May 10th, 2018

Production design of “Fargo” – interview with Elisabeth Williams

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Elisabeth Williams. After doing art direction on the second season of “Fargo”, she continued into the third season as the show’s production designer. In this interview Elisabeth talks about her journey through the various roles in the art department, the arc of a production from initial explorations to watching sets being torn down at the end, the differences between the worlds of feature film and episodic productions, and working on the last two seasons of “Fargo” to build a unique universe for each.


Fargo season 3, courtesy of Elisabeth Williams.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Elisabeth: I was born and raised in Montreal. My mother is French Canadian and my father was from Boston which has given me the advantage of being bilingual, and of having both Canadian and American citizenship.

I was on a very different career path when I started in film some twenty years ago. My upbringing had guided me towards academics, but while I was writing my Masters Thesis, the first opportunity to work as a Production Coordinator on a series arose. During that 18 month contract I fell in love with the process, and I decided that Production Design was what I wanted to do.

I did a three-month internship in the Art Department and then I hopscotched my way to where I wanted to be – over the next ten years – first as Art Department Coordinator, then as set dec buyer, set dec assistant and Set Decorator. Meanwhile, I had both my children and took night classes in Interior Design, and various drawing classes on the side. A producer I had been working for gave me my first break as Production Designer and, though I think hard work is the main reason for my advancement, a combination of fortuity and contacts helped get me to where I am today. I am indebted to those few people who took a chance on me over the years, and who gave me the platform from which to jump and spread my wings.

Leaving Montreal and my children to work on Fargo Season 2 in 2014 was a turning point in my career. There have been challenges and my children, their father and I have made sacrifices over the last four years. Thankfully, the support of my family has made it easier for us to handle those challenges and to live without regrets.


Kirill: When you meet somebody new at a party and they ask you what do you do for a living, what do you tell them?

Elisabeth: My first response is simply that i work in film, in the art department. I am never quite sure what people know about the work that goes on behind the scenes and I most often find myself having to explain the nature of my job.


Moodboards for Fargo season 2, courtesy of Elisabeth Williams.

Kirill: Do you find that people are surprised that everything that is seen in films / TV shows has to be intentionally designed?

Elisabeth: Yes, I think that people don’t realize that each element is chosen to create a universe which complements, supports or enriches the story. In certain films and series it is obvious. The design stands out intentionally. The sets are a character in themselves. It is the case of “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, for example, or “The Handmaid’s Tale”. In a series like “Fargo”, however, though we treat the sets as characters in their own right, the design is more subtle because it purposely celebrates the bland.

Kirill: Going back to your first couple of productions, what was the most unexpected or surprising thing for you?

Elisabeth: The most surprising thing for me was the amount of work and collaboration goes into making films and series. It always feels to me like the project takes on a life of its own. It becomes ravenous and there are hundreds of us feeding it every step of the way and fighting to keep up with the way it grows and evolves.


Fargo season 2, courtesy of Elisabeth Williams.

Kirill: As you have moved to working on episodic television in the last couple of years, how would you compare it to the world of feature films?

Elisabeth: One difference is the pace of the work, and the length of time over which we must sustain the energy required in this business. Another important difference is that we prep and start shooting a series before we know where the story will take us. In my experience, the last four or five scripts may trickle in sometimes just 2 weeks before we go to camera, leaving the production team little time to prepare.

It is crucial for the creative heads to set the tone and conceptualize the look of the show in the early prep. Lastly, in series of ten or more episodes, there are usually 2 Directors of Photography [DP] and multiple Directors, each with their own style and personality, which requires emotional or psychological gymnastics as well.

Kirill: As “Fargo” is an anthology series with a well-defined beginning and end for each season, do you consider each season to be closer to the feature film world? Perhaps something like an 8-hour film cut into segments?

Elisabeth: Yes, “Fargo” is essentially a ten hour film, in that the story arc is built over the entire season. This doesn’t affect the nature of the Art Department’s work. For the Art Department, the only real difference between a series and a feature film is that in a series, we do not know at the start how many or what sets we will build and so we do not have an overall view of the project when we start.


Fargo season 3, courtesy of Elisabeth Williams.

Kirill: If you look back at Season 2 where you were the art director of the show, how much work goes into building the physical spaces of that world?

Elisabeth: On shows like Fargo, there are somewhere between 30 and 50 people in the Art Department, all with their respective jobs to do. As the Art Director, my job was to ensure that the Production Designer’s vision was brought to life, mainly by sharing information and ensuring that the workflow was respected.

Kirill: On Season 3 where you were the production designer of the show, you worked with two cinematographers and multiple directors. What is your approach to keeping the visuals consistent while still providing space to play with individual styles?

Elisabeth: I worked closely in prep with Fargo’s showrunner Noah Hawley, who also directed the first episode. Long before the DPs or other Directors arrived, I was able to fuse my vision to Noah’s and feel like I mastered the tone of the show. Prep is the most valuable time for the Art Department.

Proper prep allows us to create a visual bible that we refer to throughout production, especially as things speed up and time escapes us. This bible, or look book, is usually printed and put up on the walls in the offices as a reminder of what we are trying to achieve.


Fargo season 3, courtesy of Elisabeth Williams.

Kirill: What happens in the pre-production phase before the shooting of a season begins? Who do you work with and what is expected of you?

Elisabeth: On Fargo, first and most importantly, there was a one-on-one connection with the showrunner. Noah Hawley has a very clear idea of the various layers he wants to put forth. Once that connection is established, and the scripts are read, there is a scouting phase with the locations manager to collect a bank of possibilities for the main locations and to start thinking about which sets to build.

Kirill: My personal favorite of the last season was the color palette that was chosen for the Minnesota sequences (creme, ochre, brown, red and slate grey). What kinds of discussions go into defining those elements?

Elisabeth: Sometimes the inspiration will come from an image that I have seen, or a combination of colors that I find interesting. Sometimes, something in the location will have to be embraced, determining part of the design. Always though, the choice of colors is meant to create a mood which supports the story.

In this particular case, I wanted the space to feel harsh, angry almost, by using slate grey on the walls and burgundy brown, the color of dried blood, on the carpet. It was meant to contrast heavily with the sweet, laid back vibe of Eden Valley’s small town police station Library.


Fargo season 3, courtesy of Elisabeth Williams.

Kirill: The Stussy company headquarters was probably the biggest set in this season. How much of it existed, and how much did you design and build?

Elisabeth: Everything other than the floor and ceiling was a build. We changed all the ceiling tiles, removed the carpet and painted the floor, we built all the divisions, the glass walls with beveled panes to avoid reflections and the mock elevators.

Because it was a re-occuring set, we had originally designed it to be built in the studio. We decided against it to allow for natural light, and to avoid having to use back drops or green screen outside the windows. We chose a building in the downtown core, facing away from the Calgary tower, in order to avoid having to close the blinds or paint it out in every shot.

The creative advantages of shooting The Stussy headquarters on location had to be offset by other creative choices to be budgetarily viable. The location had a few empty floors so we were able to maximise its potential and use it for a few different sets. The parole office, the clip of Nikki being photographed in the police, the restroom where Varga eats his icecream, the Stussy garage and the vignette of the 2000 market crash, were all shot in different parts of that building.

Kirill: Staying on the individual sets, what about the Emmit Stussy’s mansion? Is it all the same physical location as the story takes us through the different spaces in it?

Elisabeth: Most of the Stussy mansion was on location and some was redressing spaces within the house. For example, the dining room also served as the Master Bedroom and the mother in-law’s bedroom served twice, as did the second floor corridor. We built the bathrooms and the walk-in closet in the studio
dining room as bedroom.

Finally, the location served also as Ron and Dale’s house for the unwrapping of the socks scene.


Fargo season 3, courtesy of Elisabeth Williams.

Kirill: How did you approach designing the flashback world of 1975?

Elisabeth: The color palette chosen to represent sunny California was inspired by Stephen Shore’s photography of uncommon places and the beautiful fashion photography of Chris Shoonover.

Kirill: Stepping outside the world of “Fargo”, what goes through your head when you see the sets that you’ve worked so hard on being torn down at the end of a production?

Elisabeth: Sets go up and down throughout production. I don’t really get attached to the physical set, but rather to the story and to the people I work with. With the end of production comes a certain sense of loss and a phase of mourning for the crew and for the creative process. We work so intensely and spend so much time together for the better part of a year. Relationships develop as we strive towards a common goal. When it is over, I feel both a sense of elation and pride of a job well done and sorrow that the next day, it is all gone, and everybody goes back to their real life or onto another show.


Kirill: In general, looking back on productions that you worked on a few years ago, what stays with you?

Elisabeth: I have one mental image of each show. Or is it a feeling? I cannot describe it and I probably could not draw it. It is like a dream which combines colors and concept boards and moments and people. It compares to childhood memories of summer vacations or to an overview of the beautiful moments I remember from my children’s life so far.

Kirill: What do you do between the projects?

Elisabeth: I take care of my children and I try to make up for lost time and compensate for my absence. I also try to rest up and recharge for the next project.

Kirill: There’s probably a lot of pressure involved once a production starts, and you spend long weeks and months away from your family and friends. What makes you stay in this business?

Elisabeth: I absolutely love my work. Every step of the process is important to me, from reading the script for the first time, seeing the story unfold in my head, making sure that our ambitions fit within our budget, conceptualizing the sets, watching them be built by such talented craftswomen and men… The moment when the lights go on and the Director calls action… Seeing the work on the screen… It is all very rewarding and I would not want to be doing anything else.


Fargo season 3, courtesy of Elisabeth Williams.

And here I’d like to thank Elisabeth Williams for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had on the art and craft of production design, and on what went into creating the worlds of “Fargo”, as well as for sharing the supporting imagery. The third season of the show is out now on DVD and digital formats. Elisabeth’s latest production is the second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” which is streaming on Hulu on Wednesdays this spring.

Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series. Stay tuned for more interviews in the near future!