Having just been elected President of the Art Directors Guild this past February, for a three-year term, Production Designer Mimi Gramatky knows a thing or two about progress. Her ascent to the top of the 2,000-member organization is in sharp contrast to what was expected of a woman with her talents back when she first began her career. “I remember going to the career planning office at Berkeley with my degree in environmental design, and they said, ‘Great, you can be a teacher or a secretary.’ In those days, even with a degree from Berkeley, that’s what women were expected to do.”
But having been dramatically influenced by The Free Speech Movement that took place on the UC Berkeley campus, Mimi staged her own movement, pursuing her craft with tireless devotion despite what women were expected to do. And in doing so, she has paved the way for women in Art Departments everywhere.
Today, with an Emmy-nomination and a skill set that includes theatre design, interior and landscape architecture, visual FX and animation, documentary filmmaking, and teaching, Mimi’s got her work cut out for her. As the new President of the Art Directors Guild, her biggest and most substantial challenge will be to effectively serve Guild members.
She’s already hard at work overseeing the Education Committee’s efforts to further the Guild’s continued educational objectives through enhanced educational training programs for members. She spends numerous hours a day building and maintaining relationships with board members as well as other Guild presidents on the writing, acting, directing and producing side. And she’s responsible for raising public awareness of the Guild’s resources and services through collaborations with universities and other organizations.
And to think this is all unpaid work that she does voluntarily in between teaching and maintaining her own busy personal life. Thankfully, she makes time to chat with me over the phone about her dynamic and demanding career before having to jet off to teach a class.
“It’s really a full-time job, but when I ran for president of the Guild, my philosophy was ‘members first above all else, including your ego,’” she confides. “So I make it a point to listen to them and encourage them to participate. And I’ve enjoyed watching the committees work together. I hire the best and let them do the rest.” Mimi’s petition for participation goes out to retired members as well, working diligently on developing something specifically designed to keep them engaged. “There needs to be a place for them,” she says. “And we need something that honors the Guild’s past presidents as well because without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And right now, the only place for them to participate is either at the council or board level, and they’re sometimes disconnected from where the industry is going and what’s happening.”
One of the most conclusive ways Mimi stays connected to where the industry is going is through teaching. She’s taught at numerous universities and conservatories, including the University of Southern California (USC), the Academy of Arts University in San Francisco, where she co-created the Production Design program, and she was an Adjunct Professor at Los Angeles Valley College and Woodbury University. Right now, she’s guest teaching a class at USC, focusing on the relationship between cinematography and production design. “Teaching refreshes me, and one of the major lessons I’ve learned from teaching is how to define my style, which is to hire the best and let them do the rest,” she confides. “And I’ve really grown to love teaching because I’m so engrained in the industry, and it’s really wonderful to have innocence sitting in the room absorbing what I’m talking about.”
Such an admission is yet another example of the progress Mimi has made, having previously rejected the idea of teaching back in that career planning office at Berkeley.
Mimi unexpectedly discovered her raw talent and affection for design while attending UC Berkeley. She was required to take courses outside of her major in an effort to broaden her horizons, known as “breadth requirements,” and it was during this time that she found the theatre. “In those days, there was no film department at Berkeley, there was only one film class,” she says, “so I started taking design classes for the theatre. I took classes in costume design, stage design, lighting design, and I discovered my career.”
She eventually ended up meeting her mentor Henry Mann, a production designer for television and Broadway, who set her up with her first job designing masks for Igor Stravinsky’s opera Histoire du soldat, shortly after the construction of Berkeley’s Zellerbach Auditorium. “I was given the job very late in the process, and I didn’t finish the masks in time for the actors to rehearse with them enough, so they didn’t use them,” she remembers. “And at that point, Henry said, ‘Sometimes that happens.’ So the lesson learned was to do the job to the best of my ability, to my own level of satisfaction as an artists, and have a great time in the process.”
Shortly after finishing her undergraduate degree at Berkeley, Henry offered to set her up with a job in costume design here in Los Angeles, but she respectfully declined. “The Free Speech Movement was really powerful in the direction of my life because it made me realize that I could get away from stereo types; I didn’t have to be a teacher or secretary, and I didn’t want to work in costume design just because I could sow and work with fabrics,” she admits. “With the exception of the academic world, nobody would pay attention to me as an art director because I was a women. Everybody kept wanting to throw me into the costume department, so I continued to go to school.” Henry advised her not to return to UC Berkeley for her master’s degree due to the lack of practical, hands-on experience she would get at a UC. He, instead, encouraged her to pursue her graduate degree from a state school.
Following his advice, Mimi pursued her master’s degree at San Francisco State. And with a relentless desire to break through, it wasn’t long before she became a recipient of the Bush Fellowship, which sent her to the University of Minnesota for an internship at the Guthrie Theater. “And I was teased a lot at the Guthrie by the guys; I was the first women to work in the scene shop. But they all generally liked me, and they adopted me as sort of a mascot almost,” she remembers. “I was in a position of keeping my eyes open and learning as much as I could, but not making waves so that I was accepted.” Mimi began working on her PHD at the University of Minnesota, but didn’t finish, instead, choosing to make a different kind of move. “I realized half-way through my internship at the Guthrie that a PHD would be meaningless for anything I wanted to do as a professional in the business. So I had to choose between New York and Los Angeles,” she says. “I flipped a coin and decided to come to Los Angeles, thinking at least oranges and avocados grew on trees here, so I wouldn’t starve.”
Upon her move to L.A. in 1976, Mimi followed the good advice of a former peer and linked up with some very genuine and connected people. “One of my classmates at San Francisco State had suggested that I go up to AFI (American Film Institute) to the Women’s Directing Workshop and volunteer my time to get to know people. So I did, and the first person they assigned me to was Anne Bancroft.” At the time, Anne Bancroft, best known for her seductive and captivating performance as Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate, was in the process of prepping for Fatso, the film that was to be her directorial debut. She and Mimi quickly hit it off, and Fatso ended up being the film that started Mimi’s production design career. “She became a mentor of mine as well,” Mimi says. “She taught me how to be a women in the business.”
Fatso quickly led to other gigs in film and TV, with Miami Vice being Mimi’s first television credit. A slew of other projects soon followed, including the short film The Price of Life in 1987 and the TV movie An Inconvenient Woman in 1991, which secured Mimi an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Art Direction for a Miniseries or a Special. Yes, to anyone on the outside looking in, it would have seemed like Mimi had made it, forever quieting any doubts about what a women was capable of achieving outside of costume design, but for Mimi, “making it” wasn’t quite that simple. “Hollywood teaches you never to feel like you’ve made it,” she confides. “I had just gotten a rejection letter from a major agent, and then in the same batch of mail was the nomination for the Emmy. And if I had opened the Emmy nomination first, I would’ve thought, ‘God, I’ve finally made it.’ And then you open a rejection letter and you wonder whether you really had or not.”
A Labor of Love?
Despite the rejection letter, Mimi’s unquestionable talent kept her consistently working, creating worlds on series’ like Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1996-1997) and V.I.P (1998-2002). But her most noted job was working as Art Director on the first season of ABC’s mega-hit Lost. Ironically, it was during this time that she started to question whether or not she had really made it. “Lost should have been a wonderful experience, but I’m sorry to say that it was an oppressive environment,” she admits. “The crew became the kicking post for anything and everything that went wrong, and we went through three art departments in the first year.”
Mimi left the series after the first season. And in 2010, she went on to work with Writer/Producer Eric Small, designing his digital web series 10,000 Days- nominated for an International Academy of Web Television Award for Best Production Design. A post-apocalyptic, sci-fi drama set 27 years in the future after a comet has hit the earth, knocking it of its axis, 10,000 Days required Mimi to be responsible for building sets that included the interior and exterior of Air Force One, an abandoned observatory, Winter snowscapes and icescapes and aquaponic gardens – all buried in ice and snow. “I was the keeper of the kingdom in terms of what the world looked like,” she says. “So if Eric got off track, it was my responsibility to remind him of what we had defined the world to be. And he would just come up with another idea, and it would be even better. And that’s when I realized how powerful and wonderful the creative process is when you put limitations on it. Limitations actually will make the process expand and make it stronger.”
A New Focus
If it’s limitations she wants, Mimi is in the right place as the newly elected President of the Art Directors Guild, where money and time are certainly limited. And that is why today, as the Guild’s new president, she’s committed to dissecting and prioritizing spending and balancing the Guild’s budget through means that do not include raising dues and initiation fees. She’s investigating new ways to keep Guild members up to speed with the changing technological landscape as it applies to their craft. And she’s also working on creating opportunities for Guild members to work and collaborate with members of other guilds in an effort to influence and enhance one another’s creativity.
And seeing as how she’s already conquered stereotypes, changed attitudes and challenged tradition, all culminating to the present day where her place in cinema history is firmly secured, I have no doubt that Mimi Gramatky will achieve everything she sets out to do in her new position, and in her career as a production designer.
“One reason I’ve always loved production design is because every story is about something totally different, so I’m constantly learning something new, and it’s so much fun. We’re some of the luckiest people in the world because we get to do what we love, and make a living at it. And that’s a really amazing thing when you think about how many people are striking at McDonalds.”