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Assistant Art Director for Film: Tom Castronovo
If you have an artistic eye and great attention to detail, a career as an art director might be right for you. Integral members of the team on every film, art directors help bring directors’ visions to life, doing everything from crafting giant sets to scrutinizing the lettering on a sign.
Tom Castronovo, an assistant art director currently at work on “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and a member of the Art Directors Guild in Los Angeles, shares how he turned an interest in design and architecture into a job he loves.
JMA: Tell me about your background. Did you always want to work in film?
TC: I was a creative kid and I always knew I wanted to do something artistic. I had always done a lot of drawing, and when I was going into college, I thought I would be an architect or interior designer. But once I started talking to architects, I knew I didn’t want to be one. There’s a lot to that work that I hadn’t thought about. I was focused on the creative elements of the job, and I learned that in reality most architects are not spending the majority of their time working on the creative side. I started thinking more about interior architecture, and also my longtime interest in logos and design.
JMA: How did you combine those two interests in school?
TC: The great thing about Columbia College is that you take courses outside of your major so I did get to study architecture, but my interest at the time was really in magazine and book design. I did design work for “The Heckler” [a satirical sports publication]. An editor came to speak to one of my classes and because I like talking to people, I stayed after class and talked to him. He offered me the chance to submit a few ideas and possibly get a paying job doing things like photoshopping Sammy Sosa throwing a pizza. He liked my work so I did that and other odd jobs while I was in school.
JMA: How did you transition from print design to film art direction?
TC: Even though I always loved movies, I never thought about film as a career until I got my first internship. My junior year, I studied in Italy and took an Italian film course that piqued my interest. When I got back to Chicago, a family friend who works in costume design said she was working on this movie called “Fred Claus” and they were looking for production office interns. It was during Christmas break and it was a Vince Vaughn movie. I said yes.
The work had nothing to do with art. I was printing scripts, scheduling things and doing whatever needed to be done. But I loved being there. I hit it off with everyone and we became friends — and that’s really important. On a film, you work so much that you really do almost become a family. Today, I spend more time with people at work than I do with people I hold true to my heart like family and friends. As an intern, I learned the important lesson that you have to get along with people and earn their trust.
JMA: How did you build on your experience as an intern?
TC: After “Fred Claus,” they said they would love to work with me again. I knew I wasn’t interested in doing production work as a career and I was still in college, but a couple of months later, a friend said he knew of a film that needed someone to be on the production crew full-time. I couldn’t do it because of my classes, but they offered to let me be an intern in any department — and I knew I wanted to be in the art department. It was mostly unpaid but I got free lunches and I made connections, which is a big part of the industry.
JMA: Did you find a home in the art department? What does an intern in art direction do?
TC: When I walked into the art department, I knew I wanted to be there. I had more to offer than I did in production. On bigger movies, interns get lunches and coffee, but people try to throw you a little creative work if they know that’s what you want to do. It might be designing invitations for the kickoff party, stuff like that. Or maybe they are building an office set and need paper to make it look more real, so you make a bunch of fake documents.
JMA: What appealed to you about this career at the beginning?
TC: One of the main things that drew me to the art department and set design was my interest in architecture. What I actually do now is kind of what I imagined architecture to be — I dream up pretty buildings and make them. It’s more conceptual than architecture and nothing we build has to stand for hundreds of years. And while we’re not building permanent structures, we do need to make sure things won’t collapse. You don’t need a background in architecture, but you need to know how to create and read architectural drawings. There are some sets that need more engineering because a helicopter is landing on them or something, but the film hires engineers to make sure we can make it happen safely.
JMA: What do you love about your job?
TC: The amount of detail that goes into movies — that most people never notice — is amazing. People don’t see it, but if it wasn’t there they would notice. Take aging bricks, for example. If the bricks all looked brand new or all looked the same, you would notice them. If you notice things like that, we’re not doing our jobs right. We want to create things that look real (or that fit in with the style of the film) but that don’t draw attention away from the scene. When I started as an intern, I thought this was the coolest thing. I still think so and that keeps me working and wanting to work in this business.
JMA: As you decided to pursue this as a career, what were some of your concerns?
TC: I guess I assumed it would be a hard industry to get into, and it can be easy to get discouraged early on. But it really is all about making connections, and I genuinely like doing that and talking to people. The Kevin Bacon effect is a real thing. On the film I am working on now, I know some people from other jobs, and even the people I don’t know, I know through someone else. Also, when I was starting out, I was worried that I didn’t have enough knowledge about film. I didn’t take tons of film courses and I was a little intimidated, so while I knew the design aspects and felt comfortable, I needed to learn more about filmmaking. Even after eight years in the profession, I am learning more every day.
JMA: Were you nervous about working with famous people?
TC: It takes some confidence to work in the film industry. People ask me a lot if I’m nervous around all of the famous actors, but I actually don’t really care. I mean, it’s cool, but it’s not something that makes me nervous. I get more nervous around a very famous production designer. What you realize though is that everyone is just a person, even those who are famous, and most people don’t want to be treated differently. As long as you’re friendly and open, you’re good. We can all sense the ladder-climbers. Ambition is good, but having an agenda isn’t.
JMA: What’s the hardest part of your job?
TC: What people might not know is that while the industry is in LA, we don’t often shoot movies in LA because of the tax incentive studios get from other cities. I have a life in LA and people I love. So, the travel is the hardest part of this job — you have to get used to being on location for long periods of time.
Usually, a movie is in pre-production in LA. At that point, the production designer, my boss, works with illustrators and set designers to get the general look down. On a bigger movie, pre-production can be a month to six months. Then, once we’re in production, we’re on location. I have been living in Detroit and working on “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the sequel to “Man of Steel,” for a year and a month, working 12-hour days, five days a week.
JMA: What are your days like during production?
TC: We expect 12-hour days. I love what I do so I don’t mind — we do what thousands of people would love to do, and that motivates me to work these crazy hours. Which is why sometimes you need to take a few months off. I want to go home and be with friends. And of course there are times when we’re just hanging out and not really working, like we’re driving to a set or eating lunch — it depends how you look at it. We don’t really have vacation days because studios want to get things done as fast as possible.
JMA: So, how does getting hired work? Who actually hires you?
TC: The film’s production designer hires the supervising art director first, and relies on that person to hire the crew.
JMA: So you work film to film, not for a studio. How often are you out there looking for jobs?
TC: If you make enough connections, you can go right from one job to the next. I have gone from one job to the next for three years now. I have been on this film for a year, so after this I want to take a couple of months off. Generally, you want to go from job to job, so you always have your ears open and you have to schmooze — that’s where the politics come in. You throw your name out and hope something comes in.
The longest I was unemployed was about three months, which can seem like a long time, but it’s not for the industry. You start to get bored, and my friends with more office-y jobs don’t get that. In my time off, I work on other creative projects. I help friends with design work, I write and keep my mind occupied. It’s a mix of connecting with people, drive and luck. A lot of it is timing.
I know people who don’t even really have homes and go from movie to movie and rent if they are in LA, but I keep my house. I like having a place to go home to. There’s a vagabond aspect to filmmaking.
JMA: So how does the art department work?
TC: The top person is the production designer, and it’s his creative vision that we’re all portraying. He works directly for the director. Then there’s the supervising art director: He is in charge of scheduling, budgeting and hiring crew — he’ll also do some drawings and design. Then, on this film we have three art directors who each control 1/3 of the sets. I’m an assistant art director, so I work with all of the art directors and help them with anything they need done. Every set has hundreds of tiny details. The actual work can range from measuring something to presenting ideas to making sure that 30 cars look like actual cop cars.
It’s a lot of talking and communication, which is a big part of filmmaking. If the communication is bad, the whole thing is bad. There are a lot of big personalities, and you need a big personality to stick out in the industry, but it’s always interesting to see them all come together.
JMA: What’s the salary range for art directors working in film?
TC: Pretty much everything is based on union rates. A production assistant, who is a step above an intern, may make $600 - $800 a week. An assistant art director makes $1,500 - $3,000 a week, art directors make $3,000 a week or more. The union rules set a bottom limit but not a cap. Production designers make $4,500 a week and up — ridiculous amounts money. It can be shocking.
We also get union benefits. Films don’t provide us with equipment, so on each movie I get $100 a week for using my own computer or to cover the cost of buying something I’d need to do my job — basically, the studio is renting your equipment while you are working for them. And when we film outside of LA, the studio pays for my housing, a rental car and gives me a daily per diem. We also get paid for idle days, which means that on weekend days, we get half of our day rate, even when we’re not working, because we’re away from home. So, really, we’re paid for six days a week when we’re on location. I would personally rather not have that money and be home, but they do compensate for uprooting you.
Being in the union is a really big deal. I’m in the Art Directors Guild. It’s about more than benefits and credibility. It’s really an honor and something I am very proud of. Not everyone gets in and being a member proves that you can do the work. It’s a true honor to be in any of the guilds.
JMA: How do you get into the union?
TC: I knew it was something that really mattered to me, but no one could really tell me how to do it — everyone says it’s just hard work and it kind of happens, which you never believe. But it’s true and I really can’t answer that question with a how-to. I got in because I have worked with one person on many movies and he knew my skill set. You just work hard; that’s what I did and what everyone I know did. For me that meant working as an assistant for seven years without benefits and not always doing fun things. If you’re an assistant not in a union, you can’t do anything considered to be union work, which is all of the fun stuff.
JMA: What’s the bottom line?
TC: I love my job so much. Working on “Batman v Superman,” so many people want to know things about it, but I can’t talk about the film. I get really excited when they announce something like Wonder Woman is in the movie. I’m like, “Yes, I can talk about this!”
Another thing is that I watch movies completely differently now. I always have to watch something more than once because the first time I am constantly looking at the sets. If you really, really love movies, you might not want to work in them because it changes the way you watch. On the other hand, sometimes my job is working with the crew to smash a car — so working on a movie can be more fun than watching one sometimes, too.