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Last Updated: Friday, 3 September, 2004, 08:25 GMT 09:25 UK
How Spielberg's airport set took off
By James Bregman
BBC News Online entertainment staff

The Terminal
The Terminal's is thought to be the biggest architectural film set ever made

Set almost entirely inside an airport transit lounge, the new film The Terminal presented a unique film-making challenge.

Because shooting inside a real airport was unfeasible, the production had no choice but to construct an entire terminal of its very own.

The film, directed by Steven Spielberg, tells the story of a man from a fictional European country who is trapped in a New York airport when a coup in his home country leaves him without any official status.

Barred from either flying home or entering the US, he has to fashion a lifestyle within the vast area of the airport terminal.

"We think it's the biggest architectural set ever built," says Alex McDowell, the film's production designer.

The terminal was so massive it had to be created inside a disused aircraft hangar in California, large enough to accommodate three storeys of building including working escalators.

Unusually for a film set, it even had a fully enclosed roof.

"It was about 70ft high, 200ft wide and 400ft long," says McDowell. "The largest stage in Hollywood would fit inside the space that we built."

In an age when security alerts could close down every US airport in one fell swoop, the idea of filming in a chaotic real location was dismissed at an early stage.

While a few peripheral scenes were completed at actual airports in Montreal and New York, three months were spent shooting in McDowell's fabricated terminal - so it had to stand up to scrutiny.


The design team researched dozens of airports around the world in a bid to capture that intangible but ultra-familiar ambience of departure lounge boredom.

"The brief was to create an airport that everyone in the audience would hopefully feel like they've been in," says McDowell, who aimed to recreate what he calls a clear "social structure" in airports.

"I liked the idea of exploring an airport on a social level, as a microcosm of a country," he explains.

"The society of our airport was in a way designed to reflect American society - there's a very upper class corporate level, then a bureaucratic level with the security and customs areas, then the consumer society with all the passengers and then the worker society with the whole support system that runs the airport.

"Being able to explore that was very interesting."

Product placement

Steven Spielberg on the set of The Terminal
The director inspects the wares of his mocked-up bookshop

And because no airport would be complete without an array of well-known shops and restaurants, the crew had to painstakingly recreate branches of dozens of different outlets.

"As a designer, product placement is definitely a hindrance," McDowell says. "You're not just dealing with design issues but the political issues of 35 different corporations who all have their own sets of rules.

"But it was absolutely a visual necessity," he adds. "You can't establish a realistic environment like an airport or mall or any sort of consumer area in the western world without buying into the whole idea of product placement."

McDowell has worked in the past with directors such as David Fincher and Terry Gilliam, known particularly for their offbeat sense of visual flair, who take more of a hands-on approach.

He says that Spielberg - who he also collaborated with on sci-fi epic Minority Report - has a different way of working.

"It all comes down to story for him," McDowell says. "He was involved at all levels where the set intersects with the narrative.

"He's absolutely clear and precise about which parts of the set have to work for the story, and he's a wonderful director to work with because beyond that, he gives you enormous freedom.

Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tom Hanks in The Terminal
Branches of retail outlets were built in painstaking detail

"His approach is almost like an old-fashioned studio system director where he expects each of the department heads to do their job and he doesn't need to know about the mechanics of what we do."

McDowell is currently working on a new film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, directed by Tim Burton, a film-maker with a penchant for the visually-striking.

"Tim Burton will always have a Tim Burton-style of film, because he's really actively involved in the design, whereas Steven's films change visually quite dramatically from film to film," McDowell says, describing the new project as "great fun for a designer."

"Every room of the chocolate factory is completely different - every time you open the door you're in a different place."

Although the 200,000 gallon river of chocolate running through the set isn't real, some of Willy Wonka's chocolate empire really can be nibbled upon.

"Quite a lot of the set was built to be edible. A lot of the plants are fake but have edible bits, so the kids can actually scoop out handfuls of marshmallow," McDowell explains.

"We've been surrounded by sugar for much too long."

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