Oscar winning set designer Dan Hennah reflects on Alice Through The Looking Glass and talks Thor Ragnarok

Speaking to Dan Hennah, fresh off the set of Thor: Ragnarok at Village Roadshow studios in shiny Brisbane, we get to discuss his life making movie magic. Dan has designed sets for some of the biggest films of all time, Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit, Underworld and The Warriors Way. In fact, he won an Oscar for Best Art Direction (Set Designer) alongside Grant Major and Alan Lee for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003.

When you talk about these films, you think of the stars, the director but you don’t immediately think production designer or art director. These people are the hidden gems of the film industry, without them, these fantasies we hold so dear wouldn’t have even made it off the pages of the script. Dan Hennah is one of these gems.

Alice Through the Looking Glass, which features some of Dan’s latest art and set work, is wonderfully colourful and zany. In anticipation of the film’s home entertainment release, I spoke to him about the whole experience and delve into his time on set with the new Thor film. We also find out his favourite things to do when he’s not making masterpieces.

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Dan Hennah, I still cannot believe I’m talking to one of the most talented artists in the film industry and I want to thank you so much for your time.

Thank you so much, you’re too kind.

From all your projects through the years, Alice Through the Looking Glass has to be one of the most colourful films you have ever worked on. What was the biggest difference going into this from all your previous films?

Well I guess it was more whimsical than any previous films I have worked on. It was a chance to celebrate a whacky world I hadn’t been to before. Obviously Tim Burton and some of the other crew had been close by in the original Alice film. This time we had that great opportunity to travel to different places and different characters with all the originals sticking close by. The biggest difference would have been the opportunity to let go and embrace the childhood of it all. The brighter colours and the dark and scary stuff too. A lot more creative freedom.

With the advancement in special effects and green screen, has it gotten in the way of your work or the amount of work your offered?

Not really, I embrace the idea of the digital world and it is certainly a part of my preparation and execution of my work. It actually gives us the chance to expand a set. For example, a street that we used to have to build a house at the end of, we can now have a green screen and have it seem like it keeps going. That is the advantage of embracing the digital world in a nutshell. We still get to build our stuff in fine detail but also, we create a world that has a lot more depth to it.

What was your favourite set to build for Alice?

I think it would have to be Wits End. We built a really big set piece for Wits End, with the castle at the end of the street and the statue of King Oleron (the father of the two queens), that set was really sweet.

Do you have much to do with the stars such as Mia or Johnny Depp on set before or during the filming?

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Johnny Depp is pretty much a method actor, so busy in his role he becomes the Hatter, so not so much Johnny. But Mia Wasikowska (Alice) is such a sweetheart and was very communicative with the crew and tended to hang around on set and enjoy it the way we all do.

I believe for years, the world of big time film directors and movie stars seem to have taken most of the spotlight from the set designers and art directors, that is until the release of Blu Rays and behind the scenes documentaries. Does it bother you at all and have you ever thought much about this when working day to day?

No, the thing is, most of the films are made with the director’s vision, we are just helping lead the way. The cameraman, the lighting, production designers, It’s as it should be I think. The actors are getting the performance and we are creating the platform, the canvas to which they can tell the story. We are where we should be, well behind the cameras.

When filming a movie like Alice, how much freedom are you given with set design and art direction?

A lot. A lot if you get it right! You all read the script with the director and have a vision in your head, if you can understand what the directors is, you suddenly find you really have a lot of freedom. If you’re struggling to find the director’s vision, which can happen, then you have a lot less freedom. Once you get a handle on all the creative staff’s ideas and see the concept art, you get a pretty good free hand to move ahead.

What is your most favourite set piece you’ve ever built?

That’s a tough one, I think my favourite would be the most demanding. I know It’s a weird way to judge what your favourite is in a sort of masochistic approach to favouritism, but it would have to have been a set we built on top of a mountain once. Trying to get everything on top of it and we even had to build a full road leading up to it. A real favourite however? Well every one of them I have had to build really, at the very time your building them. You just have to commit yourself 100% to really get there.

It’s got to make you proud that some of your sets are still standing, like Hobbiton in New Zealand, which is almost completely left intact and is now a tourist attraction?

Hobbiton still standing in New Zealand
Hobbiton still standing in New Zealand

It does, and it simply exists that way because it’s the way we had to build it. It had to be a permanent structure. When we build sets, we know the life of the sets may only last anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months. We take our time but we know they won’t last in the end. With Hobbiton we needed to spend a lot more time on it and kind of spent a lot more on it than our budget allowed because we wanted it to stick around, hopefully for a good 50 years or so.

I hear you are in Brisbane right now on the team for Thor: Ragnarok? Is there anything you can tell us on your experience there so far?

Well, even though I live so close by in New Zealand, I have never been to Australia before and to be here has been a fantastic experience. Everybody here are all really good, they know what they’re doing and we are building some amazing sets and having some fun while doing it.

You are there working with fellow New Zealander and the Director of Thor 3 Taiki Waititi, he seems like such a funny and down to earth guy?

Look, he is just totally energised and so much fun to be around and he is fun to the actors and the crew. I have never seen a crew so motivated by a director with such great day to day antics.

I love to ask a few down to earth questions, like what do you do with yourself on your down time what are some of your hobbies?

I do like to go fishing. I have a horse I like to work with. Funnily enough, I still like building things too. I love to get out and about, go have a walk and go to different places. Fresh air and freedom.

Favourite TV shows and movies?

Because of such a crazy and busy life-style, I tend to not get into TV so much. More streaming when I have the time, because you can do that at your own leisure. I am into Suits at the moment, I also just love anything that takes you out of the immediate reality and into the wonderful world of fantasy.

It really has been an honour talking with you today about Alice Through the Looking Glass and all your work. Without you and your team of artists none of these films would be possible. Thanks for your time.

Alice Through the Looking Glass hits DVD & Blu-Ray October 5th 2016 – In the meantime, check out our review here!