Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Since 1907
Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Calvin University's official student newspaper since 1907

Calvin University Chimes

Celebrated filmmaker Jeannine Oppewall first speaker of Loeks Lectures in Film and Media

Photo Courtesy Calvin College

On Wednesday night, alumna and four-time Oscar nominated production designer Jeannine Oppewall gave the inaugural address of the Loeks Lectures in Film and Media, a series sponsored by Celebration Cinema and the Loeks family.

During her presentation, Oppewall described her work and philosophy throughout a career that has spanned the last 40 years in Hollywood. Her celebrated filmography comprises almost 40 films, with Academy Award nominations for her work on “L.A. Confidential” (1997), “Pleasantville” (1998), “Seabiscuit” (2003) and “The Good Shepherd” (2006).

Oppewall has collaborated with a number of renowned figures in the film industry, including directors Steven Spielberg, Brian de Palma and Clint Eastwood, among others. According to film professor Carl Plantinga during his introduction for Oppewall: “She’s widely known as one of the country’s leading production designers.”

Oppewall began her address by quoting a marquee pictured on the screen behind her: “‘Good films make your life better.’ This is what we believe.”

She went on to describe her work and process in-depth for three of her films: “Tender Mercies” (1983), “L.A. Confidential” (1997) and “Snow Falling on Cedars” (1999). “Tender Mercies” was Oppewall’s first film as a production designer. The movie starred Robert Duvall and Tess Harper with direction from Bob Beresford, for which her production design received critical praise.

Speaking on the role of a production designer in the production process, Oppewall said, “My job is to find, manipulate and create environments for characters … the production designer is responsible for the contextual atmosphere of the story.”

“Designers are like shaman — we feel out the deep and hidden spirits of a place, whether they are human or natural,” said Oppewall.

Oppewall also spoke on her work with furniture designers Charles and Ray Eames, and the importance of that experience on her career. “After I worked with Charles Eames, nobody ever asked to see my portfolio — ever. I learned design at the feet of the master.”

Oppewall, a native of Uxbridge, Mass., attended Calvin College in the 1970s. Her time at Calvin included a stint as editor of Chimes.

“I learned an enormous amount. I learned a lot of stuff that you cannot learn in class,” said Oppewall of her time as editor. “It was a really wonderful thing to have done.”

Studying English literature, Oppewall also attended classes with Calvin art history professor Edgar Boeve, who was in attendance at the event. Describing Boeve’s influence on her, she said, “He’s a total inspiration. He’s the one who started me on this path to destruction. … He’s a national treasure.”

Oppewall’s most recent film, “Last Days in the Desert,” features the acting talents of Ewan McGregor and the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki. Directed by Rodrígo Garcia, “Last Days in the Desert” premiered on Jan. 25, 2015. Future projects for Oppewall include a currently untitled film revolving around the later years of Howard Hughes. Directed by and starring Academy Award winner Warren Beatty, the film is set for release sometime in 2016.

The night before her address, Oppewall attended a showing of her movie “Catch Me if You Can” at Celebration! Cinema, which was free for Calvin and GVSU students.

A Q&A after the show revolved around the details of the movie’s production design. Oppewall described her role in making the film, gave away design secrets and joked about director and friend Steven Spielberg.

“The production designer is given and takes responsibility for every environment you see on screen,” she explained, describing her position. Designing believable sets often involves a lot of creative trickery. “I’m in the business of fooling people.”

Calvin film students see Oppewall’s success in the film industry as a source of encouragement.

“It’s really heartening to know that someone who comes from Calvin, and in particular Michigan, which isn’t known for its film industry … was able to work hard and work her way up and do some of these projects,” said Helen Groothuis, a junior writing major.

“It’s definitely inspiring,” said sophomore digital communication major Matt Sweda, “because this industry is so far away geographically you say, ‘Oh, how will I ever get there, how will I ever have an influence on that scene?’ It’s really good to see people that are making real impacts with stuff that we’ve seen. Not just ‘Oh, they’re Calvin grads, I need to look at their stuff,’ but ‘I’ve seen this movie and I know this stuff.’”

“I’m encouraged because she didn’t go to a ‘film film’ school,” said Karyn Ostrem, a senior majoring in digital media production. “You hear a lot about people who do intense film schools .. and then you’re like, ‘Oh, someone who didn’t go to a super intense film school did well.’”

Oppewall has been meeting with students for lunch this week as well. “It’s cool that she’s coming here and is willing to have lunch with us and hang out with us,” said senior film/media minor Lydia Koning.

“We were talking about why a lot of Hollywood seems to be dominated by men,” Koning said. “We were talking about the life/work balances that women in those fields have to experience. … It’s a really big deal when a woman director wins an Oscar because it just doesn’t happen that often.”

Groothuis agreed, saying, “As a Calvin graduate and also as a woman, to succeed in all that she’s done I think is really cool.”

William Romanowski, professor of film/media, thinks Oppewall’s skills relate to a Calvin education. “She talked about standards and about excellence and about doing research and working with people. I would hope students would realize that getting a Christian liberal arts education can be beneficial in working in a field like this.”

Film/media professor Carl Plantinga originally came up with the idea for this event, which the department then brought to the Loeks family at Celebration! Cinema.

“The idea was to bring in high profile people who work in film and media and then open it up to the community,” professor Romanowski explained. “In this instance you get to see a film and then hear a designer talk about what really is involved in doing the art design for the entire film. It really enhances your experience with the film and how the industry works.” And, he said, he hopes it will be the first in a series.

According to Emily Loeks, who put on the event, “We said yes [to the film department’s suggestion] because it takes a certain amount of courage and boldness to pursue a career in art and media and film-making these days.”

“It is a changing world and a changing art form and we recognize it takes a courageous step. It’s one that takes care and a lot of learning to do well.”


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