Educating Adam

Alumnus credits his path to the company of Hollywood’s “A-list” to time spent with wonderful people.

By Paul Kosidowski

Adam Stockhausen, Comm ’95, looks around a small, bland conference room in the Alumni Memorial Union. Outside he sees familiar sights from his days as an undergraduate in the early 1990s: McCormick Hall, 16th Street and the spot once occupied by the Avalanche Bar, and Wisconsin Avenue. I’ve asked the Academy Award-winning production designer to think of the room we’re in as a possible movie set. What does he see? “It’s small, so it’s a little tough,” he says. “But it’s got good windows, which is kind of nice. And a sink. It could be a dressing room or a dentist’s office.”

In his answer, Stockhausen’s years of Hollywood experience show through: “Some-times you walk in and you say, ‘Great, this is exactly what I’m looking for.’ But more often, you’re thinking, OK, we have to shoot a scene in McCormick Hall. So that means the company is parked right there, and I can’t make the trucks move to shoot a little extra scene. I have to find something 45-second’s walking distance from there. You’re always asking, ‘What’s something that we can work with and achieve what we need?’”

To explain, Stockhausen talks about his experience making The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson’s 2014 film that earned him an Academy Award. To create the vast lobby of the 1930s-era hotel, the crew modified an abandoned department store near Dresden, Germany. “We were in that department store for a huge chunk of the shooting,” Stockhausen explains. “But there was a dilapidated building nearby that served almost all the other needs. We shot 12 different sets there: a bakery, the staff’s bedrooms. Different nooks and crannies became lots of different sets. And that’s kind of a fun process.”

Fun, indeed, particularly if you’re working with some of the most imaginative and acclaimed directors in Hollywood. In the last few years, Stockhausen has done just that. His recent credits include Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. When we talked in April, he’d just finished work on Wes Anderson’s new movie, Isle of Dogs, and was in the middle of work on Spielberg’s Ready Player One, and McQueen’s Widows.

“It’s easy to get pigeonholed in this business, so it’s something I actively work to avoid.”

At 44, Stockhausen finds himself at the very top of his profession, one of the reasons he was honored this year during Alumni National Awards Weekend with the Diederich College of Communication Professional Achievement Award.

It’s been a steady and rapid rise since his student days spent hanging around the Helfaer Theatre. “I think I had every job one could have,” says Stockhausen, recalling his years at Marquette, “scene shop, stage manager, electrician.” With his professors’ help, he branched out to work at Milwaukee professional theatres, as well, creating local connections he maintained after he specialized in set design at Yale School of Drama, where he earned his master’s degree in 1999. Some of his first jobs brought him back to his home state of Wisconsin, designing for American Players Theatre and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

His years at Yale also connected him to the theatre world of New York, where he designed sets for regional theatres around the country and assisted designers on Broadway shows. It wasn’t necessarily steady work. He made ends meet by constructing sets and doing drafting work, which eventually led to that elusive first break into the film world. “I had an inkling about film work,” he recalls of his post-grad-school years, “but it’s kind of tricky to figure out your way into it. There’s this amazing thing that happens in New York — the theatre and film communities are kind of meshed together.”

He might spend one week doing drawings or building sets for a Broadway show and the next week working on a Manhattan film location. “The skills are just the same skills,” he says, explaining how designing for a play — a story in which a single stage might be transformed into several locations — isn’t that different from designing for film. “In a play you’re taking all this stuff and pressing it into a box. It all has to work together in real time and real space, so you’re always figuring out how everything turns and twists and nests together to create different scenes. In a movie those spaces are exploded across a schedule that’s 40- or 50- or 60-days long. The company — cinematographer, electricians, grips and actors — is like a machine, which you are moving through this process. Instead of pressing it into a box, you stop and see all the sights at every step.”

Stockhausen’s entrée to the film world came with a call from his agent in 2009. Wes Craven, the legendary director behind Nightmare on Elm Street and the Scream movies, was considering Stockhausen for his next project, a film called My Soul to Take.

Craven died in 2015, but Stockhausen remembers him fondly: “We just hit it off. When you first meet, you listen to what a director wants to see and how he wants to tell the story. I could see it and hear it with him. And I think he could tell that I could see it and hear it. We had a very good bond immediately, and we became great friends and collaborators. He was an incredibly fun, wonderful man.”

Stockhausen’s meeting with Craven was one of what he calls “a series of fortunate events” that brought him from drafting tables and construction sites to the company of multiple-Oscar winners and A-list Hollywood. He worked in the art department of several films going back to the early 2000s (including The Producers and The Darjeeling Limited). He worked again with Craven — on his final film, Scream 4.

If there is a secret to his success, he credits the people he’s known along the way. “When I see somebody who inspires me and is going to be a good person to learn from,” he explains, “I tell them I’d love to spend some time learning from you. You meet this wonderful person and they introduce you to the next wonderful person and it just goes like that. You try to work as hard as you can every single day and try to do right by those good people. And I guess it works out.”

As a production designer Stockhausen works intimately with the director from the very beginning of the project, and “doing right,” as Stockhausen explains, means different things at different times during the process. It begins, Stockhausen explains, with research and early discussions with the director: “What is this movie about? How does it feel? If it’s a period piece — what does it look like? It’s about getting your hands around the story.”

At every part of the process Stockhausen stresses, you’re “serving the director’s vision of the story that he or she wants to tell. At the very beginning, I’m doing a lot of listening.”

Then comes the financial breakdown. What it will cost comes from asking some important questions. “Are we building these huge historical streets or are we able to find a real location that we can fix up? If we’re filming in New Orleans, are we going to find all the sets in New Orleans or are we going to have to put a big production unit on the East Coast?”

With this broad sense of a production plan, Stockhausen and his team look for the specific places to shoot the scenes, and bring in people to draw and develop the sets that will be built. From there, the shooting schedule moves the process into high gear, and Stockhausen follows the film from set to set. “When we’re shooting,” he explains, “I’ll come to the set in the morning and work with a team to make sure that everything’s going well — that the director and cinematographer are happy or to see to any last-minute changes. Then I’ll drift away and move forward to what we’re shooting tomorrow and the day after that.

“All those shooting days are coming in the queue, and the one for tomorrow better be 90 percent done, and the one for the day after that 75 percent done. My main job is to be sure everything we decided on earlier is being executed. If it goes well, the director and cinematographer show up to shoot and look around and say, ‘Great, this is exactly what we talked about.’”

These days executing a director’s vision can also involve creating artificial worlds on a computer. Of his recent and current projects, one is being filmed entirely with stop-motion animation (Isle of Dogs), another is “absolutely traditional filmmaking” (Widows), and another is a mix of real locations and computer-generated imagery or CGI (Ready Player One). Though he is familiar with the CGI process, Stockhausen calls working on this film “definitely diving into the deep end of the pool.”

But he welcomes it. “It’s easy to get pigeonholed in this business, so it’s something I actively work to avoid,” he says. “I actually love that feeling: ‘I don’t know how to do this, so I’m just going to give it a try.’ It’s a good feeling. Who wants to do the exact same thing a million times? It’s much more fun to keep moving forward.” •


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