Design and décor are often among the most-talked-about aspects of a period film, but on Revolutionary Road, the talents in those departments strove to make 1955 look as plain as possible. “That was a concept [director] Sam Mendes and [production designer] Kristi Zea had from the beginning, and I thought it was great,” says set decorator Debra Schutt. “We all wanted to make a period movie that didn’t look like one.”
The interior of Frank and April Wheeler’s home, where much of the story takes place, was particularly important and, says Schutt, the most difficult to sort out. “There weren’t many details in the novel or the screenplay about what it should look like,” she notes. “We had to really figure out who those characters were.” In concert with Zea, she determined that the Wheelers, a young couple who had reluctantly abandoned the city to settle in suburbia, would maintain a home that looked “streamlined and simple.” Referencing mid-1950s style magazines, design books, and Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs, Schutt chose furnishings that were “stylish for the time but did not scream ‘the ’50s.’ We ruled out anything with bright colors and anything that hit you over the head with the period. The look is really quite plain.”
Working in a real suburban house and shooting in continuity affected Schutt’s work “in a number of ways,” she says. “The furniture had to keep going in and out because the house was so small, and logistically, it was rather a mess because it rained quite often, so we had to find ways to protect everything outside. But I find it easier to work on location; it’s easier to envision what a space is going to be when I can see the actual thing.” Given that Mendes made decisions about shots on a scene-by-scene basis, Schutt and her team had to be ready for anything, but she says that is her habit, anyway. “Sam would call me a Method decorator,” she says with a laugh. “You could open any door or cabinet in the house, and it was there. Also, we had a great prop person, Tom Allen, and on-set dresser, Ruth Ann DeLeon, who made sure we were prepared no matter what [the actors] did.”
Revolutionary Road was Schutt’s first collaboration with Roger Deakins, ASC, BSC, whose preference for using practical sources whenever possible is well known. “I find half the job now is working with the set decorator to get the right kind of practicals,” says the cinematographer. Schutt recalls Deakins inquired about the light fixtures as soon as she came aboard the show. “Like every other cinematographer in the world, he was interested in the lampshades and the quality of light they would create, but he also wanted to look at every single light fixture, and I hadn’t come across that in a cinematographer before,” she says.
“I could tell he considered the practicals the most important part of his lighting,” she continues. “He spends time thinking about them, and he’s quite specific about what he wants. For instance, for the night scene by the side of the road, he wanted streetlights that would give a rectangular, tapered light, and for an argument in the Wheelers’ front room, he wanted a ceiling fixture that would send light down and out in a fan shape with a hard edge.” (In the end, the ceiling fixture wasn’t visible in the latter scene, so Deakins used an 18" ring of 60-watt bulbs surrounded by silver foil instead.)
“It took me a while to figure out that for Roger, it’s about the shape of the light as much as the quality of it,” says Schutt. “It’s more like architecture for him. He’s the architect of light.”