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Talking Film Production with Local Set Decorator Carmen Navis 

Lights, camera, Cleveland

The talk of the town buzzes constantly with news of another major film shooting around the city. But when big-time productions like Captain America aren't closing down state highways, it's the smaller outfits that are really putting Cleveland on the map for film work. Carmen Navis, a set decorator, picks up work through the Cleveland Film Commission, and she's been involved with a lot of terrific indie projects that have made their way through Cleveland. We spoke with her recently about that work and about her own future aspirations in the business.

Sounds like you were busy yesterday. How's that project going?

We just wrapped this movie called The Charnel House, which is an expression for a place where bodies are buried. It was an independent film — Tier 1, which means that it's on the lower end of budgets — and the story was about this family that had renovated this apartment complex. All these people are moving, and the story takes place over two days. You get all these flashbacks that allow you to see these different levels of consciousness for the main character. You learn that the same property that was just renovated was actually a slaughterhouse in the '80s.

Let's pause before we hit any spoilers. You do design and decoration work, right?

Yeah. A lot of the projects we do, the characters are pretty eclectic design-wise. This project was a diversion for us. It was really high end, contemporary, clean, modern and sleek. The challenge that we saw was that it was a very expensive, high-end environment that we had to create with a low budget. It almost felt like film school at times. We had a dream team.

Was all of this work taking place here in Cleveland?

Yes, I'm in Cleveland. And I've been here since 2006.

Could you elaborate on how you and your team have been able to ride this wave of indie film production here?

I came back from Los Angeles, and I wasn't planning on staying. I was just going to come back and reconnect with family. But it was very serendipitous where I found an ad on Craigslist for a sculptor, and I have a sculpture background. I was trying to make ends meet and do some fine arts work. The ad that I responded to was for this person named J.T. Fraser, an art director here in Cleveland who ended up paving the way for our art department. He acted as a conduit for me, to connect with a lot of special people. Jennifer Klide was one of those people. She's the designer I work with. We kind of created this new wave of younger people, and everyone came together at the same time. Fraser facilitated that, and we connected with certain producers. I started finding these little projects here and there. But really, in the last almost 10 years now, there's been this heavy saturation because of the tax incentive. Every year has been a new wave of producers coming to town. Once they've seen what they can do here with the environment — the architecture, the landscape — it's just been this whole surge.

Do you have an example of a really cool setting, whether internal or external, that might be unique to Cleveland?

My favorite aspect of Cleveland's landscape right now is just the decrepit warehouse; all the buildings have these strong bones, but they're kind of hollowed out and vacant. It's less about what that can do for the environments that are written into the scripts, and more about what we can do with the community to create these spaces that are full-time production spaces. This is more from a producer's mind when I say this, but what would really keep the work here and create a solid infrastructure would be creating stages — production stages — because we really don't have that, and that's what separates us from other Midwestern markets.

Right. So the tax incentive is the bait — and good bait at that — but then more needs to be done to foster these projects?

With the incentive program, it's interesting. The Film Commission is always trying to bring in bigger work. But really it's the smaller work that keeps us busy, because it doesn't take all that money at once.

Obviously, Captain America gets the word-of-mouth buzz and the headlines.

And it is great; what I love about the Cleveland architecture is that we have the Rockefeller history. That's why we have those movies — Captain America, The Avengers — because they see that as an opportunity to shoot New York out really inexpensively. They can bring their crews, but also use the locals here. I think east of downtown there's so much going on there — from the empty warehouses to the Rockefeller architecture — and really, all of our parks too. We have a lot of parks that make it easy to shoot country really close to the city. It's such an intimate, diverse landscape. A lot of producers see the opportunity here.

To pivot a bit, you have an international foothold as well. Could you describe this other project you're working on, the one you've sort of described as your Boyhood?

Thank you so much for asking. It's the project that really keeps me inspired when all the other work goes away. My friend from film school, Ben Hicks — we went to Columbia College in Chicago — was one of the strongest writers in our class. He approached me with this movie, this love story they wanted to make. The story is an ethnic drama romance about a couple that teaches English abroad. Really, it's less about them teaching English and more about their trials and tribulations in love and on the road. It's called Kids Go Free to Fun Fun Time. We started getting our heads together and writing it, and we got to Tokyo in 2009. From that point on, we've just always come back to it.

What sort of goals are you working toward in the coming years?

I'm trying to find a way to take my business to the next level. I want to grow as a decorator and evolve into a designer. Also, the acting, for me, is a mystery and an exciting one. This project will allow me to explore that more. On the other side of things, outside of the film business, I really want to pursue yoga teacher training. That's where the balance comes in. Again, it takes such a type-A person to do what we do, to go for it. I've been practicing yoga since 2001. I'm really passionate about it. It was on my radar to do this teacher training later this year. I don't know that I can make it happen, but that's a goal of mine. I've been researching these schools in India. Eventually, because there's, you know, a 10-year plan; for me, it's wanting to keep a foot in the film business and then opening a yoga studio. That's the dream for me.

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