Monday, February 25, 2013

Interview: Making ‘The Master' with Poster Artist Dustin Stanton

Welcome to the seventh installment of "Making The Master," our series of in-depth interviews with some of the minds behind "The Master." We've spoken to many of the production's principal players (including writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson, producer JoAnne Sellar, costume designer Mark Bridges, production designers Jack Fisk & David Crank, actress Madisen Beaty and editor Leslie Jones) that helped bring the film to life and today we have an interview with poster artist Dustin Stanton. Dustin is a graphic designer and creative director who has been working with PTA for the past 14 years designing nearly every poster, DVD, soundtrack, newspaper or FYC ad for his films going all the way back to "Magnolia." Dustin spoke to us over email about creating artwork for each of Paul's films for the last decade, what their collaboration is like and the balance of creating beautiful art that also functions as a commercial tool. Enjoy.

Cigarettes & Red Vines: Dustin, tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get started designing movie posters?
Dustin Stanton: It's really a mailroom - style beginning. It was just a job while still in high school as a driver slash production artist at one of the large entertainment advertising companies in town. I was an art major and just pulling plans together to maybe go to an art school. This opportunity had fallen in my lap and I thought it might be a good way to make a little money. I really love movies and this agency was one of a small handful that were in Los Angeles that were designing posters for film. In the hallways at the agency, all the posters that they had designed were hanging and I was a bit struck by it all, thinking...'Wow, I could do that, too!" I've had the incredible fortune of working with some very talented, creative and inspirational people over the years. As time went by, I migrated between agencies. I learned a lot and was given opportunities to grow as an art director. I sincerely, owe a great deal to the many mentors and friends that I have in the business.

At what point did you decide to break out on your own?
Late 2009. It really wasn't my idea, but I'm really glad it happened. I left an agency called Concept Arts. Really nice, family-owned company. Things ran their course and I found myself with the decision of either going to another agency or striking out on my own. I really got used to the idea of making my own hours and working with clients I really liked. Never looked back.

How did you first come to work with Paul?
I met Paul in post-production on Magnolia. I was working at BLT. We had the New Line account and he wanted to meet with the design team that would be working on his film. So after the screening, we had a really good meeting. Believe it or not that's pretty rare that a filmmaker will do that. It became apparent right away to me that this was no ordinary filmmaker, someone that I would enjoy working with. I became the point person on Magnolia and that's really when we began collaborating.

I'd like to talk a bit about that first collaboration. Was this for the teaser falling frogs poster or the final flower image? What was Paul looking for and can you talk about some of the iterations that the design went through before arriving at the final image?
The 'frog teaser' had already been done. I think Paul handled that before coming to BLT. Our job was to come up with the one-sheet poster. The only one clear direction was that we weren't to use Tom on the poster. It wasn't a 'Tom Cruise movie'. Everyone agreed the strength of the film was the cast as a whole.

We had a small team of art directors working on it. There were a few designs that were being considered for the poster and one that really stood out was that of a magnolia with a subtle frog pattern in the center of the flower with the cast worked into the petals. That design was done by another art director on the team. The flower used in that early design was a grainy and blurry production still. I suggested that we take a beautiful photograph of a magnolia flower and use it instead. It was just pure luck that all the magnolia trees were in full bloom at that time of year. We went to Home Depot, bought a fruit picker and headed down to Melrose Avenue where there were tons of magnolia trees. We shot that flower with a 4x5 film camera. Going that extra mile really helped the poster come to life.

There were several really good designs that the team came up with. I had a poster design in which a frog was falling and making a tear in the poster, revealing blue sky. We also had a 'basket weave' design that had the cast literally weaving through each other's lives. Those pieces were eventually used in the DVD packaging. That is one thing I've come to appreciate with working with Paul. If he likes something, it'll stay in the back of his mind. Rather than throwing it out and letting it die, we'll find a place that it will really work well.

Magnolia turned out to be a pretty big project. After the poster was finished, I took on newspaper ads, Golden Globe and Academy ads, dvd, vhs, and soundtrack packages and Paul was very involved in each one.

So take us to "Punch-Drunk Love" now. At this point were you still working at BLT? Or had you struck out on your own? What were the first things you heard about this film before starting work on the poster?
I was at another agency in Burbank. We started working on PDL early - during preproduction. He gave me very little to work with - in a good way. I just knew that Adam Sandler was in it and it wasn't going to be as heavy as Magnolia. Paul was really into Godard and French new wave as a point of departure. I watched a couple of those films. 'Aliens, love & violence' were some early words of direction. I felt inspired to do a painting which had an explosion of red coming from around a heart. That eventually worked its way into some things (back of special edition PDL dvd). We screened the movie together and right after, Paul was like 'Well, what do you think the poster image is?'. Almost simultaneously we both said that it has to be the moment when Barry and Lena meet in the lobby of the hotel in Hawaii. It's just such a gorgeous moment. It really defines them coming together from these two different directions so well. We explored some other options but nothing really worked as well. Paul had been working with an artist, Jeremy Blake, on the transition animations for the film and his artwork became vital to everything I was doing from that point on.

So by this point Paul was pretty committed to working with you. "Punch-Drunk Love" is pretty interesting because there was really only that single image used for just about the entire campaign. It works as both a teaser poster and final one-sheet. Do you remember any resistance from the studio at the time or desire to make a more traditional looking Adam Sandler poster?
I can remember being only a little surprised being contacted again by Paul. It seemed natural. One thing I've come to learn is that he is incredibly loyal. If you connect and do good work, you'll do it again. And again. Who wouldn't be like that? I'm like that too. The image was simple enough for a teaser and yet, I think, satisfying enough for a one-sheet. I really don't remember any resistance from the studio. The film was quite a bit different from the movies that Adam was doing around that time. The studio knew that. Revolution knew that. They let us play and come up with the stuff that felt right for the film. Bless them for that. There's no point in trying to sell the film in another way. I don't think that would've worked.

So, tell us about the "There Will Be Blood" teaser. It looks like there a bunch of alternate designs on your site for that film so you definitely went through some different iterations. When did you get involved in that one? And what direction helped you arrive at the final image?
Paul got me involved with TWBB much later than PDL. He invited me to screen the movie. We talked after. I was blown away by the film. One of my memories of his direction was that he saw Daniel Plainview as Nosferatu. A vampire - sucks lifeblood out of people, the land, eventually consumes himself. I was so excited to try a bunch of stuff. Things that were influenced by book covers and title pages. Things that felt like pulp covers, or novel covers from days gone by. Also, older movie posters. I wanted to try different styles of execution. I even tried a portrait in dirty oil ala Vik Muniz. (chocolate looks like dirty oil) Paul liked a lot of the stuff I showed early on but we weren't sure they were giving enough. Maybe holding back a little too much. We had many teaser type images so we began focusing on the poster. He really wanted to get a great shot of Daniel from the film- a portrait of this man, unfettered and straight ahead. We tried a bunch of different faces before picking the one that is the poster now. We got word from [producer] Scott Rudin that he really liked a lot of the earlier pieces and suggested that we use the book cover idea for a teaser. Since I don't have to be asked twice to make two posters for a film, I went to work finishing the teaser first.

At what point in the process does he come to you with “The Master”?
The film was mostly done. They were still adjusting some things in the picture and sound edits. I saw a cut at the office.

What's your first impression of the film?
I'm not that different from many who've seen the film. As I watched these characters and their story roll out in front of me, I knew something really profound was happening. These are artists, everyone: Joaquin, Phil, Amy, Paul are at the top of their game here. I thought the performances and camera work were delicious. The sets, wardrobe, make-up, all of it, put me there in post-war america. The story is so simple and sweet but still has a few twists that hold you fast to the screen. I got the opportunity to watch it several times, even in 70mm. Some films just reward the viewer with multiple viewings. It took a couple times to truly understand and appreciate some of the things that were happening. Not because of confusion, but because there are things happening in The Master that challenge your emotions and intellect. Dana Stevens from wrote a great article that we featured in the The Cause Footpath about that very thing. As did A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis from the New York Times. But to be honest, what I was really think about was 'How can I represent this film in a poster?' 'What can I do that would do justice to this incredible work?'

At this point, does PTA give you some direction about what he's looking for? Do you discuss themes or imagery? Or do you come back with some ideas?
He's mentioned before that he sees it as a love story. I agree. For a moment in time, Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd share a symbiotic relationship. Each filling a space in one another's life. We began with ways of showing that inter connectivity. The eyes were an early idea that eventually made their way home in our 70mm tour poster, French and UK ads. I went away and did some exploration with some other images and type designs. We played around a small handful of designs for a little while before landing solidly on our teaser poster.

Can you talk about your creative process a little bit? How did you arrive at the final bottle teaser?
I really just wanted to create a simple announcement teaser poster. I had been working on typography that was conjuring Navy call letters and liquor bottle labels. At one point, kinda felt stuck. Like it was almost there but wasn't 'talking to me'. I took some time away from it for a couple days and thought to myself "What could I do that would hang comfortably on the wall next to the There Will Be Blood teaser poster." I then started thinking that I wanted to bring the type to life by putting it in a situation and photographing it. One of the major elements in The Master is the ocean and this toxic liquid and this sense of drowning or failing OR healing and getting better. The water line through the title is kinda that divide that creates sink or swim, that point of tension.

And how did you actually create the teaser?
It's one photograph. The only thing I needed to do in Photoshop was a date correction and a little touch up.

What's the balance like between creating a beautiful piece of artwork that communicates the feeling of the film and making something that also functions as a commercial tool for selling the film?
That really is the crux of it. Many times that is hard to achieve - that balance of art and commerce. It's kinda like the equivalent of achieving inner peace, to commercial artists and their clients. I think at the core of that balance is trust and integrity. Let the people that are involved do what they do best. No one way is the right way. At every step there needs to be an evaluation whether or not the piece is working for the project. Sometimes it needs to be beautiful, sometimes it just needs to function. At times artists get precious about things that aren't working towards the overall message. Likewise, sometimes marketers ignore esthetics to communicate a message. Can't we all just get along?

Did you set out exploring any directions for the final poster? Or was it already settled that the Weinstein's were going to be handling that one?
We had a few designs that were put on the table - left over from the teaser exploration. I knew that [the designer] Fabrice was working on stuff along side what I was doing. Thank goodness he was. I really had my hands full with the teaser and 70mm tour poster.

What are the different challenges of creating teaser poster vs. the final poster? Do you think about them as completely separate assignments or do you not differentiate?
Oh yes, separate assignments for sure. Teasers have an entirely different job to do than the final poster. When you get a wedding invite in the mail, you don't want to know what they're serving for dinner or exactly what the bride's dress looks like... you just want to know that you're invited to this great party.

Can you talk about working on "The Master" DVD/Blu packaging? What kind of stuff can we look forward to on there?
We designed the Bluray / DVD packages and menus together. The teasers and trailers from site are on there. There is also a 'behind the scenes' short. On the Bluray, we were able to fit on John Huston's 'Let There Be Light', a really great film on returning WWII vets.

I also loved "The Cause Footpath," that little newspaper you guys put together. Can you talk about where that idea came from?
Mike Kaplan, a marketing guru, vintage poster collector and all around awesome guy mentioned we might try something like what he did with A Clockwork Orange. He published a mini newspaper called ORANGE TIMES that discussed the film, performances and production notes. It also featured a controversial article about the film. A copy of ORANGE TIMES is currently on display at the Academy's Kubrick exhibit, "The Ultimate Trip," in their Grand Lobby Gallery through April.

The Cause Footpath was the result of that inspiration. We hoped it could be something that would be available at the theaters or tipped into newspapers -something that would keep the public conversation about the The Master going. It features an article by Dana Stevens of in which she makes a convincing argument for more than one viewing of the film. We had a lot of fun putting it together. It actually turned into a labor of love.

Can you describe what your working relationship with PTA is like now? How has it evolved over time?
Its good. I think over time we've developed a working language and an understanding. A short hand that gets to the point. But it really doesn't seem like a 'working relationship'. Yes, its work yet it doesn't seem like it most of the time. He's a friend and I am honored to be part of the fun. He challenges me to be better and do better. As an artist, that's important to have around you - other artists that make you sit back and say "Is that the best I can do? Is that expected, lazy or trite?"

Do you ever hit a dead-end creatively (land on something lazy/trite)? How do you get around those obstacles?
Of course. I just try to take a moment and just rethink it on different levels and re-ask the questions: What am I trying to communicate, What should the feeling or tone be? Also, either go online and do research or open up some art and design books just to stir the creative stew a little.

Last Question: I know it's early days yet but have you started thinking at all about "Inherent Vice," reading the book, soaking up the late 60's aesthetics?
Yes, actually. Just begun reading it. This could be a lot of fun. Stay tuned!

"There Will Be Blood" poster explorations (via Dustin Stanton)

"The Master" arrives on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow.    
Stay tuned to Twitter and Facebook for the latest news and updates.


  1. Interesting responses. Its amazing how all these various elements of film making are a collaborative effort. I have a feeling the shot in Punch Drunk Love, which inspired the Punch Drunk poster was swiped from a full body profile two-shot from The Sound of Music. Go to, search The Sound of Music, click screen shots, and scroll to the bottom. You can even see the soft blue and green intertwined in the moonlight. The thing about Paul is, the guy has the best fucking taste. Using darker colors in his posters brings a seriousness to his projects. Hopefully Paul shoots Vice this summer. Im looking forward to another trip to the theater for another PTA adventure summer/fall of 2014!!!!

    1. Great interview, Modage!

      that shot from the Sound of Music is beautiful
      I'm eagerly awaiting casting details from Vice... if they are truly shooting in April/May, we should find out soon

  2. Man I would love to see bigger versions of some of those other posters he did for There Will Be Blood, they look great.

  3. I really hope this wasn't the last one, these interviews have been incredibly interesting and fun to read...

  4. Thank you for wonderful interviews. Is there a possibility of interviewing Amy Ferguson (Martha the Salesgirl)?

  5. your poster is great. The well aligned design i like it.
    Online sticker printing

  6. Reaching masses and communicating with them is what online poster printing is about. These posters have plenty of information and are described as an ideal marketing form as the space available in them consists of both illustration and art services.
    Poster Printing UK

  7. Thank you for adding the Interview here..

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