Production designer helps to translate a podcast into stylistic visuals for Amazon series
Anastasia White has earned three Excellence in Production Design Award nominations from the Art Directors Guild in her career, winning the honor in 2017 for Mr. Robot, nominated for the same show the next year and then this past January again coming up a nominee for Homecoming (Amazon), specifically the “Mandatory” episode. The Guild recognition reflects the fruitful collaborative relationship the production designer has enjoyed with showrunner Sam Esmail, who created Mr. Robot and was one of the creative auteurs behind Homecoming.
“He’s got a really interesting point of view of the world,” said White of Esmail, a perspective she came to know on the second and third seasons of Mr. Robot, a show on which she continues to work. That distinctive POV takes the shape of a nuanced noir feel carrying nefarious overtones in Homecoming, a psychological thriller which stars Julia Roberts as Heidi, a case worker at a remote military facility helping soldiers transition to civilian life. The Homecoming Transitional Support Center is the name of the facility, which has a palpable sense of dread. The mystery about the rehab program is advanced by flash-forward looks at Roberts’ character living with her mom (portrayed by Sissy Spacek) and having foggy recollections of her past. She realizes there’s a whole other story behind the one she’s been telling herself as to why she left the treatment program at Homecoming.
The Homecoming series is based on a fictional podcast, one that White first listened to upon finding out that Esmail was signed on to do the TV show, which is produced by UCP. “It was really intriguing. I was curious as to how Sam would handle the story. At first, I thought he was headed in a sci-fi direction, then realized he had more in store in terms of the tone and everything.”
The podcast represented a different dynamic and stimulus for White. “I’m so used to reading pages and visualizing, re-reading sentences and seeing a scene, a location called up on a script page.” But a podcast offered another dimension. “The audible background noises were interesting. When I re-listened to it in the middle of designing everything, it helped with the tone.”
Esmail assembled a team of Mr. Robot vets which included White, DP Tod Campbell, costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas and editors Justin Krohn, Rosanne Tan and Franklin Peterson to translate Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s acclaimed Homecoming podcast from the aural to the stylistically visual.
White helped capture the tone envisioned by Esmail, in large part through creating the Homecoming facility which was supposed to be located in Florida. The exterior location was found at the Toyota complex in Torrance, Calif., while White and her team constructed the interior which took the form of a massive, ambitiously designed two-story set at Universal Studios in Universal City, Calif.
The second floor ceiling was structurally designed so that it could be lifted, facilitating overhead shots, including elaborate crane-assisted cinematography under the aegis of Campbell.
The large scale of the set also put the actors in a place where they could get into character, supporting a feeling of helplessness and being disoriented within this spacious labyrinth. The set also facilitated complicated lensing such as a long tracking shot that follows Heidi (Roberts) as she’s on the phone with her abusive supervisor Colin, played by Bobby Cannavale, revealing in the process much about the place and the sinister undercurrent of what might be going on there.
White estimated that some 70 percent of the production was shot on stage, meaning that the various departments, camera, lighting, grips, construction, production design, art direction, editing and so on had to rely on each other as well as “on things to be just so….Everybody was really involved and able to give their input as to how to best realize the tone and feel Sam wanted.”
Among White’s many contributions was suggesting an octagon configuration for Heidi’s office, instead of the circular one that was initially planned. White saw the octagon as a fragmented circle, compatible with the fragmented reality Heidi and others are grappling with in the series.
White noted that her immediate team had a strong esprit de corps, including set decorator Douglas A. Mowat, art director Richard Bloom, assistant art director Callie Andreadis, set designers Nancy Deren and Karl J. Martin, and prop master Brad Einhorn.
“Richard and Callie totally got the tone and my aesthetic–and Sam’s aesthetic immediately,” related White, who additionally credited Deren with “bringing a lot to the table, including some amazing drawings” which helped propel the work forward.
In terms of lessons learned from her experience on Homecoming, White shared, “Collaborating with as many departments as possible as early on as possible was really helpful, making sure you are in constant communication.”
That communication was essential in constructing the sets. “Everybody was very happy with the final product because we had all the departments involved and giving their input early on. Also, learning how to invigorate the tone of the story into a set was important. Getting Sam’s point of view integrated within our sets helped, along with the music, to set the tone for the story.”
This is the second installment in a 16-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 14 and 15, and the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 22.