How Production Designer Nelson Coates Got ‘Crazy Rich’ On a Budget

March 16, 2019, 11:47 PM UTC

The characters in the Warner Bros. box-office smash Crazy Rich Asians might be fabulously wealthy, but the film’s design department certainly wasn’t.

“You’re trying to figure out how to work within a box of money, time, and manpower, and to take that and, exponentially, bring it to a whole other level,” said Nelson Coates, the award-winning production designer for the film, at Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference in Singapore, the city where the film is set.

Fans of the romantic comedy may remember the wedding scene where the two scions of wealthy families are married inside a church fitted to resemble an open-air Chinese park. The pews are hidden behind meter-high grass, the aisle is flooded with water, and the altar is a circular moon gate carved out of stone. In the film, that wedding is intended to cost $40 million. In reality, the film’s entire budget was just $30 million.

“In order to afford it all, the plants that were not perishable were all rented. The whole moon gate is carved out of wood,” Coates later tells Fortune. “You’re basically given a little slice of money, and then you have to figure out how to accomplish your work, and if you can’t get that done in the time frame you have, you have to be very clear in communicating your needs so that other people can be part of the how and why.”

Filming around the world, Coates said he works with crews comprised of strangers taken from diverse backgrounds. At the beginning of each day shooting Crazy Rich Asians, for example, Coates said he would expressly remind the crew that he was relying on them to call out any aspects of the set design that were culturally inappropriate or geographically inconsistent.

It wasn’t about shirking responsibility, he said. It was about the entire team taking ownership of the production. “If you come into, let’s say, Malaysia or Singapore and say, ‘Let’s do it my way,’ you’re going to be antithetical to the product you’re trying to create,” Coates said. “You have to be a cheerleader…. You’re trying to get them invested in your dream.”

For more coverage of Fortune’s Brainstorm Design conference, click here.