Carol Spier Makes it Work

You may not know Carol Spier by name, but I’ll wager you know her work. As the production designer for such films as Mimic (1997), Blade II (2002), Silent Hill (2006), and Pacific Rim (2013), her artistry is well-established in the world of speculative film. Her production design stretches as far back as the 80s, with such iconic works as The Dead Zone (1983) and The Fly (1986).

But before I say more, it’s worth clarifying: what’s a production designer?

In her own words, a production designer is “responsible for everything that’s seen on the screen.” This sentiment is echoed by her frequent collaborator David Cronenberg, who describes Spier’s role as being “involved in every aspect of everything.”

“Everything” is a lot of things – but here are just a few:

  • Read the script and imagine what the story looks like (sets, locations, props, etc.)
  • Interview – no, interrogate – the writer about their characters
  • Design maps and models
  • Take notes
  • Take notes of your notes
  • Take notes of other peoples’ notes
  • Keep all the different creative teams on the same page (with the power of your notes)

It’s the kind of work that requires passion, precision, and people skills (I’m weak on that last one). It translates abstraction into a physical space, and Spier has accomplished this many times over.

I want to celebrate her work with two projects in particular:

First is Silent Hill. The collector’s edition Blu-ray of this was just released by SHOUT! FACTORY in 2019, and it’s got so many new special features that they had to put them on a separate disc. The behind-the-scenes footage and interviews really praise Spier and showcase all the different facets of her talent that show up on screen. Although the gore isn’t for everyone, Silent Hill itself is worth multiple viewings. How many atmospheric genre films give us a complex female lead? And not just one, but five?

Director Christophe Gans knew Silent Hill was going to be expensive to create, $30 million in fact, “because of the extravagant sets necessary to translate the atmosphere of the video game.”

And he was right on the money to choose Spier as his translator. In fact, Gans sought out Spier as the production designer for Silent Hill because of her beautiful work on Mimic.

Which brings me to my second recommendation: Mimic.

Specifically, the director’s cut that was released in 2011. Not only does the director’s cut improve from the theatrical release of the film, but the special features delve into the importance of production design. In one interview about this restored edition of the film, director Guillermo del Toro asserts, “The main element of a horror movie is atmosphere…The monster can be great, the performances can be good, but if you don’t surround all that in a place – in an environment where things could actually happen – then it won’t work.”

With her production design, Carol Spier helps make it work. And if you’re interested in her many contributions to some truly excellent films, I suggest Silent Hill and Mimic.

The Blu-ray of Silent Hill has a reversible cover with a scary/not scary option. Beetle for scale.

In terms of what is freely available, I recommend hopping over to YouTube and checking out  “The Secret World of Carol Spier” (2014). This documentary by FX is just under an hour, and has a lot of under-the-hood glimpses into the film-making process.

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