When hell burst through the pavement and grew: Anton Furst conjured up Batman's Gotham City. In England he was a creator of dreams. But in Hollywood his dreams ended. Simon Garfield reports
Saturday 04 July 1992
It wasn't a joke. A restaurant called Planet Hollywood was due to open in New York in the autumn of 1991, and they needed an interior designer. Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had lent their names to a hamburger joint that would re-create Hollywood by displaying film memorabilia - an Arnie mannequin from Terminator 2, a bloody Bruce T-shirt from Die Hard - in the belief that fans would queue for hours to be part of it. The interior design budget was dollars 8m (pounds 4.3m). The designer would receive about dollars 200,000. But who was up to the job? Keith Barish, the restaurant's chairman, wanted a star designer to match his star backers.
Anton Furst, a 46-year-old film designer from Essex, thought it was a prank when he got the call. He'd never done anything like this and didn't hang out with Arnie's crowd. But since he'd won his Oscar for his dark visualisation of Gotham City for Batman in March 1990, he was getting all sorts of strange offers. Previously he had designed fabulous sets for The Company of Wolves, Full Metal Jacket and High Spirits, but had received limited acclaim and only adequate payment; after Batman he had to swat away offers like flies. Now it was: would he take a director's deal? A production office at Columbia Pictures? A house in Beverly Hills?
Sure he would, and sure he'd do Planet Hollywood. At the opening party last October, many guests said they adored his work. Furst grinned for the cameras with his daughter, Vanessa, and drank Heineken as he mingled with Kim Basinger and Stevie Wonder. But as he small-talked, he remembered the year of compromises and personal disappointments that he had endured for this place; he looked around his garish walls with movie tat in glass cases, and in his heart he knew it was trash.
Friends who had flown in from England for the opening sensed that all was not well. In the year that had elapsed between his acceptance of this commission and its public unveiling, his life had been transformed. In Hollywood he was cut off from most of his friends, and his film design - the work that drove him and what he did best - had virtually ground to a halt. Also, he was drinking a lot and finding it impossible to kick his addiction to Valium.
But there was no indication that Furst might have reached the end of his tether, and certainly no warning that on 25 November, four weeks after this opening party, his family would be woken by the news that Anton had jumped to his death from the eighth floor of a Los Angeles car park.
IN MANY ways, Anton Furst's death is the stuff of cliche and Hollywood parable: Brit finds domestic success, is feted by the American studios, can't cope with the madness and deceit, bows out. Yet his family and many friends were shocked by his death, and, in their sad soul-searching, paint their own contrary cliche: of a man who loved life, a man who never quit, who seldom talked about depression, who had more to live for - and more money, more acclaim, more open doors - than at any other stage in his career. 'He was a very strong-willed man,' one of his oldest friends says, 'and it takes a strong will to leap off an eight-storey building.'
A production designer creates the visual texture of a movie, the stuff on which we build our dreams and suspend our disbelief. The work is much more than set design; it's the intangible aspects - warmth, mood, colour coding - that will be vital to a picture's sustained visual impact. The very best can create new worlds.
Furst was not a great film-goer in his youth. 'It's not real life,' he used to say, 'and it's usually not art.' His training was in fine art and sculpture, principally at the Royal College of Art under Sir Hugh Casson, who remembers him as one of the most engaging and inspiring of all his students. He
co-founded a laser and hologram company, worked on light shows for The Who and designed television commercials to support his family. His big film break came
in 1984 with The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan's psychosexual retelling of the Red Riding Hood fable.
'Someone suggested we give the part of Red Riding Hood to Anton's daughter,' says Steve Woolley, the film's producer. 'She was a bit too pretty, but I went round to Anton's flat (in north-west London) and we talked with Neil about the design. We had this idea of creating an entire forest on a studio set, but didn't have much of a clue how to do it. Anton immediately loved the idea, and said things like, 'I know, a kind of cross between Dali and Dore]'. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he had this manic enthusiasm that meant it was hard not to nod your head and say 'yes, yes, yes'.'
'His big message was that the only point to this work was to create stuff that had never been done on film before,' says Eddie Butler, a sculptor who worked on all of Furst's films. 'His references were complex and hugely varied, and he needed strong images that could be developed deeply. He never played the intellectual, but he had an intellectual approach.'
Like any British film of the last decade, The Company of Wolves was beset with financial compromise. Woolley remembers saying to Furst: ' 'You want seven trees and we've only got money for five'. He'd mope around a bit and then come up with an incredible solution.
'This sounds naff, but he did something on the film that I don't think had ever been done before, combining the plasterers and polystyrene carvers, and he was very proud that he could get his guys together to improve the
efficiency of their work. Anton always rallied round his team, and would argue and fight and froth at the mouth and get incredibly tempestuous. He stormed around in his Germanic boots and his big, dark cloak and he'd look incredibly fierce sucking his pipe. But he would end up laughing it out and was always disappointed with people who didn't. He'd put his arm round you and he'd be a real mensch.'
'He was inspirational,' says Alison Dominitz, his assistant on The Company of Wolves. 'I'd never met anyone like him. He was hugely encouraging and you were just affected by him whatever he was doing. He didn't discuss what was expected of an art director, about how to order your life and do budgets. Art was all that was discussed.'
The way his friends tell it, Furst crashed through life like a medieval black knight. 'Women were very attracted to him,' says John McIlvride, a close friend since the Seventies. 'He was very charming, and physically striking. He had this extraordinary nose. Instead of signing his name, he'd draw a little picture of himself that looked like a bird of prey.
'You'd go out for a meal with him, and he was a terrible eater - no etiquette, he'd eat off everyone's plate. When he used to go round art galleries he always used to take his pipe along and make an appalling racket banging it on marble plinths. He lived in his own world. Penny Fielding (his second wife) used to say: 'Excuse my friend, he's from Barcelona'.'
Along with the eccentricity came anxiety. His father, who suffered from mental illness and alcoholism, died when Furst was 21, and shortly afterwards he began taking Valium to calm his nerves. 'I think he was very concerned not to end up like his father, whom he didn't like very much,' McIlvride says.
When Furst's personal life crowded in, he buried himself in work. In 1985 he agreed to take on what some of his colleagues feared was an impossible venture. Stanley Kubrick wanted to make his Vietnam movie, but he didn't fancy travelling: would Furst build him Vietnam on the site of the disused Beckton gasworks in the East End of London?
Full Metal Jacket took almost two years to make. During shooting Steve Woolley remembers a birthday party at his flat, 'at which Anton literally collapsed at 10.30, because he was on personal call to Stanley 24 hours a day. His obsession with work was so powerful that it would override everything else.' The film was a qualified success; Furst's Vietnam, which he described as 'better than the real thing', was hailed as a masterpiece.
'IT'S LIKE hell had burst through the pavements and kept on growing]'
It was March 1989 and Anton Furst was at his drawing board telling me about his vision of Batman. He talked of the Futurists, of Fritz Lang, of holograms and 'cosmic reality'. With glee, he displayed a model of his Batmobile. Here, drenched in light and surrounded by perhaps 200 large sheets of paper, was a man in his element. 'It has to be unique, like no other film,' he said. 'And timeless.'
'The Anton I knew changed on Batman,' Woolley says. 'He had a lot of highly qualified people under him who believed he was in over his head. Anton would call me from his studio and say 'God, there's no one like you here, there's no one coming into the office giving me a hard time. Apart from Tim (Burton, the director) there doesn't seem to be anyone who really cares about the film'.'
But, once again, his work was singled out as the best thing about the film, and won him his Oscar.
'After Batman he realised that if he was to continue making films like that he'd have to go to the States like everyone else,' Woolley says. 'He'd fulfilled his ambitions in England. You do a certain amount of work here and then you ask yourself: 'Is it worth me having to go through this denigration over here any longer, why don't I go out and degrade myself in Hollywood and earn four times as much?' '
Batman was the last American blockbuster to be made in Britain. Government tax recessions were rescinded, the exchange rate got worse. 'Anton was very pissed off with what was going on over here politically,' McIlvride says. 'He was always a great supporter of the British film industry, and hated what he saw as its neglect and decline.'
He moved first to New York to design Awakenings, Penny Marshall's hospital drama based on the work of Oliver Sacks. At the beginning of 1990 he was firmly established in Hollywood, and initially expressed pleasure at his new life. A deal with Sony (which had recently taken over Columbia Pictures) had thrown up several exciting possibilities. Michael Jackson was apparently keen to make Midknight, a full-length musical, and Furst had ideas for a film version of Candide and a new Frankenstein. He patronised absurd restaurants and took meetings with leading agents and stars. Everyone appeared to be in awe of this eccentric with the piratical dress code and Home Counties accent.
'Anyone who called at his house and met Anton for the first time would have thought 'This is weird, and this man is mad',' McIlvride says. Furst would walk around with a green parakeet on his shoulder. 'Napoleon would make the most appalling noise. It used to get off Anton, and sidle over and bite you. In the end he rolled over and smothered it in his sleep. Very Hollywood.'
Furst soon became distressed that his movie projects seemed to take an age to take shape. 'They'd dangle these carrots and promise you anything, but he was out there with real sharks,' Woolley says. 'I get the impression that he was not that happy. I believe he was kind of lost, as if he was treading water until something really good came along.
'When I heard that they'd given him a director's and producer's deal, and about these restaurants, I was appalled. None of those made sense to what you knew Anton loved doing - creating these worlds. I would never trust Anton to produce a movie. He needed a huge amount of encouragement to get something right. He needed his friends around him.'
Furst's second marriage broke up in December 1990, and although he briefly took up with the actress Beverly D'Angelo, friends now believe he was very lonely. He began taking Halcion, a sleeping drug that had been banned in Britain due to its possible side effects of amnesia, paranoia and depression. His drinking also became more of a problem, and he began talking to a friend about his father for the first time.
'If you go out to Los Angeles and drink too much, you're renowned,' Woolley says. 'If you saw him when he got the Oscar, you could see that Anton always drank. Most people who work in movies in the UK drink. Anton goes out to LA and gets drunk a few nights, but you don't do that over there, at least not in public. And then maybe a phobia develops: you've got all this work coming in, and you haven't got your old mates around you, your plasterers and carvers and whatever.
'Anton always needed a team around him,' Eddie Butler says, 'which is why a few of us worked together as a unit for all of his (British) films. There was a kind of shorthand that he wouldn't find in Hollywood. One could talk about elaborate things quite simply and know what we were after.'
Furst's principal dilemma was he was a production designer who wasn't designing any productions. When word of a Batman sequel surfaced, Furst was keen to do it. But Batman Returns was a Warner Bros picture, and Furst was signed to Columbia.
'I think he was upset that having given so much to the success of Batman he got so little money out of it,' McIlvride says. 'At his house he had this one dollar bill stuck to the wall, and underneath it he wrote: 'My residuals on Batman'. He never did well out of movies, and he was always concerned about the money that went out to his agent and his accountant and his lawyer. He was very conscious of the responsibility towards his two kids.'
'I COULD imagine him bumping into a small wall and falling over, but I couldn't imagine him jumping,' Woolley says. 'He was very clumsy, incredibly frail. Whenever he got a cold, it was always as if he was on death's door. You wanted to wrap him up and put him in cotton wool.'
Towards the end of November 1990, Furst announced his intention to kick drugs and drink. He cropped his lanky brown hair as a symbol of his clean-up. Nigel Phelps, one of the few of his old friends who had accompanied him to Los Angeles to work in his office, was pleased to take him to Midtown Hospital to check in. But the formalities took a while, and Furst wandered outside. He climbed the eight floors of the garage opposite; he was found in an alley moments later.
McIlvride believes it must have been an impulsive act. 'Anton was incapable of planning anything. He obviously felt really depressed and said, 'That's it then - I'm off' '.
At a memorial service on the Columbia lot in December, his first wife, Jane, said: 'What killed Anton was probably a very old pain.' His body was flown back for the funeral at the family grave in East Sussex three weeks later. His children, both former wives, and elderly mother attended, as did many friends. There were a lot of his old creative buddies.
'It was a terribly sad and formal occasion,' Woolley remembers. 'They didn't have a good celebration afterwards. It wasn't a wake thing. It seemed so far away from Anton.'
NEXT Friday Anton Furst's work goes on display again, as Batman Returns opens in London. He did not work on the movie, but Gotham City looks much the same as when he left it in 1989. And in the real Gotham, at West 57th Street in midtown Manhattan, at the phenomenon that has become Planet Hollywood, the queues stretch round the block and T-shirt sales are booming. You can look at the interior today and see a little more. Furst's tawdry design incorporates all that disgusted and frustrated him, all the bluff and doubletalk, the triumph of commerce over art. The film world distilled into glass cases and zebra-patterned tablecloths: a cynical, exploitative tribute to his own particularly crushed vision of Hollywood.
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