Alex McDowell ranks among America's most accomplished production designers. His contributions extend from Madonna's "Express Yourself" to Fight Club, from The Crow to Minority Report, from Watchman to Man of Steel. Moreover, he thinks deeply about his craft and the ways that the kinds of systematic approaches to the design of fictional and historical worlds for the screen might offer a mode of analysis that can be applied to real world problems. This focus on the real world applications of his craft and expertise has driven him since he has become a faculty member at USC Cinematic Arts School and has created his own world-building lab, He is one of my most articulate and intelligent thinking partners, so it was a blast to sit down together one on one r for this podcast.
In this interview, we use Ready Player One as an entry point into a larger discussion of world-building on screen and within the production process, but we don't stop there, extending into arguments for why world-building may be a core social literacy for our times. Ready Player One reflects its director Steven Spielberg's personal discomfort with the escapist blockbuster cinema he helped to foster during the early stages of his career, but our series of podcasts around the film are looking at virtual and augment reality, world building, and games-based learning as tools that help us engage more critically with the world around us.
What struck me listening back through this recording is McDowell's sense that everything is connected to everything else and his commitment to a new model of authorship grounded in collaborative world building rather than personal expression. There are sentences here which seem to go on for five minutes, with each interdependent and subordinate clause making another meaningful connection for the listener. I have done interviews with McDowell in the past, but this is perhaps the richest and most layered one yet.