Liv Ask is an award-winning production designer from Sweden, having worked on numerous feature films, TV series and commercials around the world, including Lithuania. “At the beginning of my career, I threw myself into deep water and quickly had to learn how to swim”, the production designer remembers, today counting several successful projects across different genres and directors. Her works are films and TV series “22 July”, “The Snowman”, “The Playlist” “Max Anger: With One Eye Open” and the upcoming “Estonia” among others. More about her job, experience in Vilnius and life-changing projects – in the full interview, initiated by the Vilnius Film Office.
How did you start working in the film industry?
I started as a production designer on smaller projects straight after film school, so I had to throw myself into deep water and quickly learn how to swim. My first project took place in 2006. It was an independent feature film, set in Northern Norway and achieved on a very limited budget. The director, producer, cinematographer, and I had all been to film school together in Australia and were very enthusiastic about making our first feature film.
Back then, we were doing everything ourselves, so it was a real hands-on project with few resources. I was building and painting, making props and sets, and performing almost like a one-man band with the support of the local community of Alta who were very helpful. Today all of us are working professionally, but it is a great memory of where it all started. We keep in touch and make projects together, almost 20 years down the line.
Could you tell me a little bit about the life of a production designer: what is the rhythm, intensity, and personal attributes needed?
As a production designer, you are part of creating the vision of the film, how everything looks in terms of colors, lighting, composition, and style. You work closely together with the main creatives and have the responsibility to guide your team working towards the same vision. I think you have to be a good leader with clear visual direction and have an understanding of everyone’s role in the art department. Production design is team work where the whole art department is a part of creating the final image.
The rhythm of the profession is constantly shifting, but very rarely slow. Often you find yourself hitting the ground running with very short deadlines. I believe that you have to be open to all sorts of changes that will come your way when working on a production. It is important to be able to maintain calm under stress and focus on problem solving. I’m the type of person who thrives under a reasonable amount of pressure and I like to challenge myself to see how far I can go. I find that my curiosity for exploring new worlds and scenarios, cultures and characters is a natural drive to keep going. In that sense I find myself very lucky, because the self-discipline I believe you need to work as a designer comes naturally from the will to explore.
How do you choose which films to work with?
I’m always interested in getting to know the creatives behind the project. Filmmaking is a collaborative process where you very often end up working together with the same team over a long time. So I think it’s important to establish a fruitful collaboration with your team for the benefit of the production and the result as a whole. A competent and enthusiastic colleague can enable you to do better work, and hopefully vice versa.
I also believe the script plays a big role. I really like working with stories that enable me to explore a world I’m unfamiliar with, whether it is future, past, fantasy or a topic that I am completely new to. I’m stimulated by learning and very much enjoy discovering stories.
I also find it meaningful working on projects that are based on true events where you can be a part of portraying real people and sharing their stories with an audience. One such example was “22 July”, directed by Paul Greengrass, following the terrorist attack and its aftermath in Norway, while focusing on the human consequences giving a voice to the victims.
“22 July” was followed a few years later by “The Playlist”, a story about the birth of Spotify and the digital revolution. At the end of last year, I finished working on “Estonia”, a drama series telling the true story of Europe’s deadliest maritime disaster of the 20th century.
You mentioned the TV series “The Playlist”, which was filmed in Lithuania. How was your experience working there?
The production team has always made me feel welcome in Lithuania and I’ve been very well looked after. I worked together with a very friendly and skillful art department where everyone had a positive attitude and a problem-solving mentality. I feel very thankful to have been given the chance to meet great new colleagues, and I’ve learnt a lot from my team members too, by sharing different work experiences. My first time in Lithuania was in 2019 when we filmed “Max Anger: With One Eye Open”. The story takes place in 1990s Russia and I was given the opportunity to visit many historical Soviet buildings in both Kaunas and Vilnius. Many of my colleagues also shared what life was like in Lithuania before the country gained its independence.
In 2021 I came back to Vilnius for the second time to shoot “The Playlist” and had the opportunity to work with some of my “old” colleagues again. “The Playlist” was mainly filmed in a studio, but we also portrayed New York and Stockholm in various locations with a range of different looks and architecture.
Everything in Vilnius was very close by and reachable, it was quick to move from one location to another in the city. I also got the impression that general agreements could be made on a personal level, without having to go through a wall of bureaucracy. But that might also be because the production was very caring and didn’t want to worry me. In pre-production for “Max Anger: With One Eye Open” we were scouting the National Opera and Ballet Theatre. I remember walking past some beautiful furniture, custom made for the space. So, I took photos of the furniture and saved it for future inspiration. A few months later we were filming in a completely different place which we turned into a grand majestic hotel lobby. I came to think about the furniture in the National Opera and Ballet Theatre and thought it would suit the “soon to be hotel lobby” perfectly, but never would I have imagined that it was going to be possible to bring custom made furniture out of the Opera and into a shut down building. A few days later, the sofa groups, armchairs and tables were there, right on set. Fantastic! I can’t imagine where else that would have been possible to make happen.
Perhaps there were certain locations that you found particularly cinematic?
I’ve been blessed to visit more than a hundred locations in Vilnius, from the Wedding Palace to the Office Building of the Cooperative Union of Lithuania, Trakai Castle, an old radio factory in Kaunas, libraries and museums. The list is long, so now I have my own archive of locations in Lithuania, and would love to discover more. It has been very interesting to see all the brutalist and Soviet architecture, but also the countryside, private homes and suburbs. Not to mention the top modern skyscrapers in Vilnius, turning them into New York record label headquarters for “The Playlist”.
What were some most memorable, nurturing projects for you?
I find myself blessed to say that such projects are becoming quite a few now.
In 2015 I had an opportunity to work as an art director under Oscar awarded production designer Maria Djurkovic on a film called “The Snowman”, starring Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson. The experience, which I’m still carrying with me today, was a real eye-opener and helped me grow as a designer.
When it comes to memorable projects, I would definitely like to mention “The Playlist”, “Max Anger: With One Eye Open”, and “Estonia” as the most memorable projects in recent years.
But I also remember an adventurous experience during pre-production of the film “Red Terror” in 2007, a story that takes place in Ethiopia during the civil war in the late 1970´s. We found a location in the Australian outback where we built a mud hut village and ended up camping on the site because we were so far away from home and couldn’t waste the time traveling back and forth. So, we ended up cooking dinner over open fire under the bare sky and sleeping in tents next to our ongoing construction project.
Could you tell us more about your latest projects?
We wrapped the shooting of “Estonia” in November last year, a story about the events of 28 September 1994, when the passenger ferry with the same name as the title of the project, sank in the Baltic Sea. We shot in 5 countries; Sweden, Turkey, Estonia, Finland, and Belgium, with an art department consisting of 120 people in total. The project was very complicated in terms of logistics, and challenging from a technical point of view constructing sets in water. But it also took a lot of work to be able maintain visual cohesiveness from one country to another. The sets of the passenger ship itself were filmed in various countries, both in studio and on location. And to tie it all together and create a believable environment to convince the audience the action is taking place on the same ship took a lot of work, when we in fact were filming the scenes in different parts of the world with numerous weeks in between.
Do you have any ideas you would like to fulfill in the future or some filmmakers you would appreciate cooperating with? What are your goals and hopes for your future career?
I would like to continue to challenge myself not to be too comfortable. I believe I thrive when I’m given a difficult task. To me it is important to stay stimulated and nurture my curiosity, I think this helps me grow as a designer. And if I can keep learning and stay focused, I hope my career will evolve parallel to my personal and professional development. I’m extremely thankful for what this profession has brought me, but there is still a lot I can improve and explore.