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Production Designer Adri Siriwatt: Developing Characters with the Set

December 14, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Lindsey Howald Patton

Adri Siriwatt

Twelve years ago, when Adri Siriwatt—a production designer whose first name is pronounced “Audrey”— started looking into undergraduate film programs in Chicago, her parents were dubious. They disapproved somewhat more strongly than most; as immigrants from Thailand, they couldn’t imagine how their daughter would make a sustainable living in the movies. For a reference point they had just Thailand’s film industry—which, while not nonexistent, is fledgling at best, striving to get the term “Bangkollywood” to catch on and doing more business for foreign filmmakers searching for an exotic locale than producing homegrown films. Still, Siriwatt—then about to graduate from high school in Lincolnwood—promised her parents she’d make it. They grudgingly agreed, and to Columbia College she went.

It took some practical experience for Siriwatt, now 30, to find her niche. “At first when I started at Columbia, I thought I wanted to become a producer,” she says, and laughs. “I didn’t have the producer personality.” In short: Siriwatt would rather brainstorm props than spend her time sweet talking. “Every time I worked on stuff” as a producer, she says, “I didn’t really see what I was producing. It’s not tangible. You see the end product of the film, but in between it’s a lot of paperwork, a lot of talking and convincing people. It wasn’t very fun for me.”

Then a close friend studying production design asked Siriwatt to come onto an ambitious student project she couldn’t handle alone. Siriwatt agreed, and that was it—her Moment, the clarifying experience that set her on the art department track. “This is my calling,” she remembers thinking. “I think we were making a living room set. … We were aging the room and painting it, putting all the furniture in, and I remember when they were shooting I thought, ‘That’s what I did. I’m seeing it.’ That’s when I realized this is what I want to do, …[that] this is a really powerful tool you can use in filmmaking.”

She landed her first real job as visual effects production assistant for the 2005 film Batman Begins, which was shot on location in Chicago. From there, the gigs kept coming—passed down from mentor figures like Merje Veski and Columbia College’s David Krause—until Siriwatt was so flooded with work she quit school in her last semester. The 12-hour workdays haven’t quite stopped since.

Though idle viewers may overlook the importance of Siriwatt’s role in filmmaking, “everything you see on the screen is all the production designer’s work,” she says. It takes insight. “People who are unaware of what a production designer is, they think, ‘Just add a bed, a chair and a couch, little things.’ But people don’t realize that if I were to go to your house or your apartment and I didn’t know you, I could look at all the things in your room and figure out what kind of person you are based on the things you have. People only have things or buy things because they pertain to themselves.”

A scene from NoNames, an independent drama filmed in Wisconsin. As production designer for this film, Siriwatt worked with the director and director of photography to arrange all the visual elements.

Siriwatt’s challenge is to create that depth—on a set, through coordination with the costume department, with props—for a character. It can feel like building something from virtually nothing. “In the beginning of a script” it might read, “‘Mark, college student, enters the dorm room,’” she says. “The script can be just that bland. There’s no description of the room. So you talk to the director and say, ‘What kind of person is this Mark guy? What kind of music does he like? Is he into heavy metal, rap, rock? What kind of family does he come from?” And soon, physical manifestations of that back story start to crop up. A small wooden crucifix is set casually on a thrifted dresser. A photo of a three friends on a float trip gets tucked into the corner of a mirror. A few pairs of sneakers are either neatly tucked away or strewn on the floor—either choice speaks volumes.

The role of a director, if he or she is a director with a strong vision, can be crucial. “There are very visual directors who say” something like, “this guy would never have an orange cup,” Siriwatt says. “Because he knows his character as if he were a real person. Those directors are really great.”

No longer necessary to convince her parents she’ll make money someday, Siriwatt enjoys her current, more comfortable place in that shuffle upwards they call climbing the career ladder. Yet she sometimes misses the most creative and unpressured forms of expression, the student film. “When I started school at Columbia, we did all these student films,” she says. “And we didn’t know what we were doing. … But it’s the best. I always tell my assistants, work on as many student films as you want. You can mess up and it doesn’t really matter. That’s when you can be the most creative.”

Siriwatt prepares a set. “When actors come to a set and they feel the environment on the set is like their character, it really helps them enhance their performance,” she says.

In early September Siriwatt packed, left Chicago and drove to a new apartment in Los Angeles. As a lifelong local, she always envied her friends who had moved to Chicago from elsewhere. That big move to a strange city is a crucial life experience, or so some—and many great coming-of-age films—would attest.

She found a job immediately—as decorator on a new HBO and Cinemax show called Jump Off—and has been so busy she hasn’t yet had a chance to explore her new stomping grounds. The cross-country move means she is practically starting over professionally—her Chicago career had started to take on the marks of experience, with mainly production designer positions and films that made appearances at Cannes and Tribeca—but Los Angeles, of course, opens up a wider range of eventual possibilities. “The resources here are immense,” she says excitedly. “LA’s just, like—the whole town is a movie town.”

Her parents’ reaction when she left for the City of Angels? “They loved it,” she says. After their daughter proved she was no starving artist, they gave her their full support.

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