Production design of “Nocturnal Animals” – interview with Shane Valentino

April 2nd, 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 Shane Valentino. In the last fifteen-odd years he’s been working on a variety of productions in music videos, commercials, TV shows and feature film world. In this interview Shane talks about the differences and similarities between these fields for the art department, treating every production that does not happen in the present day as a period one, the art of conveying emotions and feelings in the visual medium of film, and the changes in the world of cinematic story telling on our screens.

The interview centers on two striking movies that Shane has worked on as the production designer in the last few years. The first is “Straight Outta Compton” that captures the formation and evolution of the music group “N.W.A.” and the effect it had on both the music industry in the late ’80s, as well as the American society at large. The second is the impeccable “Nocturnal Animals” that weaves three stories, three worlds and three visual universes in one.

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

Shane: I’ve been fascinated with cinema since I was a teenager. I started taking film criticism and film history courses in high school in Los Angeles. Our instructor, Jim Hosney, was teaching surveys of American and European cinema and that’s where I was exposed to the films of Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, Michelangelo Antonioni and others. Seeing those films, and being exposed to the themes that those filmmakers were exploring, made me even more interested in pursuing filmmaking as a career.

When I went to college, I wanted to study film as a fine art. I was looking for ways to express ideas and themes through non-commercial means. There’s a whole genre of avant-garde and experimental filmmaking and that’s where I got hooked. My mentor was a woman named Chick Strand who was pretty well-known in that world. Eventually, I went to the San Francisco Art Institute to get my MFA in experimental filmmaking. That program rounded out my education and exposed me to even more disciplines – photography, sculpture and painting.

I entered production design through a stroke of luck. I had a friend who was an artistic director on a TV show and she needed some help. I didn’t know much about what the art department did when I started working with her. But I was intrigued by the whole process and I’ve been working in the art department ever since.

Design boards for “Straight Outta Compton”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: So your start was in the TV world.

Shane: Yes. It was with the Oxygen network started by Oprah Winfrey. They were doing a lot of TV shows and that’s how I got introduced to the role of the art department. My first extensive project was with Isaac Mizrahi’s show on that network.

Through TV, I started doing commercials. I was always interested in working on feature films too. Living in NYC after finishing my graduate degree in San Francisco, I was introduced to the independent New York film scene. I started on indie films with super small art departments and budgets under $1M. It was a fantastic learning experience to see the different parts of the art department coming together on a relatively tiny budget – props, set decoration, construction, etc.  From there, I moved on to larger-budget film projects.

Design boards for “Straight Outta Compton”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: You’ve been working on music videos, commercials, TV shows and feature films. How would you compare these fields as far as the size and pace of the art department?

Shane: It depends on the budget of the project. For example, the art department for a big commercial can match what happens on a feature film or a TV project in terms of size and pace. Between film and TV, it’s usually about the same in terms of the department heads and the general size. On commercials we don’t necessarily have a construction department because it’s often outsourced to a vendor who can build aspects of the sets. But you definitely have the set dressing department, the props department, and the art department on every commercial.

I find that the difference between film and TV is mostly about pace. The TV format requires that you finish an episode in 7-8 days. As a production designer, you have to think on your feet to make these tight deadlines. You have to make decisions about how something should look as expeditiously as possible. You also learn to find locations that can accommodate a team that needs to work very quickly.

Pace is one of the reasons why a lot of us like to work on films. It depends on the budget and the amount of prep time of course, but you often have more time to create a concept or a theme, and to work through how those ideas can be fully articulated. You’re given the time to think through all the different aspects.

Design boards for “Straight Outta Compton”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: Do you find that you’re exercising different parts of your brain when you work on those different scopes?

Shane: Absolutely. This happens especially with commercials, because of the speed at which we operate. We have to distill our ideas down to the most direct solutions. Since we don’t have time to add the subtle layering that we can develop with a longer film project, we have to find other ways to create meaning. It definitely challenges me to solve problems in new ways with each and every commercial. I’m always learning something.

Kirill: Jumping a bit forward, your last two features – “Straight Outta Compton” and “Nocturnal Animals” – are set in very close past that a lot of the viewers lived through and in the present. When people ask you what you do for a living, and the answer includes these two particular productions, do you think people are surprised to hear that everything needs to be intentionally designed, no matter what is the story and when it is happening?

Shane: There are distinct design challenges within each of those projects in terms of setting.

“Straight Outta Compton” is a period film from the 1980s, a 30-year difference from the present day. There are distinctive looks and architectural elements that are critical to the time and setting of the story, especially in Los Angeles. You need to express them in a way that feels seamless. You don’t want contemporary elements in a period film to express themselves in a way that becomes a distraction. If that happens, you’re pulling the viewer out of that moment in time.

Sometimes there’s a misunderstanding about what counts as a period film. Any time you’re being asked to replicate a period that is not present day, you’re working on a period film. That makes “Straight Outta Compton” a period film. I think we did a great job of masking newer structures and showcasing the architectural hallmarks of that time in a meaningful way. It was important to include locations that were significant to the members of NWA. Even though it sometimes leans toward the nostalgic, there are moments when you have to hit those beats and show those places to have people feel that they are in 1985 or 1986 or 1990.

On the sets of “Straight Outta Compton”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

The counterpoint to that is contemporary Los Angeles seen through the eyes of “Nocturnal Animals”. It is a very specific film in and of itself, just because of the socioeconomic reality in which it was set. The world of Susan Morrow’s character is the world of the elite of Los Angeles, and it’s not often characterized in an obvious way in film. Tom Ford [writer / director] and I wanted to create a language that was a bit different from what is normally seen in depictions of Los Angeles.

And at the same time, you have this imaginary world of West Texas that Susan creates as she reads the script or the movie within the movie. That story has its own visual language. The contrast between the two spaces makes for an interesting conflict and creates meaning in a totally different way.

Kirill: Perhaps it was because “Straight Outta Compton” is set not that far in the past, in a certain way it felt like a documentary that could have been filmed during those days, before anyone knew how big of an impact NWA will have on the music industry, as well as on the society in general. And my understanding is that you’ve lived through those days, growing up in LA.

Shane: That’s right. My connection to the project was personal. I was going to high school in Los Angeles in the mid-’80s. I got exposed to early LA hip-hop and I knew and followed a lot of people who were associated with that. I was interested in the worldview of Ice Cube. I was fascinated by him as an artist and the same goes for Eazy-E and Dr Dre. Those were factors that played into my understanding of those characters. And, living in Los Angeles, I had experience with some of the spaces that they existed in, from South Central LA and Compton to Calabasas and Hollywood.

That familiarity helped me understand how to design the film so that the city of Los Angeles could become a character on its own while providing the backdrop for the trajectory of the NWA characters as they moved from their early beginnings to the untimely death of Eazy-E.

On the sets of “Straight Outta Compton”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

On the sets of “Straight Outta Compton”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: Was it much different for you, as that particular project had more people directly involved with the story. You usually have the director and, perhaps a producer, but on “Straight Outta Compton” you also had the members of the group that wanted to shape that story on screen.

Shane: It definitely made for some challenging moments. You’re also dealing with memories of four living members of NWA – Dr Dre, Ice Cube, MC Ren and DJ Yella. They have their own individual memories of what those experiences were like, which were sometimes aligned, but a lot of times they were not. We had to find compromises to make sure that a scene would function in terms of the story and the location.

The conflict was sometimes very challenging, but at the end of the day it kept us asking what were the most important elements needed to portray that particular moment. Asking those questions constantly can make for a better product.

On the sets of “Straight Outta Compton”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

On the sets of “Straight Outta Compton”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: How did “Nocturnal Animals” start for you? I’ve read that you had a lot of prep time on that film.

Shane: I did “The Normal Heart” with Larry Kramer, set in New York City in 1984. Then I moved to “Straight Outta Compton” which was set in 1985-1996. There was a fluidity from one to the next. When I started looking for my next project, I heard that Tom Ford was interested in meeting with me.

When I met with him, “Straight Outta Compton” hadn’t come out yet. He’s friends with Ryan Murphy who was the director and the producer on “The Normal Heart”. I think there was an interest in how I approached that film. At that point, I didn’t know what Tom’s film was about. Sometimes we get the script in advance of our meeting with the director, and we’re able to think about it. That way we can talk about ideas, themes and concepts, and how those can be expressed. We can talk about how certain spaces would look or feel for those characters, but I didn’t have that the first time I met with Tom. When we met, it was more to see if we would get along and if we had a similar visual vocabulary. Fortunately for me, it was an effortless and seamless conversation, and we really hit it off. We then had more meetings, and he offered me the job.

Design boards for “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

My general process is to start by collecting imagery that can best express the ideas or themes in the script. I also like to pull references from other films. These can be current films, but often I go for references from film history that, thematically, touch upon the same ideas.  I like to work that way because I think that it allows me to establish and reinforce a common visual language with the director. That was an approach that was really successful when I was working with Tom.

As you would expect, Tom has a very strong visual vocabulary. He understands architecture, he understands film history, he understands a lot of fine artists working in painting, photography and sculpture. And he also has a very keen sense of what is happening in terms of our culture presently. With all those factors behind us, it was very easy to create a common visual language and that’s what we ended up doing during those months of prep for “Nocturnal Animals”.

Design boards for “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: Would you say that it was more of an exception to have that much time in pre-production to invest into understanding and visualizing that story?

Shane: For sure. Going back to “Straight Outta Compton”, we only had nine weeks for that film. If you asked most designers, they’d ideally want at least 12-14 weeks. You have to do a tremendous amount of research in order to make sure that you are hitting all the notes that are necessary or specific to that period. It’s architecture, color, graphics etc. You need some time to do the research to get those spaces to a place where they need to be. My time on “Straight Outta Compton” was very compressed, and it made for a very challenging experience on many levels.

It’s rare to have that much time to develop a language with a director, so “Nocturnal Animals” was a unique experience. Tom comes from the fashion world, and he applies his process to the film itself. It allowed me to have more time with him, which was great. It made for an incredible and unique experience for me as a production designer.

Tom really wanted to make sure that we were exploring all the possibilities of Los Angeles. My early prep there was also to see if we could find the places in LA that would double for Texas. That’s a common approach. Often films are asked to have that kind of prep, to see if certain locations or places in the US can work as doubles for other places.

Design boards for “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: As you ended up shooting Texas scenes in the Mojave desert, was there anything particular that you had to “hide” to make it “not” look like Mojave?

Shane: The biggest design obstacle between the woods of West Texas and the Mojave is the Joshua tree. It is only indigenous to areas of Southern California and some parts of lower Arizona. You need to be conscious of elements that are unique to certain areas.

We went deep into Mojave, away from Los Angeles proper, to find open stretches of land. In that openness we were able to locate pockets that didn’t have many Joshua trees. Still, there were shots in which we had to erase trees in post-production. The farther out we went, the easier it became to find a landscape that matched West Texas.

Design boards for “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: What about the buildings in the West Texas sub-story? Were those existing buildings that you took over, or did you build some of them?

Shane: We took them over. We went there with my location manager, Stephenson Crossley. As Tony is being led through the deserts of West Texas by Ray’s gang, one of the architectural landmarks that he notices is an abandoned church. Fortunately, we were able to find an existing one that had the facade and the layout that we needed for the scene. It was serendipitous.

That doesn’t always happen though. Often it depends on the budget level of a film. The budget for this one was not huge, and we often had to find existing buildings and then modify them to get them to a place that would look like West Texas. The one building that we did construct was the trailer in which Ray rapes Tony’s wife and daughter. We built it as a set that could work for both exterior and interior shots.

On the sets of “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

On the sets of “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: Going back to what you said that you were designing two stories, there were also occasional flashbacks to the early relationship between Susan and Edward. Did these worlds feel completely separate as you were designing them, or did you want to create some kind of connectivity between them?

Shane: I was approaching the project as three films in one. There is the world in which Susan lives in Los Angeles, there is the nocturnal animals’ world of West Texas, and then there is the world of Susan and Edward’s earlier relationship shown via flashbacks of her time in New York and Austin.

The story structure allowed me to create three distinctive looks. In terms of our approach to the film, while these looks are distinctive in terms of color and texture, we were trying to create spatial overlaps.  A scene in Susan’s house would have some overlaps in terms of the layout of bathrooms, bedrooms and hallways that could also be seen in Tony’s world. On the level of style they are distinct, but spatially there are commonalities, even if they occur on a subconscious level.

Design boards for “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: If we are talking about Susan’s house in LA, I understand that you’ve spent some time finding that location. In general, how much freedom do you have in terms of how much you can change in an existing place? Does it depend on the specific particulars of the negotiations with each owner?

Shane: Absolutely. Those are the limitations of any location. The parameters are set by a combination of factors – the film schedule, the cost of the location, the terms that are dictated by the owner. All those factors go into dealing with shooting on a location.

For Susan Morrow’s house, we used a beautiful home in Malibu. Most homes there are very expensive, and the cost of filming in them is also significant. We had a limited amount of days in that space which required an abbreviated prep time. We were removing furniture and other interior design elements from the space, and then bringing in our own to reflect the world of Susan’s character.

It’s a bit of a dance that we always have to do in terms of the practical aspect of shooting in locations.

Design boards for “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

On the sets of “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: Having said that, do you have a preference between decorating an existing location and creating a set that you can completely control?

Shane: I don’t have a particular preference. I like working in both environments. Sometimes you are able to find a location that has a patina or an existing quality that you can’t necessarily duplicate when you’re constructing it on stage. There is a certain level of excitement when you’re going out to locations, because you can discover something that you didn’t expect or imagine. That discovery lends itself to creating situations that are far more robust in terms of the characters, the scenes and the moments.

At the same time, as you said, there are advantages to building environments on set. It affords you the ability to move the camera, or have the actors move through spaces, in ways that you normally can’t do on locations. Sometimes it really comes down to the dialog that happens between me, the director and the cinematographer. What is being asked of that scene? What is the movement of the camera like? How are the actors moving through that space? Where can the lights be so that they light both the environments and the actors?

I don’t necessarily have a personal preference. We have to be open to all the different possibilities of finding or building sets to help with the story.

On the sets of “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

On the sets of “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: What about the sets for the art installations in LA?

Shane: There are three distinctive spaces that we focus on outside of Susan Morrow’s home. There is the red office, the staircase and the board room for the meeting at the museum. We didn’t reference any particular LA museum. What you see was designed to fit the logic of the film.

We were creating an understanding of who Susan Morrow is, and the conflict she’s living in. We designed the stark, spartan and minimalist spaces to exaggerate her alienation and isolation from the many people in her life. We always set out to find spaces that best articulated those aspects of her character, and we were fortunate to find a staircase and a lobby and a conference room that matched.

We also wanted to highlight the artwork that was a key to promoting certain ideas and themes about her internal state. We chose Damien Hurst’s “Exquisite Pain” for the lobby, the “Revenge” painting for the mezzanine, and other artwork for her living space because these pieces reflected the emotional landscape in her head.

On the sets of “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

On the sets of “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: With that, do you think that production designers, cinematographers and directors need to have understanding of human psychology to be able to convey those inner thoughts and emotions on the screen frame? Film is a visual medium, and you wouldn’t want your audience to sit through a very detailed verbal explanation of what is going on. You perhaps would want to convey those emotions through design, architecture, costume etc.

Shane: The most important thing is to be able to articulate the emotions or the feelings you want to see expressed in that particular moment. It doesn’t always have to come through the costumes or the lighting or the space for that particular scene.

Sometimes the emphasis grows or diminishes depending on what is happening at that moment in the story. I do agree that all of us have to be aware of all those aspects. We have to be working not only with the psychology of the characters themselves, but also with the psychology of the spaces. They can also be affecting how characters are feeling, or how they are interacting with the rest of the world. Or they can also be functioning as projections of what is to come.

Films that are more interesting in terms of the cinematic experience are those films that can work on many different levels. Those are the films that I’m attracted to watching. If you are working with a group of people who are committed to working in that way, then you have these different levels of meaning all the time which build up to create a layered story. That makes for the most interesting cinematic experience.

Design boards for “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: Are you doing anything differently these days that digital has almost completely replaced film as a medium? Do you worry about how much detail those sensors capture? And perhaps now that the limitation of how much a single film magazine could hold, they just keep the camera rolling and it’s capturing more angles of the sets, and there’s that much more work that needs to be done on those sets from your perspective.

Shane: You’re asking so many different questions [laughs] in that one. In terms of presence on set and working with a magazine that is 10 minutes long [on film] versus the almost unending time for digital, it’s something that affects the director, the cinematographer and the people who are working on set specifically. It changes the dynamic and the urgency that happens on set. But that doesn’t necessarily affect my world in terms of production design.

As designers and people with the art department, we are working in advance of the shooting crew. We’re preparing spaces before the shooting crew comes in to film those sets and those scenes at the location. That hasn’t changed in terms of the feeling on sets.

But in terms of the range, of what you can see, the exposure and the amount of detail that you can see, we are often asked to add more detail to the spaces and accommodate that. I find that it’s an exploration that I embrace. It’s about the more that we can add, and the more we can see, and the more that we can actually not see. There’s the dialog that happens about what you do and do not see within the frame. It creates these environments that can have different levels of meaning.

As a designer, I’m always interested in creating as much meaning as I can within the frame, all the time. That’s the exercise that I’m the most intrigued by. The advent of the digital has pushed it, and you have to always be aware of those issues. But the level of detail that the designer puts in the frame is always subjective.

Kirill: Would you say that “Nocturnal Animals” is an example of a mid-budget production that doesn’t happen very often nowadays? There’s a bunch of very expensive sci-fi blockbusters, and a very wide field of much smaller indie productions. And it feels that what used to be the middle of that scale has largely moved, at least for now, into episodic television on prime cable and streaming services. Is that a loss is some sense, or just part of cyclical changes?

Shane: I think it’s cyclical. We don’t have to hit the panic button about certain types of genres that are being expressed through cinematic experiences. As you said, there’s a tremendous amount of energy and resources going to the tentpole productions.

I think that “Nocturnal Animals” and films of that budget level will always have a place. The number of projects that come out can shrink or grow based on how successful they are at the box office and the award ceremonies. This type of film gets attention during the award season because it’s generating a certain type of meaning for the viewer.

There is a thing that is both exciting and exhausting about our time now. As you said, both in terms of genre and style, productions like “Nocturnal Animals” are finding their way towards television in the longer or shorter formats. There’s the mini-series world with its 6-10 episodes and then you have the ongoing shows that last for seasons. For me the form is there, but the question is where does the content fit best.

That’s what we should be asking ourselves more. Where does the content fit the best? It does exist sometimes in the one-off places like in films, and sometimes it exists on streaming services like Netflix, Amazon or Hulu that create the smaller six-episode projects. This is an exciting time. We do have all these different ways of telling stories.

On the sets of “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: Sometimes it’s overwhelming for me as a viewer. There are so many stories, in ongoing episodic shows, in mini-series and in so many films that are being made. It feels like instead of choosing what to watch, I have to choose what not to watch.

Shane: I agree. The amount of content that is out there is dizzying. Sometimes we rely on word of mouth from our peers and other people to help shape the kinds of stories that we are looking for. It’s harder to navigate, but there’s also something that is exciting about it as well.

Kirill: What keeps you going in your field, despite being away from your family and friends for long stretches of time and sometimes not knowing what your next project is going to be?

Shane: It’s my intellectual curiosity about the ways in which we can express the ideas and themes within stories. Sometimes these stories are best expressed in television, sometimes it’s in film and sometimes it’s in commercials. I work in all three of those disciplines. It’s a balancing act for me, personally.

I have to be very careful and considerate about the projects I pick because of my personal life. I have a wife and two daughters. I want to have them be a part of my work life, and I want to be a part of their personal lives. It’s a constant balancing act.

In the last few years I’ve been fortunate enough to pick projects that have gotten a lot of attention. That affords me some flexibility about the projects I pick. I’m in a unique situation, but it’s always evolving. I try to involve as many people in my personal life in terms of the decisions I make about the longer format projects I take, because those have the largest impact on my family and my personal life.

And on a higher level, it’s an ongoing conversation. That’s how I find myself being able to navigate it as successfully as I can, in the best way I can. What your question is saying is that what we do is very difficult. It’s a challenge that impacts our personal lives. We are always trying to move between those two worlds as fluidly as we can. Sometimes it works well, and sometimes it doesn’t.

Design boards for “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

Kirill: And from the inside, the world of Hollywood is not as glamorous as it seems to be to people from the outside.

Shane: On the outside you’re seeing the celebrities and the end product. We often aren’t exposed in a very deep way, to the process behind making a film. How long does it take to make a film? What decisions go into it at all levels?

There is a sensitivity to that at some level. I think that people are getting a bit more savvy and gaining an understanding about what it takes to make a film or a TV show. That’s an issue of work in general. A lot of work is challenging, right? It’s not just our business that requires long hours and certain kind of focus and dedication. You can apply that to a lot of different industries.

We have an image-conscious aspect to our industry, and that makes it seem as if it’s accessible and easy. But most people who know the industry, know how difficult it is.

On the sets of “Nocturnal Animals”. Courtesy of Shane Valentino.

I’d like to thank Shane Valentino for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had on the craft of production design and on what went into creating the worlds of “Nocturnal Animals” and “Straight Outta Compton”, as well as for sharing the wealth of the supporting imagery. You can also find Shane on Instagram.

“Nocturnal Animals” is out on BluRay and other physical and digital formats. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series. Stay tuned for more interviews in the near future!