Last Monday, David Crank, 61, was watching the Oscar nominations with his parents in their Bon Air kitchen when he found out he’d been nominated for an award for best production design for the Tom Hanks movie “News of the World.”
“My parents are proud. But they didn’t jump up and down or anything,” Crank said with a small chuckle. He visits his parents almost daily to help around the house.
Crank grew up in Richmond, graduated from Manchester High School and got his start working on set designs for TheatreIV, now known as Virginia Rep’s Children’s Theatre at Willow Lawn. He lives in Richmond while managing a successful career designing sets for Hollywood blockbusters such as “Knives Out,” “There Will Be Blood” and “Lincoln.” This is his first Oscar nomination.
“Richmond has always been home to me,” Crank said. “I’ve never known anywhere else.”
“News of the World” is a unique take on the American Western. The drama follows a Civil War veteran, played by Hanks, who must return a young girl who was taken in by Native Americans to her remaining family. Set in 1870, the veteran and his young charge travel 400 miles by covered wagon through the harsh and unforgiving territories of Texas and fight through shootouts and standoffs for their survival. It was filmed primarily in Sante Fe, N.M., in 2019.
“It’s about what society was going through five years after the Civil War, which unfortunately isn’t terribly different than today,” Crank said. “It’s a nice story, with a very good performance from Helena Zengel, a little German girl. She was 10 years old when we shot the film. And Tom Hanks is always incredible.”
Crank worked with Tom Hanks’ production company before on “John Adams,” the miniseries that filmed locally in Virginia and aired on HBO in 2008. That’s how he landed the job on “News of the World.”
“Tom was very nice,” Crank said. “On the set [of ‘News of the World’], he was always in a good mood. He is very easygoing, always prepared, speaks to everybody. That sets the tone for everything.”
Crank also worked on Hanks’ World War II film, “Greyhound,” which was released last year.
As a production designer on “News of the World,” Crank primarily worked with English director Paul Greengrass, known for such movies as “The Bourne Ultimatum” and documentaries.
“I had never worked with him before,” Crank said. “He worked for an organization that would send him into war-torn areas. His work is very influenced by his documentary work. He wanted the movie to be as real as possible and to keep it as unadorned and as unfrivolous as possible.”
For inspiration, Greengrass encouraged Crank to watch “The Searchers,” a classic 1956 Western starring John Wayne. But otherwise, Crank was left to his own research, studying old photographs of Texas just after the Civil War.
“Texas was stripped of statehood. It was a very poor time. No one could borrow any money. The houses weren’t painted. Everything would fall apart very quickly in that kind of atmosphere. The idea was to keep it very plain and very stark,” Crank said.
“News of the World” is a bit of a road movie with Hanks and his charge traveling from the top of Texas to the bottom, through different Western towns. Crank created five towns in total, from a wild Western cattle drive town to the old Spanish-Mexican feel of San Antonio.
“Each town needed to have its own look and feel,” he said.
The wagon itself became a major part of the movie, with Crank’s team building four different wagons for the role.
“Riding in the West was not a comfortable thing,” Crank said. “[T]here were no springs on the wheels, only on the seat. Needless to say it was not a particularly smooth ride, especially on a rutted dirt road. After long takes in the wagon, Tom would choose to follow the wagon on foot back to the starting point rather than subject his backside to the jolts.”
A hands-on designer, Crank made the corn husk doll that the girl holds in the movie, as well as the handwriting on the letter when the veteran is trying to teach her to read.
“We tried to find the strange little things that people don’t know about,” Crank said.
Crank graduated from the College of William & Mary with a degree in studio art and received a graduate degree in theater design from Carnegie Mellon University. He spent 10 years in local theater design before transitioning to TV and film.
“I started as a painter on ‘The Murder of Mary Phagan’ [a miniseries] with Jack Lemmon. It filmed in Richmond and aired on NBC in 1998,” he said. “Then I moved up the ranks as art director and designer.”
He advanced to become art director on a number of Virginia film projects — among them “Hannibal” (2001), which filmed in Richmond, and “Iron Jawed Angels” (2004).
Then Crank started working for Jack Fisk, a Charlottesville-based production designer who is married to Sissy Spacek, and traveled with him for six years.
“That was my real training,” Crank said. He worked with Fisk on the Terrence Malick films “The New World,” which was filmed in Virginia, and “Tree of Life,” as well as Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.”
“I learned a huge amount from him. We have a similar outlook on how to work. He’s very hands-on and interested in design, but also in the story, since his wife is an actress,” Crank said. “It was wonderful [working with him]. Then he very kindly pushed me out of the nest,” he said with a laugh.
Since then, Crank has branched out on his own, serving as art director for Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which also filmed in Virginia, and as production designer for “Knives Out.” Crank earned an Emmy for his work on “John Adams” and was recently nominated for a BAFTA award, the British version of the Oscars, for “News of the World.”
The past year of the pandemic has been a quiet one for Crank, who lives in Woodland Heights and keeps a studio near Fulton Hill where he paints and draws. The pandemic shut down Hollywood in 2020, but things are starting to ramp up again, with Crank taking Zoom and Skype interviews for other jobs.
“Once you get your career started, it doesn’t matter where you live,” he said.
Released in December, “News of the World” is up for four Academy Awards for cinematography, production design, original score and sound. The Oscars will air on April 25.