Erin Magill’s production designing skills are on display in two films currently receiving great attention. The first is the psychological thriller Swallow starring Haley Bennett (Thank You For Your Service). The second is The Quarry which centers around Michael Shannon’s (Man of Steel) small-town sheriff contending with a new preacher in town who may not be what he seems.
Viewing the trailers will tell you all you need to know about how different these films are. Swallow comes off as a sleek, stylish, Kubrick-esque film that’s unnerving and disturbing. Meanwhile, The Quarry is grounded, gritty, and a disturbing thriller in its own way. Both films are held together by the powerful gravity created by the performances of each lead — one male, one female. Thematically, each film deals with distinct themes.
PopAxiom spoke with Erin about her road to designing in Hollywood and her work on two diametrically different films, Swallow and The Quarry.
Stage To Screen
Like any kid growing up, Erin was a fan of all things entertainment. “I wouldn’t say I was a cinephile, but I was a kid who grew up loving T.V. and movies. I have always been creative and done well in art classes and things like that.”
With a knack for creativity, Erin went off to college. “My undergrad was in a design program that covered everything from graphic design to window displays. One of the classes was ‘Creativity 101’, where I’m pretty sure we just watched a lot of Peewee’s Playhouse.”
Erin enrolled in a theatre design course despite not being as passionate about the stage as the silver screen. “The teacher — John Iacovelli — he also was a production designer and in one of our lectures, he showed us all these behind-the-scenes photos of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. I got to see these images of him on set building the giant blade of grass and the big Lego and all the sudden I realized ‘that was a job!’”
Erin got an internship towards the end of college at the standard-bearer for computer-animated filmmaking — Pixar. “I started on Ratatouille my senior year of college then ended up working there after college for the majority [of the time] on Toy Story 3.”
Animation wasn’t something Erin was interested in, but she loved designing. Pixar proved to be the perfect stepping stone toward Erin’s work today. “The Pixar University Program allowed anyone in the company to take these classes. The program geared toward people passionate about making films. I ended up getting the job as a set decorator.”
Erin says she, “… learned a great deal …” at Pixar. The hands-on education lead her to her next step. “I ended up going to AFI in L.A. for production design.”
About The Quarry
Ten years and many projects later, Erin is the designer behind two newly released movies. How did she become a part of The Quarry production? “The Quarry came through a line producer I had worked with on Hearts Beat Loud, she was talking to the producers [of the film] and brought my name up to them.”
Her producer friend ended up taking on another project, but Erin remained. Of the production, she says, “… it happened very fast. The film had a very tight schedule based on Michael Shannon’s availability.”
To land The Quarry gig, Erin went through a fairly typical process of discussions and putting together a “… ‘look book.’” However, Erin shares the funny truth behind what tipped the scale in her favor to become part of The Quarry crew. “[Director Scott Teems] … ended up telling me that he had looked at my Instagram and liked a lot of my photos.”
In the book, The Quarry takes place in South Africa, but the film changes things up a bit. “In the script, they moved the story to West Texas,” and Erin tells us how the production itself changed things up a bit more, making it more challenging than she imagined “… when I jumped on, it was shooting in and around New Orleans.”
Selling the story in dusty, dry West Texas was going to be tough. “We tried to avoid the Spanish moss and the above-ground graves. It was a big concern.”
Another idea in flux was when the story would take place. “I think [Scott] viewed it as an allegory, very much like the Bible stories; timeless. Good and evil. It could feel relevant today. Originally he hadn’t put a time period in the script. By the time I got down to New Orleans, we had agreed it would be mid-to-late 80s.”
Now flip all that realistic grittiness around because we’re talking Erin’s other other film, Swallow. “There’s this idea of control in the film.”
Swallow’s design is borderline minimalist. A better term might be meticulous. “There are all the same amount and type of conversations for Swallow as The Quarry,” Erin says, “But they couldn’t be any more different in terms of style.”
Swallow is a complicated story. At its core, Erin says, “It’s more of the psychological, horror film. And something people probably haven’t seen before in the content and where it goes.”
Swallow is classy but tense. According to Erin, “It looks more expensive than the money we had. It was one of the best collaborative experiences.”
Swallow takes place in the modern-day, while The Quarry is set 30-ish years ago. Erin’s knack for capturing an era is due, in part, to the people from which she’s learned. “One of my first jobs out of grad school was working on the art department of Mad Men. I got to learn and work with some of the best people who know how to do ‘period’ correct.”
Discussions about how to accurately represent another period of human history are tricky. “There’s a level of factual — this is what this actually looked like. But then we ask, ‘do we want to play up one thing or another’ or do we avoid a certain color because of how it might conflict with the story? If it’s a more stylized film, you want to play it up.”
On The Quarry, Erin says, “… we wanted to stay rooted in a realistic but moody place. These people don’t have a lot of money, so you realize that most things aren’t even from the 80s. The church was probably built in the 50s, and then there are things from the 60s, 70s, etc.”
A part of Erin’s ability to set the right mood is the result of research. “I have a large library collection with stuff like the history of furniture. I collect home magazines.”
Erin shares another trick of the trade. “I have an opportunity I buy old wallpaper books that you can sometimes find at old estate sales or eBay. A lot of those are great because they’re well preserved, and you can see the colors and patterns used at the time.”
Erin’s personal process includes her own sort of story. “You kinda have to make up the whole history of the town. Whether anyone will ever know or what the director’s thoughts are about, it doesn’t matter. You kinda have to do it for yourself so that things are aged properly.”
From where does Erin draw inspiration? “As a designer, I find paintings, photography, those artists, and I have a vast library that I use a lot for reference. Those are the biggest inspirations for me.”
Erin shares the name of a few inspirational artists. “An artist I loved growing up was Joseph Cornell. He would do these boxes with miniatures … like a diorama in a shoebox or something. He made me love set design. Photographer, Alex Soth and Philip-Lorca diCorcia … I use a lot of their imagery.”
What remake would Erin want to join as a production designer? “The child in me loves Overboard; Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell and this ridiculous 80s movie. I never saw the remake. I assumed they ruined a perfect film.”
Erin adds another film to her remake wish-list. “Here’s one that I love, I was obsessed with this movie as a kid, Auntie Mame. I’d read that Tilda Swinton got the rights to the book it was originally based on. I feel Tilda will do it right. That would be a dream. That’s a movie that would have very fun sets.”
Both The Quarry and Swallow are available on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and various other on-demand services. So, amid a global pandemic, what’s next? “Nothing is happening. There are articles out there about what people think it will look like when we get back to business. It will be interesting to see how all that happens.”
Are The Quarry or Swallow on your watch-list?
Thanks to Erin Magill and Impact24 PR for making this interview possible.
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