Jesse Rosenthal, art director of “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri,” joined a public audience April 12, at Drexel University’s URBN Annex Screening Room to discuss his work on the Oscar-winning film.
A conversation with Rosenthal immediately followed after a screening of “Three Billboards,” where he took the opportunity to explain his role as art director — which is rather unfamiliar to many.
“I work for the production designer,” he said to the packed screening room.
“I’m responsible for things that are built and painted [on set]. I’m in charge of the graphic designer, and of the budget for the construction department.”
Rosenthal further elaborated that an art director’s objective is to help bring the director, cinematographer and production designer’s collective vision and “conceptual look” of a film to life — all within the realm of the film’s budget.
“You take an existing location and you make it work for your film and budget,” the New York University graduate said.
Rosenthal shared some of the tasks he achieved as art director for “Three Billboards,” which was filmed in North Carolina. He turned a conference room into a hospital room, transformed a furniture showroom into a police station and made a brand new swing set appear rusty and worn out.
He also arranged for the protagonist’s home to look like it had been neglected for a year according to Rosenthal.
“[The protagonist’s] house was too fancy for what we considered a ‘perfect’ Mildred house,” he said.
The transformation involved removing the house’s fancy porch and replacing it with a “funkier” one, adding wallpaper to the walls to convey a ’70s vibe and installing a wall oven in the kitchen.
As for the three billboards, the art department built the structures from the ground up. Then, they paid a miniscule amount of $60 to place their custom-made signs on the 12-by-24 billboards.
Rosenthal admitted that most of the challenges he faced on the set of “Three Billboards” were financially driven because of the film’s low budget of $12 million.
“For Mildred’s house, we had to pay for [the rights of] a Nirvana poster. We wanted to put up more posters but we just couldn’t get the rights to them,” he confessed.
Rosenthal also revealed another financial decision that interfered with his creative vision: he would have liked to install telephone poles near the three billboards in the film because it would have addressed how the power got to those signs (in the film, the billboards contained LED fixtures). However, it was too costly to build the power lines.
“When it comes to creative versus practical decisions, you make decisions based on budget,” he said.
Interestingly, Rosenthal recently art directed “Black Panther.” He was specifically involved in the visual design of the South Korea scenes — from the fish market scene to the famous car chase scene between Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis).
Rosenthal said the $200 million superhero movie was the highest-budgeted film he’s worked on, and addressed the difference between working on a big budget film and a small budget film. Marvel hired six art directors to work on the entire film, and his primary role involved only the South Korea scene.
“‘Three Billboards’ was an hour and 40 minutes as opposed to a seven-minute sequence I worked on in Black Panther,” he said.
“So much thought went into that little part. The detailing you can do [as an art director] is so much more layered and dense because you’re spending so much more time on a small sequence. It’s harder working alone and on a lower budget because you’re spread a little thinner responsibility-wise and budget-wise.”
Rosenthal — whose credits also include “Split,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” — closed the Q&A session with words of wisdom to the aspiring film students in the audience.
“Be your biggest advocate… and persevere if film is your passion because it’s not the easiest career to pursue,” he asserted.
Westphal College of Media Arts & Design student Rohin Berma felt inspired by Rosenthal’s advice.
“There’s something about meeting professionals from the industry that adds a whole new level of confidence to it because there’s so much saturation in the film market,” the freshman said. “To hear about his experience and how he got from day one to where he is right now is inspiring.”
Rosenthal studied theater from high school through graduate school with the intention of one day becoming a theater designer. After finding it difficult to make a living in that role, he moved to the Philadelphia area with his wife and kids and worked as an art director for commercials and music videos.
He received his big break into the film and television industry after working on the 2002 CBS drama series “Hack.”
He is currently art directing the eighth installment of the Rocky film series, “Creed II.”