Beautiful Boy is a brutally honest film about Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) who falls headlong into a recurring cycle of drug addiction. Steve Carell plays his father David who tries his best to cope with his son’s addiction, wanting only for his son to heal and get better. A desperate, anguished story of recovery and relapse.
The Sheff family’s home is not that of a big metropolis. They live in a quiet enclave outside the city, surrounded by trees and nature and nature’s beauty. Their house, their world, as production designer Ethan Tobman explains, is almost Tolkeinesque in its idyllic setting.
I caught up with Tobman to talk about how spending time with the Sheff’s’ allowed him to create the house and understand visually what he needed to do when building the home and sets for the film.
Tobman talks about his process and how he researched rehabilitation centers for the film, and how the four centers in the film reflect Nic’s progression. Read our chat below as Tobman takes us into building the world that is Beautiful Boy.
What was the first conversation you had with Felix and what do you do? The one thing I’ve learned about your craft is you all have such different processes and it’s fascinating to hear the detail about it.
We do. We all work so differently and that’s one reason why I love publications [and sites] like yours because it’s the only window we get into each other’s processes. We’re not in the room together.
It’s just as different between production designers as it is for one production designer between each of his or her projects. Every project requires an extremely different approach, discipline, and rules to capture the reality of the story that you’re telling. For me, I’m always motivated by characters first. There’s a reason I’m not an architect first. I’m not imposing an environment on someone, I’m realizing an environment around someone. I’m looking to capture an underlying theme in every choice that I make that I feel illustrates the reason this story at this time in these people’s lives. In this particular scenario, the process began with me wanting to get on a plane to spend a few days with the Sheff family in their home where it took place.
Luckily, they were extremely inviting. David being a writer himself, is very observational and extremely communicative. Karen, as a painter has her own very unique perspective of not only what happened, but how to raise children, and how to manage a home. What I learned immediately after spending a few days in their magical home was that they have embraced the landscape surrounding their home which is a very dramatic, almost Tolkien Middle Earth landscape into the architecture of the home itself. They used woods from the surrounding areas, they kept windows very open and embraced the geometry to their home that’s very progressive. It’s almost 60s or 70s inspired, living off the grid type architecture.
As a result, what I realized and what would become a central theme to the design of this movie was that this was the last home you would imagine that would foster shame, secrecy, and a desire to escape. It was the type of home we all wished we had grown up in. It encouraged self-expression, individuality, and freedom on the surface. That became the central impetus for every design choice, which was let’s explore environments that would feel like the last place where you would harbor a secret and then let’s explore the secrets harboring beneath that, both visually and psychologically. As a result, we designed a home, particularly on the second floor which was entirely a build based on some rooms that we shot on location on the first floor. We embraced the home that forced its family members to commune. Each bedroom leads to a central living area and a staircase where you have to interact with each other. At the same time, one visual area explored a lot, were walls and glass that were semi-transparent. You can see into them partially, but you can’t see into them entirely. On one hand, they invite voyeurism and on the other hand, they encourage some level of secrecy.
How long did you have to go away, do your research and deliver your set because time is always not always a production designer’s best friend?
I always joke about this. I’ve developed two sentences that I think approach this accurately. The day you start a movie, you are two weeks behind. Immediately you are playing catch up and it isn’t until the last day of shooting where you think, oh my gosh, I’ve caught up.
The second thing I always joke about is, you’re dating the movie and anytime that you have a life outside of the movie, you’re cheating on it.
I love that.
It’s so great. It’s so true. You feel like you’re sneaking around on the movie and the movie is calling you, saying, “Where are you?” like a jealous lover.
It’s saying, “Why are you not putting windows here?”
It’s a jealous and possessive lover. My joke on this particular movie was we did a lot of research and development, at the same time, we needed to shoot the home first. You’re in an accelerated pace where you are gathering clues, and you’re rushing to imbue the set with accuracy and personality in a way before the next crime occurs. You’re racing against something tragic. What it means is that over the years, you develop a technique where you learn what questions to ask and what information to delete or avoid. You’re looking for things that will immediately create empathy and immediately create a singular tone for the film. Hence the reason we spent three or four days with the Sheffs and did two weeks of furious drawings and model making and concept art to fit their lives into a message.
Nic’s bedroom was so revealing with the art and the posters. What went into designing his bedroom?
It was a fascinating room to me because if you’ve ever been close to someone suffering from addiction and if you look at murderer homes, terrorist homes, you’re looking for clues to explain how did this person’s psychology break and create such a harmful choice? You can gather as many clues as you want, but you’re never going to walk away satisfied. You’re never going to look at their room and say, “Oh, I see the murderer and the drug addict.” That’s the point, people live inconsistently. Nic has a huge passion for music. All of the kids are sculpting, drawing or building things and they are encouraged to. With Nic’s room, as with many drug addicts, I’ve learned in my research and real life, try to avoid sunlight. It naturally happens. As you want to escape from reality, you stop engaging in the world outside. It becomes stressful and petrifying, you look for the control in a smaller and more and more isolated environment.
We employed lower ceilings, darker walls, and slightly smaller windows that then became collages of blinds, curtains, and posters that help block the outside world. That was something that we wanted to do subtly, It also served a great purpose in contrasting his room from that of his siblings which are so open and have the higher ceilings and lighter wood. But also from David’s office which is incredibly porous and highly organized.
Nic has posters on his wall that are layered and haphazard, David’s office is a monument to work he’s done in a grid formation. It’s linear and self-conscious. There are inherent choices that we made with Nic’s room, but also developed a unique and creative personality that is at odds with itself.
The office becomes a focal point. Talk about the shift as the film goes on.
Physically, we spend more time in it and less time in Nic’s room. The kids also get older so we spend less time in their part of the home. One thing I found so interesting about David’s office, you find this with a lot of academics, you feel at once overwhelmed and inspired by very clear collections of knowledge and very unique perspectives with their magazines and their books and records. The way their desks are organized. With David, his desk is a C. He’s accessible, but it also forces you to be the interviewee. No matter what, there’s only one spot where you are master and commander, everywhere else you are at his discretion to be interviewed.
What I found with these environments is that you feel at once really invited to speak and express yourself, but also a little bit intimidated and a little bit on a stage where it feels like you have to perform. It’s such a tricky and interesting thing to explore from a design perspective to have a space that’s both inviting but it’s really inviting you to serve a specific role in someone else’s world. That was really how David’s office felt when you were inside it. You see that when Karen is speaking with him and when Nic goes there and rifles through his pages. When Nic is in his room and going through his things, it’s the first time he’s ever sat in the chair.
It seems completely foreign to him.
It’s also uncomfortable. He hasn’t earned the right to be there.
Let’s talk about the rehab design.
It was very important to me that in the four rehab clinics that we experience are one of the few things we experience chronologically. Given it’s a non-linear story. I wanted each rehabilitation clinic to exemplify the family’s increasing sense of desperation and limited economy. By that, I mean this is a process you go through, not just the Sheff’s, but it’s with every family tackling addiction. First, you think that this is a problem and we can fix it. Let’s not overreact, but let’s react. You find a step nearby, it’s credible, and you do the 28 days. That doesn’t work. Then you think, we have resources, we can throw money at this, and we can solve this.
Then it goes to the most austere, almost prison-like, fantasy version of rehabilitation experience. When that fails, you take a step back and think, “Okay this is going to be a longer process than we thought, there are going to be relapses, and there are going to be failures. Maybe we shouldn’t be throwing money at it, but investing in it as if it were a longer-term plan. Then we find him in places that are less sterile. They’re more compact, they’re bigger, they’re more populated, and they’re less hopeful. They have fewer windows, less character, and they’re like halfway places for people who come and go.
All the while, we’re exploring the idea that the house is so ingratiated with nature that these rehabilitation places are going further away from nature, they’re concrete, they have dead plants, and leafless branches. We end up in a yard with death vines and it’s a place that says, “We don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
The home embraces such a dramatic and fervent landscape. I think you really feel the contrast of life disappearing and things becoming artificial and dead.
It’s so different because of the connection to nature. It’s not set in the city such as LA or NY.
One thing you have to remark upon with drug addiction. Drug users by nature of it being illegal and shameful, they frequent basements and bathrooms and subways. What’s so interesting and to me, it’s one of the most fascinating things about this movie, is so are the support networks for people suffering. Alcoholics Anonymous is in basements. You go to therapy groups that are subterranean. Everyone’s trying to hide it, but everyone is suffering from it.
It’s really unique for a movie to eschew sunlight for its entire second half, but in many ways, that’s what we end up doing.