Eric Morrell is a Production Designer and Art Director for TV and film living in Greenpoint. He has art directed numerous feature films, commercials, reality shows, and music videos while working for four seasons as Art Director for the reality competition show Project Runway.
I recently caught up with him at his Greenpoint apartment to chat about the hyper-local film industry of Greenpoint, the value of art school, and the impending L train closure…
Greenpointers: What is you favorite thing about Greenpoint/Williamsburg? What’s a typical day for you in the neighborhood?
Eric Morrell: My favorite thing about Greenpoint how each street feels a little different and it really feels like a cohesive neighborhood even though it has a warehouse district and a commercial district and the area around McGolrick feels completely different then Franklin Avenue. Its got a lot of variety and changes a lot every few months. I really don’t need the rest of the city.
A typical day off is going out to eat somewhere for one meal, I try to go to new spots. If it’s a nice day I walk around or bike around the neighborhood and then go see a movie or go home and watch a movie. I like that we have movie theaters in Williamsburg but it’s still not close enough. With all the movie studios around I feel like they should build a big one somewhere East of McGuinness.
Greenpoint indeed does seem to be a thriving neighborhood for the film industry, studios and rental houses… what’s up with that?
I have my theories: NYC tax incentives, rising prices in Manhattan sound stages, or maybe they are just here for the hipster coffee shops. Movie people love ridiculous coffees. Maybe its something about their connection to Los Angeles.
I think we have great locations in the neighborhood and a few years ago they just started converting warehouses to stages anywhere they could. I think a lot of people are sick of movie trucks taking over the neighborhood but I love it. Greenpoint looks like it’s full of stories and movie people love that. I just haven’t been able to land a long term gig in one of the stages, but that’s the dream.
You first moved to Brooklyn to study painting at Pratt Institute… how did that prepare you for the work you do now, if at all? Should kids drop out of college and just start working as PAs?
Studying painting gave me a way to talk and think about set design and movies. It also physically taught me to paint, and I could paint sets and that’s what I did for a little while. Painting big sets was like doing watercolors on a grand scale with just a lot of layering.
I will say that on Runway I’ve taken a lot from painters that I wouldn’t be aware of if I wasn’t so invested in the whole painting scene. Last year I had some visual quotes of Caio Fonseca in the runway set and in the workroom I had these Bridget Riley things going on. A few years ago for the Tim Gunn spin-off I made these John Baldessari fashion photos with big dots over their faces and blew them up as murals. None of it’s a direct steal but more like a jumping off point. These are also artists I was never interested in when I was painting, but using them as an inspiration for a set design feels like it opens them up in some way.
As for schools, I’ve heard undergrad film school is great, and grad theater design has been putting out people who go right into the workforce but entertainment design is such a wild thing that you don’t need to have a license or anything. The walls you’re building are paper-thin and rarely stand for more then a month. Its all very superficial.
I think everyone interested in film should PA. You’ll find out quickly if you have the stamina to do the long days and stay interested.
As you’ve continued in your career, starting with indie films and now your fourth season with Project Runway, what advice would you have for anyone looking to work as an Art Director in films or TV? What was the biggest lesson you learned?
Yeah, it’s my fourth season of working Project Runway, and I’ve also done another five seasons of spin-offs of the Runway brand. I don’t have much advice but I will say the biggest thing I learned so far is collaborating with a large group comes to me more naturally then sitting alone trying to work it all out myself. I expected that with having so many people work on my design I’d lose touch with it but instead I’m always wanting to build on what they bring. This happens especially on movies where your prop master or set decorator may be coming up with better ideas then you had and you can just start pushing that into the whole design.
What do you see as the future for the neighborhood? Are you concerned about the L train shutdown?
For the lack of charm all the new condos are missing, at least we are still living in a very alive neighborhood, right? The painter in me wants to put everything where I want it, keep the unique houses on the tree-lined streets. Keep the Peter Pan’s and the strange laundromats, and the greasy spoon diners, and paint out the things that feel out of place or that I’m not use to. But the set designer in me thinks we have to wait to see what everyone is bringing to the table before we can make that call.
As for the L train, I only care about the G train and I’m very worried that all these people who’ve always put down the G train are now going to fill it up until the doors won’t close.
The 15th season of Project Runway will premier on September 15, 2016 at 9pm on Lifetime.
Eric’s most recent feature In Dubious Battle featuring James Franco, Sam Shepard, Ed Harris, Robert Duval, and Selma Gomez will premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September 2016.