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From Sketch to Soundstage

CFA alum helps bring directors’ vision to life

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Jane Musky

Jane Musky (CFA’76) has worked as a production designer on dozens of films and television shows. Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images

Jane Musky’s heart sank as she stared into the closet. She thought the bedroom’s shag carpeting was bad, but this was far worse. The closet was maybe five feet long and three feet wide—and it would be the setting for half of the production designer’s new movie. What the hell am I going to do? she thought.

It was the late ’80s, and Musky (CFA’76) was doing research in San Francisco for Patty Hearst, a film about the notorious abduction of the newspaper heiress and her two-month captivity in the closet of a Golden Gate Avenue apartment. The closet’s limitations were a cinematic problem. Musky and director Paul Schrader hashed out their options. Hearst had said she’d been blindfolded—how could they use that detail to their advantage? “We came up with this fantasy of what she thought the closet was,” Musky says. “The whole premise of the design, especially for the first half of the picture, was built around these wild fantasies of what she thought she was living in—what she thought she saw and what she thought she heard.”

Musky’s creativity and can-do attitude have served her well in a nearly 40-year career creating the defining look for stage, television, and film productions. Versatility has come in handy, too, as her résumé shows. Among productions she’s designed are the New York apartments in When Harry Met Sally and Hitch and the gritty frontier towns of Young Guns, and her eclectic projects have ranged from the TV musical drama Smash to a biopic on rapper Notorious B.I.G. (Notorious) to commercials for Garnier. Her theater background—including her teenage years painting high school musical sets and her studies at the College of Fine Arts—has given her a solid foundation for tackling any obstacle.

“I always tell young people who want to become designers, train in the theater first,” Musky says. A stage designer’s experience can be a valuable asset in other fields, as she discovered when she and a friend ventured into television to design an after-school special in the ’80s. “We could make props, we could do whatever,” she says, “so all of these producers thought we were the best thing that had happened to them in years.”

The experience was a turning point for Musky. Through her television contacts, she met future Oscar-winning directors Joel and Ethan Coen and designed their first feature (and her film debut), Blood Simple. She has since collaborated with other prominent directors, such as Mike Newell (Mona Lisa Smile) and Alan Pakula (The Devil’s Own).

Musky was the production designer for Ghost, the 1990 romantic thriller starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg. Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

Musky was the production designer for Ghost, the 1990 romantic thriller starring Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and Whoopi Goldberg. Photo courtesy Paramount Pictures.

One of Musky’s most recent projects—She’s Funny That Way, a comedy about a prostitute-turned-actress—reunited her with director Peter Bogdanovich. She had collaborated with him on the 1988 comedy Illegally Yours. “I think the greatest challenge is trying to keep up with his sense of humor,” she says. In one instance, they worked to find a design element that would provide a backstory for an unlikely, volatile couple played by Cybill Shepherd and Richard Lewis. “Peter kept trying to think of something funny to show how much they really were in love with each other, so we invented this wedding portrait,” Musky says. “We photoshopped them into this ’60s out-in-the-fields kind of thing. It became a centerpiece over their heads in one of the big scenes.”

The first few weeks Musky spends brainstorming with a director is “the most exciting time” in her job, she says. “You spend some time together trying to understand where the script’s going to be heading, but on top of that, trying to understand the director’s style and how far they want to pursue different journeys.” Then she evaluates “how far I take an idea, whether it’s through color, through comedy, through drama, through period feeling.” Finally, she says, she strives to “make it accessible enough that the audience can jump in and not feel intimidated by the design.”

All this design work needs to be completed within budget and on schedule—an increasingly challenging demand. “Everyone feels that with the electronic age, things have gotten so efficient and tailored that you don’t need a lot of the things that you used to need,” Musky says. “That’s not true at all. I think if anything, what’s happening is there are too many shortcuts that are actually detrimental to films.”

Inadequate preparation time, smaller crews, and less funding can decrease production quality—something Musky says producers new to the industry don’t always understand. “They look at you cross-eyed, like, ‘What do you mean you need this?’” Her level-headed approach to her work and collaborative attitude have kept her in the game and an expert at adapting to the challenges of her field.

“The more successful designers I know are very grounded and pragmatic,” not divas who insist on their own way, she says. Her experience has also confirmed how crucial it is to “always be good to your crew and try to really foster those relationships for the lifetime of your career.”

The longevity of Musky’s career gives credence to her advice to aspiring designers: “Really make sure your craft is honed before you get out of school, because it carries you very far in this business.”

Julie Rattey can be reached at jrattey@bu.edu

A version of this story originally appeared in the summer/fall 2014 issue of Esprit.

1 Comments

One Comment on From Sketch to Soundstage

  • Ann Brennan-Zelenka on 11.23.2015 at 12:33 am

    This is an excellent article. I would love to know more about the best schools which prepare one for production-designing and if there are internships to learn designing on the job.

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