When friends of Sara K White invite her over, they have to know there’s always at least a small part of her visit where she’ll be thinking about her work.
“I find myself, whenever I get to go into someone’s home, whether or not they know it, scoping it out for little intricate moments in their spaces where they place certain things, like where they set their cups, or if they have stray forks sitting on the side table that shows that they always eat a snack somewhere,” says the production designer. “These are really intriguing things to me because I think that people have an idealized version of how they want to live their lives, but there’s [a different] reality of how they live their lives, how they find their sense of space and how space defines their passage in their daily life.”
It is White’s attention to detail that has made her one of the liveliest presences on any production she’s worked on, even though she only deals in stationary objects. As the production designer for such films as Neil Drumming’s “Big Words” and Sam Fleischner’s “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors,” she is often constructing characters as much as sets, filling rooms with the backstory of photos, books and other tchotckes that express the history of those onscreen in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
Her latest film “Obvious Child” is no exception. In writer/director Gillian Robbespierre’s passionate and wickedly funny film about a standup comedienne whose ongoing relationship with a new fella is the only thing more unexpected than the pregnancy that occurs from their first night together, Jenny Slate’s unflinching lead performance as Donna is front and center, but what’s in the background takes on a life of its own, adding another dimension instantly to all of Donna’s friends and family who may only get a moment or two of screen time.
Whereas production designers on blockbusters usually are tasked with transporting audiences to worlds we’ve never seen before, those who work in the indie realm such as White have the even more difficult task of convincing us a story takes place in the world we do and yet still make it interesting. Shortly before the release of “Obvious Child,” I spoke with White about how her interest in how people live took her from a career in interior design to the film business, showing the impact of Donna’s parents in “Obvious Child” on their daughter simply through their apartments and how she works with other departments to create a symbiotic set.
Where do you start on a project? Is it with a script or with a director telling you about the characters so you can develop what rooms they’d be in?
What I intend to get into on every project is really the characters. That’s why I came to production design. I spent some time doing interior design and I didn’t feel like I was able to really invest myself in understanding the people that were inhabiting a space — how they interact with their surroundings, either in their ideal projection of how they would live their lives versus the reality of how they actually live their lives. Do they put away their dishes everyday or do they let the mess pile up? That kind of nuance to the way people exist in space is really intriguing to me.
First, I read the script in order to become familiar with a project. Then I talk to the director and the producer and I like to spend some time, following the initial conversation, talking with the director and the director of photography about how we intend to shoot the characters and what personality elements we want to reveal in the space. That’s usually a process that, especially in the independent films, is linked up with selecting a location. We don’t often have enough money to just build the idealized version of these spaces, so I often like to work with the director and the DP to understand the color palettes that these characters would be surrounding themselves with.
If it’s possible, I also like to talk to the actors about how they view their character, if they have any ideas about personality quirks — if they always like to drink a particular soda or if they really decide they like the color combination of maroon and black or something like that, and build those elements into the space. That’s usually how I start brainstorming.
Do these conversations continue throughout the shoot or do you create the sets and then leave it in the hands of the other crew? It would seem you could work with the director of photography to get the proper lighting of a space.
I’ve always been on a project through the run of production and into wrap to finish everything out. Those conversations absolutely continue throughout the process. I work very closely with the DP and the gaffer as far as creating practical lighting elements that either drive the light that’s going to be added by the gaffer or create an environment that practically lights the environment for the scene. Especially on these indie films, we’re creating very realistic environments and the more we can do with practical settings to provide the light, it drives that sense of realism so much farther.
Every project I work on, I try to create floor plans for the DP and for the gaffer so that they understand how the director is planning to block this scene, move the actors through the space and where there might be sources of light that those actors can walk through, so the DP can highlight them or the background, or create silhouettes, whatever the intention is for those scenes. Often, we’ll go into a location, specifically restaurants or larger retail environments that are not dressed for the character, on the day [the scene is shot]. All of those discussions about dressing and lighting considerations take place on the day that we shoot, so I definitely stay closely linked throughout the production.
This isn’t to suggest I could tell if I wasn’t specifically looking for it, but the scene in “Obvious Child” where Jenny Slate’s character Donna finds out she’s pregnant takes place in a dressing room that I thought could’ve been created from scratch – it’s simple with a clever “Don’t Steal” sign [that mentions the attractive bracelets you could go to prison in] and a mirror. How many scenes in the film did you have to build from scratch versus actual locations that didn’t need much affectation?
Actually, that dressing room was a build on that project. Then in the prior scene, the bathroom where she takes the pregnancy test was also a stage build. I had seen that [“Don’t Steal”] sign in a prior dressing room and felt like this would be a really great instance to bring it in. Independent film shooting in New York has been driven by the tax incentives on almost every project I’ve been on, so they’re often full stage builds.
Specifically, “Obvious Child,” the full stage builds were the dressing room as well as the bathroom scene. The mother’s apartment was a very strong dress, as well as the father’s apartment — [his] puppet making studio was pretty much a full dress and the dining room area. Then the apartment that Donna shared was turned around pretty heavily from the existing environment into the one that you see in the film. Environments that are going to give a big clue to the characters and their personalities tend to be the ones that I try to full dress and really focus on.
In “Obvious Child,” Donna’s parents’ stories really are told through the sets – the father’s apartment has a certain relaxed shagginess to it while the mother has a more orderly, refined look. Were those sets actually reactions to each other?
Yeah, that was something that we talked about from the very beginning. These two characters, the mother and the father, are very different. The way that they have a theory about how they want to live their life is very different and both informed Donna very strongly. When we originally were planning to shoot those two [places], we actually always ended up shooting them in the same apartment. We direct one-half of it for the mother’s apartment and the other half of it for the father’s apartment. It was an interesting experience in contrast because we were shooting those concurrently and existing in both of those spaces, but yet they were very different. They were intended to be very different to draw out the different sides of the personality that each parent [instilled] in Donna.
Were you involved in getting the puppets for the father’s apartment?
We actually ended up working pretty heavily with The Puppet Kitchen, which is a lower East Side puppeteering workshop that supplies puppets to large Broadway shows like “Avenue Q.” We found them through our general search of local puppeteers and they were incredibly generous, giving us a lot of puppeteering supplies that we were able to borrow as well as the hero puppet that is shown in the scene. They allowed us to bring in our actor Richard Kind [who plays the father] into their workshop, so he could take photographs with the puppets. [From that], we created a photo that was shown of the Richard Kind character, much younger in the 1970s, working in a puppeteer workshop and through using the Puppet Kitchen as well as doing a lot of Photoshop work, we were able to create the entire puppeteering environment that you see, bringing in all of the furniture and planting the actual puppeteering supplies throughout that space.
Before you became a production designer, you were an art director on such films as “Pariah” and “Bluebird.” What’s the distinction and how did that experience help with your work now?
Yeah, there is definitely a distinction there. The production designer is essentially the head of the art department. An art director will work under a production designer, as well as with a decorator, a set director, and the prop master. Those are all elements of the art department. When I was working as the art director for “Bluebird,” I was lucky enough to work under Inbal Weinberg, who was the production designer, and I worked in assisting her in dressing specific spaces and rooms as she needed. I was often very heavily involved in the organization of the cash flow. For instance, in art direction world, I would deal often with product placement that would then later find itself dressed into spaces and I worked very closely with Inbal to create floor plans for the spaces.
It’s definitely a different role when you’re the art director. The vision itself for the entire space is coming from the production designer, but you’re the next step down to disseminate that vision to the set directors, set decorators and to also maintain a strong control of the management of the day-to-day, the money management and the product management, and working closely with production on those items. It’s a different role but very creative, and depending on the size of the project, sometimes art departments are only two or three people big.
Was there a specific knickknack that was difficult to track down but you just had to have for “Obvious Child”?
There’s always something that you find that really ends up speaking to the specific character. There is usually one conversation that I’ll have with an actor or with the director that sparks an interest that the character is going to have, and being able to find a few objects that might support that. I wish I had off the top of my head a very favorite item that I’ve been able to build into a set. Every character is so different and interesting that I find myself always intending to find a specific item.
There’s one item that I talked a lot with Gillian about [regarding] the mother character in “Obvious Child.” [The mother is] very clearly an organized person. She’s got her stuff together. She is a businesswoman and she has a very clean sense of design and there’s something about a lot of women that are in the city at that level that have a fascination with farmland. In that set [of her apartment], if you watch it a few times, you might notice that she has a specific interest in cows. There are small things in the background that have that bucolic idealization and interest that’s so far removed from her everyday business life in Manhattan. She’s working, a very organized person, but has this fantasy life where she might live on a farm one day. That was something that was fun to build in.
“Obvious Child” opens on June 6th in Los Angeles at the Landmark and the Arclight Hollywood and New York at the Angelika Film Center. More theaters and dates can be found here. More on Sara K. White’s work can be found at her official site.