Backstage scene from the film Steve Jobs.

Luke Freeborn, '97

How Steve Prefontaine and a bold lie led to an Oscar-nominated career for the art director of Inception and Steve Jobs

Inside an imposing mountain fortress high in the snow-covered Rockies, Saito sits propped against a wall, bleeding from a bullet wound in his shoulder and gasping for breath. Mere feet away, the lifeless body of Robert Fischer lies on the cold stone floor, the light long since extinguished from his eyes. The missionto convince Fischer to break up his father’s energy conglomerate, thereby helping business rival Saito’s own company—appears to be a complete failure; a dead Fischer can’t help anybody. As Eames rushes to set explosive charges around the fortress in an effort to save the group, an army of alpine soldiers clad in white camouflage storms the cement stronghold, trying to kill all involved and condemn them to an eternity in limbo.

As the cameras roll in Christopher Nolan’s four-time Academy Award-winning dream-within-a-dream masterpiece Inception, Eames detonates the explosives, providing the “kick” that helps the protagonists return to reality.

The fortress explodes in a shower of concrete, steel, and glass, doing more than just saving the day for the film’s stars—it also destroys three months of work done by Luke Freeborn, BA ’97, the film’s Oscar-nominated art director, who designed and built the structure high in the Canadian Rockies. But Freeborn didn’t mind one bit. That’s life in the film industry—plus, by then he was already at work on his next movie, Thor.
Luke Freeborn's concept art for the mountain fortress in Inception

  The mountain fortress, designed by Luke Freeborn for the film Inception, explodes

Freeborn has worked on some of Hollywood’s biggest films since breaking into the industry, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Pearl Harbor, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Steve Jobs, Inception, and Thor, but his story has humble beginnings on a farm in Grants Pass, a modest start to a life that really took off with a bold lie told the year after he graduated.

Freeborn enrolled in the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture & Allied Arts due to the strength of the UO’s architecture program, and initially majored in graphic design while minoring in architecture. He was drawn to the two fields of study due to the combination of art, physics, math, engineering, economics, and political skills required to be successful, and he dedicated himself to his schoolwork. A natural hard worker, Freeborn paid his own way with money earned in a distinctly unglamorous field far removed from the bright lights of Hollywood.
Luke Freeborn headshot

“I started preparing myself by raising pigs at the age of nine,” Freeborn said. “I put myself through school that way.”

During his junior year, Without Limits, starring Billy Crudup as Steve Prefontaine and Donald Sutherland as Bill Bowerman, was filmed on campus. Through one of his professors, Freeborn was able to get a job as a liaison between the filmmakers and local businesses. Whenever director and co-writer Robert Towne (Chinatown, Days of Thunder, Mission: Impossible, Mad Men) wanted a specific location booked or a period-authentic prop reproduced, it was Freeborn’s job to make sure it got done. That led to him, at one point, standing in a rather important carport holding a rather important item of footwear.

“I was in Bill Bowerman’s garage, and he gave me (one of the first pairs) of Nike shoes from a suitcase on his desk,” said Freeborn.

Without Limits was enough to convince him a career change was in order, so the budding architect switched majors to fine and applied arts in order to graduate more quickly, then left behind the quirky land of Voodoo Doughnuts and Kesey Square to make his name in the surreal world of Hollywood.

“I came to Los Angeles with nothing, and cold-called just about everyone in town to get a job,” he said. “It wasn’t until I tricked someone that I got a legit job in LA.

“I was on a lot doing odd jobs for a movie that was never going to happen. Another movie was starting up on the lot, and I thought I’d just walk in there and tell them I was the model maker. I walked in and told the production designer that I was the model builder, and that I was supposed to start that week. He said, ‘Good, because I need models.’ I said, ‘That’s great, because I make the best models in the business.’”

There was just one small flaw in Freeborn’s story: he hadn’t been sent by anyone. The director tried to turn him away, but Freeborn talked him into giving the young Duck a chance.

“He gave me a two-week probationary period,” Freeborn said. ”I ended up being on the project for six months.”

The movie in question was The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, the Robert DeNiro and Renee Russo-led live action remake of the well-known children’s cartoon. Freeborn put his architectural skills to good use, creating the movie’s miniature sets and props alongside Guy Hendrix Dyas, a Brit originally brought to America by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic. From working with the titular moose and squirrel, the pair—Freeborn now an art director and Dyas a production designer—have worked on seven films together, creating the visual look and feel of such movies as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Blackhat, Pixels, Inception, and, most recently, Steve Jobs.

Pixels concept art

As an art director, Freeborn takes the director and production designer’s vision and turns it into a reality. What start out as sketches turn into fully realized structures, from the Vatican Archives in Angels & Demons, to the alien Nordic realm Asgard in Thor, to the elaborate backstage rooms where Steve Jobs paced, argued, and dealt with paternity issues in the film of the same name. A journey that began on a pig farm in Grants Pass has taken Freeborn around the world, and has given him a deeper appreciation for the work that goes into making Hollywood’s celebrated films.

“I used to love movies; now I love movie making and the people behind them as well,” he said. “The people are hardworking, dedicated people. They’re diverse, weird, and all from different backgrounds. I even known a military consultant—if I wanted to get a tank for a movie, I could call him up.”

Inception, with its Parisian streets folding up onto themselves, hallways that rotate, and crumbling cities that all live solely inside the imaginations of the film’s characters, was too big a visual task to assign to any one art director, so Nolan assembled a team to build the dream worlds. Each of the film’s sequences was assigned to a different art director, and Freeborn was tasked with creating the mountain fortress.

“Chris Nolan has a unique process,” said Freeborn. “He’s very possessive of his scripts and ideas, because in Hollywood they’re often stolen. We all had to read the script in a room, and there was an assistant in there who wanted to make sure we didn’t copy it or photograph it. There were four separate worlds that intertwined very specifically, and each of us would go back and huddle with our teams and recreate what the script had said so we could work.”

Freeborn helped design the fortress based on Nolan’s notes, and his team spent three months in the frozen Rockies, dodging decidedly unfriendly localselk and grizzly bearsto construct it on the aptly named Fortress Mountain, not far from where the 1988 Winter Olympics alpine skiing events were held. For all of the work the crew put in, visitors to the area can forget all about visiting the famous set location, like they can with The Shining’s Overlook Hotel (better known to Oregonians as Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood).

“The snow and ice is all real, and we really blew it up, too,” said Freeborn.

The building was actually blown up not once but twice, as a “bigature” version of it—an oversized miniature—was built in an empty lot behind a Costco in Venice Beach, California, and was destroyed so that Nolan could get alternate angles of the explosion. The finished film went on to earn eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Achievement in Art Direction. It ultimately won four—though missed taking home the Art Direction title—and with more than $825 million in box office receipts is one of the highest-grossing films of all time.

Luke Freeborn's concept art for one of the backstage scenes in Steve Jobs

Nominated for two Academy Awards in 2016, Steve Jobs gave Freeborn the opportunity to work with Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (2008 Best Director, Slumdog Millionaire), but presented a unique challenge: how to build sets that would accompany one of writer Aaron Sorkin’s legendary “walk and talk” scripts.

Freeborn, who was the supervising art director on the film, would literally walk with Dyas and Boyle while reading the script out loud, and would measure how much ground they covered in each scene. Hallways, rooms, stages, and the like would then all be built, and camera and blocking locations would all be mapped out, with those distances factored in. As much as possible, the film was shot in San Francisco where the real-life events occurred, resulting in the cast and crew gaining a deeper understanding of the film’s subject.

“The way Danny handled it was like a painting, not a photo,” Freeborn said. “A photo can be taken out of context. Danny understood that people are made up of lots of moments, sometimes tough, sometimes soft, sometimes making mistakes, and sometimes absolutely brilliant.”

The sets Freeborn created mirrored the storyline in ways more subtle than simply following the words written in the script’s pages, too. Smooth, reflective surfaces mirrored Jobs’ Apple products, and he was often seen looking into mirrors while changing outfits—mirrors that did not show an accurate reflection until the very end, when Jobs looked into a mirror in a repeating shot (a reflection within a reflection, showing an endless series of partially obscured images that stretched to infinity) and saw himself for the first time as everyone else saw him—layered, with no single layer showing the full picture.

This year will see the release of the recently completed Passengers, an upcoming science fiction adventure starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt that was directed by Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game). Passengers is the 44th film Freeborn has worked on in his nineteen years in the movie industry, but despite his status as a Hollywood veteran, he hasn’t come remotely close to getting burned out and losing his love of the finished product.

“I still get freaked out at horror movies, I’m on the edge of my seat at the suspense of action movies, and I enjoy the touching moments of dramas,” he said. “That hasn’t changed at all, but I enjoy it on a different level than I used to.”