Production design of “Pushing Daisies” – interview with Michael Wylie

November 28th, 2012

I was hooked from the very first episode. The idea, the script and the cast were phenomenal. And the colors were absolutely gorgeous. Almost too bright and vivid to be true, and yet never flashy or harsh. As I sat down to relive those few precious episodes that saw the light of day (two seasons, twenty two episodes total), I was completely overtaken by how amazingly well this show was put together.

The very first sequence with young Ned running through the impossibly bright field of yellow flowers transitions into the kitchen scene with his mother. Every piece in this set has its place, every fabric and wallpaper lovingly textured with nature-based patterns, and the pop of bright red is a perfect compliment to the earthly yellows, olives and browns.

This style extended to all interior sets, never too vintage to mark any specific era, and yet never modern to break the charming spell of the deeply emotional connections between the different characters. Here’s Olive in her living room, surrounded by blooming flowers on the walls, sofa, pillows, lamp, her pajamas and even the tableware. Delicate, intricate, each with its own color palette, yet none screaming for attention, and all working together in a perfect unison.

In another scene in Olive’s apartment, Emerson’s costume borrows its colors from the surroundings, yet has its own unique mix of textures and patterns. Ned, on the other hand, is dressed in plain black and white, looking out of place both physically and emotionally.

And a bit later in the episode, as the script shifts to a more somber mood, we shift away from floral patterns into a solemn palette of browns and olives, dominated by plaid and angular patterns.

The house where Chuck grew up with aunts Lily and Vivian was a permanent fixture throughout the series. Note how the maroon of the car reflects the dark raspberry of the exterior trims, while slate blue is only used on the top floor creating an impression of floating roof slants.

And on the inside, a wonderful mix of an antique shop, a museum and a quirky living space. Again, every surface textured and the same base color palette, but this time broken by heavy saturated splashes of the peacock and the dresses. This was one of the rare deviations from confined flow of colors, highlighting the aunts’ desire for self expression in their self-enforced solitude.

The iconic computer-generated exterior of “The Pie Hole”, the main set of the show. By today’s GC standards it feels plain, but it still remains one the most recognizable visual anchors.

The inside of “The Pie Hole” added bright splashes of fire red and sun orange to the mix. Note how the adjacent booths don’t have their seats flat back-to-back, as they follow the curve of the outer wall. Each booth gets its own window, and its own overhanging lamp that mirrors the window shape.

And overhead shot of Ned and the escaped convict in the booth. Fire red of the napkins is the fire red of the lamp, and the half-circle cream leather shape on the back of the couch is yet another throwback to the shape of the windows.

Being in the center of the mystery during this particular episode, Olive trades her bright greens and yellows (which are, by the way, a perfect complement to the darker greens and browns of the walls) to a more complex costume. Note the setup of the lights that is reminiscent of the film noir era, with horizontal stripes of light falling across her eyes and mouth.

The city morgue completes the tour of the recurring sets. Stark whites and reds evoke connections to blood and lifeless skin, yet the overall impression is lively and even cheerful.

And here’s Chuck during her first post-revival visit to the morgue. The symmetry of the scene, positioning the camera directly in front of Chuck and using the same strong reds on her lips and dress aims to contain the emotional impact of what is about to happen, flattening the tension back into the “fairy tale” mood.

Every episode had its own murder mystery (or two) to solve, and each mystery lead the main characters into new sets. This is just one sample out of many, each with its own colors and textures, and all following the same meticulous attention to every last detail.

Michael Wylie was the production designer in charge of all these and more, and it’s a great honor to have him answer a few questions about the show in particular, and his craft in general.

Kirill: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your path to become a production designer.

Michael: When I was a kid my brother was working on Mackinac Island in Northern Michigan. A big Hollywood movie came to town. There had never been a car on the island and all-of-the-sudden “Hollywood” was there with trucks and lights and cameras. The movie was called “Somewhere in Time” and the art department turned The Grand Hotel from 1976 to 1890 in the blink of an eye. My brother had a bit part in the movie and when I saw it I thought it was so cool how the art department made the whole world ‘change.’ Years later I ended up in Los Angeles and bumped into a high school friend who was working on a movie and he told me they where looking to hire people in the art dept. I started at the very bottom. Loved it!

Kirill: How did you get to work on “Pushing Daisies”?

I had done some work with Barry Sonnenfeld prior to “Pushing Daisies”. I was an Art Director on “Men in Black 2” and had done another series with him called “Notes From the Underbelly”. When the pilot for “Daisies” came along he called me to talk about it and it sounded super cool.

Kirill: How did you research the look of the show, and what visual references did you use for the internal and external decorations of the sets?

We never really did a lot of research for the show. I mentioned to Barry that I thought it would be cool if the whole thing just looked kinda crazy and that we should try and hide any trace of a timestamp. This world didn’t exist and we thought it would be cool to celebrate that. You never saw a cell phone or a computer. The cars were from every era. We even used soup cans as telephones at one point. Since the premise of the show was so Out-there we decided to make the show match Bryan Fuller’s amazingly Imaginative screenplay. The script really dictated the look of the show and I added a lot of touches that you will recognize from a lot of other Barry Sonnenfeld movies. He uses Bo Welch on his feature films a lot and that timeless Bo Welch crazy pattern world was a heavy influence. By the way I am accused of ripping off the beautifully designed film “Amelie” all of the time. I hadn’t seen it when we started this pilot.

Kirill: Can you talk about the house of Aunts Lily and Vivian? How much time and effort was spent on building that set?

The script had them as shut-in hoarder types. I went to Barry and Bryan and pitched a little less sad version of their world. In my mind they had been famous and traveled the world and the house should reflect that and not some whackos that pile-up tuna cans and newspapers. I think the end result was great. The set decorator, Halina Siwolop filled the room with the coolest stuff. It was a nightmare to shoot but worth the effort.

Kirill: In addition to the recurring sets (such as “The Pie Hole”, Emerson Cod’s office and the morgue), every episode had multiple sets of its own. How intensive was that work, and how much time did you have for prepare for each episode?

The thing about “Pushing Daisies” was that we had painted ourselves into a corner with the pilot. There were very few locations that we could go to that wouldn’t require huge transformation. So we built everything. For every show. We used every little piece of the backlot at Warner Brothers. We would get scripts and just jump into it. A windmill. A cave. A lighthouse. For a lot of the sets we had a huge set we used for the Boy’s school that Ned attended. We redressed that set a million times to be a mansion, department store, Chinese restaurant, etc. It was very challenging.

Kirill: How much work went into creating the pop-up books that Emerson Cod was writing?

A lot. The prop master, Jeff Johnson found someone who could make the pages and the books evolved over 2 years. Bryan threw-in a Pop-Up Book store in one episode to keep us all on our toes.

Kirill: On “Pushing Daisies”, as well as on “Grimm” you mostly worked with the same cinematographer, but multiple directors. How do you approach maintaining a consistent visual look across various collaborators?

Michael Weaver is sort of a modern genius. We worked together on “Notes from the Underbelly” and “Daisies” and a couple of pilots and a season of “Californication”. We always say that cinematographers and designers should always come in teams. I know what he likes to shoot. He is on set all of the time and can’t always come to meetings or scouts. So we are in constant contact and I try not to steer locations toward directors that I think are going to be a problem to shoot. In the couple of shows we have done with Mr. Sonnenfeld, Barry creates a “bible” of how the show is meant to look and feel. The directors follow that. Usually.

Kirill: When you renewed your collaboration with Michael Weaver stepping into Season 4 of “Californication”, did it help to have a familiar face around when you joined an existing production?

Yes! I always loved that show and wanted to do it. We added a bit of pizzaz to that season. It was a good match because we got an Art Directors Guild nomination for a show in its fourth season. That’s pretty cool.

Kirill: Looking back five years ago, how restricted were you by the VFX capabilities, and how this has changed since then?

Its come a long way. The prep and and pre rig for vfx used to be pretty intense. Now you can go up to the guys and ask for the moon and they say okay. You don’t even need that much bluescreen anymore. We relied on them a lot for “Daisies”. It could not have been done without them. Now when you read a script you know what is going to be an effect and it takes a lot of pressure away.

Kirill: You worked on two TV movies in 2012, “Mockingbird Lane” and “Happy Valley”. How different does it feel to work on a production with a fixed span?

Both of those jobs were actually pilots. “Happy Valley” was really fun. It was about a group of people who worked at a huge pharmaceutical campus. We created some really cool labs and this really out-there campus that felt sort of like that Woody Allen film “Everything You wanted to know about sex.”

“Mockingbird Lane” was a big budget pilot that was going to re-introduce The Munsters to the world. We worked on it for a long time. We started production in Vancouver. Started building sets and got shut-down because of casting issues. A couple of months later NBC decided to bring all of the sets down to Los Angeles and start anew. The set were incredible and the costumes were amazing. NBC decided to show the pilot as a special on Halloween. It may still become a limited series.

Kirill: And to continue this question, is it hard to let go when a TV show that you’ve been working on is canceled? Was “Pushing Daisies” just a bad fit for the ratings-driven environment?

It was doing fine. By today’s rating standards it was a hit. The writers strike hit us in mid season 1. When we came back the shine had faded and the show was expensive and the network was over it. Simple as that. We were upset because you don’t get to work on these kind of projects very often. TV has become very reality based. So to get to create a world is a gift.

Kirill: What’s next for Michael Wylie? Are you planning to move to work on feature films?

I just started a show called “Masters of Sex” for Showtime. It’s about the Masters and Johnson sex research that started in the 50’s. It’s fun to create this by-gone era. It’s the 50s in St. Louis so its not sophisticated and clean like “Mad Men”. It’s something I’ve never done so I’m excited. The movie career cannot come soon enough. I can’t wait to get into that but the business has constricted so much that the field is pretty crowded. Fingers crossed.

And here I’d like to thank Michael Wylie for taking the time to answer my questions and for being the part of the team that has brought us this spectacular production.