The Israeli Face Behind 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri'

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Production designer Inbal Weinberg on the set of the 2017 film 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.'
Production designer Inbal Weinberg on the set of the 2017 film 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.'Credit: Bergen Swanson
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

Working in independent filmmaking in the United States is like working in the circus, says Tel Aviv-native Inbal Weinberg, 38, who in recent years has been consolidating her status as a rising production-design star in the indie-movie world.

“There’s no life plan because at any moment you might be called elsewhere,” she says. “At any second you might have to pick up and go somewhere else for a few months.”

Her credits include big-name indie films like “Frozen River” (2008), which was a contender for two Oscars; “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012), which won an Independent Spirit Award for best first feature; “Blue Valentine” (2010) with Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams; “Beasts of No Nation” (2015), which rocked the world as the first feature film on Netflix; and “St. Vincent” (2014) with Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts.

In recent months she has been following with amazement the string of awards handed out to her latest effort, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” The film, in which a woman laments her daughter’s unsolved murder, is a contender for seven Academy Awards including best film, best screenplay, best actress (Frances McDormand) and best supporting actors (Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell).

Weinberg says that this week she and other artists who worked on the film exchanged excited emails. Not only did the movie win five awards at the EE British Academy Film Awards, the Baftas, including best film and best actress for McDormand, “but across the world the movie is starting to crop up in different kinds of campaigns,” Weinberg says. She adds that in Florida, London and elsewhere, activists are drawing inspiration from the film, holding up banners just like the protagonist.

Frances McDormand in the 2017 film 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.' Credit: Merrick Morton / Twentieth Century Fox

“During the filming we saw how amazing Frances is. On the second day of work we already called her a force of nature. But I didn’t imagine the film would be such a success. The movie relates to the female empowerment movement #MeToo and the opposition to institutions that wield power around the world. I don’t think that even the film’s distributors expected such a global reaction,” she says.

“The movie just came out in many countries and I hear from colleagues everywhere that it touches almost everyone. I was very moved to hear that in Israel there were excellent reviews too. I think the film’s important topic is the nature of revenge, the idea of an eye for an eye, and I think this issue is relevant to Israel as an issue that’s deeply understood by the people.”

According to Weinberg, McDormand told her that when working on the film she enjoyed when the two of them were making a bed ahead of filming. “As a designer I always try to be in the middle of things, making sure that everything looks the way I want it to,” Weinberg says. “In one of the bedroom scenes I hovered around her, constantly moving things so they’d look good, and then we made the bed together. It was important to her to be part of everything.”

Even as a girl growing up in Tel Aviv, Weinberg dreamed of moving to New York, so when she finished her military service in a combat operations room, her next move was clear. She registered for NYU’s film school.

The school had no official production-design program at the time, so Weinberg put one together for herself. She became a strange bird among the many students dreaming of becoming screenwriters or directors – someone valuable to take on board for the set designs.

Israeli-born production designer Inbal Weinberg in her new home the United States.

Weinberg started accumulating experience, and after finishing her studies started working on films, taking small parts in the arts department. After a few years she was working as a production designer, the highest position in those departments.

“If you take a frame from your favorite movie and freeze it, then take out the actors, everything that’s left on the screen is the responsibility of the production designer,” she says

This includes what’s on the plate when the characters sit down to eat, as well as the bed linen, photos on the wall and pets wandering around the house. In outside shots it’s every street corner, car or storefront. In period films, the challenge is even greater.

“This means that the production designer wears several hats,” Weinberg says. “He or she must know something about architecture, understand construction processes and know colors like a designer does. Every movie demands different skills because each one presents a different world and the designer finds herself becoming an expert on the film’s subject.”

Netflix’s “Beasts of No Nation,” for example, was first shown at the Venice Film Festival in 2015, with a plot based on children who fought in Liberia’s civil wars in the mid-1990s. For this effort, Weinberg had to read books on the period, learning the way the armies were organized, what the soldiers wore and what weapons they used. In “The Place Beyond the Pines” (2012), in which Gosling plays a stunt motorcyclist, Weinberg spent two months learning about motorcycles.

Production designers in movies like these must demonstrate impressive juggling abilities. They handle a team of dozens of people while supervising the set, the sets being prepared for the following days, and the dismantling of sets used on previous days. Weinberg says skills she learned in the army operations room serve her well.

“It’s a big department with complicated logistics, which sometimes reminds me of the army, and I’m sure my military service helps me,” she says. “Some designers lock themselves in an office while designing amazing worlds, designs that their artistic staff then carries out. But I’ve gotten used to being on the ground while leading the team. My military experience helps me understand how a team operates.”

She says that when you’re working on a film, 90 percent of the day involves solving last-minute problems.

“People always say ‘everything will work out,’ and then on the day of filming things start falling apart,” she says. “My job is to find solutions to these things, such as dealing with the flood the previous day when the whole set floated somewhere, or that truck with all the equipment that overturned. You have to be cool under pressure.”

Cows leave the scene

Weinberg came to love Martin McDonagh’s movies such as “In Bruges” (2008) and “Seven Psychopaths” (2012), and her Skype interview with the Irish-British director of “Three Billboards” made clear that both sides were keen. So when McDonagh came to the United States they went on location to plan shooting.

Ebbing is a fictional town; the movie was actually shot in western North Carolina. For many long days Weinberg and McDonagh toured the area searching for suitable locations near the town of Sylva, which was chosen as the main location.

McDonagh envisioned a town with a glorious past that had passed its prime. Weinberg had to turn this vision into reality, shaping the main street accordingly, including the police station and the advertising agency across the street. They spent a long time searching for the stretch of road on which the huge billboards would be placed.

“We wanted to place it in an open valley with mountains visible in the distance and no houses nearby. We spent many days in the car, listening to vintage American music that suited the atmosphere, and we finally found this pasture with cows belonging to some farmer,” Weinberg says.

“Luckily this person was charming, letting us remove the fence and move the cows elsewhere. We brought in gardeners to put some sod there and replace the grass the cows had eaten. I was bothered at first by a quarry that ate into half a mountain there, but Martin said that it was actually good that there was something flawed in that pastoral scene.”

Weinberg investigated different kinds of billboard before deciding that the ones in the movie would look old, to suggest that the area had once seen better days.

The three billboards in the movie are dilapidated with sections missing as if they’d been standing there for years, but of course they’re brand new ones doctored for the movie. Every peeling part, missing section and blemish were calculated in great detail. The choice of background color, flaming red, was actually McDonagh’s choice.

“I wasn’t sure; I first thought of black and white, with red seeming too overwhelming, but finally I agreed that it was an excellent decision,” Weinberg says. “We then used that red in other sets as a linking thread.” In the movie, the billboards’ prominence and the message they convey shake the town out of its stupor. It turns out that there was a similar effect in the real world.

“Right after we put up the billboards we realized that there was something problematic and frightening about them,” Weinberg says. “This area is in the southern United States, where people are conservative. The day they went up the location director started getting calls from the locals: ‘We go there with our kids, what are these billboards?’”

So they brought in some cranes and covered the billboards at the end of each day.

The fires that break out in the movie also required careful attention. In the building that was chosen as a police station, Weinberg designed a fireproof set. Beside each wall a new one was put up and the floor was covered so that the original wouldn’t catch fire. In one scene with burning, the special-effects people had to be brought in to ensure that the blaze was controlled while still meeting McDonagh’s cinematic vision.

Actors blocking the wallpaper

“Working with a director is always an interesting experience and a strong bond is always formed. The director can’t translate his vision without you. These are very long working hours, often in unexpected locations leading to very intense relationships. It’s not like working in an office but like going on an adventure,” Weinberg says.

“The problem is that you don’t have much time to get to know the person you work with before the project begins. Luckily I’ve usually had excellent relations with directors I’ve worked with. Derek [Cianfrance], who directed ‘Blue Valentine’ – I’d do anything for him. Martin is charming. He’s open, and we both love soccer. Unfortunately, I’ve had tense relations with some directors, and that makes a big difference.”

Weinberg realizes the importance of maintaining a dialogue with the actors – even when you’re the production designer, not the director.

“I once thought actors were mainly a nuisance because they hide my wallpaper,” she says with a laugh. “But when working on ‘Blue Valentine,’ when I’d ask the director questions regarding the lead actor, he told me ‘go ask Ryan [Gosling], it’s his decision.’”

She began to see the benefit of involving actors in such decisions; they’re the ones spending time obsessing about their characters.

“They often have interesting answers to my questions,” Weinberg says. “I found out that the more I involve the actors the more relaxed they feel on the set that’s supposed to be their home. It helps them connect with the place.”

Thus in “Three Billboards” her dialogue with McDormand helped fashion the house.

“I’m not sure these things are visually registered by viewers; maybe they only enter the subconscious but they’re important for the atmosphere on the set to be authentic. With Frances, for example, we talked about the fact that she’s been mourning her daughter for seven months and she’s been so focused on revenge that she’s neglected her house, not folding laundry or buying food, not looking after the plants,” Weinberg says.

“So we scattered some withered plants around the house. We put some boxes with her ex-husband’s stuff in her bedroom, because she hasn’t thrown them out yet. These little things, even when ultimately you don’t see them on the screen, provide the deep fabric, the multiple layers of the house.”

She says that she had friendly relations with Gosling.

“We met before he became famous and we made three movies together [“Half Nelson,” “Blue Valentine” and “The Place Beyond the Pines”], so I know his tastes, I know how to present things to him. But I hadn’t spoken to him for years, and in the meantime he became the most famous actor in the world,” Weinberg says.

“But he respected my work a lot and was grateful for the set. Sometimes actors request something specific – Ryan for example wants things that aren’t understood easily, but since everyone loves him they always try to deliver what he wants. In ‘Blue Valentine, for example, he asked at the last minute if I could get him a Melodica, a kind of blow keyboard – he thought it would go well with his character,” she adds.

“We were in a small town in Pennsylvania and I searched the internet and managed to find one. I brought it to the set and he was really excited. This thing ended up in many scenes, with him playing it. In ‘The Place Beyond the Pines,” Eva Mendes played a Hispanic character, and since she’s Cuban-American she wrote me a lot about the house she grew up in. When she saw the set and certain things in the kitchen and records with Cuban music we had talked about, she got very emotional.”

According to Weinberg, working together on a movie is like “being in the trenches together. Right after the filming there’s a period of post-filming depression. Everyone feels it because this is work with so many people around you and suddenly you break loose and return home alone. In my team I always try to work with the same people. The same goes for directors.”

Even though “Three Billboards” is a leading contender at the Oscars, Weinberg says she’s a bit ambivalent about all the fuss.

“I don’t believe in the institutions that give out these awards and in all the competition between movies,” she says. “My feelings about a movie don’t change when it receives one award or another. When Martin was in Los Angeles before the Golden Globes he wrote me that he was starting to get excited, and I answered him that our prize was the making of the movie.”

Careful, Israelis

Immediately after the filming of “Three Billboards” ended in 2016, Weinberg flew to Italy to work with another hot director, Luca Guadagnino. He was the director of the 2017 indie hit “Call Me by Your Name.”

Guadagnino chose Weinberg for his next movie, “Suspiria,” a remake of the ‘70s horror classic by Dario Argento. A young American ballerina arrives at a German dance academy and discovers the institution’s dark and dangerous secrets. Weinberg spent six months in Italy filming this “crazy and chaotic movie, totally unplanned.”

Weinberg isn’t dreaming about working on blockbusters at large studios and doesn’t fantasize about superhero movies with $300 million budgets. She's happy with indie movies at $15 million.

“I’m not looking for big Hollywood movies. I want to continue making smaller movies, ones that defy conventions and ask interesting questions, films made by visionary directors,” she says. “It’s hard to find such low-budget movies with good directors, screenplays and actors. The chances of finding such movies are about the same as the chances of finding a unicorn.”

Toward the end of the interview she lets herself fantasize out loud: “I wish I could work on each of the movies that are contenders for best foreign film. It’s there that you find uncommon narratives that come in through the back door.”

Since several Israeli films have reached that point in recent years, I suggest that maybe she could simply make an Israeli movie.

“I’m really distant from Israeli life. I think I could only deal with one other person who’s like me. I’m not sure I’d survive on a set full of Israelis,” she says with a laugh. “But I really love Israeli movies; I watch them all and am very proud of them. This is a place with very interesting stories.”

So do people in the American movie industry relate to her as an Israeli?

“Look, I have no accent, I don’t sound Israeli, and other than my strange name it takes people some time to realize that I’m from another place. Sometimes I feel that people have no idea that this isn’t my culture and I have another one from home,” she says.

“Even though I’ve been here for 18 years and am quite American, as a production designer I often find myself asking questions that for people from here seem trivial. In that sense seeing things from the outside helps. To Americans I seem so aggressive, someone who always says the wrong thing. I’ve learned to work the American way but I see how my ‘no bullshit’ Israeli attitude helps a lot in some situations.”

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