Six Questions With “Inside Man” Production Designer Wynn Thomas

Six Questions With “Inside Man” Production Designer Wynn Thomas

Wynn Thomas has had an impressive career in the film industry. As a celebrated, award-winning production designer and longtime Spike Lee collaborator, he’s stamped his signature on iconic films like “Do the Right Thing,” “Inside Man,” “Crooklyn” and “Malcolm X.” He’s also worked with directors running the gamut from Robert De Niro to Tim Burton to Ron Howard on movies like “A Bronx Tale,” “Mars Attacks!” and “A Beautiful Mind,” and has designed sets for television as well as film. We caught up with Thomas ahead of our December 13 screening of “Inside Man,” to learn more about Thomas’s work and how he managed to turn Lower Manhattan into the cinematic setting of an unforgettable heist.

Can you describe what a production designer does?

The production designer is responsible for the look of the project or the movie or the television show. We work very closely with the director to take the writer’s words and turn them into concrete images. We are responsible for everything that’s visual on a project. It includes designing all the sets, choosing all the locations, working very closely with the set decorators — a key partner for us — and then working very closely with the props department. We also work in collaboration with the costume department to make sure that everything fits within the conceptual framework that is established for the project.

Can you talk a little bit about the importance of place and setting in a film?

The place and the setting from where the film takes place is a vital part of the storytelling for that film project. Filmmakers are storytellers, and the production designer is responsible for adding all of the visuals that are part of that storytelling. [A film] starts with the writer’s words, and then someone has to take those words and turn them into images that support the story. Place and setting are crucial in helping establish the tone of the project, but also in giving the audience a sense of time and place and the history of the story. 

In “Inside Man,” setting is very important, as the film is about a bank heist that takes place inside the very ornate, beautiful Manhattan Trust Bank —  which is actually 20 Exchange Place here in Lower Manhattan. How did you pick that location?

This was actually a very difficult location to find, because there weren’t too many old, elegant banks that were vacant when we were shooting this film. In addition to the interior of the bank, all the blocks surrounding the bank had to help us tell the story, in terms of where the police are, where people are hanging out, how people are approaching the bank. We had to be able to isolate those streets in order to shoot those sequences. That particular bank [at 20 Exchange Place] is an example of the complexity that is very often involved and the choices that are made [in production design]. The first floor of the bank is what we used. We actually built the entire basement of the bank, because we needed to be able to control that area 100 percent of the time. 

The first floor serves all the action sequences that were indicated in the script, and then the exterior of the bank — also all the streets leading to the front door, all the streets on the side, a restaurant across the street that we needed — all those elements were indicated in the original script. Trying to find all those elements in one place was actually quite a very difficult task. We looked not just in downtown Manhattan, but in all the different boroughs. But we were lucky in the sense that we found something in downtown Manhattan. And of course, the thing that’s so wonderful about that bank is that it’s such a beautiful, elegant bank, which was really helpful and visually stunning.

Thomas with Spike Lee in Thailand

What makes New York a good setting for a film and what makes it a challenging one?

New York is a very special city. Of all the cities in the United States, nothing quite looks like New York. Not just Manhattan, but all the different boroughs bring very different energies and looks that give New York a very special feeling. Queens has a very particular look, Brooklyn has a very particular look, Staten Island looks very different. Manhattan itself, with all its big buildings and its very different neighborhoods, are all providing the filmmakers and the storytellers with very different looks. There is a spirit and an energy here in the architecture and in the streets of New York, which we always try and capture when making a film here.

Do you have to change your production design a lot based on the director’s aesthetic?

Each job is very different and each director is very different. It is my job as a production designer to come in and to service the story, but also to service the director’s point of view on the story. I have to adjust to who the director is that I’m working for. I’m bringing something to the equation as well — I’m not just coming in and servicing the director. I’m bringing a point of view to the material and I am hired to bring that point of view. Therefore, it is an equal collaboration between myself and the director. I am working to help the director to find his point of view on the project. Both people are bringing their time and their energy and their perspectives to the project that we’re working on.

What was your favorite set to design?

I’ve been working in the business now for 40 years, it’s crazy. That’s a long time. The answer to that question is I try not to choose a favorite amongst the children. It’s been an incredible journey that I’ve had. Each decade, now that I look back on it, has provided me with some great opportunities and some great jobs and I have been extremely lucky to have worked with so many great directors and to have told so many great stories. I’m really grateful for everything that I’ve done.

photos: Wynn Thomas

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