Christopher Nolan’s longtime production designer (Insomnia with Al Pacino, Robin Williams; Batman Begins with Christian Bale; The Prestige with Bale, Hugh Jackman; The Dark Knight - Heath Ledger’s last film; The Dark Knight Rises; Interstellar with Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain; Dunkirk). Crowley has received four Oscar and BAFTA nominations for his work with Nolan and one each for Damien Chazelle’s First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, written by Josh Singer.

Gay Talese in China: Through the Looking Glass
Gay Talese in China: Through the Looking Glass Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Nathan Crowley is no stranger to The Met’s Costume Institute. He worked on Andrew Bolton’s spectacular China: Through the Looking Glass, with Wong Kar Wai as Artistic Director in 2015; Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations, featuring videos of Miuccia Prada and Judy Davis as Elsa Schiaparelli, directed by Baz Luhrmann in 2012; American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity in 2010, and in 2008 Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy.

Shane Valentino and Nathan Crowley, along with The Met’s Design Department created the look for In Pursuit of Fashion The Sandy Schreier Collection, that was organised by Andrew Bolton, Wendy Yu Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, Curator Jessica Regan and Assistant Curator Mellissa Huber.

Anne-Katrin Titze: You and Shane Valentino worked on this exhibition together. You were the one who staged China: Through the Looking Glass.

Nathan Crowley: Yeah, and Superheroes, American Woman, and Prada Schiaparelli.

AKT: From your work on film to what you are doing here at The Met, what is the greatest difference?

Nathan Crowley on Andrew Bolton and The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Some of the nicest people. It's a pleasure to come into this museum.”
Nathan Crowley on Andrew Bolton and The Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Some of the nicest people. It's a pleasure to come into this museum.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

NC: There's no difference. It's the same thing [laughing].

AKT: The same thing! People walking through ...

NC: No, I mean, obviously it's different because film is a 2D experience. You sit and watch the screen. And this is a 3D environment, so you get to walk through. I mean we build sets for 2D experiences, so we still have to create that experience. It's like you walking into the film.

AKT: It is exactly how this feels.

NC: So you're crossing the line, basically. In film you are separated, you are a viewer. I guess it's the same kind of thing. In film my job is to take people away into the environment. And the same here, except that you're in it.

AKT: And you are in it in very interesting ways, with see-through gaps in the partition walls. It's one of your trademarks, isn't it? That you see something from the exhibition's other side?

NC: Yes.

AKT: And get a different angle?

NC: Well, also it expands the space. Every time you have a foreground piece, it allows your eyes to push the background away. And that's really what this is doing.

AKT: Storytelling is also affected by that. I went through the China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition with Gay Talese and I had him peek out from different sides. We become part of the narrative this way.

Nathan Crowley on In Pursuit of Fashion The Sandy Schreier Collection: “In film my job is to take people away into the environment. And the same here, except that you're in it.”
Nathan Crowley on In Pursuit of Fashion The Sandy Schreier Collection: “In film my job is to take people away into the environment. And the same here, except that you're in it.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

NC: Yeah, and it's about enjoying the moment of the space, as well as the exhibition. We just want you to enjoy it and not go away, I guess. You want to feel part of it.

AKT: And you better make an effort to dress the part. Were there any particular films that inspired this exhibition?

NC: No, it was more about perspective and architectural lines, rather than a film. I mean, we take sources from all over, depending on the story.

AKT: Films from the Thirties, Forties in this case?

NC: We have lots of tricks in film. We didn't really apply anything apart from the foreground/background thing here, which in this kind of space is perfect. I think this is the most successful time we've used this space. This is the fifth exhibition, so I think we finally got the space right. I think this is one of the most difficult spaces.

AKT: I can see it is.

NC: If you looked at China, it went through many galleries.

AKT: And here you have this one room and the little side room.

NC: And you have these old columns that are not symmetrical, which is always difficult to deal with.

Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations
Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: You made it seem symmetrical.

NC: I know. But the columns, they're in walls, they're embedded.

AKT: And back there, as I mentioned to your colleague, is the playroom. What are you working on film-wise?

NC: I just finished Christopher Nolan's next film, called Tenet. We just wrapped that two weeks ago. So that's going into post-production; it'll be out next summer.

AKT: Who is in it?

NC: JD Washington, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, a whole ensemble of a cast.

AKT: You won't be involved with the About Time: Fashion and Duration, the Virginia Woolf inspired exhibition next spring?

NC: No, but we hope to keep working with The Met. It's been since 2005, we've been working together on and off. That's a long time. And we love Andrew [Bolton]. So over the years it's been good. This place is fantastic. It's so cool in here, I really love all the people. Some of the nicest people. It's a pleasure to come into this museum.

AKT: I totally agree.

NC: What about you? Who are you interviewing next?

AKT: Outside The Met, you mean? I will be doing a post-screening discussion with Michael Apted at Film Forum, this Friday after Thanksgiving on 63 Up.

Nathan Crowley on China: Through the Looking Glass: “We just want you to enjoy it and not go away, I guess. You want to feel part of it.”
Nathan Crowley on China: Through the Looking Glass: “We just want you to enjoy it and not go away, I guess. You want to feel part of it.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

NC: Oh, good.

AKT: We did an interview before. It's a fantastic series. Starting with 7-year-olds and every seven years we encounter these people again. Now they are 63.

NC: I know about it. I haven't followed it. It's fascinating to follow someone like that and be consistent.

AKT: It is also fascinating for someone in your metier to see snapshots of time at work.

NC: Yeah, time documentary.

Read what Shane Valentino had to say on In Pursuit Of Fashion, Cecil Beaton, Cedric Gibbons, Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, and Aaron Sorkin's The Trial Of The Chicago 7.

The Costume Institute In Pursuit of Fashion exhibition The Sandy Schreier Collection runs from November 27 through May 17, 2020.

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