American Fork production designer creates the visuals for ‘The Work and the Glory’
By Jeanette W. Bennett
American Fork’s John Uibel helped bring the most popular LDS book series of all-time, “The Work and the Glory,” to the big screen last month.
As the production designer, he turned Tennessee rolling hills into 19th century New York at the time of Joseph Smith. Most of his designing work was done in his dining room, where we met to chat about the film.
Jeanette Bennett, Utah Valley Magazine: How did you become involved with this project?
John: I worked with Russ Holt, the director, many years ago on “The Lamb of God.” He and I met in a cafe in Salt Lake City, and he asked me to be the production designer. I told him I couldn’t give up my day job at BYU, and so we agreed that I would do it afterhours.
UV: How would you describe your position on the filmmaking team?
John: My job was to translate Russ Holt’s vision of Gerald Lund’s vision. Russ would write down in the script a brief description of the cabin, for example, and then I would come up with a drawing of what I thought they were after. Then we would change a few things and finally land on an illustration. My work is heavy on the front end because I communicate to everybody else what their jobs needs to be. I tell the painter how much he’s going to have to paint. I tell the set director the dimensions of each particular set, so he can fill it up with stuff. The size of the set also dictates how many extras we need.
UV: What was the most difficult part?
John: It was like laying track in front of a moving train, and the train was not going to stop. It was exhausting. I couldn’t stop because I was sick or tired or not in the mood. But it was extremely enjoyable work.
UV: What was your time schedule?
John: I would do my BYU job during the day and work on “The Work and Glory” at night. My brain wakes up at 10 p.m., so we’d put the kids to bed and then my wife encouraged me to do my best work.
UV: How did you begin the process of envisioning the location?
John: I went to Tennessee five or six times and walked the locations with the director and cinematographer.
UV: Why did you pick Tennessee?
John: It is a right-to-work state, so we weren’t saddled with union requirements. Also, New York stays colder longer and Tennessee gave us the climate we needed. We found a location with forests, meadows, and where you couldn’t see power lines or roads.
UV: Was the whole movie filmed in Tennessee?
John: Yes, other than the scenes when you see the Steeds leaving their Vermont home — that was actually in Vermont.
UV: Had you always been a fan of “The Work and the Glory” series?
John: I hadn’t read them when I got approached about the project! Our family members had all read them, and they exploded with excitement when they found out I would be involved. I began to read some of the books in preparation for the film. I have a real respect for Elder Lund and his ability to take mundane historical data and turn it into a plot with drama. Initially, I took Elder Lund’s word for it on the details. Then as I began to do my own research, I found he was very accurate.
UV: In your opinion is the movie true to the “The Work and the Glory” series?
John: Yes, for the most part. The ending borrowed a little bit from the second book. We had to bring the antagonist and the protagonist together for a little battle. Otherwise, it was going to be like Luke Skywalker not going to the Death Star.
UV: Was it overwhelming to know that thousands of readers had already pictured the story in their minds?
John: Yes, and I felt bad about some of the compromises we had to make because of location or budget. For example, Elder Lund had described a water arrangement in the Steed cabin that brought fresh water inside. It would have been nice to show Mrs. Steed doing the dishes, but it wasn’t possible given the other limitations we had.
UV: What is your favorite scene in “The Work and the Glory”?
John: I really like the scenes in the interior of the general store. It turned out just the way I had envisioned it.
UV: Were there any tricky scenes to design?
John: It was difficult finding 40 acres of land where we could create the city of Palmyra, as well as the Erie Canal. We had a lot of earth to move — we cleared about a football field-sized area and then dug a four-foot wide canal for about 300 feet long.
UV: Is there anything specific we should watch for on the big screen?
John: The area of Tennessee where we filmed was extremely wet. The main streets in Palmyra were very muddy. As the actors were walking down the street, they were covered in mud, but it looks great on camera. Also, Joseph Smith’s house doubles as the Steeds’ Vermont house. We simply changed the paint and the shutters.
UV: Do you work with hand-drawings or computer sketches?
John: This movie is the first one I’ve done electronically. I figured out the exact latitude of our location just south of Knoxville. In my computer model, I could show the director how the sun would fall at any time of day on our sets.
UV: Were the sets entirely real, or are there digital elements?
John: We built the sets up to 24 feet high, and then we digitally added sky, smoke and the tops of buildings.
UV: Do you love watching movies?
John: The problem is I never pay attention to what is happening. I’m more interested in the construction behind the actors. If the actors would get out of the way, I could get a better view! I go to movies with my wife so she can explain the plot to me.
UV: What is your favorite time period to depict in films?
John: The early 19th century. I much prefer working on period films rather than anything contemporary. I like the challenge of convincing the person next to you in the theater that they are seeing a completely different world.
UV: What is the film project you’ve been most proud of so far?
John: “The Lamb of God.” I think that is the best film the LDS Church has ever done.
UV: What is the best movie of all time?
John: We just watched “Lawrence of Arabia.” There will never be another film like that ever again because of the scale and the locations involved. That thing is a piece of history. I would have loved to have worked on that.
UV: Do you see overall trends in the film industry?
John: A lot of films are getting extremely formulaic. It was refreshing — as silly as it was — to see “Napoleon Dynamite” do so well. That shows it doesn’t matter how much money you spend on the film. u