Interview with Butch West (Construction Coordinator, USA) from The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

By Paul Martin March 12th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded

Archival interview with Butch West from the official Matrix website.

BACKGROUND

MATRIX: As the US Construction Coordinator, you are in a perfect position to say just how big this production is.

BUTCH: Well, in terms of sets, I only had three sets to build for the US part of the show, but each one of those sets were as big as anything I’ve built before. The freeway is probably the biggest set that’s ever been built. I don’t think anybody has built anything a mile and a half long, and I certainly never thought I would be building anything that big. It’s a large show. They’re going from here to Australia, and they’ll probably build 140 sets down there, so they’ve got a huge load when they get there.

MATRIX: How did you first become involved with the production?

BUTCH: Mark Mansbridge, the Art Director [USA], and I have worked together in the past. I’ve never worked with Owen Paterson [Production Designer] before, this is the first time, but I‘ve enjoyed it, he’s a talented man. Mark is a good friend, so he introduced me to Owen, I was interviewed, and they brought me in.

MATRIX: What are some of the past projects you have worked on?

BUTCH: Dr. Dolittle 2 was the most recent thing. Galaxy Quest, Patch Adams, City of Angels, Ghosts of Mississippi, The Crucible, The American President, Cobb, Perfect World. Probably a lot more than you need to sit and listen to.

THE FREEWAY

MATRIX: When you had that first meeting, I’m sure Owen was pretty quick to get into the scope of the sets.

BUTCH: Yes. When they first started talking about a freeway, that in itself was enough to scare me – then they talked about it being a mile and a half long. When we first got up here we laid it all out, so the brothers could look at it to see if they thought it was big enough. We had a bunch of cones, and Mark Mansbridge and myself laid this thing out on the runway. It took all day long – and we still didn’t have it all done – just to get cones laid out for a mile and a half. So it was pretty scary because once we did that, we realized how big this darn freeway was going to be. You think of a mile and a half and you don’t think much of it, because you usually travel a mile and a half in a car, but once you start walking it and figuring out how you’re going to build it, it’s another thing.

MATRIX: How much of a challenge was it to build not only a practical set, but a practical freeway?

BUTCH: The freeway itself was not brain surgery, it wasn’t really that tough to figure out how to build it. It was tough to figure out how we were going to build it fast enough and to get it up in time. Plus we had to deal with bad weather here, so it wasn’t a difficult thing to build, it was just hard to do it in the time we had to do it in. Dealing with some of the elements was also difficult – the overpass was something that was added after the fact. We always knew we were going to build a piece of freeway, but we didn’t realize going into it, that we were going to build an overpass. A practical overpass came up because they were a little bit afraid of the weather they might run into in places like Akron, Ohio. We did a budget based on what we thought we could do to make it feasible to actually build it practical, and they said they wanted to do it, so we did it.

MATRIX: Was there a point where they were still going to build the freeway, but were going to do overpass work in Ohio?

BUTCH: Yes, there was a point, I think, that they were going to build just the freeway, shoot a lot of it here, then do the overpass work in Ohio. Weather became a factor there – they were afraid, given the time of year that we were going to shoot it, that snow would be a problem. I proposed a way of doing it here, and they bought it, so we built it. After I got into it, I wished I hadn’t, but it worked out. They shot that set between First and Second Units for two months – two and a half months almost – so it’s been up a long time. As a matter of fact, they were shooting one end of the freeway while we were finishing the other end, so it was nip and tuck there.

MATRIX: Do you continue to be surprised by things you’re asked to create?

BUTCH: Every day. You’re surprised by what they ask you to do half the time, but you’re also surprised at how, given a little time and a lot of talent, what you can do with it.

It’s one thing to work on a set and seeing it finished; how has it been seeing some footage of these sets in action?

You get a little critical of your own work when you’re watching it, you know. I have to say that most of the films I’ve watched that were good films I’ve worked on, you actually get involved with the story and get a little less critical about your work, but obviously you’re looking for everything you did. I think most people are more critical about their own thing than anybody else is, when you’re looking at it, at least I am. There’s a certain amount of pride there, but you’re also looking for the mistakes you may have made along the way.

MATRIX: Are you looking for mistakes right up until filming?

BUTCH: You try, given the amount of money and time you have to do something, to do it as perfectly as you can, but sometimes you have to take shortcuts, and you just hope that you can cover up whatever flaws there might be.

MATRIX: How many crew were involved in the creation of the US sets?

BUTCH: The crew fluctuated, depending on how many of the sets we were working on at the same time. I don’t think we had on payroll any more than maybe 125, 135 people – movie people like carpenters, painters, laborers, sculptors and plasterers. We did, at the same time, have a number of outside contractors working with us who were pouring practical K Rail – a concrete barrier wall for the freeway, and earth-moving equipment, things like that. So there could have been, at times, in excess of two hundred people out there working on the project, but not necessarily all of them were directly related to our crew.

MATRIX: For the Freeway Set, did you actually hire people who build freeways?

BUTCH: Yes, we did. Because of all the action on the freeway, crashing cars and things like that, we actually formed concrete barrier walls the way they would have been formed on a regular freeway, minus some of the steelwork that might have gone into a regular freeway. We had an actual machine there that extruded concrete to form a barrier wall the cars could crash into, which they did too, several times, without anybody busting up the set or anything like that. Then we built our freeway walls on top of that concrete wall that was extruded from an outside contractor. We had earth-moving equipment out there, heavy equipment we don’t normally deal with in the studios.

MATRIX: How involved are you with Set Dressing; do you have to work with all the detail that goes into a set?

BUTCH: For the most part, all of that is handled through the Art Department. The Art Department (the Production Designer and the Art Director) determines what it is we’re going to build. They submit drawings to us, we take the drawings, then we build the set. They also, at the same time, are dealing with the Set Decorators, who come in and add all the decorations around the set itself. Generally I don’t have too much to do with the Set Dressing at all, unless they can’t find something and we literally have to make it for them. Set Dressing is another arm of the Art Department.

PARK & TEMPLE SETS

MATRIX: What were some challenges in building the Park Set?

BUTCH: Again, the Park Set was just a big set. It didn’t require anything we hadn’t done before in building other sets – nothing out of the ordinary as far as building sets go. As far as the Temple Set goes, it’s again a large set, so it was a challenge to figure out how we were going to build something as big as it was, and still fit it within a reasonable amount of money. We figured out some ways of doing it, using a lot of styrofoam, but had we stick framed the whole thing, I don’t think we could ever have afforded to build it as large as it is.

MATRIX: Was there a particular technique used throughout?

BUTCH: We used huge blocks of styrofoam, glued them together using AB foam, then just carved the whole thing out of styrofoam. It came out nice, and lighting is doing a tremendous thing for it. Certainly, when you have 950 extras running around in it, I don’t even know if you can see the set anymore.

MATRIX: When a set is finished and you walk onto it, do you still get a thrill?

BUTCH: Yes, although I always worry about it: Is it enough? The freeway, for instance, with all the action going on and crashing cars and everything else, you always worry that something’s going to get knocked apart or somebody’s going to get hurt. But yes, it’s fun when you’ve done something like that, and you get to see the reaction of everybody else when they come into it. I enjoyed building all of these sets here, even though, like I said about the Park Set, it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but it was still a challenge.

Building a set you’ve got everyone from sculptors to scenic artists, you name it, and when you take a piece of material, you can make anything out of it when you’ve got people like that. They’re very talented – the people here [from San Francisco], as well as the people brought from Los Angeles, and all the people here from Australia – you can do anything with them. I don’t think many people on the outside, away from the movie industry, understand how talented some of these people can really be.

MATRIX: We’ve really noticed the craftsmanship of the painters.

BUTCH: Yes, everyone, they’re amazing. You can make anything look like anything in the movie business, and most people don’t realize when they’re watching a film, how much of it was created for the film, as opposed to having walked up and shot something.

When you say that these sets are large, are they larger than the average set? (Besides the freeway, that is.)

For the most part, they are. All three sets we built here are larger than typical sets, not necessarily any more difficult to build than any other set, but they are big.

MATRIX: Set size affects the time to build, does it affect detail at all?

BUTCH: Yes, a little bit. There could have been a lot more detail, for instance, on the freeway, but given the fact that a lot of times you’re going fifty-five mile an hour, you don’t have to necessarily spend a lot of attention to detail in certain areas. There are obviously ‘hero areas’ you need to concentrate on, but you can get away with a lot at fifty-five mile an hour.

Apparently standard set building practice in the US is to build with wood; was it the Australian influence that interested you in building with styrofoam?

No, actually the styrofoam was my idea. Owen Paterson and the Australian Art Department probably would have used stick framing and a foil, then shot foam over that. I think the reason I opted to use the foam was because I have used it in the past; you can sculpt it into anything. It was much cheaper than the labor it would have taken to frame the entire set – to actually try and construct it all, then cover it with something, then shoot it with something else – we were able to sculpt it all out of the foam. Foam is relatively cheap, and you can cover a lot of territory with it. The labor involved in stick framing would have been more than we could have afforded to do, so, because of the budgetary restrictions, I actually talked to Owen about using the foam, and he agreed it was a good way to go, so we went that way.

MATRIX: Is the Park Set being struck in chunks in case it needs to be rebuilt in Australia?

BUTCH: No, we’re shipping various pieces down to Australia for insert shots and a couple of things that they need to do down there. The set, as far as I know, is all coming down, hopefully taken down in large enough pieces that the materials are going to be recycled. Normally a lot of that stuff would get trashed, but we’re trying to break everything down so everything gets recycled, as opposed to thrown away.

MATRIX: Has the challenge been increased with the production beginning in the United States, then moving to Australia?

BUTCH: No, other than the strain for Owen Paterson of trying to balance what we’re spending here and everything he has to do in Australia, then trying to figure out where you make the cut. It’s hard to stop short of what Owen really wants here, so the strain was all on him, more than anybody else, to try and figure out how much things are going to cost to do here: should I spend that much here or should I save it for down there? So a lot of detail and a lot of decisions are made based on that, I’m sure.

MATRIX: When did you first start working on the production?

BUTCH: I started before the first of the year [2001], then we came up here [Alameda] in the beginning of January. We actually didn’t start building anything till the end of January or beginning of February, so we didn’t have a lot of time. Some decisions were being made, budgetary and otherwise, that prevented us from getting started, then once they finally gave us the go, I think we had about two and a half months to build that mile and a half of freeway, and that was it.

You used the term ‘sculpting the styrofoam’, which is not sculpting in the traditional sense; what kind of equipment do your laborers use?

They were actually sculpting with chainsaws, and hoes that look like you’d use them in a garden. They chopped away at it using chainsaws, using hotwire to cut it – very untraditional sculpting tools I’m sure – but nevertheless they did a remarkable job with it. You just you chunk away at that stuff and break off pieces of it, it was not like we were trying to create the Mona Lisa or something like that. It’s a big old cave, so you can get away with a lot.

MATRIX: Essentially, you had to create a stalactite or a stalagmite of a general dimension and shape, and the sculptor could go for it, creating something as near as possible to an illustration he’d been given?

Yes, we had illustrations, we also had a lot of photographs from actual caves, and we had a general layout. We knew where we wanted certain stalactites and whatever, and the sculptors generally had a photograph to refer to also: that that was the type of stalactite Owen wanted in this position. So the sculptors worked a lot from photographs.

MATRIX: Tomorrow there will be 940 extras on the Temple Set, and 100 of those will be carrying torches; what kind of precautions were made to keep the set from going up in flames?

BUTCH: Everything we’ve built the set out of is, for the most part, non-flammable. If you take a match to the foam itself, it’ll melt, and if you got it hot enough you could get some toxic fumes off of it, but you can’t burn it, and there’s plaster over that foam, which will prevent it from catching fire anyway. There’s dirt on the floor, which won’t catch fire, and the AB foam doesn’t burn, we’ve tested all of that. The biggest thing to worry about was the costumes themselves, everything else on the set was non-flammable, so we were lucky from that standpoint.

MATRIX: Thanks Butch.

Interview by REDPILL

May 2001

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