The motel set on season 2 of "True Detective". Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Production design of “True Detective” – interview with Alex DiGerlando

April 25th, 2016
The motel set on season 2 of "True Detective". Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is a great honour to welcome Alex DiGerlando. In this interview Alex talks about his experiences in the art department in the last 15 years, the changes that digital has brought with it and how it affects the world of feature and episodic productions, the evolution of cinematic storytelling in the world of episodic television, physicality of sets and digital set extensions, and the importance of defining and creating history for each and every set. Midway through the interview we talk about his work as the production designer on the “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, and then dig deep into the strikingly designed worlds of the first two seasons of “True Detective”.

Alex DiGerlando on the set of “True Detective”. Photography by Lacey Terrell.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the field.

Alex: I was always interested in the movies. My uncle is a film editor, and I grew up visiting him on sets and going to his office in New York and watching him cut together scenes. That always seemed exciting to me, especially since I liked movies so much.

I went to NYU to study film theory in the Cinema Studies department. I worked with a lot of my friends who were in the film production program, but my studies were purely theoretical so I didn’t have any technical training. At that time I was working as a development intern for Ted Demme’s production company, Spanky Pictures. I was learning about films from script and development side, and another intern who was working there was making a short film for class and asked me if I would help.

We went to her grandmother’s house to shoot this film, and I felt out of place because I didn’t have anything to offer in terms of using lights or loading the camera or anything like that. But what I did notice was that no one paid any attention to what the space would look like. They just thought that they’d just shoot at the house, but they didn’t think anything beyond that. I, not really knowing what to do with myself, started poking around.

I found these old cameras, thinking that they might be cool for the characters, so I put them out and dressed them onto a shelf. I kind of took it upon myself to make this room a little bit messy to go with the character, and the director really liked that. She empowered me to go for it, and that’s what I did. It sort of happened by accident. It was even before I ever thought about doing this for a living or before I was really all that conscious of production design as a job.

Kirill: So you discovered the field of production design by yourself.

Alex: I didn’t even know what it was. The room looked empty to me, so I thought I’d better make it look better. The bathroom was too clean, so I brushed my teeth and spit the toothpaste into the sink to make it look like a slob lived there. Doing these little things that I was not taught to do but were just instinctual.

From there I started becoming interested in the art department. At that time, at NYU there wasn’t much focus on the art department, so a lot of kids were just not thinking about it when they were making their films. Or, when they did think about it, they were spread too thin, leaving it by the wayside. So a lot of my friends started asking me to work on their films in that capacity.

And then, when I was in my senior year, Jon Kilik, a friend of the family who is a producer that works with Spike Lee a lot, told me that Spike’s art department was looking for a PA [production assistant] on “Bamboozled”. I was really excited about that idea, even considering taking a semester off. It would’ve been my last semester to go work on that, and Jon said that I should finish school, but maybe I could do an internship. That’s what I did. I ended up working a couple days a week in the art department of “Bamboozled”. And then, finally full-circle, I just designed Spike’s last movie “Chi-Raq”. So it began with Spike and it has come back to Spike.

Once I started PA’ing in the art department, I did that for a long time before I designed. I met up with Mark Friedberg, who really became a close friend and mentor. I worked for him for many years, and he started giving me more and more responsibility.

Isometric floor plan of “Black Rose” bar set in season 2 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: What kinds of changes have you seen in the last 15 years since you’ve started working on features and TV shows? Is there anything that affected you in the transition from film to digital? Is there any difference for you between the two?

Alex: Not really. There are little things. Working my way up through the art department, I learned the time-tested way things were done – what kind of colors are good on film, for example. When I was a PA, there was always the talk of avoiding white, and printing every prop piece of paperwork on off-white or cream or grey paper, because that would read as white, but it wouldn’t blow out the camera. And I see less of a necessity for that.

I don’t know if it’s the quality of video that is more forgiving, or if it’s just working with younger DPs [directors of photography] who are less put off by the effects of white. On both seasons of “True Detective” we did a lot of sets with white walls. Years ago, when I was learning about the art department, that was always described as a no-no, unless the scene specifically called for white walls for dramatic reasons, and even then you had to find the perfect shade of grey that would read as white.

That’s a change. I think there’s a little bit more freedom to embrace things as they are. It’s similar to how for years in the film industry, going way back, if you found a lens flare in your dailies, you would have to reshoot. That was considered a mistake. And somewhere in the 70s people started embracing the lens flare and looking at it as a benefit or an aesthetic choice. Now there are certain things that come along with video that are similar in that respect.

Video cameras are also a lot more sensitive in some ways than film, and a lot of DPs that I work with now are much more interested in using practical lighting – physical lights and fixtures that you see on-screen as opposed to movie lights that are behind the camera. A lot of my job has become working with the DP and the gaffer to light the scenes, because all the lighting is coming from within the set. Back in the day you would place lamps, but ultimately there would be a soft box on ceiling or movie lights strategically placed that were going to do the heavy lifting of the lighting.

Adam Arkapaw [cinematographer] on True Detective season 1 used lights when they needed to, but so many of the sets had the bulk of their lighting from practicals. And then sometimes he would hide LED strips under ledges or behind furniture to give definition.

Isometric floor plan of mayor’s office set in season 2 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: How would you compare working on a feature film and working on a season of a TV show? How different is the structure around you, the pace of the work, the budget perhaps?

Alex: My approach doesn’t change. I don’t make a distinction. My aesthetic and standards are the same for either. The challenge of TV requires a bit more stamina. You’re prepping so much more material.

I’ve worked in two television models. One is the more traditional model where every other week you get a new script and a new director, and you’re prepping the next episode while this one is shooting. And I find that to be a difficult way to work, and until I did that, I found myself being hard on production values of TV shows. Then I realized why sometimes TV shows don’t have the level of detail that I’m used to or interested in doing. You just don’t have the time.

On season 1 of “True Detective” we had one director for the whole time, and for the most part we had the whole script. So we basically prepped it like one giant movie. It was also the same cinematographer, same AD [assistant director], same costume designer – it really was a very long movie. Season 2 of “True Detective” was mostly an all new crew, with a handful of us that were carried over from the first season.

Nic Pizzolatto was the show-runner in a more pure way on season 2, because he didn’t have a director that was doing the whole thing with him. He was the constant creative person that I would check in with, but then every couple of weeks I had a new director to go out scouting with, to show the locations to; to troubleshoot their concerns. In that model I spent a lot less time on set while we were shooting, and a lot less time preparing sets before shooting, because I was already on to the next thing.

It is not really the way I love working, because for me figuring out all of the details and massaging all the minutiae to make the final product – that’s the exciting part. But it was an interesting experience also. It was just different. And then the show that I’m on now is for Netflix, and that’s back to “True Detective” model with one director, Zal Batmanglij, directing all eight episodes, and we had all the scripts before we started shooting. Up until I started designing, I had never worked on a TV show. I only knew how to do it as a movie. So that’s how I still approach it.

Kirill: If you put aside the story arc that a season of a TV show is telling and look at the production values that everybody wants to achieve on a show like “True Detective”, would you say that there is simply not enough time in a year to do more than 8 episodes per season?

Alex: The more episodes you do, the more spread-thin you are. The schedule doesn’t change, and they still need the show on time. I can see a little bit of that changing with the Netflix and Amazon models. It’s interesting to work with Netflix. They don’t even advertise the show until it’s ready.

There are deadlines still. The show that I’m working on now has a very specific window that they want to release in, as their data tells them that this is a very good week to release the show, for whatever the reason is. But I guess that if for some reason they wanted to, they could change that. If you announce the show and then you don’t put it out, people start worrying that there’s something wrong with it.

But the way Netflix works, their advertisements say “Streaming now on Netflix”. Back in the day when a movie was coming out, the studio relied on people being excited about it, making plans to go see it or watch that TV show, making sure the kids were in bed on time or having the babysitter lined up to watch the movie or the show at the time slot. Now that that doesn’t matter with something like Netflix, when you see an advertisement, you don’t say “Oh, that show is coming out in two months, I got to remember to watch it”. You see an advertisement and say “Oh, I’d like to watch that. Oh, I can” and then just go and watch it right then and there.

It’s a subtle thing, but I can see that the approach of making these things is going to change in ways that we can’t fully imagine yet for reasons like that.

Isometric floor plan of police department set in season 2 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: What is also very pleasing for me as a viewer is that there are no gaps in these seasons. If you look at the “traditional” basic cable model, they do 22-23 episodes spread from October to May, with big breaks in between the episode blocks. And on these shows you have 8-10-12 episodes back to back every single week, or in the case of Netflix, the entire season is available as one big chunk to watch however you like it.

Alex: It’s interesting to have shows watched that way, and it does factor for the art department. Originally, before DVD box sets came out, people only really did watch shows one week at a time. And then, when the DVDs came out, and now streaming and DVR, people watch all the episodes back to back. So whereas back in the day if you shot in a location and then had to go back to it months later, but it wasn’t available anymore, and you had to fudge it at a different location, no one would really notice. It’s not like they could go back and refer to the previous episode so it was forgivable.

But now that we’re watching all eight episodes in one weekend, if you have a mistake like that or if you fudge like that, it’s going to be apparent, and it’s going to take the viewer out of the world. It just raises the stakes, I think ultimately for the better. It makes the quality of the show better.

Kirill: And it feels that a lot of these people came over from the world of feature film in the last few years.

Alex: More and more. I can’t think of one department head on “True Detective” season 1 from art department to costumes to camera, lighting, make-up, stunts, etc who came from TV. We all were film people. I’ve been told by some people who watched True Detective how cinematic they thought it was, and that’s testament to all of the people involved. Nic Pizzolatto’s writing is very vivid, and Cary [Joji Fukunaga, director] definitely visualizes in terms of cinema and not TV. We saw it as a movie, and we made it that way.

Kirill: It’s interesting that you say “film people” and “TV people”, because it feels like if we have a few more years like this, there’s not going to be that hard of a distinction anymore. There’s going to be just storytelling people.

Alex: I think so. What I see down the road, I think that the concept of an episode is going to become antiquated. I think it’s the seasons that are going to be the episodes. You’re watching an 8-hour movie at your leisure. You can either watch it in one chunk or in pieces, but you’ll watch that and then you’ll wait for next year for the next one, and that will be the new episodic model.

If we all know that we’re going to watch a show on Netflix in one sitting or two, or I’m streaming “Game of Thrones” to catch up, why am I watching credits every 45 minutes? That to me is an artifact and a holdover from a different time.

Kirill: What I do like about the Netflix model is that they are flexible in how long each episode is, and that they don’t have to break the scenes artificially based on commercial breaks. So they don’t rush a long scene, and they don’t stretch a short one.

Alex: Remember when DVDs came out, one of the big innovations of DVD from VHS was that you could skip chapters. You didn’t have to fast-forward through the whole thing. You could just skip to the next chapter if you wanted to see a specific scene. In streaming, and especially in long-form streaming, we’re going to look at what were once episodes more like chapters, and we’ll jump from chapter to chapter, rather than from episode to episode. Again it’s a subtle difference but it really changes the experience.

Kirill: Wouldn’t you as a storyteller want to maintain some kind of control over how the story is seen by me as a viewer? Would you want me to start jumping randomly in the storyline?

Alex: I’m not that worried about it. I think it’s rare that someone is going to be jumping to a scene later in the story before watching the scenes that came before it. If they’ve already watched it, maybe they want to go see a scene that they really like. I don’t think it’s that usual to start in the middle of “House of Cards” for example.

Kirill: I’m thinking of the Machete Order for watching the first six installments of “Star Wars” where it says “Forget about the order they were released in, this is the order you should watch it in for the better telling of the story, even skipping a whole movie”.

Alex: I think that’s sort of cool. For instance on second viewing it might be interesting to watch season 1 of “True Detective” in chronological order. I know they did that with “The Godfather”.

But the other thing too is that in the old days before streaming, you would flip channels and you would come in the middle of an episode, or catch an episode of a show that you never saw before and you would just have to start from that point on. It would be very hard to go back unless you caught up with reruns in the summer. And now it seems more usual that people will start at the beginning, which is probably ultimately better.

Kirill: And with these story arcs, it’s hard to get into it when you’re starting in the middle. You don’t watch an episode, like you said. You watch a season.

Alex: And a show like “Law & Order” is truly episodic in the sense that each episode is basically a standalone thing.

On the sets of “Beasts of Southern Wild”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: Before we get to “True Detective”, how was “Beasts of the Southern Wild” for you? It was very a rich environment.

Alex: That’s one of the great experiences of my life. We didn’t have a lot of resources, but the resource that we did have were really passionate people who were very excited to make this movie, both behind the camera and within the community where we shot the film. If it weren’t for that, we would never have gotten the movie made.

Pretty much everything that you see on the camera was salvaged in some way. We were kind of scavengers, looking for raw materials we could make something out of. It’s fortunate that Benh Zeitlin’s [director] aesthetic is that kind of bricolage, sort of magical realist aesthetic. It really gave us a lot of leeway to piece things together from found objects.

And that goes for the sets themselves, but it also goes for the locations. I have always been really proud of the fact that after screenings of that film, during Q&As people would ask questions about how to get to the Bathtub as if it were a real place. It is a confusing thing, because all of those places are real. There are no visual effects, but there’s a sleight of hand and juxtaposition. For every location in that story we used three different practical locations – before the flood, during the flood, after the flood.

Benh, having lived down there while he was writing and researching the project, was familiar with the locals and the areas. He had a real strategy on how to achieve it. It was a broad strategy, and then we started to get to the specifics.

In the case of Lady Jo’s bar, we found this house that we really liked and it had a good vibe. The surroundings and the atmosphere around the house – that was Lady Jo, that’s what we wanted it to be. But people lived there so we couldn’t flood the inside of it. So we found a different place, an abandoned house, that happened to have a bar built into it. It was like a trailer converted into a bar, but in the middle of a residential area. That’s one of the cool things about working down there – you find amazing things that you’d never find anywhere else.

The house belonged to a family member of one of the local guys that was working with us in our marine unit and he let us use it and do whatever we wanted. So we painted and decked it out a little bit to make the inside of it match with the outside that we shot, and we figured out a rig to run water from the bayou across the street through a hose into this little bar, and we built a visqueen-lined trough to fill it with water and get the shots of the bar flooding.

Then we built a replica of the exterior of the house on a floating dock on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Honey Island Swamp near Slidell. We recreated the exterior of the house that we used for the exterior of the bar before the flood, and we put it on this floating platform, and we used that so that when Walrus opens the door after his drunken night, not realizing that the whole town is flooded, he steps out of the bar and falls into the water. That’s how we achieved that.

Then we found another place on the Isle de Jean Charles with all the wreckage from previous actual storms, and we dressed it up with some signage to make it look like that’s where Lady’ Jo’s Bar used to be after the water got flushed out of the town and washed all of the architecture away. There were four or maybe even five pieces to just that one location.

And then there was Hushpuppy’s house, and Wink’s house, and the school house. On that movie every single set had to be thought of that way.

On the sets of “Beasts of Southern Wild”. Photography by Jess Pinkham. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: Were you surprised to see how well-received this movie was? Does it matter to you, what critics say, what the audience says?

Alex: Of course. Doesn’t feel good to work on a movie that no one likes, but I’ve had plenty of those too. But I’ve been lucky with “Beasts” and “True Detective” where those were projects that really captured people’s imaginations.

As far as “Beasts” goes? It was an amazing experience when it came out. It took two years to edit it, and then it got the reaction that it did. My wife Dawn Masi was the art director on it, and she was pregnant with our first child at the time while we were making that movie. It was very low budget, and they couldn’t afford to pay very much, so we had a real decision to make: Are we going to leave our higher-paying jobs and go do this thing?

But when I read that script, I said “I have to do this” and then I gave it to Dawn, and she read it, and she said “We have to go and do this”. The kid was on the way, and we didn’t know if we’d be able to do anything quite like that again.

From the conception of the project, we always knew that it was special, and then the experience of making it was so unlike any movie that has come before, and I’m sure, any movie that will come after it. That’s not to say that it was always easy, but there was this amazing energy and communal enthusiasm. We knew that we were doing something impossible, and that was really exciting for everybody to achieve something that on paper was seemingly impossible.

I think we knew we made something special. I just don’t think that we knew that that many people would see it, or that it would get nominated for awards or anything like that. I think we all thought that we were making a little bit of a cult film, although Benh is really, at heart, a populist filmmaker. He wants to make movies that people like and are excited by, even though he has some avant-garde tastes as well.

On the sets of “Beasts of Southern Wild”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: One of the questions I like to ask is to look back a few years ago and think what stayed with you from productions that you’ve worked on. It feels like you’ve already answered this question as to how deeply you remember this particular production.

Alex: It seems so long ago, and not so long ago. I went to a screening last night of a documentary at the Tribeca film festival that was made by the Ross brothers who were behind-the-scenes photographers of “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. They are really great documentarians in their own right. So many of the crew from “Beasts” were there. I didn’t even know that that many of them were in town, and I wasn’t really expecting to see anybody. I saw so many people from that shoot, and that community stayed so close. They continue to support each other in whatever they do. It’s just a very special thing. I think that everyone involved in that movie is kind of bound by something that will never go away.

Kirill: Moving to “True Detective”, how did it start for you?

Alex: I met Cary years ago briefly. He’s friends with Benh and the Court 13 guys, and he had worked with them on the short “Glory At Sea” which was the precursor to the “Beasts of the Southern Wild”.

We had met each other a handful of times, and then when I heard that that project was coming up, and that it was in New Orleans, I was curious about it. I was in Iceland art directing “Noah” at the time, and I had a phone call with Cary and some of the producers. We talked about the project a little bit, and I went away and I put together a presentation of research of my vision for the show. And from that they hired me.

The revival tent set on season 1 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: How much detail of sets and environments did you have in the script? Is the script mostly the story and the dialog, and then you start fleshing out the details?

Alex: Nic is a very descriptive writer, so he would write a lot of detail into the script. And Cary has a very excellent eye and vision, so he had very clear ideas of what he wanted, what he was envisioning for a scene. That’s always super-helpful, because the more information you can get, the better you know that you’re on the right track. Then you can add your own stuff to that.

Sometimes when you’re working with people that don’t have as clear vision, it’s a little tougher. It’s more of a trial and error. It also just so happened that so much of the aesthetic of that show that was baked into it conceptually is in line with things that I’m interested in. When I read that script and when I talked to Cary, I felt like I got it immediately. There was no struggle to sort of figure it out for me. There were images that popped into my head immediately when I read that script.

To jump briefly back to how I got started, I didn’t study set design, and when I was working for Mark Friedberg as I started evolving out of being a PA and got more responsibilities within his art department, the position that I fell into and that I worked in for a long time was that of art department researcher. I learned from working with Mark how to communicate an idea for a set or an overall mood of a movie through images. I think I excel at finding images to do that.

That’s something that I’ve always used. While some designers sit down and they draw a sketch to find their way into a set or a movie, I go to the book store or on the Internet or into the world with my camera, and I just compile images. And then I collage those images together until the spirit of what I think we’re trying to achieve comes into focus, and then I present it.

Kirill: How much time do you have to do that?

Alex: It depends. A lot of times I do this work before I’m even hired. I’ll read the script, and I’ll do it to get a handle on it to talk about the project with the director. And often I don’t have a lot of time. I get a script and then two days later I have to meet the person. I’ve gotten pretty good at pulling a lot of information together in a short period of time.

Once you start and you have the department going, then you know what your schedule is, and you can roll out where you want to focus and get a little more specific. But for the overall mood I can do it pretty quickly. It’s better. I find, for me, to do this work well and efficiently I have to be decisive. If an image is speaking to me, I’m going trust my instinct and go with it.

Kirill: On the first season you were designing for three periods, 1995, 2002 and 2012. Some of the places appeared in all three, and some only in one or two. How do you approach designing a place that is evolving throughout time, and you jump back and forth between periods?

Alex: For me history is the most interesting thing about this work. A lot of people, when you think about history in terms of production design in movies, they think about period pieces and what something looked like in a particular period of time. But for me the more interesting aspect of history, and this goes in present day and period work, is that it is everything that has happened in that space up until the point you’re presenting.

An architect designs a space for the future. Who’s going to live there? What are they going to do there? But a film designer, in my opinion, designs a space for everything that’s happened there before the point in time when the story is being told.

On the set of the police station in season 1 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: Right, if you’re doing a police station in 1995, it’s not that they’ve just bought all new equipment last week.

Alex: Exactly, and that seems obvious, and it is to a certain extent. But I think that’s where the details that excite me the most are found.

On “True Detective” for the ’95 scenes we were talking about what cars people were going to drive – not so much the police cars because there is documentation of what the Lafayette police drove at any given point in time – It was about the cars that supporting characters drove. We made a very conscious decision to barely use any cars for the show that were made in ’95. Very few were from the ’90s at all, let alone 1995. Most of the cars that you see in the backgrounds are from the ’80s or even earlier, because we’re shooting in poor communities in a time when people just didn’t buy new cars for the sake of buying new cars, like they do now.

That was a big discussion. We talked about what kinds of TVs people had. In the ’90s it was still the time of a pager. And what was interesting about “True Detective”, and specifically the police station and Marty Hart’s house, was that they were two main sets that you see evolve over time. You definitely see the police station in all three time periods, and I think you see his house in two.

Usually the history is up until that point, but in the case of that set, you had to think about history up until ’95, but then also where it was going in ’02 and then eventually in ’12. And of course, the schedule for various reasons never shoots in the order that is ideal. We had to jump back and forth between time periods within that set several times, so we had to figure out systems to make this change and do it quickly, so we could do a turnaround overnight.

It’s difficult, especially in a place like a police station. Mundane might sound like a bad word, but I actually find there’s a lot interesting in the mundane. Sometimes I say “dynamically bland”, and a police station is, on the surface, a bland space. That makes it difficult to really show the passage of time. You don’t have that many variables that you can change that make a big splash. The difference in different time periods ends up being subtle.

Speaking back to what we were talking before, in ’95 all the detectives had typewriters. There were definitely computers at that point in time, but departmental funding and old fashion employees who aren’t excited to learn new technology and other various reasons makes them stuck in time a little bit even in ’95. But then as you’re getting into ’02 and ’12, that’s not realistic anymore. So what are the ramifications of that as technology starts taking over a police station?

You end up having more Internet infrastructure that has to be incorporated into a space that was not originally designed to have that. We started running lots of cables all over the space, and we would put them up using magnets so that we could pull whole bundles down and throw them up really quickly.

And similarly you talk about the concept of a conference room. Whereas in ’95 it is a conference room, more of a traditional space to have meetings, and as time goes by, the world is becoming a little less formal. As paper files start adding up and computers are taking up space that was once more free, you start running out of storage space. Then where do you store all of the stuff from the past? OK, let’s just shove it into a conference room. That’s where that idea of the conference room where those interrogations take place comes. You see the aged Marty and Rust, and you see all those Bankers boxes and stacked typewriters behind them in those scenes. The two detectives are as antiquated as the items that are surrounding them. That was my big idea of how to show the evolution of the police station.

Kirill: And as you said, everything is designed. There is no “Let’s point the camera into a random room and start shooting”. It felt like the first season had this recurring theme of old stuff overflowing. The meth compound, all these dilapidated houses and spaces – everything was in a such meticulous disarray.

Alex: There’s a real benefit in a location like New Orleans where a lot of lower-income situations like the trailers and the fishing shacks exist. Sometimes we would just find a place and say this is it. We would just swap out the big-screen flat TV for the tube television, and make little period tweaks, but really just embrace the spaces as they were. You can’t do that all the time, but down there there is a certain trapped-in-time quality.

The meth compound was built from scratch in an empty field. We bought a big orange shipping container and cut that up to make it the meth lab. Then we bought one of those little white office trailers from a construction site, and a cube truck and pieces of some other trailers, and built that main structure; kind of bricolaged all that stuff together.

And the same thing with the brothel – those were all trailers that we bought and refurbished, and then dragged them into this oak forest and set up that compound. We didn’t have that many as-is locations. We shot in this neighborhood called Des Allemands when they interview Dora Lange’s mother. That house was pretty much the way we found it.

In that sense, a big part of production design is curation. Just finding the right things and putting them together. So if you find a location that tells a story, there’s nothing that I can imagine or design that’s going to be better than reality in some cases. My ego is not such that I need to fight that and put my fingerprints all over everything. The problem is that sometimes you have to change it. Like the Dora Lange mother’s house ended up infested with bugs and vermin and maybe it would’ve been better if we had dressed the house to look like that [laughs].

When we got to Childresses’ house, that was an old empty plantation house that we totally cleaned out and brought all of our own stuff in. All that grime and packrat hoarding stuff, that was all us, and our set decorator Cindy Slagter had been collecting that stuff for eight months in preparation for that set.

Kirill: And you also built the burnt-down church. Without talking specific numbers, is it good to have a good budget? Is there ever such a thing as enough money?

Alex: Well, you can always find more ways to spend more money. If you’re making a movie in a vacuum, when time is not an issue and you had as many people as you wanted, it would be fine. But a lot of times you spend money in movies not on the obvious things. There’s money to buy the set dressing, but then really what you’re spending the money on is the labor to install the set dressing. And that is a huge part of the puzzle.

You need skilled people that know what they’re doing to put those things into the sets so that it’s believable, to go back to what we were talking about with history. You have to believe that those things have been there for all of this time. That goes for set dressers, that goes for scenic artists who put the age on the walls, who scuff things up and add dust or spills or cigarette burns. All that stuff, even if it’s not perceivable on its own, on a subconscious level the sum of the parts really affects the audience. That stuff is crucial.

And then you’re also building the sets not just for the way they look, but the way they work for the shooting crew. Is there enough egress? Is there enough support space? Are there camera ports that allow the camera to get specific places to get its shots? Is the floor such that it can accept the dolly? Are there enough lights built into the set? That’s where a lot of the money goes.

Sometimes there’s a thought that isn’t it a drag that you don’t get to put the money on the screen. You’re spending money building some support piece. But the thing is that that support piece is the thing that lets you see the thing that you designed. Here’s a good example of this – the burnt church on season 1 of “True Detective”.

We looked everywhere to find a burnt church, but we couldn’t find one that was a) safe, b) near where we needed it to be and c) would let us shoot there. It quickly became apparent that we were going to have build it; and then the question was – where? A lot of areas in New Orleans are very swampy and hostile, and we needed it to be in the middle of nowhere, and there weren’t that many places to build this thing.

And we also wanted something that was very visually dynamic. Finally we found this perfect place on Bonnet Carre Spillway, which was actually in back of the structure that we used as the levy in the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that Wink explodes with the alligator gar fish. On the back side of that spillway there was this amazing field where you could see the oil refineries in the distance and the raised train tracks, and it was pretty much everything that you could hope for in a location.

But it was very hard to get to. It wasn’t just a matter of getting some actors and crew out there, and that was difficult enough. We also had to get the construction teams out there, with all sorts of heavy machinery to build the church. We couldn’t build it in pieces, and then truck it out and assemble it, because it was burnt and dilapidated. We had to do a lot of the building on site. We were burning a lot of lumber out in the middle of the field, and then building the set with it.

It was a logistical nightmare. In the early stages of doing that, when we had first found that location, there was a lot of questioning whether it was a wise decision. We couldn’t even drive trucks out there. How we were going to make this? And the producer was really reluctant to spend tens of thousands of dollars to put down a gravel road in order to build the set. His logic, and it makes sense, was that he wanted to put the money on the screen. Eventually we decided it was the right thing to do, and arguably it was one of the most iconic images of that whole show – this dilapidated church in the middle of nowhere with the oil refineries blazing fire in the distance.

Yes, that road is not really seen on camera, but that road allowed us to be able to see all this other stuff on camera. You end up having to spend money in ways that you don’t expect all the time. It would always be great to have more and more money. But in my experience it’s figuring out what can be done with what you have that really presents some of the best solutions. Someone once told me that producing a movie is not about saving money, it’s about spending money wisely. That’s the thing, you just have to prioritize. We could spend the money and dress up that Dora Lange mother’s house, and that would cost us X amount of money, but that’s going to take resources away from these other things that we’re definitely going to build, because we are not going to find them as is.

If I find a perfect thing, I’m happy to use it so that we can spread the resources over the whole show and use it for the places where we really need it. On the show that I’m working on right now, we had a very complicated set that we had to build. It was really more expensive than was originally budgeted, but it was essential to tell the story. So we looked at the script, and we figured out which sets don’t require much, and if we could commit to doing them in a very bare-bones way, we could take that money and apply it to this big set. That’s what we did, and honestly I think it worked out really well for this show. The contrast between some of the locations and the sets we’ve built works really well in terms of the context of the story. A lot of these things work out the way they’re supposed to.

Kirill: If we’re talking about the scene of the last chase that ends up in this fort, what was the work that you did on the inside of that structure, with all the vines and branches and roots?

Alex: First let me give you some background on that. When the script was originally written, the big final chase through the cane fields. But as we started prepping, we realized that the cane fields – at the time we would be shooting the finale – would have already been harvested, so there would be no cane fields to run through.

That’s when we struck on the idea of setting the opening in the cane fields with the tree and the burning of the fields, and then we were looking for a replacement for the finale. We were having a real hard time, because you are limited to the kinds of terrain down there. The best thing that we could come up with was to do it in a swamp, but you can’t practically do it in a real swamp because there’s no solid ground, just trees and water.

We were trying to figure out if we could hide platforms under the water for the actors to run on and for us to shoot from, but that was going to be so logistically difficult. And then we found this bit of forest that was not swampy, and we started planning to build the finale chase there, but no one was really all that excited about it.

I think Cary had the idea about the fort. We had found Fort Macomb when we were scouting for something else – there’s a scene in which Rust has Sheriff Geraci’s Maserati shot up. The sniper is actually on top of the fort. We were shooting over there because we wanted that marina, and the fort just happened to be there. So when we were scouting for that other scene, we got permission to poke around in Fort Macomb, and we thought that it was cool and that we should remember it for some other show. And as we finally were coming towards the end of the shoot, we were up against the wall about where we were going to set the final chase, and Cary mentioned that fort.

We built the main chamber where the skeleton structure was on our stage in the style of the fort. It had blue screen ceiling, and the oculus was added digitally. We had the greens department procure over 3,000 pieces of driftwood that they collected from the banks of the Mississippi and we gave the wood and a team to Josh Walsh, who’s the artist who made all of the killers’ little totems and paintings. I drew out on a plan of the fort, the path that I wanted them to take, with an obstacle here and a tunnel of sticks there, and other things. And beyond that I gave Josh a lot of freedom to do his thing. So he and his team built these crazy stick structures.


Kirill: So it was part location and part stage.

Alex: The plantation house was down south of the city, and the little slave quarters where the Childress’ father is tied up with the sown-up mouth and words written in blood on the wall was built on that property. Some of the chase happens between the house itself and the little shack, and in the property beyond it.

And then the greens department brought a lot of plants and vines to the outside of Fort Macomb, so that McConaughey could run through this tunnel of greens and into the fort and it would look like the fort was in the middle of that property of Childress’ house, but just overgrown. Fort Macomb is roughly a circular structure, but we broke up the space to feel more like a maze. At the end he enters the final chamber, and we recreated the tunnel of sticks on a soundstage leading into our set.

It’s similar to how we did “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. We had to stitch it together with many disparate locations and sets.

On the sets of season 2 of “True Detective”. Photography by Lacey Terrell. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: And as you were going into season 2, it was a completely different world in a different place with different characters. There was nothing to reuse or build off of.

Alex: To me that was a good thing, because it gets boring to rehash the same stuff over and over again. I looked at it as if I was doing a new movie. I was creating a whole new world from scratch.

Kirill: How different was the structure of season 2 when it moved away from the model of a single director for all the episodes?

Alex: Because we had one director and one DP on season 1, we scouted the whole thing together. But on season 2 it was different directors. A new director would come in, and I would be out scouting with those new directors, but Nigel Bluck [cinematographer for season 2] would be shooting. It just so happens that his wife, Jac Fitzgerald, is a DP in her own right, so they were able to set it up that she was the second unit DP on the season. For one day each episode he would leave set and let her to shoot, and he would scout with us. But otherwise he had to see everything else that we picked through pictures. I think for him it was super challenging.

For me it was only different in so much that I wasn’t afforded the time to work with my crew and be at the sets as much as I like to, but I think for Nigel it was even more difficult.

Kirill: As far as the span of a season goes for you, how many months in a year are we talking about?

Alex: Season 1 between prep and shoot went for around 10 months. Season 2 was on a compressed timeline. We didn’t have as much prep because we had a more concrete release date. It was more like 8 months. On season 1 we prepped as much as we could for around 3 months. For season 2 we had 2 months prep, but then we were doing a lot of rolling prep, as I said.

Kirill: Does it help that you have certain knowledge and experience with the show creator going into the second season?

Alex: It’s always nice to work with someone that you’ve worked with before. The director that I’m working with now I worked with on a movie “The East”, and we really do have a shorthand. I know what’s going to get him excited. He knows which sets he can leave me alone with and I’ll do my thing and it’ll be what he wants.

In the case of “True Detective” I worked a lot more day-to-day with Cary than I did with Nic on season 1. On season 2, because the directors were changing, I had a lot more interaction with Nic to get answers and approvals. But I was also very familiar with his tastes and interests, and that always does help.

On the set of “Black Rose” bar in season 2 of “True Detective”. Photography by Lacey Terrell. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: The Black Rose bar was the main recurring set on season 2. You said that you want to give your very best to every set that you work on. Is there any particular attention that you pay to a set that appears again and again throughout the season?

Alex: Typically the sets that recur to that level are sets that are in the show from the beginning. In the case of Black Rose or the CID headquarters on season 1, those were sets that I was designing during prep. Those were sets that I actually was afforded more time to focus on, and it’s nice that it works out that way.

Some of my favorite sets in season 2 are those motel rooms that the gang are hiding out at in the mountains at the end, and those show up in a couple of episodes. At that point we were winding down, so I was able to focus my energy on those again. Both Black Rose and the motel sets had lots of weird history and details to them. They were really fun to do. I felt they were really important because we were spending a lot of time in them. There was a lot of the page count in the motel rooms, and a lot of the page count in the Black Rose.

You want to make sure that the audience doesn’t get bored looking at it and that it’s rich enough to keep them sustained, and also that it’s interesting for the crew, that there are enough ways to shoot it and enough interesting angles to keep it fresh and not get bored shooting in the same set in the same way over and over again.

All those details that I was talking about – cigarette burns on the tables or little graffiti – that the camera sees but you don’t even totally register, is as much for the actors as it is for the final product. When the actors walk into these places, you want to give them as much as possible. That really helps them to get into the character. If there’s a lot of details in there, they can put their focus on those details and sometimes it helps them with the scene. I’ve had a lot of actors thank me for a level of detail on the sets, which is a very nice complement.

Kirill: It looked like season 2 spent more time in interior spaces. Does that give you more control over the lighting, the weather, the overall conditions?

Alex: Definitely more control over the weather. Our big builds in season 1 were built on location. Our big builds in season 2 were built on a soundstage, and these are two very different styles.

Building things on location is a lot harder, but the effect is excellent. This was a crucial piece on the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” where we had non-actors. With some exceptions, but as often as possible, we built the sets in such a way that inside outside you could go anywhere in a set and you would believe it. On a soundstage you go out the door and there’s the soundstage and the back of the wall is just exposed lumber.

The more immersive you can make the set, I think the more the actors can get out of it, the more the director and the DP can get out of it because they can shoot in such a way that gives them freedom to make shots that really emulate the way life is. We walk from one space to another without interruption. We are not outside and then just pop inside. We walk through the exterior, through a threshold and into the interior.

Cary on season 1 took advantage of that a lot, where he would start the action outside and without cutting bring them into a space. Most audience members are probably not conscious of that happening. It’s similar to that uninterrupted shot in the housing projects with the biker gang – I think most people didn’t realize there were no edits in that shot until halfway through it.

I think there’s a lot more life in the final product when the characters and the camera can move through a space more freely. Season 2 of “True Detective” had so many locations and so many story-lines, that for efficiency and in terms of economy of storytelling, they were going to have to cut from place to place. It didn’t have as much breathing space as season 1 did for atmosphere and establishing shots. We got some of that from the helicopter stuff, but not as much as pure establishing as that church on the horizon or that lone bar on the side of the bayou.

On the set of “Black Rose” bar in season 2 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: The shootout scene with the bus was one of my favorite sequences in season 2. On the technical level, how do you prepare for doing multiple takes when there is so much destruction going on?

Alex: There was no reshooting. Once these things are blown up, they are blown up. There’s a pretty in-depth documentary on the DVD of how they did this. You have to be very regimented. Which piece goes first to make sure we get it before the destruction happens and then move on to the next piece? That was a pretty ambitious sequence, and it was done not on the biggest budget.

A huge Hollywood action movie would have more time, but we had 4 days to do that whole sequence. We had to be really strategic on how we were going to do it. My contribution to that was working with the locations department to find a location that hit all the beats, which was really hard to do. Originally we thought that we were going to have to cut it up into lots of little pieces in a lot of different locations, but then we realized that it would mess up the schedule, as we were spread so thin over so much time.

We really hit it hard looking for a place. The building that we ended up at was different in what we originally envisioned. It was also challenging to work with because there were all sorts of structural issues that determined what we could and could not do. The biggest find in that location for me was that sweatshop where they were making shoelaces or ribbons or something. It was underneath a building that eventually explodes, and we were able to incorporate some of the chase sequence through that. I thought it added nice texture to the sequence.

Kirill: Are you used by now to seeing the sets that you’ve build get dismantled when the shooting phase wraps up?

Alex: If that bothers you, you’re in the wrong business. You’re on to the next one. The saddest part about it is the waste that happens. So much material is thrown out, and the fruits of all this labor ends up in the dumpster, both in terms of the craftsmanship, but also the raw materials. That’s a bit of a bummer.

But the cool thing is that if everyone’s done their job right, the set is preserved forever in its ideal state. If you came over to the soundstage that I’m filming right now and took a tour of the set that I’ve built, you might think it’s cool, but it’s not lit properly, and all the dressing is not in the right place, and it’s a little bit of a mess. But if you have a director and a DP to get a really great shot and use what you’ve designed to its maximum potential, what you see on the screen is better than anything that you’ll really see in person, in a way. There is also something to be said about being in that space, and then you step outside and you’re back in the real world.

On the sets of season 2 of “True Detective”. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: How important for you is the physicality of sets? How important is it to surround your actors with a space that they can interact with, compared to green screens, CGI and digital set extensions?

Alex: As I was saying before, I think it is important to have stuff for the actors to interact with. I am definitely of the newer school. I’m not one of the designers that say that we have to make it all. I think there are definitely things that make so much more sense economically, visually, practically to do it digitally.

A lot of moviemaking is puzzles. It’s a puzzle for the AD to figure out how to make the most efficient schedule. It’s a puzzle for me to figure out how to make the set work and achieve all of the things that are in the script and also meet the other requirements of the camera, the lighting and the crew. And visual effects is an added layer. When we think of digital effects, we think of big blockbuster movies where the set extensions are Mordor or Star Wars – impossible realms. But the visual effects that really get me excited and inspired are things that if they do their job right, you wouldn’t even think of it as a visual effect.

I’m sure that you’ve seen reels floating around the Internet. There’s a great one for “Sicario”, a great one for “Grand Budapest Hotel”, “Wolf of Wall Street”, “Only God Forgives”. You watch them, and of course that’s a digital effect, because how else would they have shot that otherwise? But it’s not calling attention to itself. On the show that I’m working on now we actually have a lot of those kinds of things, and we have a really talented VFX supervisor. That’s a really fun collaboration.

In the past there might have been some lines drawn in the sand between the art department who are there while we’re shooting, and then all the work that gets done in post. But I think more and more, as visual effects become an integral tool, there’s a lot more collaboration between those two departments. The things that we come up with together are super-exciting.

Kirill: As long as there are no seams that I can see on the screen.

Alex: Right. As a production designer, I’m designing the sets. But I’m also designing the whole thing and how it all works together. There are certain things that if we go with visual effects, we have to make sure that it’s photo-real and there are no seams. And there are other moments where it’s a little bit more impressionistic or abstract, especially on the show that I’m working on right now. It doesn’t have to be nor should it be super-realistic, because tonally we’re trying to achieve something different.

As we’re learning that technology and people are coming up with more clever ways to use it, we’re learning the effects of it in ways that haven’t been explored yet. I think it’s all exciting, I’m all for it. That said, sometimes I watch a big blockbuster movie, and when everything is so clearly a visual effect, it takes the stakes out of it for me. I feel there’s a disconnect between the actor and the environment they’re in. But we’re getting better in it every day.

I also think there’s a sort of weird flippant way that people say “Oh, that’s all CG, it’s fake”, but that’s a lot of work to make that CG. Not just anyone can do it. There’s a lot of craft and skill that goes into that too. And back in the day before we had computers, it was matte paintings which was a skill and which wasn’t super-realistic. You could tell it was an effect. But at a certain point you’re making a movie, so if the artistry is right, and spiritually it’s right for the story that you’re telling, then I’m all for it. The people that are really good at it know how to strike the right balance.

Floor plans of “Black Rose” set in season 2 of “True Detective”. Click for full-size version. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

Kirill: You work on a production for months and months, and you know every set and every line, and then you sit down to watch the final cut in the theater or at home. Can you enjoy the story, or do you only look at how your work is portrayed after so many hands went through it in post-production?

Alex: It depends on how good the final product is. In the case of “True Detective”, I watched that as if I hadn’t worked on it. I was that into it, and it was the same on “Beasts of the Southern Wild”. It wasn’t until subsequent viewings of “Beasts” that I realized the little tricks that the editor did that played with certain sets that I’d made and used sets in ways that weren’t originally intended. Those were really clever tricks that I don’t think anybody would notice other than me, and that’s a testament to editor I didn’t even notice the first time I watched the film.

But there is also another aspect. There’s the set that you’re really excited about, and you watch it, and it’s either not in show, or it wasn’t shot the way that you envisioned it. That can be disappointing, and that can take you out of it. But ultimately we watch these things for the stories and the characters. If stories and characters are good, it doesn’t matter if you’ve worked on it or not. You’re going to be pulled into it.

Kirill: Is it the same for you when you watch movies or shows that you haven’t worked on? Are you there for the story? Are you there to look at the technical things your peers are doing?

Alex: I only do this work because I love movies. It’s really too hard to do this if you don’t like movies [laughs]. So when I’m watching a movie, I’m watching it because I want to be watching it. If I don’t like it, that’s usually when I start nitpicking. If I’m immersed in the story, then I don’t care. I’m going to watch it like everyone else.

Kirill: I’m certainly grateful that there so much great storytelling, both in feature world and the world of high-quality episodic television, even though sometimes it may feel that there’s just not enough time to watch all of it.

Alex: The last movie that I did before this was “Chi-Raq” with Spike Lee at Amazon. No one would make that movie. It’s so out there, and it’s so charged, at least in this day and age. And we have these new outlets that don’t need a big box office number in the first weekend to validate the movie’s existence. That movie is an important story, and it’s saying important things, and I think we got to do really interesting creative stuff in the making of it.

Maybe it won’t find its audience for some time. But if you’re going back to “Bamboozled”, now 15 years later, people talk about what an important movie that is, while at the time no one saw it or cared about it. But if no one took a chance on that movie, history would be cheated out of that film.

I do think there’s a really positive thing about this new frontier and these new business models that don’t really require an audience to come as quickly to a film in order for it to be a viable investment.

Isometric floor plans of sets in season 2 of “True Detective”. Click for full-size version. Courtesy of Alex DiGerlando.

And here I’d like to thank Alex DiGerlando for this fantastic opportunity to learn about his art and craft, for the detailed look at his work on “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and both seasons of “True Detective”, and for sharing the background materials for the interview. If you’re interested in more stories on how films and TV shows are made, click here for more in-depth interviews.