How can you production design a dream?
This post was written by John El Manahi.
Thanksgiving 1975, my cousin played the record KISS: ALIVE! for my younger sister and me. Saying I was blown away would be an understatement. I was 12 years old, already listening to Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and more, but this was different. Being a movie freak and an avid reader of fantasy and comic books, the personae and identity of the band sparked my imagination in a way that hit all the targets.
I immediately started playing guitar, was in a working band from age 15 years old, and went to L.A. on my own to pursue music. It’s incredible that 40 years later, I would get to recreate the magic of KISS at that time as the production designer of Spinning Gold, a biopic of 1970s record producer Neil Bogart, co-founder of Casablanca Records.
In January 2021, I was contacted by Blythe Frank, a producer whom I had worked with for many years. She asked if I’d be interested in a project about Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart (this is the moment in a movie where there’s a record scratch and a freeze frame).
Of course, I was interested.
Designing A Dream: My Time on Spinning Gold
I was sent the script, I read it within an hour and instantly knew that this was a job for me. It was one of those moments of pure clarity beyond logic or debate. I told Blythe to set up a meeting with Tim Bogart, the writer, director, producer…. oh yeah, and the son of Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart. We had an amazing 3-hour Zoom call, and I was hired on the spot due to my music experience, passion for the project, and my improvisational, punk rock, pull rabbits out of a hat, production design M.O.
Although I have professional music experience, I graduated with a fine art degree from California State University Los Angeles and spent three years at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Italy, studying art history, painting, and sculpting. Afterward, I moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I did faux finishes in a paint shop and worked as an art handler.
From a modern-day perspective, I appreciate how those experiences helped me in production design.
However, I first started as a production designer purely by chance. In 1997, a friend approached me about working on an indie in Brooklyn, on which he was the DP, because he thought I’d be good at it. I loved the film industry but never thought of working in it.
Jumping Into the Deepend
I read the script and just started jotting down the locations, describing how I imagined them to be. No one told me to do that. It just seemed to make sense. When I met with the director, he said I took exactly what he’d imagined and turned it into visual information. My first job in film was art director on the feature film Puzzlehead. 26 years older and 18 feature films later, I am grateful that my first job found me.
I started working on the production of Spinning Gold in March of 2021. It had originally begun in Canada in 2020, but they were forced to shut down due to COVID-19. Finances and new contract negotiations brought the production to a complete reboot.
Although we began in March, I wasn’t fully crewed up and in a physical office until the end of April. The movie was beyond ambitious, and my task was to create the period of 1968-1978 by using 100% build sets, no locations, including concert recreations, and recording studios. All in just eight weeks (second record scratch, freeze frame, voiceover).
We were working in a giant warehouse with no grid and a floor so unleveled that the pitch went from 0”to 24” in some places, making it hard to build in. I advised against picking this stage, but there were limited options, so we had to make do and construct a massive deck.
The challenges kept mounting, and there were too many to cover them all in this article, so let’s just say that most of what had been done in Canada needed to be scrapped. We basically started from scratch while the script was still undergoing rewrites. On top of that, post-COVID-19 supply chain issues were dire, and I had to salvage lumber from the damaged material sent to me from Canada’s sets.
We had massive construction with Casablanca Offices, Hawkins Church, Casablanca Rooftop, Century Grand Ballroom (which acted as Caesar’s Palace and included a complicated water gag where KISS’s flash pots set off the sprinklers), 3 Recording Studios, an apartment with working bathtub, various micro sets for the outdoors, numerous changeovers, and a dance number with a rolling house of mirrors.
Last but certainly not least, in the final few days of production, Tim wanted me to turn the existing sets into a Broadway musical number! This was actually my dream task, no sarcasm intended.
My approach was to start with the most significant and historically unforgiving material, the KISS, Parliament Funkadelic, and Donna Summer’s concert recreations. I knew that fans would expect a lot, and as a fan myself, I wanted to get as close as possible to history.
Unfortunately, we had some issues with clearances and trademarks that forced us to redesign the KISS logo, makeup, and costumes. However, we got close enough based on sketches from Joyce Bogart’s notebooks, and thanks to the outstanding work of our costume designers, Ellen Falguirre and Mario Davignon, and the makeup department head, John Perkins. I got vintage instruments from Gibson Guitars and Pearl Drums, and my set decorator Tricia Peck found everything I specified from various music vendors.
We supplemented and repurposed all the set material and dressing we got from Canada. At this point, we had four weeks before the first day of shooting and took whatever help we could get.
We had many scheduling meetings, but every good option had its problems. Creatively, we were off the charts, and my partnership with Tim Bogart and our cinematographer Byron Werner was always solution oriented. So, we came up with many ideas greater than the sum of their parts. The cooperation of all departments was unprecedented. My art director Marie Wagner, construction coordinator, Danny Rovira, and scenic charge David Boyd achieved the impossible.
Creating Something Special
Despite all the challenges, which continued daily until well after we wrapped, we put together a stunning film. It really made clear how much I love what I do and the people I work with.
There really is quite a lot more to the story.
Every production has its tales and legends, but this one stood out as unique and the completion of a lifetime dream, as I got to create the 1974 Cobo Hall Kiss Concert, where KISS recorded ALIVE!
I’ll forever be grateful to Tim Bogart for trusting me to tell his father’s story. I’m extremely proud of this film, and I hope you all enjoy it in theaters when it’s released on March 31st.
I can’t wait to hear what you think.