Production Designer Dennis Gassner Creates a Dark and Enchanting Forest for ‘Into The Woods’

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Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall, is the film adaptation of the 1987 Steven Sondheim musical of the same name. Even though the film intertwines the stories of many classic fairy tales including Cinderella, Jack and the Bean Stalk, Rapunzel and Little Red Riding Hood, few characters get a fairy tale ending.

Longtime production designer Dennis Gassner, who is nominated for an Oscar for his work on this film (along with set decorator Anna Pinnock, also nominated for Grand Budapest Hotel) and whose past credits include The Truman Show and Skyfall, drew on his past working as a lumberjack in Oregon to bring a seemingly endless and mysterious forest to life. DnA spoke to Gassner — currently in Rome working on the next James Bond movie, Spectre — about how he found some of the sets featured in the film, how class figured into the design and about how seeing Lawrence of Arabia during architecture school inspired him to become a production designer.

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Dennis Gassner (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

DnA: The film is called Into the Woods so the woods obviously play an important role in the film. The woods are vast and everything kind of looks alike, and the viewer doesn’t really know where things are situated. How did you create that effect? Are there forests that influenced you?

Dennis Gassner: I grew up in Oregon, and when I was 16 I was a lumberjack for a summer. I would get up at four in the morning and go into the woods, and it was an amazing place to get lost in, because it was easy to get lost. And when you are in a natural environment without any roads or any reference it becomes very complicated, especially when it gets dark and that’s when it gets really interesting. And there are stories of people never coming out of the woods. So why would you want to go in them? But they are fascinating and beautiful and anything can happen in them.

So I think the whole theory behind the film was the magic of that. Rob was brilliant at choreographing, because it had to be choreographed. Each tree, each placement of each tree, the distance between each tree had to work for the narrative or the songs. When we started this, we basically started with a model and then we moved everything around. And he choreographed each piece in the model, and then when the actors came and performed, he moved the trees around in the performances. He’s a master at moving things around, and then we designed the set based on those movements. So what you saw was incredibly precise forestry, controlling the forest to the narrative, to the songs and to the music.

DnA: One of the more whimsical and humorous scenes is when Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are singing “Agony,” one of the songs in the film, and they’re on a waterfall and they’re singing and it’s just a very humorous scene for anyone who has seen Chris Pine as Captain Kirk or in one of his other “bad boy” roles. 

DG: That was a location that we had found; it’s actually a man-made waterfall off a lake in Windsor Park. The thing we like most about creating any motion picture is control. So we needed to have something we could control. We controlled the flow of the water, we controlled the stones themselves and Rob then choreographed to all of that. So it was highly choreographed and that’s why it looked so good, and the scene was funny. It was a great location for us because we didn’t have the money to build a waterfall — musicals generally have relatively tight budgets. We were restricted and had to be very clever about how we found things and how we used things in order to create the film.

DnA: It seems to also reinforce the fact that this film was based on a play. 

DG: It’s a 3D version of a stage play, exactly. It was good fun to be able find the waterfall.

DnA: The castle was an elaborate set, but you don’t really see inside the castle.

DG: The story and the songs made you feel like you were in the castle. Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) came and told you what happened inside. That’s what storytelling is. When you read a book, you imagine all of that. We knew that we couldn’t build the inside of a castle (due to budget limitations) so we had to be very clever about using the story and telling the important parts — such as the staircase; she came down the staircase many times. So we had to be very clever about finding a castle that was not beautiful but interesting. But we still had to create the staircase, which gave it a romance, but that also had a very stark view from the outside and that was to create a mood.

DnA: Something I think is really interesting is Disney taking on a darker version of these fairy tales. Did the darker elements of these fairy tales figure into the design?

DG: Yes and no. You had elements in the story that were going to get darker and so you couldn’t all of a sudden just have it get dark. It had to have at least some resonance within the context of the film and its a depression era; things were are on hard times.

So take the first line of the film: “I wish.” Okay, what do you wish for? If everything is already fantastic, why would you wish for something? The first word will tell you that people are desperate. So you have to go down the emotional Gestalt of it, and that’s the truth. It wasn’t sugar-coated in some way.


DnA: Do you think class figured into the design of some the sets? I definitely noticed it with the costumes. You clearly know who the peasants were and who the royalty were. Did class figure into the design of the spaces as well?

DG: Yes, of course it did. It was all about people on hard times. It was about being desperate. Again, back to the wish thing. There was a form of desperation for everybody for different reasons. That was the whole reason Rob wanted to do the film. You’re not alone, and there’s always going to be hope.

DnA: How do you visualize that? Were there any sets that you designed that you hoped would evoke this feeling?

DG: All of them. The trees were not beautiful trees, they all had some aspect of emotion to them and each one of them had character to them. So each character in each tree had a quality that was about survival, and that’s what nature is. Nature is just about surviving. It was a human experience as much as it was a natural experience. It was about hope and finding the truth in it.

DnA: You also did the production design for The Truman Show, and that’s that’s another movie where you had to create an entire world.

DG: Every film that I do is a new world. I saw a film called Lawrence of Arabia when I was at university and I said, I want to create that. I was studying architecture and I thought that’s what I want to create. It’s basically creating worlds that are all in their own fantasies within the story. The joy of what I do now is amazing. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.


DnA: You mentioned your background in architecture. How did you go about creating the bean stalk, which was a very architectural component?

DG: There were five beans that were thrown down. Take your french braid and stand it up on an end and it goes up in the sky. There were five beans and so there were five stalks that were woven together.

DnA: Then there is the little island where Rapunzel is stuck. What inspired that?

DG: It had to be an island, and she had to have her habitat on the island and it happened to be in the back lot in the studio, where there was a pond. I knew about the pond because they made a film there a while back called The African Queen. I found this location and I thought, ah I can build an island on this location that we can walk to from the studio, so it’s an extension of the woods. It’s basically an old swamp, but in the back of Shepperton Studios (in London).

DnA:  And there’s also a handmade quality to the entire set. How did you make it look like there were human hands behind the whole thing?

DG: It was an amazing talent pool of people that understood what we were doing and everybody did a great job. All the trees and the forest were manufactured, it was all done by humans. Ninety percent of the of the interior of the forest was manmade.

DnA: Did you ever think that you know growing up in Oregon and working in the trees that you know you’d end up making them yourself?  

DG: My life is a totally magical thing. I live in the woods all the time.

This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Oscars are this Sunday, check out all of DnA’s interviews with the Oscar-nominated production designers here

All images courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.