Set to close AFI FEST 2022 on November 6, Steven’s Spielberg’s THE FABELMANS is not only a semi-autobiographical drama about the birth of a filmmaker, but also a love letter to cinema. A myriad of AFI Alumni collaborated on the ambitious project, including Supervising Art Director Andrew Max Cahn (AFI Class of 1992) and Assistant Art Director Katelynn Wheelock (AFI Class of 2010) who worked alongside veteran Production Designer Rick Carter to bring the director’s childhood to life onscreen. Cahn and Wheelock previously worked together on CHIP ‘N DALE: RESCUE RANGERS, which won the Creative Emmy Award® for Outstanding Television Movie, before reteaming on Spielberg’s coming-of-age epic, which also features the work of cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (AFI Class of 1987), editor Sarah Broshar (AFI Class of 2005) and fellow Art Director Lauren Polizzi, who served on the Production Design Faculty at the AFI Conservatory for many years.
Cahn’s extensive body of work includes THE HANGOVER, UP IN THE AIR, THE MUPPETS, LOVE & MERCY, THE HUNGER GAMES: PART 1 and 2 and CAPTAIN MARVEL, while Wheelock got her start as an Assistant Art Director on award shows, including The Oscars® and Screen Actors Guild Awards, before venturing into TV on such shows as GODLESS, BALLERS and FOR ALL MANKIND. We spoke with the pair about recreating Spielberg’s childhood in THE FABELMANS, working on sound stages versus on location, and how they alternate between visual aesthetics on different projects.
AFI: What were some of the lessons you learned in the Production Design program at AFI?
Andrew Max Cahn: From day one, AFI emphasized how important collaboration is, and like any school, any program, you get out of it what you put into it. The part that was most valuable to me was what you guys call bootcamp – the filmmaking process. We were told that AFI operates as a microcosm of Hollywood, and it’s certainly true. It’s the same process, same problems, same personalities, same issues. It’s just more people and larger budgets now.
Katelynn: For me, when I graduated undergrad, I didn’t really have any practical onset experience at all, so going to AFI I feel like was really beneficial for me in terms of working with little micro-crews and learning about being on set. I also took a lot away from the classes, especially the computer skills I learned that I use pretty much every day in my job.
AFI: What was it like to work with Steven Spielberg on THE FABLEMANS and, with the project being so autobiographical, how did you go about accurately translating that vision to the screen?
Andrew Max Cahn: It was a fantastic experience. Daunting, challenging, and certainly an honor to work on it. I spent weeks diving into the research. I purchased all the Spielberg books I could find. I went back and watched most of his films. So many of us grew up with his films. They’re part of our popular culture. The thrill of this project was not only the research for what was written in the script by Tony Kushner and Mr. Spielberg in terms of sets, locations, characters, props, wardrobe and more, but also the excavating of the history of what was behind each scene. It was similar to a multimedia process of uncovering layer upon layer of film and family history. Early on upon breaking down the script, I interpreted nearly every film from the director’s career embedded in this story. I put together this research in a digital presentation with Rick who edited it, and that was really the impetus in getting the visual language for the film.
Katelynn: There was a lot of concept meetings, and we took our lead from Rick, for sure. As far as the personal aspect of it, Set Dec did an amazing job, and we had a lot of photos of Spielberg’s childhood homes, so we matched a lot of things. That was a big aspect of it, trying to really recreate some of the rooms and items in the houses that he grew up in – finding the correct flooring materials and things like that to match from old black and white photos. It was an interesting challenge, but definitely fun. Especially the sets that we built on stage, we were trying to capture that feeling of being transported back, and I think we accomplished that pretty well.
AFI: On a project like THE FABELMANS, how much of it was shot on location versus on soundstages? And which do you find more challenging?
Andrew Max Cahn: It was exactly half – 34 days on location and 34 days on stage. Every interior we built on stage at LA North Studios, and all the locations we found were from Malibu out to Whittier. Both are challenging but working on location was more challenging on this project. Making a period film in LA today is incredibly hard. We take for granted how many layers in our society, in our built environment, have changed. There’s layers of not just vehicles and signage, there’s layers of architecture, that don’t exist today.
Katelynn: I find working on location more challenging as well just because the parameters are more constrained as far as what you’re allowed to do and, since it was a period film, having to see all those details of what shouldn’t be there and then figure out how to remove or cover up or disguise it. Modifying existing locations can sometimes be harder than starting from scratch where you have more freedom to make something out of nothing versus trying to fit within certain parameters that a location provides.
AFI: Can you talk about some of the locations you enjoyed working on the most on THE FABELMANS?
Andrew Max Cahn: For THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH scenes, we researched every single theater in the U.S. – as well as the world – for theaters that screened Cecil B. DeMille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH in January of 1952. We soon found that the well-known Orpheum Theater on S. Broadway in downtown LA screened the film. And we looked at numerous theaters as well that had period-correct marquees and ultimately it was decided that this would play just fine in the story.
It was also a big challenge to depict 1950s New Jersey in LA in August, but we did it. Rick and I spent hours and hours looking at backlots. There’s not a whole lot of New Jersey in the story. A lot of it’s a driving sequence where young Sammy’s driving home from THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. But when you break it down, you realize, wow, we see a lot of this New Jersey neighborhood. The backlots weren’t available, but we found a great neighborhood up in Chatsworth. We scouted in June, shot in August and then had to figure out how we make this look like winter. Along with our great decorator, Karen O’Hara – we dressed every house on the street, brought in snow in the middle of August and very little was done in visual effects. We pulled it off quite well.
Katelynn: There were two sets that I was more heavily involved in – one was at the beach at Malibu and it was of a beach party, and the other was at Disney Golden Oak Ranch where we had a campsite. It was very rewarding since I had a lot of ownership, and that one was probably my favorite one.
AFI: After THE FABELMANS, you both reteamed on GODZILLA VS. KONG 2, and then, Andrew, you’ve gone on to work on BARBIE while Katelynn you’re currently working on FOR ALL MAN KIND. What is it like to switch between such vastly different aesthetics on projects?
Andrew Max Cahn: To vary between such different projects, you kind of have to be a Swiss army knife. You have to know which tool to use on different projects. I oversaw the pre-production concept phase as Art Director on GODZILLA VS. KONG 2 before they filmed it in Australia. I didn’t have a construction coordinator who we work very closely to, there’s no decorator yet, no locations team, and it was a big readjustment. It was taking the written word in the storyboards and turning it into concept art and figuring out how are we going to build these environments.
I couldn’t wait for another nuts-and-bolts project where we were actually out in the field and then BARBIE popped up, and it was the complete opposite. The concept art was already done in the UK, and we had a decorator, construction coordinator – the usual team to go execute it. Both projects happened in the same six-month timeframe. You just have to tackle it one step at a time. It always comes down to what are you trying to portray and what is the story you’re trying to tell. And how do you communicate that visually?
Katelynn: That’s one of the things I love about Art Directing is that you don’t get necessarily pigeonholed into a genre. In general, you can really get to do a lot of different things. You can do a drama, you can do a period piece or something in space like I’m doing now on FOR ALL MAN KIND, and that’s kind of the fun of it is always learning different things. Always doing something new and different. I guess that’s what I like about it is the crazy drastic differences. It keeps it so interesting and definitely never boring.
AFI: Of all the projects you’ve worked on so far in your career, which set has been your proudest achievement and why?
Katelynn: THE FABELMANS for sure was one of them. It was awesome learning from Andrew – he’s so knowledgeable, and I feel very lucky to have worked for both him and Rick on a project like THE FABELMANS. Another of my favorite sets was definitely GODLESS which was a Western on Netflix where we built an entire Western town out in the middle of nowhere in Santa Fe, NM, and it was just so much fun. Every show you learn something new though.
Andrew Max Cahn: There’s many films that I’m proud of, but two indie films stand out. The first is LOVE & MERCY, which was an ultra-low budget period film I did with Production Designer Keith Cunningham [(AFI Class of 1990)] who is also an AFI Alum – because we told the story about these characters through two different actors and did it in LA on a shoestring budget, and it was a story that I think most people didn’t know about this group of musicians and specifically Brian Wilson. That was a true pleasure. I said to Keith many times that it was like working on an AFI film. We didn’t have that much money. We didn’t have that many crew, and somehow we pulled it off. It also happened to be a great script. I think we knew it when we read it. It’s just a great story, and that’s always what it comes down to in the end.
The other film is UP IN THE AIR which I did with designer Steve Saklad simply because the iPhone had just come out that year, and it was the first film by iPhone that I had worked on. We were filming in five different locales, and it was all primarily location-based. It was just a rewarding experience in terms of the filmmaking process and how we figured out how to do that in five different states on a tight deadline.
AFI: What advice do you have for up-and-coming Production Design Fellows or recent Alumni who want to work on the kind of projects you have?
Katelynn: Take whatever opportunities come your way. When I got out of school, I did a couple of indie jobs and then I started doing game shows and award shows, which was really great. I learned so much about set integrated lighting, and it gives you different perspectives and different skillsets. I never even considered that as an area you could go into, but that was my pathway into getting into the union, and then I just kept meeting people and taking the next opportunity. I think just grabbing opportunities when they come along and being collaborative and willing to work hard and support the whole Art Department is really important and people will recognize that.
Andrew Max Cahn: Everyone has a story to tell, and I wouldn’t pigeonhole yourself. Even if you go into a program thinking you want to be an editor or a producer or a designer, just keep your mind open. It’s an interesting, fascinating medium that we work in. A lot of people just want to production design, but there’s a lot of parallels if you’re creative that you can parlay those skills into.
Lastly, I’m a huge fan of technology – we use it all the time, but people coming out of Production Design programs just cannot forget the fundamentals. No matter how quickly technology and A.I. is racing forward and are great tools, if you let go of the fundamentals, you’re going to get lost. You have to remember story first and the ability to communicate. Going back and looking at Hitchcock’s little sketches or Ridley Scott’s “Ridley-gram,” it shows the ability to communicate without relying on technology. It’s important to know that history and who the greats were – that it’s a legacy. It’s really a privilege to work in this business, and we’re carrying on a lineage of storytelling and the craft is a huge part of it. It’s important to realize that and understand that while technology is your friend, you shouldn’t let it supplant or take over the traditional tools.