Film Director Bruno Pischiutta Interviews Internationally Awarded Production Designer DAVIDE DE STEFANO.

By Bruno Pischiutta

It’s almost four o’clock. I’m in front of my computer and, in a few minutes, the lazy part of this long summer afternoon of COVID-19 lockdown in Greece will be over, as I have a Skype appointment with Davide De Stefano. 

I’m happy to speak with him. I will ask how his time in isolation in Rome is going. I haven’t decided if I will conduct my interview for this article first, and negotiate his participation as the production designer of my next film, the feature documentary Retrospective, only later.

On my screen, I’m looking at some amazing pictures of Davide’s work. I take a last glimpse at the questions I prepared to ask him and, considering the dates of my film’s production will depend upon the situation with the coronavirus pandemic, I decide to start our conversation from the interview. 

Our meeting begins, and after the usual greetings, as a contributor for Daria! magazine, I ask Davide my first question.

Would you like to explain to our readers what your job consists of, from the idea and the sketch till what we all see on the big screen?

My job is to create, draw and supervise all the visual part that revolves around the actors. In interior scenes, my creative eye oversees every detail from the walls to the backgrounds behind the windows, to the furniture, to the props, to the chandeliers, and more. When looking for original locations, it is sometimes necessary to build entire parts of roads or cities in order to create a visual that matches the historical time frame of the story being told in the movie. 

(Image above) The set design for the film Voice From the Stone: technical drawing of the Mausoleum built as set for the movie.

It is often that my work has a strong influence on that of the cinematographer and the costume designer, because of the colors being used, and the moods of each set. This is quite normal since I’m usually called to start illustrating the sets much earlier than the others, and I come with a lot of already-made visual material.

I use my own references and do my sketching because I love to draw. I’m a concept background artist, and I come from a tradition and school of great scenographers who loved to do their own drawings of the main sets or even of all the sets of a film.

During your career, you received awards as both art director and production designer. Could you clarify for our readers the difference between the two professions?

Yes, I have received awards and several nominations for both those roles. Of course, receiving a prize as production designer gives you more satisfaction. This is because, as one, you have a role of major responsibility and a great freedom on artistic and stylistic decisions. 

Let’s clarify the two roles: the production designer (PD) is the ‘boss’, the brain of the Art Department, the person who decides styles, colors, locations and furniture, while the art director is the ‘arm’ of the department, he or she is the production designer’s trusted man or woman, the one who physically implements the designs created by the PD onto the set, makes the very detailed budgets, chooses the department’s staff and has direct contact with the suppliers. The art director further supervises the sets’ construction and solves any small problems that may arise during the work-in-progress. 

Let’s say that the art director comes second after the production designer, followed by other members of the art department such as the set decorator and assistants.

In big budget movies that contain many set constructions at different locations, we often find a supervising art director who oversees the work and the organization of the various art directors working at different locations.

In very small budget films, where there is not a lot of available money, we usually find one art director only, who performs the duties of a scenographer on a smaller scale. Every film production has its own story and, in reality, there is not a prevailing rule; it all depends on the directorial choices.

The first step of your work is creating a series of sketches that, in the final phase, they will become the look of the film. Could you describe the various stages of transition from initial sketch to final look?

Certainly. The sketch is always the first step, it is the element with which you talk with all departments, with the director, the producers and with your crew. Sometimes, there are producers who contact me early on (even while the project is still in development) to ask that I make art concepts that give them a first visual idea of the sets. Usually, however, this is the creative path: we read the script, and then we do the scouting necessary to find the right locations for the shooting so that we find out if there will be a need for any interior or exterior construction. We may decide to do everything in a studio, or to modify existing buildings. 

If we talk about creating a location from scratch – indoors or outdoors – the sketch is essential in order to understand the atmospheres, the possible budget needed, and how the work will have to be distributed between the various departments, including the digital effects department. In this case, the sketch is certainly the visual bible of the film. 

If, on the other hand, we talk about a film with many locations and some construction that is needed to be made in a studio, the sketch is necessary to understand the type of location changes – structural or simple furnishings, the various permits required, the construction times, and the associated costs.

After this first phase of study and conceptual sketch is completed, if everything is approved by the production house and the director, we move on to the design and preparation phase where we begin to engage some collaborators such as designers and art directors. 

In this phase, purely technical drawings are made as well as any models of the buildings to be modified or of the construction interventions to be brought at the different locations. This material is necessary to facilitate the proper communication with the builder and to come up with a very detailed set budget.

When all of that is done, we start the real work on the sets. That is when the art department is at full capacity and it can benefit from the contribution of a very important figure which gives life to the original sketches, the set decorator. He or she is the one who looks for the furnishings that are right for each scene.

Among the many movies you made, what are the most dear to your heart and creative mind, and why? 

I’ve designed for films in many genres, from drama to adventure, to period films, comedy, and fantasy. The only one still missing to complete my professional repertoire is the science-fiction genre. It will happen, sooner or later, and I will be very honored when it does. Ever since childhood, I was totally fascinated by the possibility of creating worlds that do not exist by imagining the future.

I certainly have a lot of experience in period films; I have done many and, more or less, reconstructed all eras, from ancient Rome to the Middle Ages, from the Renaissance to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

To answer your question, I am a bit attached to all the films I was a part of, because each one has always represented different experiences and challenges from every point of view. For me, there are so many aspects of a project – memories, small and big details, difficulties and moments of satisfaction, that stay with me forever. In consideration of the themes of each film, the budget availability or lack of resources, the beauty of collaborating with different artistic talents from different cultures and countries and, in some cases, with truly visionary directors, does not really let me prefer one film over another. I feel privileged to give my artistic contribution to a film that will stay there forever, and to hopefully positively influence the creative journey of the people I work with, as they do for me.

As affectionate as I am to the movies I am a part of, I am also my own worst critic: when I see them in the cinema, I always find myself saying things like “we could have done that scene better, aged the set more or less, chosen a more intriguing furniture, and so on…”. I often think of an artist who paints on canvas and who spends months correcting a brush stroke or remaking a part of the picture until he is satisfied. We, production designers, would like to be able to do that but, unfortunately, our reality is different.

In any case, returning to the initial question, if I had to choose some notable films for me, I will start with The Cursed Ones, an independent, small movie with a touching story about children who are abandoned in Central Africa and considered to be ‘cursed’. 

We almost entirely shot this movie in Ghana, where I had the opportunity to work with local people who, under my guidance, reinvented themselves as builders and painters in order to help us build all the sets, from the exterior to the interior, and even the props. I must say that they really did a terrific job that helped me earn numerous awards for ‘Best Art Direction’ and, above all, the African Oscar for Design.

Another film that I would like to mention is definitely Voice From The Stone, an American film shot entirely in Italy, in Siena and at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome.

In Voice From The Stone I had the opportunity to collaborate with some renowned and famous producers and directors from Hollywood. I appreciated their rare skills and great aesthetic taste, and I worked with a crew of the highest quality level. This film, an atypical psychological horror with unusual Tuscan scenery, gave me the chance to visually create very fascinating atmospheres shifting between the novels of Henry James and gothic film. It all came from a great aesthetic research on colors and styles.

Images from the set construction for the film Voice From the Stone: the top roof of the Castle’s Tower that was built at the Cinecittà Studios. The scale was 1:1. All fake chimneys were mobile to allow different camera positions, and the floor of the tower was made with real old bricks.

Lastly, I would also mention Flying Lessons because it was really fun to make. We shot this love story almost entirely in India, from Mumbai to New Delhi, to Kerala in the south, and in the desert of Rajasthan where we built an entire village with real stone houses covered in mud, and many typical Indian designs.

In addition, we also shot some scenes in Turin, in Rome and in Scotland. Let’s say that working on this production was a very tiring experience but a very, very fun one.

Finally, I like to say that a quality that a production designer must have is, undoubtedly, the ability to have fun when he or she creates the scenography. This quality, together with the inspiration, the technique, and with being a little ‘chameleonic’ in cultures other than your own, certainly makes this profession the best in the world.

My conversation with Davide ends here. I decide to talk to him about my movie another time, when the dates of production will be established. I hope that I’ll be able to work with him soon, and I’m sure that his talent will enhance the aesthetic qualities of my next movie as it did with all the movies in which he worked until now. D!

Davide De Stefano was born in Italy in 1973.

  • He graduated in Art Direction for film at the Academy of Fine Arts in Carrara, near Florence.
  • He worked as a set designer/art director for many plays and opera productions, at renowned theater and production houses in Italy.
  • In 1996, he moved to Rome to work in the film industry, mostly at the Cinecittà Studios as an art concept designer.
  • One of the recent movies he designed, Voice From the Stone, was produced by Dean Zanuck and Stefano Gallini Durante, and it was released in the US, Canada and Europe.
  • The Cursed Ones, another drama movie he designed, received the African Movie Academy Award (African Oscar).
  • He worked with many renowned directors from the likes of: Carlo Lizzani, Pupi Avati, Francesca Archibugi, Dario Argento, Roberto Faenza, Maurizio Nichetti, Lamberto Bava, Ricky Tognazzi, Paolo Virzì, Peter Greenaway, Catherine Hardwicke, Kim Manners, Greg Yaitanes, John Gray, Zeke Pinheiro, Mark Roemmich, Nana Obiri and Eric Howell.
  • At present, he lives in Rome and is attached, as production designer, to several upcoming international movie projects, with budgets ranging between 5-50 million dollars.