June 18, 2020
By Andrea Gollin, managing editor, Tra Publishing
There is no denying that movie villains often live in architectural splendor. This fact of celluloid life did not escape the notice of architect Chad Oppenheim, who was captivated when he first saw the swanky, cliff-carved home of Bond villain Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). He was seven years old, and the choice was obvious: become a villain, or become an architect. Now the principal of Miami-based Oppenheim Architecture, he chose the latter. Along the way, he conceived the idea of gathering some of these amazing dwellings between two covers, and I was brought onto the project to turn the idea into a book, which I co-edited with him. Lair: Radical Homes and Hideouts of Movie Villains gathers fifteen of Oppenheim's favorite lairs, which are masterfully illustrated by Carlos Fueyo of playard studios.
Each film—and each villain's lair—is explored through insightful text by film critics. We also included several original interviews with film industry professionals and excerpts from an oral history with the visionary (and very cranky) late architect John Lautner, whose fantastical modernist dwellings have often appeared as villains' lairs in films. Other highlights are a long interview with the late Ken Adam, legendary production designer for the Bond films and many others; a deeply thoughtful essay that traces the cinematic association between modern architecture and bad guys by Joe Rosa, director of the Frye Museum; and a moderated discussion between Oppenheim and film director Michael Mann that discusses many of the book's themes.
Below is the interview I conducted with Mark Digby, production designer of Ex Machina (2014). I chose to share this particular interview because the conversation with Digby covers so much territory and Digby is so thoughtful about the subject at hand—how one designs a home fit for a villain.
Fighting Cliché and Building from Character: A Conversation with Mark Digby
A high-tech facility hidden in plain sight deep in the wilds of Alaska. When you enter Nathan Bateman's seemingly rustic house, there's no sense of what lies below, just as you have no sense of what is beneath the façades of his creations (or, at times, even that they are his creations). Throughout Ex Machina, production designer Mark Digby subtly plays with the dichotomy between the natural and the man-made, between what occurs organically and what is a product of technology, between what you see and what you get. Digby, who has worked on dozens of films, among them Annihilation (2018), Rush (2013), and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), spoke with Tra Publishing's Andrea Gollin about Ex Machina, his design process, and villains' lairs.
Tra Publishing: You originally envisioned a very different type of house for Nathan. Can you walk us through the process?
Mark Digby: Yes, and the process is a common one. It was difficult finding spaces. When you read something, you are influenced by what's gone before or what you imagine, by our cultural language. The original script called for a Colorado timber lodge house. But before we even established that, we imagined it might not be set totally in Colorado. We imagined a billionaire tech guy in a Le Corbusier-style or modernist California-style house––geometric, rectangular, white, angles, glass, one or two levels, a classic building of that type. And we started to look for places like that. If you look at millionaires' or billionaires' homes, you tend to find either palatial, historical style buildings or modernist, white buildings. We got into lots of millionaires' houses, but they weren't big enough. They were beautifully designed, and they were large but not awe-inspiring. And getting into billionaires' houses was a problem. Ultimately, that was the mistake we made, or the cliché we had in our heads. This was an interesting journey, because we realized we equated wealth purely with size and space. When we couldn't find that, we asked, what else might someone with that amount of wealth buy that others can't? And that was privacy, security, and nature.
We thought perhaps there is a type of person who is so wealthy they don't need space, they don't need to be visually ostentatious. We then moved toward Nathan's character, and we realized that he just needs enough space. So we started looking for interesting properties in stunning natural environments. We looked at castles in the Swiss Alps, for example. But also, before we went small and remote, we looked at large buildings with interesting design aesthetics, including some museums. We did commit to a museum, which was large and circular, but that arrangement fell apart. Then we chanced on the Juvet Hotel [in Norway]. Although it didn't quite have the narrative and the space we needed, the architects had designed a nearby private residence, and that was the interior of the house with the rock formation. And we realized that both dramatically and practically, we could have some of the rooms be subterranean.
Tra: How, if at all, did Nathan's identity as a villain influence your ideas about his house?
Digby: We did not want to highlight his evil. He's not a villain, necessarily, at the beginning of the story. He's a man potentially doing a great deed of creationist magnitude. He's doing something potentially for science. He's doing this big thing. It is not bad on the face of it. It gets darker, but it doesn't start out dark.
Tra: You've commented that in designing Nathan's house, you wanted to move away from the James Bond-type of villains' houses and away from science fiction tropes. Why?
Digby: Our process always is to throw out the language of sci-fi, the language of cinema, the language of culture that we have been fed. There is a whole bunch of that sci-fi language that was great thirty years ago, and somehow becomes the default. It's not necessarily wrong. But it doesn't have to be that. We immediately thought there is a danger we could head into a Bond-type villain here, where there's a big table with twelve people and it's the size of a turbine hall. We imagine that's how it has to be, and it doesn't have to be like that.
Tra: So you wanted to move away from those conventions.
Digby: Yes, we fight cliché and we keep to integrity. We build from the character. I'm very pleased that we didn't end up with a white California modernist building.
Tra: As you think about countering clichés, why is it that movie villains so often live in fantastic houses?
Digby: With wealth and power, there is an element that is equated with evil and crime. Why are people evil? Why do they resort to crime? I think it's to accumulate wealth, which accumulates power, and also to show that off. It's about subliminal feelings about size, space, power. And there is a price for that, and the price is that you have acquired it through badness.
Tra: In terms of the interior space in Nathan's house, we don't see Ava's space from her perspective, but from Caleb's point of view. Artistically, what was the thought process?
Digby: That space is a spatial flip-around. The immediate and natural thought was that Ava was being observed, and she would be contained, like a goldfish in a fishbowl, and Caleb would walk around her. But in fact, he is the goldfish, and she walks around him. The glass cube worked well because we have two people facing each other, talking, which can be boring. And we don't particularly want to watch her watching him—it's her we want to watch. So she's not sitting in one place all the time. The design allowed us to go in 270 degrees around her, if not 360 degrees.
Tra: Did your work on Ex Machina influence the way you've worked since then?
Digby: Yes, with Ex Machina, there was the success of that notion that you can flip things around completely, and you should. You can take a different approach, not just a sideways approach but an upside-down approach. That feeds into now. It makes us think, how can we take that approach?
Tra: As you've discussed your process, it seems that it's not driven by architecture, even though you're creating spaces.
Digby: Our starting process is very much about emotion and what that brings. It's not necessarily architectural. A lot of our references have nothing to do with space. They often are people, and that takes you to a mood.
Tra: Would you say that your work starts with character, and that leads to space?
Digby: Yes, and it's an interesting point about how things are made and what people do. I am not architecturally trained. I'm not artistically trained at all. What my team brings is a sentiment that we've gathered through life as opposed to a place of academic knowledge. We don't think about architecture. We think about characters and their space and their environment. From that comes the architecture. It is within everyone to have a style and a design and a feeling about things. It gives a little hope to everyone that everyone can do anything. They can find their talent and their feel in it.