Jeremy Railton Q & A Part 1

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Enjoy part 1 of a conversation between Jeremy Railton, EDC’s Founder and Chairman, and Richard Wechsler, EDC’s Director of Projects:

RICHARD:  I’ve known you for several decades as a nodding acquaintance and we have many friends in common in the entertainment industry, but it wasn’t until we started working together in 2000 that I learned about your remarkable journey.  Could you share with us a little about your early years growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe and how you ended up in Los Angeles, working at the Mark Taper Forum?

JEREMY: When I look back at my childhood in Central Africa, I’m amazed that I find myself here at the heart of the entertainment industry in Los Angeles and I’m usually at a loss when people ask me how I got started in the business.  My short answer is ‘luck’.

I remember playing, at age seven, in front of the farm trading store on my parent’s remote farm in Rhodesia, and finding the tattered remains of a 1950’s gossip magazine! There was a picture of a 12-year old Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet and I have a distinct memory of thinking, “I don’t have to try to read this (I couldn’t read anyway) because one day I will be friends with all these Hollywood stars.”  So even when I had to remember to take the dog food off the back verandah so the leopards didn’t try to eat it at night, I was aware of Hollywood.

(As an aside, I did actually meet Elizabeth Taylor. I sat next to her at her birthday party while she opened her presents, discarding the wrapping which in one instance was a Chanel bag that held a large jewel. To my horror she let the bag fall with the other wrapping paper. Noticing my reaction, she said “What do you want me to do? I have so many of those bags.” A few years later, I designed a TV set for Ms. Taylor’s sixtieth birthday at the Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.)

At first my Dad never believed that I would ever be able to make a living in the entertainment art field and warned that if I didn’t stop fantasizing about Elizabeth Taylor and Hollywood, I would end up starving in a garret.  So far that hasn’t happened but my father’s dire warning still keeps me on my toes!

I really learned my trade of set design and set painting at the University of Cape Town’s Michaelis Art School.  When I graduated, I spent a year as a professional scenic painter at various theatres in Cape Town, earning enough money to go to London with my friends. This was 1967 and London was the beginning and end of all that was desirable to a twenty year old—The Summer of Love and the heart of the pop culture which was very important to me.

The actual beginning of my career can be traced to a glowing end of a cigarette butt moving towards me at two in the morning on the beach of Juan-les-Pins in the South of France. I had spent the summer hitchhiking through France and Spain. The plan was to hook up with my South African Friends who had landed a job dancing in a casino, but. I arrived so late that the season was already over and my friends had long gone. I had a plane ticket from Paris to London and not a penny left, so I decided to sleep on the beach and start hitchhiking to Paris in the morning.

It was illegal to sleep on the beach so when I saw a glowing cigarette butt bobbing towards me, I thought it was a gendarme. I hurriedly got out of my sleeping bag and pretended I was just taking the night air.

The cigarette butt got closer and closer and then a very English voice said. “Oh, you gave me a fright. What are you doing here?”  He turned out to be an Englishman on the last day of his holiday and was taking a final walk on the beach.

I was pleased to have a person that spoke English and pretty soon I launched into the story of my life, so far, in the quest for seeking my fortune.  When the dawn came up, he took me to breakfast and as we parted, he said “Oh, by the way here’s my number. Call me when you get back to London—I might be able to help you.” He handed me a piece of paper with his name, John, scribbled on it.

A month later and rather desperate for work, I found the little piece of paper in my passport with John scribbled across the corner. When I called, he remembered me and invited me to dinner. The first inkling I got that he was a man of power was when a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce picked me up from our flat in Finchley and as I was whisked away I could hear my friends yelling “Slut” after me!

During an amazing dinner, where the waiter applauded my menu choice, I found out that John was John Van Eyssen, Columbia Picture’s Head of Production, and as he put it, “I’m a little too high on the chain to be of direct help, but I will introduce you to someone “

Through John’s introduction, the next day I was having lunch at The Casserole, a trendy restaurant on the Kings Road with Ned Sherrin, the Producer/Director of That Was the Week that Was, a groundbreaking sketch comedy TV show staring a young David Frost. During the meal an anxious art director came up to Ned and said that he had just been hired to be the production designer on European Eye, a TV Movie, and was desperate to find an assistant.  My hand was immediately in the air, and with the apparent approval by Ned Sherrin and John Van Eyssen, Michael Wield gave me the job that would start the following day. The only problem: I had never been on a movie set! I spent the remainder of the afternoon at the Chelsea Library (no internet then of course) doing a crash course in Art Direction and camera.  The job worked out and no one ever knew I had never been on a movie set before.

During the filming of the picture, the American director Lamont Johnson discovered I was raised in the African bush. He told me he was directing a play in Los Angeles—Christopher Isherwood’s adaptation of a George Bernard Shaw novella, The Adventures of A Black Girl in Her Search for God—would I like to read it and do some sketches? I did and he took them with him when the production ended.

After European Eye wrapped, I got a job as an Assistant Art Director on another movie, Where Eagles Dare. One day I was frustrated with the work of a scenic artist and picked up his paint brush to show him how to use it. Within two hours, I was fired and off the lot! Lesson learned: Don’t mess with the Union!

A couple of weeks later I was slumped on the floor of my Apartment, depressed and completely without a plan, when the mail slot started to jiggle and a huge envelope was stuffed in and it landed on the floor in front of me.

It was from the Center Theater Group in Los Angeles and contained a contract, plane tickets, salary advance, multiple indefinite work visas and even a scenic union membership. A week later I was on a plane to fame and fortune in Hollywood. At the time, I took it for granted, but looking back, I owe everything to Lamont Johnson and Gordon Davidson, the Artistic Director of the Center Theater Group. These days that sort of a golden handshake is rare if not none existent.

Black Girl was a personal success for me, and I was immediately asked to work on a series of productions at the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera. I assisted Cecil Beaton on a production of My Fair Lady and assisted Miles White on the next production of 1491. But after a year of steady work, instead of capitalizing on a very good start to my career, I left for Rome and painted for a year.

Two years later I was back in LA with an art gallery exhibition of the work I had done in Rome. Jim Trittipo, a well-known set designer, brought three paintings and hired me as his assistant for a Broadway production of On The Town. After that, Jim recommended me to Renee Lagler who was designing the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour, a television variety show. In two years I had done a movie, a Broadway musical, sets and costumes for three plays, costume design for two musicals, and I had a painting exhibit and a job in television. How could I not love America! Los Angeles became my home and that is how I got here from Central Africa!

RICHARD: When you designed for the Mark Taper, I remember you telling me that you made some bold and innovative design moves because you didn’t know that something ‘couldn’t be done’.  For example, coming up with the idea of projecting scenery which has now become a trope of modern scenic design.  Could you tell us about this?

JEREMY: Continuing on the theme of ‘luck’ that seemed to propel my career, the technical director for Black Girl was John De Santis.  It was his job to help the designers manifest their dreams and he did so with complete support and enthusiasm. One of the end scenes of the play was a Christian dream sequence. While I was still in London, I had seen an incredible Cream concert at the Round House where they used oil pan color projections on the walls. I saw an opportunity to use the same technique by projecting on the huge cyc wall of the Mark Taper theatre, never dreaming that it would require enormous projection power.  Without losing a beat, De Santis said “Let’s use a Drive-in movie projector.”  I did a painting of Christ on the cross and then John filmed me making ink blots and painting with Doctor Martin water colors and an eye dropper. When the film was projected onto the cyc, the effect was spectacular—it felt vibrant and ‘live’ and the scale was magnificent. John went on to produce Disney’s Broadway Musicals and we are still friends. We both remember what we now call a ‘wow’ moment when we heard a murmur of astonishment in the theatre.

RICHARD: Over the arc or your design career, do you have a favorite project?

JEREMY: This is a difficult question to answer because every job is my favorite until it is complete. I love the process of creation.  Once the job is finished, there are always disappointments, failures, and changes, even with the most apparent successes. I tend to be so deeply invested in ‘perfection’ that it leaves little time to sit back and appreciate the result. During the Salt Lake Winter Olympics opening ceremonies, arguably one of my biggest live shows, I spent the entire ceremony within hearing distance but standing guard over a guide cable that people had been tripping on. When I had the honor of designing the Oscar Awards show, I thought that finally I could sit back in the front with all of the movie stars and feel fabulous about myself. The first production number had a special effect ‘reveal’. The orchestra and lighting cue happened, but the effect didn’t. The conductor replayed the musical cue and the same thing happened. I flew from my seat to backstage and discovered that someone had kicked a plug and the signal was not getting through. I fixed it just in time, the effect was triggered and the audience hardly knew anything went wrong. I spent the rest of the show pacing in a backstage hallway, so very often the best of times are the worst of times for me.

RICHARD: Some designers build their careers in one field—like water shows or restaurant design, etc. Over the decades, you have worked in so many different areas—there seems to be a resistance to being ‘typecast’ for doing one thing.

JEREMY: I wouldn’t say I’m resistant to being typecast. I’m creatively hungry and every job is fascinating to me, especially if it is a new challenge. So much of designing is balancing aesthetic and bottom line consideration to solve problems with grace and ingenuity. For me, this ability has definitely been enriched by having the opportunity to work in theatre, TV, film, live shows, theme parks and public art attractions.  You learn valuable lessons from each medium that enriches the quality of your work.

I do have a personality ‘need’ to please and entertain; I love starting off with a blank canvass and seeing what comes out the other side. Part of me is still driven by the fear of proving my father right and ending up starving in a garret. Another part is that I have come all of this way to be able to do something important so it better be good!

RICHARD: Some designers seem to never leave the comfort of their studios. You jump at projects that allow you to explore other cultures and countries.  Where does this curiosity and wanderlust come from?

JEREMY: With English parents and being born in Africa with grandparents that lived in Singapore and Hong Kong, it is not surprising that I feel like a ‘citizen of the world.’ I love the diversity of indigenous cultures having been raised amongst the Ndebele tribe in Rhodesia so I grew up feeling comfortable as the only ‘pink person’. I relish the fact that my work has given me the opportunity to work around the world—looking at my passports, I see visa and stamps from Zimbabwe, South Africa, England, France, Italy, Monte Carlo, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Australia, US, China, Hong Kong, Macau, India, Korea, and Japan!

RICHARD: Your experience has embraced different narrative and technological fads/trends/revolutions: – MTV, Gaming, Virtual Realty, AR, and Architectural Mapping — how do you embrace and balance new technologies and media platforms with the fundamentals of narrative?

JEREMY: We are in the middle of a technical revolution and so there are so many incredible new opportunities for effects, systems, and applications. ‘Creatives’ like me have an important role to play in searching for new ways to present new technologies. The most exciting things happen when new ideas are linked to new technologies. Thus, creative applications and new technologies inspire and inform each other. I have been working long enough to be able to notice the “fads” that appear and then see them eventually find their place in our basic repertoire of tools.

RICHARD: Your core discipline is painting and your early design work has a very dramatic and painterly style. With the advent of Photoshop and the internet, you were able create a new style of visual communication. Care to talk about that evolution—pros and cons?

JEREMY: Given the time, my natural inclination is to paint for myself in a hyper-realistic style. Before Photoshop, I coasted on my ability to paint from my imagination. Photoshop gave all of us the ability to be better artists than we are. Once I learned how to use the application, I all but stopped hand painting.

My illustrating style was born out of the need for speed and I used my renderings to show clients the look and emotional feel of a set under lighting. Basically I would paint the light and not the details. Also the illustrations for a live show are a snap shot—a moment in time from one person’s point of view.

The Chinese market has had an effect on our illustration work.  Our Chinese clients want to see exactly what they are going to get, so Photoshop, computer renderings in SketchUp or Maya or any of the illustration programs are now being used as the primo design tool versus the mood, look, and feel tools, and I totally embrace these labor-saving applications. Collage and Photoshopping has become my favored quick and easy rendering technique.