Last night, I got home from a long day of running around, and I decided to throw on something from the stack of Blu-rays while I worked. I ended up settling on “Lethal Weapon 2,” and as I watched the film, I was also checking e-mail and seeing what was going on in the world of film. That’s when I stumbled across the news that production designer Michael Riva had passed away. At first, I thought it was a coincidence that I was watching a film Riva had worked on when I got the news, but when you look at his filmography, the odds seem somewhat stacked, because this is one of those guys who worked on everything.
His final film will end up being “Django Unchained,” and creating a pre-Civil War south as filtered through the sensibilities of Quentin Tarantino sounds like one of those jobs that would be a dream for a production designer. He’s also still got “The Amazing Spider-Man” coming out, and I’m curious to see how he’s remagined the world that Sam Raimi established on the first three films… especially since Riva was the production designer on “Spider-Man 3.” You could also make the case that as the designer of “Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2,” he set a template for the larger Marvel Movie universe that other people will be following for many years to come.
The film I’ll watch later tonight to commemorate Riva’s life and work will be a personal favorite of mine, “The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension.” One of the things I love about that film is the way it feels like we’re dropped into the middle of an ongoing series that’s already firmly established, and Riva was responsible for helping to create the details that made the world feel lived-in. Besides, he designed the Oscillation Overthruster, which automatically buys him a spot in the Production Design Hall Of Fame.
For many of you, “The Goonies” is the film that probably marked you most deeply out of Riva’s filmography. After all, he had to create the underground world that the Goonies venture into in search of the treasure of One-Eyed Willie. There’s a famous story about how Spielberg and Donner were determined to get a real reaction out of the young cast when they first saw the pirate ship at the end of the film, so they never let them see the ship until the moment the cameras were rolling. Those looks of wonder we see when the kids finally reach the end of their journey, it is a very special moment, and that wouldn’t happen on a film where everything was done in CGI on greenscreen stages. Riva was from the generation of guys who believed in really building things and really staging them as much as possible.
Many of the films he worked on made very specific use of time and place, and Riva was up to any challenge. “Halloween II” made the mundanity of a hospital into something sinister and terrifying. “The Color Purple” created a storybook version of Alice Walker’s world. Movies like “Lethal Weapon” and “Tango & Cash” defined the ’80s cop movie aesthetic perfectly. Even on rotten films like “The Golden Child” or “Congo” or “Hard Rain,” Riva’s work was always top-notch.
I met Riva one time, on the set of Ivan Reitman’s “Evolution,” and we had a surreal, absurd conversation about the giant alien butthole that plays a key part in the climax of the film and which had been built at full-scale on a soundstage in Downey. Even confronted with something as weird as that, Riva just rolled along, giving filmmakers what they needed and giving audiences a persuasive reality that enhanced anything he worked on. He was a talented, hard-working artist, the kind that isn’t celebrated enough during their career, so take time this weekend, pick something off of his filmography, and really pay attention to the way his work enhances the entire experience.
J. Michael Riva was 63 years old. Our condolences go out to his friends, his family, and his many collaborators.