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Curt Beech (’94) takes film from page to stage in ‘Lincoln’

Liberal arts education prepares him to pursue divergent paths

By Cherin C. Poovey (P '08) Wake Forest Magazine
Curt Beech says a liberal arts education prepared him for divergent paths.
Curt Beech says a liberal arts education prepared him for divergent paths.

By the time “The Help” — nominated for four 2012 Academy Awards — blockbustered its way into movie theatres last year, the film’s art director, Curt Beech (’94) was well on his way to a new project, Steven Spielberg’s picture about Abraham Lincoln.

“Lincoln,” now showing in theatres, is expected to lead the 2013 Academy Award nominations when they’re announced on Jan. 10. Beech could leave the Feb. 24 ceremony carrying a golden statuette.

Earlier this year, during a break from filming “Lincoln” on location in Virginia, Beech explained that as an art director he’s in charge of creating a film’s “environment” including walls, paint and other preparations. “The production designer is more or less the architect of the film,” he says. “My job is to take what’s in his brain and transform it into an workable acting environment; I take it from page to stage: That is, from lines of dialogue and stage direction in the script to the stage or location where it is filmed.”

An English major and theatre minor at Wake Forest, Beech started out as an actor. He needed a job so he took a work-study position in the scene shop, gaining appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes and eventually designing for plays in the Ring Theatre. All the while he learned from stars on the theatre faculty — Harold Tedford (P ’85, ’91), Don Wolfe, Jim Dodding, Jon Christman, John Friedenberg (’81, P ’05), Mary Lucy Bivins (MA ’85) and Pat Toole (MA ’82, P ’87, ’89) — how to think creatively while managing limitations such as time and budget. It’s a skill that has served him well in the “real world.” Many film producers and designers come from the world of theatre and know people who have worked in theatre are adept at creative problem-solving, he says. Even in this era of mega-budget films, “You’d be surprised at the limitations,” he adds. “And limitations breed creativity. It’s always a matter of scale.”

After graduation Beech got a job teaching theatre and honing his craft at The Horace Mann School in New York City. “I realized as much as I enjoyed teaching that I wanted to come back to it later,” says Beech, who went on to graduate school at UCLA for scenic and lighting design for theatre. One of his favorite classes at UCLA was Disney’s Imagineering, a class about the importance of story in creating any design. “This class opens your eyes to going beyond what you thought was possible. Good design is good design — whether it’s animation, a stage set or a sneaker.”

Living in Los Angeles, he wanted to work in film as well. After getting his MFA in 2003, he notes he hasn’t been back into a theatre without a ticket. His career took off when, “In 2004, after one year and three days of making copies, getting lunches and brewing really awful coffee for really nice people, I got a break. I was hired as an assistant art director for ‘The Chumscrubber’ for DreamWorks. That landed me in the Art Director’s Guild, and I’ve been as busy as I’ve wanted to be ever since.”

Beech, who is married to Disney executive Mary Renner Beech (’94) and is the father of two young daughters, says he is a good example of how a liberal arts education prepares one to pursue divergent paths. “What I learned as an English major was how to read and how to analyze,” he says. “Through the theatre I learned to bring a strong visual component to the text I was reading. Today that helps me translate text from screenplays into scenery.”

These days Beech’s credits include “The Help,” “The Social Network,” “Star Trek,” “War of the Worlds” and “Get Smart,” and he recently designed his first feature film. He says he is honored to be breathing the same air as some of the most well-respected production designers in the industry, such as Rick Carter of “Avatar” fame, his boss on “Lincoln.”

Might Wake Foresters expect to hear his name called at next year’s Academy Awards ceremony? Acknowledging that would be a dream come true, Beech says with a chuckle, “I might wear my Deacon hat.”