Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Zosia Mackenzie. In this interview, she talks about what it means to be an artist, how she chooses her productions, the enduring appeal of the horror genre, and the potential impact of generative AI on the movie industry. Around these and more, Zosia dives deep into her work on the recently released sci-fi horror “Infinity Pool”.
Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that brought you to where you are today?
Zosia: I grew up in Roncesvalles, which is the Polish neighbourhood in the west end of Toronto and where I still live today. My Dad was a lithographer so I was pretty lucky that I got to go to lots of art openings with him and that he showed me loads of really great films as a kid. I had a TV with a VHS player in my bedroom and I’d stay up really late watching and rewatching movies. Later, when I was studying film in Toronto, I interned at a bunch of studios and eventually started spending more time in New York where I got to work in the art department on a Whit Stillman film. Once I got back to Toronto I continued pursuing art department work and after a few years decided to only take on production design jobs, even if it meant I’d have to turn down some better paying gigs.
Kirill: Do you feel that there should be one path for people to get into the industry, or that the industry benefits from this variety or diversity of backgrounds?
Zosia: I definitely think the film industry benefits from the variety of people who come from all different disciplines and backgrounds. I think it’s an asset that this industry attracts film lovers but also people who come to it from architectural backgrounds, design training, or those who’ve come to film and/or design at a later point in their lives and have all different kinds of life experiences they can draw on. I think a big part of what makes this industry so special is that there’s so many different kinds of people who bring such a wide range of experiences to their work. I think as long as people can communicate reasonably well and function under pressure they can work great in this industry.
Kirill: Can you teach anybody to be not just a craftsman in the industry, but also to be an artist? Can you take anybody through an art school, and have them be an artist by the end of it – however you define what an artist is?
Zosia: I think anyone can be an artist if that’s what they want to be or how they see themselves. If you really believe you’re an artist, so will others. It helps to be making things and hopefully thinking creatively and adding fresh ideas to the world. I can’t say for certain that school will make you an artist but I’m sure it can help meet some like minded individuals or connect you with teachers or industry professionals who can potentially help point you in the right direction. But, there’s only so much others can do for you – you need to be driven and self motivated and really want it yourself. Ultimately it’s up to you.
Kirill: Between the art and craft of it, you also manage people, budget and schedules. Is there any part of your daily routine that is, perhaps, a bit more boring than others?
Zosia: There’s definitely more and less exciting parts of the job. I love the early stages of a film where the key creatives are just getting to know each other, doing research and having lots of exciting early collaborative conversations. At that point there’s still so much possibility with regards to the look and direction of the film. The budgeting and scheduling can definitely be some of the less creative aspects but when you work with good people there’s less of that to worry about and I can focus more on the creative aspects.
Kirill: How do you choose your productions, and what got you into “Infinity Pool”?
Zosia: It depends on the project but work usually comes to me through pre-existing work relationships. I’d already worked with one of the producers, Karen Harnisch, and the cinematographer, Karim Hussain, on “Firestarter” which helped with getting “Infinity Pool”. I interviewed for the job, as I always do, with a design proposal and selection of reference images which generally helps provide a visual reference for how I’m imagining the film could look. I think a lot of the images resonated with Brandon and we had a great conversation so he offered me the job.
Kirill: How do you explain the enduring popularity of the horror genre, at least in the US?
Zosia: I think a lot of horror movies tend to be very stimulating and visceral which provides viewers with an adrenaline rush and keeps them coming back for more. They also tend to keep you focused on the subject matter so you don’t miss anything which I think some other genres have a harder time doing. I also think horror films reflect a lot of our deepest fears as a society, such as death and the afterlife, which could be another reason why it remains such a popular genre.
Kirill: How was it to work with the local crew in Croatia?
Zosia: The crew in Croatia was great and very welcoming. We actually filmed a good portion of the movie in Hungary as well and the crew there were also super experienced and knowledgeable. I’d definitely work with any of them again.
Kirill: How much of what we see was done on location, and how much was done on stage sets?
Zosia: It was a mix of locations and builds but most of the builds were done in warehouses or on location where we would add built elements as opposed to building in actual film studios. We only filmed in a proper studio for a few days where we weren’t looking to use any preexisting architectural details. It was also really busy in Budapest at that time so a lot of the usual studios weren’t available to us.
Kirill: What were you looking for to find in the police station building and its rooms, and what did you do to have them match the ambience of the story?
Zosia: Well, since we were filming in Hungary and Croatia we were inspired by a lot of the architecture there. We filmed a good portion of the police station at the Kelenfold Power Station which is a beautiful, semi-abandoned, art deco power station in Budapest. We loved the aged patina of the walls, the art deco glass ceiling, and all the old knobs and switches in the control room. We ended up sectioning off areas within the building to create the interrogation room, waiting area and hallways. We used a different building in Budapest for the exterior and main entrance. It took some work but we pieced it together with some clever shots and built elements to help the different locations flow.
Kirill: Where is the execution chamber located, and what kind of an environment did you want it to be for the viewer?
Zosia: The execution chamber was filmed in a bunker on an abandoned military base near Sibenik in Croatia. Brandon, Karim, and first AD, Rob Cotteril, are all good friends and have worked together for a long time so they actually did one location scout before I joined and they were the ones who found this spot. I think we were all attracted to the wood detailing in the ceiling and the theatricality of the space. We ended up building a partial hallway on location to help connect it to the main police station which we filmed in Budapest.
Kirill: What went into making all the masks, and what happened to them after the production was done?
Zosia: It was a multi-step process for sure. It started with a lot of research and many conversations, and then several rounds of concept art and finally the actual construction of the masks. Brandon had recommended Richard Raaphorst as the concept artist as he’s a very talented artist and filmmaker whose work Brandon respected. This really helped the concept art stage as there was already trust there and a strong vision on Richard’s part. From there we had Iván Pohárnok from Filmefex in Budapest do the actual manufacturing of the masks which involved a lot of sculpting, molding and painting so all in all it was a very detailed process.
Kirill: Do you have a favorite set from this production?
Zosia: I really love Gabi and Alban’s villa. Even though we filmed that part in Hungary I think it flows really well with the resort, which we shot in Croatia. My partner John, who’s the Art Director, did a really amazing job of overseeing the large canvas wall arts and we had a lot of fun selecting all the colourful furniture pieces.
Kirill: Is it painful to see the sets that you’ve worked on torn down at the end, or have you made your peace with it by now?
Zosia: I’ve definitely made peace with seeing the sets get torn down, especially once they’ve already been captured on film and get to live on eternally. It’s more disappointing when a set doesn’t make the final cut but regardless we tend to work with construction teams who reuse the flats and materials for future sets so it doesn’t feel as sad or wasteful.
Kirill: Was there any impact of Covid on this production? Do you see the industry in general going back to what it used to be before this pandemic, or are there any longer-term effects that are still affecting newer productions?
Zosia: We were definitely still impacted by Covid and had to adhere to all the same rules which we had in Canada before leaving for Europe. We were getting tested regularly, wearing masks on set and keeping our distance from one another. It was all manageable but definitely impacted the amount which we felt comfortable socializing outside of work because no one wanted to be responsible for the show going down especially as we didn’t have a huge budget and it would be pretty cost prohibitive with the amount of people staying in accommodations, etc.
Kirill: Do you worry about the impact of generative AI tools on your part of the industry, and on artistic creativity in general?
Zosia: I definitely think AI is impacting the film industry as more and more people utilize it for its speed and efficiency. I think the downside of it means there will be smaller teams needed to fulfill certain jobs but on the other hand some of the tools are super useful and help keep the artists focused on the creative as opposed to some of the more tedious or mundane aspects. Regardless, I think the film industry will always need creative thinkers and artists to come up with exciting new ideas and oversee the process but I do think it could reduce the number of people working on a given task.
Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite color?
Zosia: Ooh that’s a tough one because so much depends on context and space when it comes to colours. My apartment has a lot of really colourful furniture but we also have white walls so we were able to make some bold choices when it came to the art and furniture as we didn’t need to worry about whether or not the colours would be complementary to the walls. In either case I think it’s fun to experiment and play around with colours – luckily I get to do a lot of that on set.
Kirill: Tell us about the music you do under the anagram Szaio.
Zosia: I started working on music when I was in Warsaw helping take care of my Grandmother who was very sick at the time. She couldn’t really walk or talk at that point so I found myself with lots of free time and plenty emotions so I started making some songs on my computer. When I came back to Toronto I played them for my partner who was really supportive and helped me finish them in our music studio at home. The name Szaio came up when we were hanging out with a friend who’d been studying and living in Shanghai and he suggested that the name sounded good in Mandarin (as well as in Polish and English) so we went with it. I didn’t want to use my professional name because it was already associated with my film work so I was happy to use something different – and either way, as you mentioned, it’s an anagram of my name, so it’s still me.
Kirill: What else do you do between your productions?
Zosia: I love listening to records or going out and playing music for friends, seeing a good DJ or movie, looking for furniture, making or eating food and traveling.
Kirill: What keeps you going?
Zosia: I think most of the things I just mentioned in the previous question! Music, movies, traveling, friends, family and food!
Kirill: Is there any piece of advice you’d want to give to your younger self back when you just started in the industry?
Zosia: I’m sure there’s lots but one thing would be to enjoy the moment as time passes so quickly – and of course to surround yourself with as many good people as possible. There’s no time to waste on bad vibes 🙂
And here I’d like to thank Zosia Mackenzie for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the supporting materials. “Infinity Pool” is available on a variety of digital platforms. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.