Fresh off the shoot for Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora in the summer of 2008, production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (X2: X-Men United, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) was offered the chance to board Louis Leterrier’s Clash of the Titans remake. He graciously declined the job and returned home to Los Angeles, expecting a temporary dry period without any work.

About two weeks later, a call came in: Christopher Nolan was looking to hire a production designer for his follow-up to The Dark Knight. Eager to work with the Batman filmmaker, Hendrix Dyas threw his hat into the ring for the coveted position.

While he didn’t know it at the time, Hendrix Dyas was perfectly suited to the mystery film that would become Inception. With a master’s degree in design, he’d worked as an industrial engineer for Sony in Japan. His understanding of structures and general aesthetic was integral to a screenplay that relied heavily on architecture, mazes, and dream-based visuals. He was, in effect, the Ariadne to Nolan’s Cobb.

It’s probably safe to say that Inception proved to be the most technically challenging endeavor the two had ever faced up to that point in their careers. The result of their hard work was a winding espionage-inspired thriller that probed the intricacies of the human mind. This genre mashup led some critics to describe the film as a cross between James Bond and The Matrix. Furthermore Hendrix Dyas nabbed an Oscar nod for Best Art Direction along with Larry Dias and Doug Mowat.

So far, my oral history on the movie (turning 10-years-old tomorrow) has covered the music and costumes. In Part 3, Hendrix Dyas and I dive into Inception’s iconic locations — from an imposing Japanese castle high set atop a cliff, to the rainy streets of Los Angeles, to a hotel hallway devoid of gravity, to the raw, unconstructed dream space known as “limbo.” Mr. Dyas was also kind enough to provide sketches, concept art, and photographs, some of which you may have never seen before.

Josh Weiss: What was it like working with Chris in those early stages?

Guy Hendrix Dyas: We proceeded to work in Chris’s garage at his house, which is a wonderful crafted space. Chris has a reading and writing area at the very back of this space. There’s a little bathroom and there’s a big open area with worktables and he and I set about talking, drinking lots of tea, and discussing how we would go about breaking down this incredible story.

I remember him saying to me, ‘Look, I’ve had this big success with The Dark Knight, so now’s the time to make a film like this. There won’t be many opportunities to make a film like this.’ And I get exactly what he meant, so we were working all through the awards season for The Dark Knight. We were already in his garage, working on it, while he was busy receiving accolades for The Dark Knight. It was kind of a really interesting time to be around [him].

Dream/maze models in the heisters’ Paris workshopCourtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

JW: What was your initial impression of the plot when you first read the script?

GHD: Reading the script multiple times was something I had to do, just to understand the multi-layers and parallel stories that are running simultaneously through this narrative. There are, as we know, five levels to Chris’s imagined world — the lowest one being limbo, the scary one where you can sort of be in a catatonic state or in a coma, perhaps; and you remain there forever in your subconscious.

Then you have all the other layers that lead down to it. 

So I remember thinking, ‘Well, this is gonna be really interesting. I’m gonna have to create not just one world, but five different, simultaneous worlds that all relate to each other. And at the same time, convey the mood and spirit of the scene that’s going on in that particular layer.’

For example, in one of the layers, we have that wonderful, stark street where the freight train comes [in] and in the street, Chris wanted it to rain. It had to be permanently raining, almost like some sort of post-apocalypse. But we also didn’t want the world to be so outlandish, that it distracted the audience from the story, which was the key point. It was raining and it was gray streets and really, if you think about it, that mood suited a kidnapping well, which is what that particular dream layer was about. Taking somebody off to the warehouse and the downtown streets and the motorcycle chase and all that. That all lent itself to those gray colors and grayish-blue tones of Wally Pfister’s DP work. 

It really was the perfect feel and yet, you had other moods. For, example, some of the initial introduction of Saito [Ken Watanabe], which was all in golden tones and set in traditional Japanese architecture. That’s about putting someone’s mind at ease; Saito is Japanese and so, you wanted to envelop his dream state into something that would culturally work for him. That’s how I was trying to go about doing it; making sure that the audience wouldn’t be lost.

You had to make sure that each of these environments was distinctively different. The mountainous, snow-capped mountains of Canada; and then you had the Japanese environment; you had the streets of Los Angeles. It just goes on and on.

JW: Speaking of the snowy fortress in the climax, I know Chris is a big James Bond fan. Did you guys refer back to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service? 

GHD: You’re absolutely right, we were looking at a lot of James Bond films. Chris and I are huge James Bond fans. I think all his films sort of have a little bit of that inspiration and I don’t think he’d mind me saying that. It’s very much in his DNA. We grew up watching those films, which were the big event/action films of our childhoods. It pre-dates the onslaught of the comic book movie, so that really was one of the main fixes you could have for action movies.

We looked at a lot of those and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was a big one. We would be in the garage working; Chris would be writing, tapping away, and we’d have our lunchtimes in their together and would sit and watch clips of films from James Bond. We would also watch segments of 2001 [A Space Odyssey] over and over. Just to understand how we could cinematically shoot and design shots to deal with gravity and really fooling the audience into believing that we had this perfect system for creating environments that had no gravitational pull. 

Courtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

It was interesting and we really wanted to do as much of this work practically as we could and use visual effects as a kind of a back-up discipline, if you like. A lot of the shots of Joseph [Gordon-Levitt] in the corridor, for example, he really is doing all of that stuff and really, [the] visual effects are doing wire removal. But even, for example, when he’s bringing the various sleeping bodies out of the elevator, a lot of those are real rigs with people lying on solid, plank platforms, so that we could get it as real as possible.

We had costumes that were stiffened, so that they didn’t react in the way they would with gravity. There’s a wonderful, [almost] clumsiness to some of the performances, which is the magic of something like Inception. I’m a huge fan of The Matrix series, but with The Matrix, the aesthetic was all about martial arts and ballet and creating a dance in the space of techno-gravity. With Inception, it was more sort of, ‘Ok, these are people who have not been in these environments before, how are they gonna deal with a lack of gravity?’

JW: The fortress is all meant to lead Cillian Murphy’s Fischer into the black-tiled vault that houses his dying father. What was the visual impetus behind the look of that room?

GHD: We were looking for a very strange space in which to find his father on his deathbed. The fortress was made up of this odd-formed, concrete world and sort of brutalist architecture. I wanted to have a really different feel the moment you got into the hospital room.

Again, we were very much looking at 2001, at the very surrealistic ending to that film, where the captain of the ship finds his older self in a bed. That room was rendered in white and it was very bright and modern and that was all set with classical furniture. It was a very strange idea, but very brilliant, put forth by Kubrick and Anthony Masters.

I was looking at that and thinking, ‘I would like to capture the spirit of that,’ but we had this world that was white. We had the snowy fortress, so everyone was wearing white; we had this snow; we had this cold, hard concrete. I wanted to go for the biggest sort of shock in terms of visual difference when those big safe doors open. I wanted people to not expect to see what they see and that’s really why I went for those very shiny, black tiles. I wanted to capture the spirit of those scenes in 2001, but make them feel very, very different to the snowy environment that we had.

Courtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

Courtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

JW: Can you talk a little bit about the challenges involved with pulling off some of the trickier sets like the hotel hallway rig?

GHD: A lot of it was just moving forward as quickly as we could with great confidence and believing that we could make these rigs work. The trick behind the corridor is — and not many people know this — is that it’s not just one corridor. There’s a corridor that rotates, but there’s also a vertical corridor; there’s an identical set that was placed up on its end, so that we could drop performers down the middle of the corridor and have the camera on the ground, shooting directly up. So that you looked as though you were floating down the center of the corridor when really, you were just being lowered on wires.

We did a lot of that kind of stuff with the corridor. The challenges for the corridor, knowing that we were gonna have these actors spinning around, getting bruised and bumped, was designing as much of it as we could in rubber and soft materials. The fabric walls of the corridor could actually hide about a three-inch thick wall of rubber, so that every time Joseph hit a wall, it was cushioned. Even the light fixtures in there were all carefully cast out of rubber.

Model of rotating hallway rigCourtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

Rotating hallway rigCourtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

Tilting roomCourtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

JW: The hallway has a great sense of elegance to it. Was the look inspired by anything in particular?

GHD: The design of the corridor really came out of the other sets. It became very clear that we were developing a language for Inception. The language came out of the characters; the characters in Chris’s script were all supposed to be architects or architectural students in the case of Ariadne [Ellen Page]. 

We imagined that they were all in this business and had come out of design school or art school or architectural school. They would’ve been fans of architecture and they would’ve geeked out over great architects. We did our best to create a line of developments in the film that related to great architecture, starting with the Japanese dining room at the beginning, which, of course, Japanese architecture inspired Frank Lloyd Wright very heavily. Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier — all the way through to I.M. Pei, who designed the pyramid in the Louvre.

These are all our inspirations and there’s a sort of modernistic element to all of that architecture that works really well when you’re thinking about a film that is about dreams and repetition. I was [also] thinking about the idea of when you are in a dream, what do you really remember about it? When, in reality, for me, anyway, — and I explained this to Chris and he sort of bought it — the idea is that when you’re focusing on something in your dream, everything in your peripheral vision, to the left and right in the dream, fades away and becomes sort of blurry. You’re only really focused on one thing in your dream.

But the problem is when you’re showing that dream to an audience that is wide awake or eating popcorn and sodas, how do you represent the peripheral vision to the left and the right of what the focus of the scene is? To me, it became a screensaver idea, the idea that you would have repetition with the buildings [and] the buildings would, at a certain point, just copy each other, almost like snapping a Photoshop file and replicating the same image again and again and again.

Courtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

You’ll see that in the film with some of the wider shots in limbo and the beach scene with Cobb [Leonardo DiCaprio] and Mal [Marion Cotillard] — you’ll see them wandering around in this world, where the buildings are basically the same buildings repeated over and over and over again. All those buildings are basically sort of modernistic, classic high-rises from our history of architecture … 

I think also there were obvious standouts; I thought about M.C. Escher, of course, immediately when I started reading about the Penrose steps, the staircase that just takes you around and around. There was a strong desire from Chris and I, thinking about the overall concept of the buildings being mathematical structures; buildings that were made out of numbers were all related …

I started looking at a lot of architectural tunnels as well, just sort of mazes. I started looking at Victorian mazes and architecture that was made by the Victorians; they would do lots of this in that period. There was one amazing drawing by an Italian artist, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, called ‘The Drawbridge.’ [He] had done this incredible scale illustration of architecture and spaces and dungeons and things. They involved some very complex staircases that I really liked. All these images were floating around the art department when we were designing these worlds.

JW: The buildings crumbling into the ocean is one of my favorite visuals in the movie. How did they come to be?

GHD: That was something that I had brought to the table and I think it was in a conversation with Chris back in the garage. We were talking about, ‘How do we represent the idea of somebody’s memories starting to fade?’

We had buildings crumbling and collapsing and that represented the loss of Cobb’s memory or the collapsing of his recollection of things. Chris loved it and it made it into the film. Although we were on location and had huge green screen blocks in the sand for the waves to react to, those shots on the beach are a fully visual effect. It would’ve been hard for us create those things, but it was a great image, I think.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

JW: Where did you shoot those beach scenes?

GHD: We shot those scenes on a beach, I believe, in Morocco. We were in Morocco for some of the scenes where Cobb and Ariadne are coming out of the water in between these huge buildings. We actually found these desolate streets in these huge, sort of modernistic constructs in these strange areas in Morocco that were definitely off the beaten track — where the sand just blew into them. And so, we simply added the water as a practical effect behind the sand and then placed the camera behind that.

JW: Let’s move to the Mombassa sets for a second. Can you talk about Yusuf’s office and the subsequent dreaming “den”?

GHD: Yusuf [Dileep Rao] is a likable character in the story and his office felt as though it needed to feel like an old Victorian apothecary or chemist’s laboratory. Both Chris and Wally loved the glass shelves of colored liquid bottles set against windows. It created a wonderful amber lighting effect throughout the office area, a calming relief from the hot sun outside.

The basement was more sinister in it’s atmosphere. I suppose I was really channeling the opium dens of the late 19th century. Chris and I had been scouting Tangier in great detail for the film, and I was constantly reminded of the William Burroughs novel Naked Lunch and the desperation of drug addition described in the book. This was the basis for my design. Keeping the dressing stark and minimal was key to the overall feel.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

JW: You’ve also got the streets of Paris blowing up and folding in on themselves.

GHD: That was directly out of Chris’ script … Chris and I went to Paris, it was one of the first things we did. It was a location scout and we found a couple of very classical Paris streets that worked in terms of them being instantly recognizable. However, we couldn’t find a café for Cobb and Ariadne to sit at for their conversation. Instead, we had a corner store that was, I believe, a budget rental car office. What we essentially had to do, was buy out the budget rental store and convert that into a French-style café for the shoot.

Why did we do such a crazy thing? Because everything else about the street and where Chris wanted to place the camera worked for us. We also found that that particular location, all the neighbors had agreed to us blowing things up. We really did a lot of practical explosions, a lot of newspaper stands, and there were convenience stores and a hardware store and a bunch of different stores down the street, which we had dressed. Some of them were fake and some of them were just people’s home that we extended out in order to make them look and feel as though they were stores. We blew them all up with the wonderful help of our brilliant special effects head, Chris Corbuld.

Courtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

Courtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

Courtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

JW: What were some of the biggest contributions Chris made to your department?

GHD: He was just constantly there as a cheerleader and I think what’s great is that Chris was very open to ideas. He never once made me feel intimated to put forward ideas and offer things up. They didn’t always fly, but many of them did. One of the ones I’m most proud of is the opening, the Japanese castle. Originally in Chris’s script, it was written as a sort of Norman castle, a gray castle in the north of Scotland or something like that. I looked at the scene with Saito at the dining table when Cobb first comes in at the beginning of the film, thinking, ‘It seems strange, it feels as though it should be a Japanese castle.’

For all the reasons that we’ve talked about throughout this interview. The relationship to modern architecture, the fact that the person whose holding court there is Saito, a Japanese industrialist. It just seemed right that it was a Japanese environment. 

Courtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

And then, of course, there were the lanterns on the ceiling, which were very controversial. Those came from seeing a temple in Japan when I worked for Sony. When I asked what the lanterns were, I was told that they represented the lost souls of the monks who had died over the centuries, serving the monastery. That stuck with me and I started to see this idea that the lanterns in the dining room were actually representing the people lost in limbo, in this sort of parallel world.

I could put an idea like that forward and long as my thinking was sound and as long as Chris liked the visual style of it, then he would be completely open to accepting the idea. So, not only is he kind of a brilliant man, but he’s also very open to little details, which might just improve something that’s already great. Inception already was great, but I think we were just able to, in many ways, add an even deeper level of visual complexity to it. 

He was excited and very interested in pushing things forward and doing things that hand’t been seen before, but in a sophisticated way. I don’t think he wanted sets that were going to be gratuitous or just big for the sake of it, or loud for the sake of it. He wanted sophistication.

JW: Speaking of the beginning, the castle leads us into Saito’s hidden apartment, which introduces us to the concept of a dream within a dream.

GHD: This was a tough one! Saito was a slick and well-dressed industrialist. My initial thought was: ‘Why would he have a place like this in South America somewhere?’ At about this time, I had been reading an article about a sketchy, high-level business person who was being charged for something I can’t remember, but he had kept a number of seedy and questionable apartments around the globe for various activities. For me, this was enough of a real case study to build my design.

Saito’s apartment is introduced near the beginning of the story when the audience is still unfamiliar with the rules of our world and so, keeping everything a little ‘dreamy’ and ambiguous was an important thing for me to keep in mind when making design choices. I rendered all the walls and dressing in bright colors and yet, kept the overall saturation quite low. This is very much how my dreams seem to be colored, not sure if it’s the same for everyone else.

Perhaps one of the hardest aspects of this set is that the exterior shots of the rioting crowds through the window were all shot on location in Tangier; the interior was a heavily augmented and dressed location in downtown Los Angeles. Having the two places visually connect seamlessly was nothing short of a miracle.

Saito’s hidden love nestCourtesy of Warner Bros.

JW: What were some of the other challenges involved with these grandiose sets?

GHD: Let’s talk about one of the scariest days of my life. I was called up by the team of construction people I had in Canada building the fortress. It was something like 20 below zero and they called me up in a panic and said, ‘We can’t paint the set. We finished it, but we can’t paint it.’ I remembering saying, ‘Well, why not?’ And they said, ‘The paint’s freezing before it gets from our brushes to the wood. We’ve tried everything. We’ve tried holding hair dryers out and having people paint while someone’s holding a hair dryer.’

I got on a plane and went there and lo and behold, they demonstrated someone dipping their paint and as the brush came out and went towards the set, it cracked and became a solid block. So I started thinking outside the box and suddenly came up with the idea of adding antifreeze to the paint, which, of course, made the paint green.

What we had to do was go back to our art school days and color charts and start mixing the colors to compensate for this added green. But in the end, we were able to get there and basically, painted the set with antifreeze. The irony is — and you won’t see this in the film — the paint is permanently wet. It never dried. So, you can imagine the problems I had with the costume department, who had the cast in pure white costumes. Somehow, we got through it all.

Model of the snow fortressCourtesy of Guy Hendrix Dyas

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

JW: Any other fun, behind-the-scenes anecdotes that stick out your mind?

GHD: I suppose the designing, construction and then watching, without any rehearsals, the freight train crash into all those cars in downtown L.A. The orchestration of that involved stunts, special effects, the construction department, the art department, the locations department. They had to close down all those streets and the picture car department had to provide all those vehicles that we were gonna smash up.

It was really epic to see something that would traditionally be just be a visual effects blow-off. People would say, ‘Let’s just do the train in post,’ and you’d have someone walking down the street, holding up a chrome ball and then they would replace them with a train. But to actually build the train and then crash into those cars and not really know what was going to happen — other than a lot of homework and some very careful safety precautions — was kind of incredible.

JW: How’d you build the train?

GHD: [There was] an 18-wheeler that we basically clad with a huge steel frame. Once we did that, we then dressed, in steel, the freight train siding front on top of that. The person was still driving the 18-wheeler, so what was interesting is that their view of what they could see was very very limited.

A train barrels through the streets of Los AngelesCourtesy of Warner Bros.

JW: How important was color on Inception?

GHD: Chris is quite famous for using monochromatic tones in his films. You’re gonna see a lot of grays, a lot of browns, and that’s an artistic choice for him, [his usual production designer] Nathan Crowley, and the DP. I think that makes all the sense in the world. Chris doesn’t have to rely on any manner of flash to sell his stories. They’re fantastic and they work; he really only needs to focus on what it is that he wants to portray. 

What’s interesting about Inception, is there’s perhaps a little more saturation. The colors are a little richer than normal. Perhaps that is because of those ancient Japanese spaces, which used a lot of gold and yellow. The film gets a wide berth of color palettes, ranging from the cold blues and concretes that are traditionally in Chris’s films, right the way through to stuff that we perhaps haven’t seen in his films, mainly the golds and the reds. It’s sort of an interesting tweak to his normal aesthetic.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

JW: How did you maintain secrecy while making Inception?

GHD: Secrecy was of great importance to the production. Inception relied heavily on the element of surprise for its viewers, so like most productions today, we worked hard to keep information off the internet; script distribution was kept to a minimum; and some plot points were not discussed other than within Chris’s inner circle. To that end, the majority of the crew didn’t really know what we were crafting as a film.

JW: Were you involved with the making of the totem props at all? I’m mainly thinking of Cobb’s spinning top.

GHD: Chris pulled Cobb’s totem out of his pocket one day in the garage! That was that. It was as though this had been decided in his head for a long time. The simplicity of the spinning top was so perfect, that I never questioned it for one moment.

JW: Do you have an interpretation of the spinning top at the end?

GHD: I know how it all came about. I remember sitting in dailies and watching. I think Chris and Wally Pfister shot a lot of the spinning top in that last scene and there were shots of the top looking extremely stable and there were shots of the top where it started to look like it was going to topple. It was sort of a big debate in the dailies about how the film was going to end. We all know the meaning behind the totems and what they stand for, so the idea was that it could become this wonderful tease for an audience to see the top start to lose its way and wobble and become unstable and then cut out before you actually saw it fall. 

I think it’s just so great that we have a film, in recent years anyway, that doesn’t polish every single answer to every single question. If you go back in the history of cinema, particularly the ‘60s and ’70s, there are a lot of films that finish with ambiguous endings and they are wonderful and we debate them forever … There are so few films that have epic, meaningful endings that just leave people talking about them and I think Inception is fortunate enough to be one of those.

JW: Since we’re on the subject, can you talk a little bit about Cobb’s home?

GHD: It needed to feel warm and relatable; the audience needed to feel a certain sympathy for Cobb, hoping he could find his way back home at the end of this huge adventure. His home also needed to fit into our established design language. I had mentioned the idea of Cobb and his group being fans of architecture or ex-architectural students, so following a strong design lineage or architectural pedigree was a key factor. Using a part set, part location that was “craftsman” in style was the perfect choice for Chris and I. 

Cobb returns homeCourtesy of Warner Bros.

JW: What’s it like to have seen the film become this iconic fixture of pop culture in the last 10 years?

GHD: It’s lovely. We had no idea at the time that it was gonna have that social impact. It was Chris’s followup to his very successful The Dark Knight and it was just gonna be this fantastic action movie with spectacle and that’s the way Chris saw it. 

I loved it because I was already a Chris Nolan fan. To me, Memento is still one of the most interesting films that he’s made. There was a lot of Memento in Inception for me; that idea of playing with the audience’s understanding of a situation and having them try to unravel a mystery or a puzzle.

I get 15 emails a week from fans reaching out and asking me all manner of things [like] “How did you think of this? What was the material you used?” It is nice. You can go through a whole career without having an opportunity like this, so I’m extremely lucky. The irony is if you were to look at Chris’s current filmography and ask me which one of his films I would have liked to design, knowing that I was gonna get to do one, I think I would’ve chosen Inception. 

I think it was the most suited to me and I think, in a strange way, Inception does have something about it, which is a little different to his other films. I feel very proud about that and I know the crew that worked on it are very proud about that, too.

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