Production design of “Dixieland” – interview with Jesika Farkas

January 25th, 2017

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Jesika Farkas. In this interview we talk about the beginning of her career in the field of architecture and interior design, the transition into the world of episodic television and feature films, building spaces for actors and collaborating with directors and cinematographers, and the challenges of working on small indie productions. In the middle of it all, Jesika tells the story of “Dixieland” – a movie that follows two characters in the underbelly of Mississippi.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you got into the industry.

Jesika: My background is in architecture and interior design, but I’ve always loved film. I was working for an architecture firm that sort of imploded, and I had a bit of time on my hands. My brother was in industry doing storyboarding, and he was approached to design a short. He wasn’t able to do it at the time, and he put them in touch with me. That was in 2010.

I always loved the concept of visual storytelling, and I accepted the gig. It was “Mother’s House”, the first production I designed. It was a nine-day shoot with some really lovely people, Ingrid Price and Davis Hall who wrote, produced and directed it. And from there it catapulted into the field, and since then I’ve been doing feature films, TV and shorts.

Kirill: Was there anything surprising when you joined this industry that was new for you?

Jesika: This actually happens quite a bit. I live in New York and I split my time between upstate New York and New York City. There’s a firm called “Roman and Williams”, and that couple actually started off in the film industry. They did a bunch of films with Ben Stiller, and wound up designing his house. From there they made a switch to the other direction and now they have a very established and reputable architecture / interior design firm.

And sometimes it happens in the reverse direction. It’s the visual medium that you’re playing with. There are spaces, and you’re conceiving of them. It can be for actors to come through, and they’re constructed in a way that lasts for a temporary moment. Or it can be for more permanent enjoyment. But they have a similar goal that you’re going after.

It was a very easy transition for me to take up film and create the environments that help to tell the story. In architecture you’re designing things that last a lot longer, but they might not have as much playfulness or creativity going into them. I actually still do a little bit of that as well, straddling the two worlds of reality and film.

Concept artwork for “Dixieland”, courtesy of Jesika Farkas.

Kirill: If you asked me twenty years ago how movies are made, I’d tell you that somebody puts a camera on the shoulder, points it to the actors that happen to be in some existing space, somebody shouts “Action!” and that’s it. But that’s not as simple. Everything needs to be designed, to create environments that tell the story visually.

Jesika: Absolutely. It’s very much a collaboration between the production designer, the director and the director of photography to conceive of a space. It always starts with a palette and feeling of the film, and being able to visually convey what is needed for the story. You work with that. But it does seem like it could be quite easy.

But ultimately if you really want to convey something fluid and you want to support the story, it needs to be designed. And you don’t even notice that. Sometimes it can be very much in your face, but it can also be very subtle. There’s needed intervention in the design process, for sure.

Kirill: What is your experience with episodic television so far?

Jesika: A lot of it is done on a soundstage. You wind up building the primary set, something that you come back to time and again. And you fill in with locations to give everyone a break and be able to diversify the visual element of the whole series. But the anchor is the staged set, and it can be quite different from independent films, where staged sets are an afterthought. There you’re really out in the field shooting and making locations work.

For episodic television it’s often a very planned larger set that you curate and build, and it’s a basecamp that you come back to time and again. That becomes the anchor of a series.

Kirill: Is that a production consideration that you have however many episodes in the season, and you can’t close down a particular location for an extended period of time?

Jesika: That’s right. Your set is there on the sound stage, and it might be sitting there with nothing happening when you’re out in the field on the various locations.

Kirill: Do you have a preference between working on location and on stage sets?

Jesika: If you go back to earlier film days, everything was on a stage and everything was controlled. You think of old Hollywood, you think about giant cavernous place where you could create SPRAWLING sets and everything was at your disposal. But of course it’s a very costly thing. This is where finding locations helps.

You wind up working with those spaces, and transforming them sometimes or just leaving them as is and going with the feeling.  That depends on being able to find a location that suits your need. I think there’s an advantage to shooting on a stage for sure. You can create everything exactly as you want it to be. And there’s also an advantage to being on location and finding things that are already existing and beautiful. You have the ability to invite natural daylight into spaces and just augment that. You see the passage of time in those spaces, and find things that are sometimes difficult to recreate.

Kirill: Would you say that locations are favored by smaller-budget productions, and especially those that are set in the present?

Jesika: I think present day is quite easy to do, certainly. But I worked on several period pieces that have been shot on location, and it’s really a matter of bringing in certain elements that are able to convince the viewer that it’s another period. If you go to New York City, there are certain buildings that haven’t changed in a very long time. You insert vehicles that are of the period, and people in costume that are of the period, and immediately the viewers are taken back to that moment. There’s really very little that you need to do – some signage, for example.

If you compare that to having to recreate an entire street on the soundstage, it’s way more cost-effective to find something that is established and change key elements. I think it’s a bit more favored now. You don’t have gigantic amounts of money for indie films, and you use locations and tailor them.

I did a film a couple of years ago. It was a short set in Texas in the late 1920s. We shot a cotton field on location in upstate New York. It’s supposed to be Texas, and we were able to evoke that feeling just with some special effects, well-places cotton plants and some signage. It was fairly convincing. There’s a place for that, and it’s driven sometimes by the budgetary constraints of film-making these days.

Kirill: We’re seeing so many more films being made, at least in US, even though the average budget has plummeted. It feels like it has become much easier to get into the field, especially with ever-decreasing prices on pretty good digital camera equipment.

Jesika: I think that’s true across the bar in creative fields. It is in music, and writing, and film. There’s a larger net cast, and people are being able to access more than they were, both on social media platforms and with changes in technology. There’s a lot more opportunity, for sure.

For independent filmmakers it’s definitely an opportunity. I think we’ll always have storytelling. It’s something that is necessary for humanity. We need stories and when filmmakers are passionate enough about making them INTO FILMS, they’re maybe willing to work with less money in order to make them. And they’re coming up with more inventive ways to do so that are visually compelling and beautiful.

There’s a film I watched recently, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night“. It’s a beautiful black-and-white that was made in 2014. It’s low-budget, and such a stunningly gorgeous film. It’s very welcomed and amazing that films can be made on that level.

Kirill: Would you consider yourself part of the digital generation? You started in 2010, and that’s about when digital transition was well under way. Do you find yourself having to be very detailed as digital cameras capture so much these days?

Jesika: Digital has definitely changed things, but the end result depends on certain filmmaking processes. The film that I’m prepping right now will have a very diffuse feel. You are not going to see everything super-detailed and crisp, and I prefer that. It’s much more impressionistic. You’re getting the feeling of something, and there are ways to do that with digital.

I’ve just finished a film on which we had a black-and-white Alexa body, one of only two in current circulation. It looks beautiful. Sometimes there was a necessity for a little bit of haze in a scene, just to diffuse things. Or the DP [director of photography] decided to shoot through a bit of lace or a window with dusty glass. It’s still possible not to have such a level of detail and crispness that is very specific to a certain kind of storytelling.

Kirill: Is that done primarily for budgetary reasons, or for artistic reasons?

Jesika: I think it’s more artistic. It’s to not have things that are very crisp and focused. Generally, it’s creating a more impressionistic feel.

Kirill: And that, as you mentioned, would be agreed upon during the pre-production between yourself, the director, and the cinematographer?

Jesika: Yes.

Kirill: How do you reconcile major artistic differences?

Jesika: The story will often lead everyone into discussions about aspects. It depends. Sometimes there’s a script that has been written by one person, and is being directed by someone else. And sometimes there’s a rare chance that you have a director who has also written the script, who has a vested interest in it, so they’d be leading it.

Somehow it tends to work out. A lot of ideas are brought to the table, and things are discussed and looked at in different ways. The DP has so much to offer at this level, and it’s such a collaboration.

The living room set of “Dixieland”, photography by Khaki Bedford, courtesy of Jesika Farkas.

Kirill: Is there ever such a thing as enough money? Or perhaps a fixed budget forces you to be creative and to know what to put the most effort into?

Jesika: Definitely. There’s a lot of choices that are made based on the budget that you have. You wind up figuring out what are the most impactful sets that are going to really rivet the viewer in terms of the story. What packs the most punch – you focus your efforts there. You might end up losing an establishing shot of a courthouse, for example, because it takes you half a day to do it and it’s not important. That lets you put more resources that are much more vital to the storytelling. There’s a lot of decision making at that level.

Kirill: Does it get annoying to wear two hats at the same time, the artistic hat but also the financial planner’s hat?

Jesika: It just becomes part of the job. Ideally you always aim for every single set to be amazing. But you just inherently know which ones are the proverbial belly of the beast. You work on those and make them perfect, and the peripheral sets have some corners cut. You figure out ways to save your budget doing that, and it becomes an inherent part of your process.

Kirill: Transitioning to talk about “Dixieland”, how did it start for you?

Jesika: A friend introduced me to Jen Gatien who was the producer on that film. I was excited about the prospect of shooting in the South, and I liked the script and the director Hank Bedford who also wrote it.

I drove down from New York to Mississippi. It was interesting to sort of acclimate yourself as you go.  This country is so gigantic. In any other place in the world, our country would be many different countries.  You see the visual changes when you’re driving, and all of a sudden you just start seeing various markers of the South. It was an interesting process of immersing yourself in that.

The story is very much of an underbelly of the South. It’s a very specific South – shooting in strip clubs and trailer parks, and the dynamic of those places. You’re wrapping your head around that, and meeting the people involved in those places, and living in those places, and working in those places. You get to know them. We met so many interesting people, and Hank wound up interspersing interviews in the film with some of the people that we met.

Set details on “Dixieland”, photography by Khaki Bedford, courtesy of Jesika Farkas.

Kirill: So those were not actors.

Jesika: They were real people that we met along the way. And those were very compelling stories that we were able to capture on film.

Kirill: Was that intended to be like that from the beginning, or did it kind of materialize?

Jesika: It sort of emerged, after we kept finding so many people that really wanted to tell their story. It was almost an homage to the subject matter, and how many people had similar stories. It’s almost like we were operating in a field in Mississippi, and so many people that we met had a parallel story to the one we tell in the film. It was really hard to ignore, and in the end Hank graciously invited it in and used it in the film. I thought it lent a beautiful angle to the film.

Kirill: Did it feel like you were shooting half-feature, half-documentary?

Jesika: A little bit. We were fashioning our sets on what was real there in that moment. They were not very stylized. The most that we did was maybe add some wallpaper elements. The room of Arletta [Kermit’s mother] was the most designed. It had a pink palette, with a lot of fur and leopard prints. And the rest was very much based on what we encountered and what was around us. We absorbed it and recreated it. It was sort of a communal effort in making that film.

Kirill: What about the two trailers where Kermit and Rachel live? Was that an existing trailer park?

Jesika: They were the only two trailers that were next to each other and were unoccupied within the area that we were shooting, which was Pearl, Mississippi. They found those two trailers, and then we fashioned them for each character. They became our sets, but they were locations.

Kirill: How long does it take to complete such a transformation?

Jesika: Both trailers were completely empty. We selected colors, painted the interiors and hung wallpaper. We also furnished them, and the process took a total of about two weeks. We also did the exteriors and the space between the two trailers, as some of the scenes take place there.

The strip club set of “Dixieland”, photography by Khaki Bedford, courtesy of Jesika Farkas.

Kirill: What about the main “Mr Sophistication” strip club?

Jesika: It was an existing strip club, and we just dressed it a bit. Some of the dancers that dance at the club were extras. They performed and they were very excited about that. It was a great opportunity to be able to use them, and also one of them appeared in the interview component of the film.

We worked with the owner of the strip club. He was very hospitable. We redid his office and did our thing, but it was an existing location.

Kirill: There were a lot of reflective surfaces in that strip club. How does that work when you have a lot of crew and equipment that you don’t want to see in the frame?

Jesika: We just used those to our advantage, and it worked out beautifully. Honestly, the whole place is covered in mirrors. The DP used what we could, and there are some beautiful shots where you have a mirror on the ceiling and a mirror on the stage, and you have an infinity moment with the main character. It became quite poetic and beautiful. It’s using things to your advantage, rather than being afraid of them.

Kirill: There were quite a few scenes shot in the dark.

Jesika: We had the drug dealer’s house, with a lot of flashlights. Also, the hot tub sequence came off so beautifully. It was a beautiful union of the art department and lighting and the DP’s vision.

Kirill: Does it help to have digital monitors to see everything that the camera sees?

Jesika: Absolutely. There’s always a video village where you can watch and see immediately what’s happening. You can make sure that everything is set the way it should be.

Kirill: IMDB says that you only had 18 days to shoot everything. That’s rather short.

Jesika: It was really intense. I’d say a smaller independent film of that budget would have the max of 22 to 25 days.

Kirill: What was your daily schedule like during the shooting phase?

Jesika: After that film I felt like I hadn’t slept at all [laughs]. We had a very small crew in the art department. There was a little bit of reprieve when we were in the trailers. It was around five or six days there, but the rest of the time was spent on dressing and striking a set, often on the same day, and moving on and getting ready for the next one.

Kirill: Is that the reality of your job, to have these bursts of action?

Jesika: Yes, it is. The more budget you have, the more crew you can have. But sometimes it is a labor of love, where you do it because you believe in the script and the director, and you decide to do it. You sign yourself up for that. But once you get into the larger budget films, there are definitely enough people available and it’s less intense.

A nice thing on a smaller film like “Dixieland” is that you really become kind of a family, and everyone is doing everything. At some point on “Dixieland” the director’s mother was doing craft services, providing snacks for the crew throughout the day. That family was very much involved. His sister was the still photographer, and it became a family affair. That’s the specialness that happens on a smaller-budget film that you don’t always see on a larger production.

Kirill: And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of space left for mid-size budget productions. There’s a lot of blockbusters, there’s a lot of indie films, a small cluster of mid-budget drama closer to Oscars, and a lot of storytelling that migrated to episodic television on networks, Netflix and Amazon.

Jesika: I think so. Episodic television is definitely cornering a lot of market. That sort of absorbed the mid-range feature drama.

Kirill: Would something like that interest you?

Jesika: It is a big commitment, but there are some really amazing things that are being done on these shows. I admire a lot of that, and I would definitely consider it. It just depends on what comes your way.

Kirill: Perhaps it was a location that you didn’t touch at all on “Dixieland”, but I loved that place at the river where Kermit and Rachel go in the middle of the story.

Jesika: That was, actually, our first day of shooting. It was really more of a prop thing – a boombox they listened to, a joint they smoked, some wardrobe stuff.
It was this beautiful location that we found near a river. The branch was a big safety issue for them to be on, but we wound up working it out, and we were able to get that shot. It’s a beautiful and compelling shot, for sure.

It was very lovely, but I did not put that branch there [laughs]. That long tree that crossed the river was there, and that’s why we chose that spot. It was there and it was perfect.

Kirill: Does it become a part of your job to see the sets torn down?

Jesika: Yes. My main concern is to recycle as much as we can because there’s so much waste in the film industry. You try to take elements of the set and make them available to other filmmakers in the area. There’s an amazing online community of art department people in the city called Art Cube. We’re trying to upcycle and reuse stuff. I’ve gotten amazing things that way for super-cheap.

It’s a wonderful resource. It does make a difference for art department people, and it helps you feel better about tearing down everything that you’ve created. It’s a bit sad for a moment, but it’s permanently documented. And even if a set doesn’t make it into the final cut, there’s always photos.

Kirill: Would you say that the scope of a production doesn’t matter as long as you surround the crew and the cast with physical environments that they can interact with?

Jesika: Absolutely. I’m always working very closely with gaffers, making sure that lighting works for them. There’s the issue of physical comfort for the actors, so that they don’t come into an environment where they don’t feel comfortable. It’s a constant conversation going on about what everyone will expect, and what are they going to be walking into.

The bedroom set for Rachel on “Dixieland”, photography by Khaki Bedford, courtesy of Jesika Farkas.

Kirill: You mentioned that you live in New York, and this was your first production set in the South. You probably have a crazy story or two from your time on “Dixieland”.

Jesika: I’ve done it twice now on two different productions, and it’s a very interesting environment. There is such a Southern hospitality and an amazing graciousness, openness and warmth. It was a new thing for me, and we didn’t know what to expect. Then, once the film crew descended, it was very interesting to see that hospitality spin and change direction.

It changed to where the police were involved. There was theft, there were accusations, there were tears. It was very dramatic. We had a lot of emotions flying through the air, in an unhinged environment.

The art department is often the first one there, along with locations. We’re there prepping the sets when you’re shooting on location, and you make friends with people who own those locations. You’re very much entrenched and indebted to them in a way, and it has to be a very gracious exchange. You’re trying to be very transparent about what you’re doing, but ultimately there are always boundaries that are overstepped when you’re filming.

You get across a certain border and you start seeing gigantic crosses and billboards for methamphetamine addiction. And (just about) everyone carries a gun – there are certain fundamental differences from the North. “Dixieland” was a type of film that brought us closer to people living in that reality. We embraced it, and it was a curious adventure that revealed a lot of interesting people with some amazing stories.

There’s such a struggle and a difficult fight for a lot of people – just in this country generally. There’s such a big economic divide, and people that are seriously struggling. There’s a lot of beauty and love, but it’s undercut by religion and resentment and drug abuse and prostitution. These are not the most uplifting things for the human spirit, but it’s about how people deal with them.

The bedroom set for Kermit on “Dixieland”, photography by Khaki Bedford, courtesy of Jesika Farkas.

Kirill: Going back to the Texan story that you filmed in New York, I’d say that it would be hard to make “Dixieland” and stay authentic elsewhere and not in the South.

Jesika: We gained so much from being there. There’s no way that film could’ve been made in a different place. We had to be there. The period film was easier to recreate. It was such a specific story, and it was easily told in a different place. But the context of “Dixieland” required it to be made in the South.

Kirill: There’s some part of our human nature to tend to forget the bad parts after a few years and remember only the good and the rosy.

Jesika: To a degree. I embraced the parts that were more rough around the edges, and I infused them into my learning experience. You file certain things for the next time, to remember to do them better. I don’t feel that I forget them. It’s part of my job to be able to have a smooth experience, to be able to lead my team. I’m the head of the department, and there’s a lot of art department people. It’s trying to forge the way, and make things as smooth as possible. I incorporate most negative memories as learning lessons.

Kirill: There are so many layers added on top of what you do with the sets, from lighting to editing to sound to color grading. How does it feel to sit down in a theater and watch the final cut of a movie that you’ve worked on for the first time?

Jesika: Certainly there are moments that jump out at you, but if it’s well-acted and things are seamless, you absolutely enjoy it as a story. You try to appreciate it as a whole package rather than picking things out. At least that’s what I do. It’s a wonderful opportunity to appreciate your work, but not focus on it.

There are so many people working on it and so many elements. It would be unfair to watch it and pick out your little moments. You embrace the whole thing and watch it. That makes it much more enjoyable for me.

Kirill: You’re away from family and friends for long periods of time. When you are on a production, the hours must be crazy, and perhaps there’s not much long-term stability as far as when the next job will line up. Given these negatives (or at least what some people would consider as such), what makes you stay in the industry?

Jesika: It’s a very good question. It is all of these things, it is totally bananas. I ask myself, sometimes daily, what am I doing? But it is really fun.

I just finished a production, and I’m starting location scouting on the next one today. I was meeting with a friend of mine that is coming on as set decorator, and he also just finished another production. We both said to each other that there is no break, and why are we doing it.

And he told me that he just can’t help himself, that he’s a bit addicted to doing this. It’s the excitement of creating something, and bringing a story to life. It’s all of the wild elements that happen. It’s the challenge of being able to bring things together and make it a reality. There are so many moving parts, and it necessitates communication, understanding design, being able to predict things and troubleshoot. It harnesses such a specific skill set that it makes you feel very alive when you’re doing it.

It’s all systems go. Every gear is moving and you’re working on creating this thing. And it’s with other people, so it’s a beautiful collaborative effort. It’s very unlike some of the work environments that can be a bit more insular where you’re working by yourself, or doing a specific job that is isolated. What we do is so collaborative and so infectious. It’s wonderful to be able to bring a story to life and give it visual meaning, and make so many moving parts work together. It’s very gratifying.

Kirill: And like you said, we thrive on stories. It feels like there will always be great stories to tell, and that we need people who can tell them in a compelling way.

Jesika: On and on. It is the one thing that you can always count on. People need that outlet to be able to reflect on their own lives, or escape from their lives. That is not slowing down.

Storytelling is from the beginning of humanity – ancestral stories, stories of animals and spirit guides – whatever it might be. We as a species thrive on that. It feels like a service in a way, if the film is good enough [laughs].

Sometimes it can be devoid of a certain kind of feeling or humanity, and it becomes rote and formulaic. It’s a special magic that happens, and you can feel it. I’ve definitely walked away from projects when it didn’t feel right. But when you meet the people who are going to be involved, and it feels right, it’s all systems go [laughs].

And here I’d like to thank Jesika Farkas for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had on the craft of production design and on what went into creating “Dixieland”. The movie is out on DVD and other physical and digital formats. 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.