Interview: Nell Dickerson on Vamp (1986)
Nell Dickerson worked on several horror films during the eighties, including Night Life, Rockula and Critters 2. She's worked in both the lighting and art departments, and has been an art director. These days, Nell is also an architect and photographer. We asked her to discuss working in the horror genre, specifically her work in the lighting department on Vamp (1986), starring Grace Jones.
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It looks like you started working on films (in the art department) around 1983 - how did you get your start?
In the 1980's, I was an electrician and grip for a couple of years in Hollywood. The work was OK but I had a hard time getting hired because I was one of the first women working in those departments. My dream was to design, so I quit the movie biz and got a job in an architecture firm in Santa Monica. I took graphic design, drafting and movie set design classes at night. After a couple of years, I had the portfolio to go back to Hollywood where I was an art director and set designer on several horror films. During the 22 week, 1988 Writer's Guild strike, I almost starved for lack of work, so I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico. I eventually became a registered architect, but I maintain a parallel career in feature film art direction and set design. I worked on westerns while I was out west in New Mexico and Arizona. Sam Raimi, known for his horror movies, directed one I worked on, The Quick & the Dead.
Can you give us a sense of what the day-to-day work was like?
The art department never sleeps. They are striking the last set and prepping the next set while the current set is shooting. It is probably the most brutal of jobs on a movie crew in the terms of hours. Most movies shoot on a 12 hour day. That leaves 12 more hours for the art department to do everything else including eating and sleeping if you can work it in.
The art department designs, builds, decorates and props the sets. Wardrobe is in the art department, too.
In addition to Vamp, which we'll get to in a moment, you worked on a few other horror films during the eighties. I'm curious if there are any production design issues specific to working on a horror film, versus a comedy or drama?
Horror films tend to be low budget, although there are many exceptions such as the most recent Woman in Black. The "art" is to create convincing environments for an audience who is already "suspending belief" for the horror story premise. Horror film art direction relies heavily on atmosphere/mood. Atmosphere/mood is created by these elements (excluding script and acting) which all play off each other:
1. the set
3. special effects (fog, smoke, etc)
4. cinematography (camera lenses and shot angles)
5. editing (post production...see the shower scene in "Psycho" as the perfect example.)
6. sound (especially during post)
Comedies tend to have flat lighting and the audience reacts to character and dialog more than to the setting. Anything goes in a drama. In the sub-genre of "haunted house" horror films, the set is the main character and drives the action.
Does working within that genre change how you approach the project at the preproduction stage?
Preproduction is the same for all movies: You never have enough time or money and you always have to scramble for last minute changes.
By the time you worked on Vamp (in 1986), I imagine you had worked in several different areas of the art department and might have started to specialize. Can you talk about where you were at professionally in 1986 and what you had learned (both about the job and the industry as a whole)?
See above. What I learned about the industry is:
1. You meet the same people climbing the ladder of success as you do when you slide down it.
2. You are only as good as your last film.
3. The only way to get work and to keep working is to know someone who will give you a job or recommend you for one. It helps to return the favor.
What types of things were you working on during the preproduction and production stages of Vamp?
I was in the lighting department on Vamp, not the art department. You'll need to talk to the Art Director/Production Designer, Alan Roderick-Jones. He is really famous, now.
Most of the film takes place in a small strip club. My favorite details are in the back area of the club, though. There are two curved windows with lenticular glass in front of an office that work especially well with the massive amounts of green and magenta lighting. I also really love the neon dressing tables and giant wall murals. Are there any specific elements of the sets that you'd like to discuss?
It sounds as if the lighting really impressed you and that goes back to what I said about atmosphere. In horror films, the set and lighting are especially intertwined. Part of that is the lack of budget to build the expensive set. It's easier, quicker and cheaper to create the atmosphere with lights and gels.
Anything else that you remember about working on Vamp? Maybe a good Grace Jones story?
The night I remember was the one where Keith Haring painted Grace Jones' totally nude body to look like one of his graphics. It took hours (maybe 8? You'll have to confirm that) to paint her and, of course, much longer than scheduled. The club set was ready and the entire crew waited hours for Keith to finish. Finally, Grace came on the set and she was wild and literally bouncing all over the place. (I guess she had a lot of pent up energy for holding still so long...or something....) It was amazing because she literally brought Keith's art to life in a live, 3-D character. Remember, this was in the days before CGI and everything, especially in the horror genre, was created live.
You've been doing a lot of photography in recent years. Can you tell us about your GONE exhibition and other projects that you're working on at the moment?
I have been taking photographs since the early 1970's to document the lost plantation culture of the deep South, where I am from and now live. "GONE: A Photographic Plea for Preservation" documents antebellum buildings that survived the Civil War, only to fall to ruin from social and economic neglect. My next book, "Porch Dogs" will be out in Spring 2013 (pre-order on Amazon around December 2012). This book is a collection of environmental portraits of dogs as sentinels of the lost tradition of porch sitting. I exhibit my fine art prints in galleries, juried shows and museums all over the USA. Please check out my web site for the latest news, exhibition schedule and project updates: nelldickerson.com
A big thanks to Nell for talking with us! There is some wonderful photography on her site, so please take a look. If you'd like to check out Vamp, it's currently available to stream on Netflix Instant.