Meet The Crew: Clay Griffith – Production Designer

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Posted by Greg on December 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm
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We are pleased to present a new feature entitled Meet The Crew. A chance to meet some of the unsung “behind the scenes” heroes who help make the films. First up is We Bought A Zoo Production Designer, Clay Griffith. Clay has been working with Cameron in a variety of roles since Say Anything… We talk about his history and the monumental task of building The Rosemoor Zoo and Mee house.

Your career began by working for directors such as Jonathan Demme (Something Wild) and James L. Brooks (Broadcast News), what did you learn most from those early experiences?

My very first film experience was with Jonathan Demme on ‘Something Wild’……..I remember him saying to everyone in the Production Meeting, “Let’s talk about what we can do, not what we can’t do.”……..I was hooked on the movie making process from that moment on. It was like a lightening bolt had struck. There was nothing else in the world that I wanted to do other than to work on movies. I went to work for James L. Brooks when I first moved to Los Angeles. I was a production assistant at his film company Gracie Films. I read a lot of scripts in that Bungalow on the 20th Century Fox lot……when I wasn’t answering phones, or taking lunch orders for producers. Jim showed me about what it was to be a true writer/director. You had to immerse yourself in the story and the characters… had to breathe it.

I was in heaven!

As a Set Decorator on such films as Singles, Jerry Maguire, Sleepless in Seattle and Seven, what are your main duties? For those that may not know, what’s the collaboration like between Set Decorator and Production Designer?

My main duties as a Set Decorator was to help the Production Designer visualize the tone and environments of each set within the film. Visual collaboration is a very gratifying experience once you make that connection with someone. Ultimately, the Set Decorator is in charge of dressing both stage sets, and location sets with the appropriate furniture, art, light fixtures and various textiles. When I became a Production Designer, I would immediately spend large blocks of time with the Set Decorator in order to ‘synch’ up the visual roadmap of the film. I like to create a backstory for each character and location.

What were you most proud of from a set decoration standpoint on Jerry Maguire?

Wow! That is a good question…….I think the interior of Dorothy Boyd’s house was pretty great…….it felt very real to me when we finished dressing it. I had to get into the mind of a single mom and her little boy…….I must have drawn on my own childhood in some way. The SMI sports agents offices were at the opposite end of the spectrum from Dorothy’s house. The set literally took up the entire stage. It was a sea of desks and sports paraphenalia. Our goal was to make each cubicle tell us something about the person’s life who was working there….I think we succeeded in that effort.

You moved on to Art Direction on Almost Famous, what was that experience like?

It was like being shot out of a cannon! I had so much fun making that movie……..finally getting to run free with my own vision and truly collaborating with Cameron. I was actually hired as, and acted as the Production Designer on Almost Famous……but due to a few lawyers and some other choice people at the Art Directors Guild, I was not allowed to have the Production Design credit on that film. I ruffled a few feathers by making the jump from Set Decorator to Production Designer. It’s all good….I know the work on the screen was straight from my heart.

Rites of passage, baby. I cried when we finished making that movie. I did not want it to end…….and I think I was most likely exhausted.

Did you always want to be a Production Designer, or was it something that you gravitated towards once you were exposed to all of the different possible careers in the film industry?

When I got the job on Something Wild, as an assistant to the art department……I didn’t even know what an Art Department was!

Rosemoor Zoo Site Plan

As the Production Designer on Cameron’s last two films (Elizabethtown and We Bought A Zoo), what were your main responsibilities?

Every film that I have Designed for Cameron starts in a room with just the two of us and the script. We always begin the visual process of the movie talking about every character in the story….from that point on, our meetings become a running visual dialogue of artwork, photography, literature, films  and any ocular research that inspires us with the vision of our own film.

After that, it is all about finding the right locations for the project. Concurrently, I will be putting my key staff together of Art Directors, Set Decorator, Property Master, Graphic Designers, Set Designers, Lead Scenic Painter, Construction Coordinator, Lead Greensman, and Illustrators…….I know I am forgetting some positions here.

Making a film is a collaborative art form by nature. I think one of the main responsibilities in being the Production Designer for Cameron is that I am able to convey, and explain the visual tone of the film to just about everyone on the entire production.

Were you involved with Chris Baugh (Location Manager) and Lori Balton (Location Scout) on finding the location in Thousand Oaks where the Rosemoor Zoo was ultimately built?

Oh yeah. We spent a lot of time in the car together scouting just about every available ranch in the Los Angeles area.

What was the biggest challenge in designing and building the Rosemoor Zoo?

The biggest challenge in designing and building the Rosemoor Zoo……was designing and building the Rosemoor Zoo!!!!!  I was so happy once we found the Greenfield Ranch as our primary House and Zoo location……and then reality set in. Oh my God, I thought, now I actually have to pull this off! Aside from encountering a few large and disgruntled rattlesnakes, one of the biggest challenges was dealing with the constantly changing weather. We experienced winter, spring, summer and fall at that construction sight. Rain, frost and scorching heat makes it a little difficult to build a set sometimes……but my construction, paint and greens crew were absolutely up for the challenge, and they executed the build flawlessly.

Tiger Enclosure Design

Did you attempt to mirror its real life counterpart, The Dartmoor Zoo?

Yes, but only with particular animal enclosures, namely the Tiger enclosure. For the most part we tried to mirror the spirit and essence of what The Dartmoor Zoo really is.

Talk about the main objectives designing the Mee house.

The first objective was to design and build both the Mee House and the Zoo at the same time. We wanted the shooting crew to have the ability to be able to move the Zoo to the House, or the House to the Zoo whenever need be. Cameron and I agreed very early on in our meetings that the Mee House should have an inherent soul about it. Yes, it should be old and a little rundown around the edges….but someone used to love it, and that love should still be evident in the house.


I grew up in an old farmhouse in New York state……I immediately dove into my old family photo albums and started pulling tons of reference pictures of that farmhouse. It was a love letter to my own childhood in designing the Mee farmhouse.

An Inspiration from Clay’s Childhood Helps Build the Zoo

You seem to have a special relationship with Cameron that dates back to Say Anything… Tell us about your working relationship.

We have developed a shorthand with each other over the years. Cameron is a great communicator, and a great listener….I know that after I read the script for Say Anything… I was so overwhelmed by the dialogue and the true soul of the story, I had to meet the guy who wrote this script! Fortunately for me, I was working for James L Brooks at the time, and Cameron was in an office directly across the parking lot from Gracie Films. I got up from my desk and walked to his office and knocked on his door. I can’t even remember what the words were that came out of my mouth…..something about how amazing the Say Anything… script was, and I know it will be your first directing job, and I have some film experience already (Something WildDirty Dancing), and would you please consider me as your possible assistant on this project because I could help you out with some of the on-set stuff. It was like my voice was coming from somewhere else far away. He looked at me and said, “Well, thank you, man….I’m glad you dug it.”

Got the job about 4 months later. I guess that is my 20 seconds of courage story. Makes me smile when I think about it. I’m not sure if i answered the question….but that’s how the working relationship started.

Did you ever think you and Cameron would have this strong, long-lasting working relationship – think back to driving to set on Day One of Say Anything… – would you have ever imagined you both would be where you are now? 

Ha, Ha! I remember that day very well. When we were getting close to our exit Cameron turned to me and said, “I’ll give you Fifty dollars to keep driving down the freeway and pass that exit.”

And I replied, “No,no,no. This is the day that you will Direct your movie. You are my Director, and I am driving you to the set!”

To answer the question, I think in my heart I hoped that we would always have the relationship that we had at that very moment. Happy that we have arrived where we are now.

Last question, where did your nickname, Yeti, originate?

You sure have done your research! It is a nickname that I picked up from my sister actually. We moved to the Virgin Islands when I was around 8 years old……to make a long story short, it is derived from the local West Indian phrase, ” Yeah, you de Mahn!”…..somehow, along the way my sister fashioned her version of the phrase and applied to her unwitting brother, Yetimon….Yeti for short. It’s pretty funny when people call me that for the first time…’s almost like they are not sure of how to say it. Cameron had no problem adapting it to me at all.

© 2011 Vinyl Films/The Uncool. All rights reserved.


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