Production design of “Elizabeth Harvest” – interview with Diana Trujillo

September 12th, 2018

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Diana Trujillo. In this interview she talks about the art and craft of production design, finding stories that resonate, building lasting relationships in the industry, and creating worlds that feel authentic for the camera and the viewers. Around these topics and more, Diana looks back on her work on the first season of critically acclaimed “Narcos”, and dives deep into the spellbinding “Elizabeth Harvest”, a story of a brilliant scientist, his all-consuming obsession and a single-minded, tragic pursuit of the long-lost past.

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

Diana: I was born in Colombia and my original field of study was architecture. In the middle of doing that degree, I went to New York for about a year, intending to study photography. I had a certain conflict between two dimensional and three dimensional art design, and before ending my career in architecture, I really wanted to see what was behind photography.

When I was there, I lived with some Colombian friends that were studying film in NYU. During my photography studies at the new school, I started to play with them to do kind of art direction. I started learning what art direction was and it made me consider that maybe this is something that I could be really good at. I’ve always been in love with cinema and I’m fond of art, but what I did not know was that you could choose that as a way of life.

I went back to Colombia and I finished my degree in architecture, but I always kept on coming back to that time in New York. As those friends of mine graduated, they went back to Colombia and created a production company. Andi Baiz was going to do his first feature called “Satanas”, and Rodrigo Guerrero the film producer called me asking me to be Andi’s visual consultant. I didn’t really study anything yet about the lenses or Set design, per se, but I knew about depth of field, layers and principles of architecture, photography and the basics of set decoration.

On the set of “Undertow”. Photography by H. Alvarez. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

I pictured everything in my mind, but I hadn’t put everything together. That collaboration was a turning point for me, and I never went back to architecture.

I was basically making all the aesthetic decisions with him. He had his production designer, art director, costume designer and makeup designer, and I remember this experience because nobody knew who I was. I was next to him and he asked my opinion on costumes, decorations and everything else. After that I decided that I really wanted to go into art direction.

My grandmother had a really big house with many different rooms and pieces of furniture and objects of many eclectic styles. I always liked that space, and I used to ask her to let me use the furniture. I started bringing these crazy collection pieces and showing them to my directors. After doing a couple of movies as a set decorator, they started asking me to be the art director. It all happened very fast. I used to draw the plans and to sketch the perspective of how a space for a frame will look. I had it in me, but I didn’t know about it until I started doing it.

Still from “Elizabeth Harvest”. Production design by Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: If I can bring you back to your first productions, was there anything particularly surprising or unexpected for you?

Diana: What really caught my attention was that moment when the director says “Action”, and everybody has to stay silent and not move at all. It’s like the time freezes for a while. You have to really listen to what they’re saying. When I watched it, it looked like a ritual. It was the perfect place to be in, because you’re creating something in that moment.

You’re creating through the director of photography, through his camera. You can feel it around you, there is the silence, and then you see it. You’re looking at this tiny monitor,and you are looking at the work of 80 people. I remember saying that this is something that I really enjoy doing. Definitely it’s magical to be there, to be creating as a team.

Kirill: Does it help that you can see on those monitors what the camera sees?

Diana: I always had this relationship with cameras, as I also have a background in photography. I don’t think it’s a problem if you have a good connection with the director and the director of photography, and we all have a clear idea of what we want to tell during the scene. We should want to see the same things. If the concept is right, it’s going to flow and it will look great.

Some art directors really struggle with how their work sometimes is framed. Sometimes you do a lot of work, and you design a 360 set and then the director decides that he’s just going to look through the eye of the main character with a small lens. But if you know that this is going to be the treatment, you know it’s part of your job.

Still from “Elizabeth Harvest”. Production design by Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: On the topic of designing complete environments, do you think it’s also important for you to give this whole set to the actors to feel like the real thing, even if I as a viewer don’t see most of it?

Diana: I definitely have a connection with actors while I’m designing. For example, sometimes they do have favorite colors in their mind for the character. When we design props, I try to invite the main characters to the show-and-tell if they have the time. If I can coordinate that with the assistant art director, I invite them to come and maybe choose some of those props.

We did that with the actors of “Roa”, as they were all present during the show and tell. We also did it with Wagner Moura on “Narcos” for the first episode. He was there during the creative process, and he saw the development of the fake cocaine bricks and marijuana joints that Pablo used to smoke. Together we decided on the specific glass for his drinks and his personal weapon. It’s fun to extend such an invitation.

I worked on “¡Qué Viva La Música!” from Director Carlos Moreno that screened as “Liveforever” at Sundance. Everybody was completely immersed in the design process, from the director to the producers. We were all living the story through objects and color. There I met Paulina Davila who was playing the main character, Maria del Carmen, and we went through that journey together. She’s a very good friend now. She was basically art directing with me and Carlos, and she was so excited by that character. We designed the wall in her room together. She was so creative. I really like to have fun, and if you have the time and the space to do it, everybody is invited.

Still from “Elizabeth Harvest”. Production design by Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: How would you describe what you do?

Diana: It has a lot of layers. If you don’t have passion, or if you don’t like the script, the job can be difficult. There was this one time when from the very beginning I felt that I couldn’t really visualize what I’m reading. That was the first time it happened, because when I’m reading something, I’m creating the visual layers in my head. That’s how my brain thinks.

If I see a new house or I’m looking for an apartment, I always start putting together the colors or textures of the furniture. It is impossible for me to see an empty space right now. My brain already does it automatically.

Still from “Narcos” season 1. Production design by Diana Trujillo.

It’s easier if you have a connection and if you believe in the story. It helps if you know where to get the research. It helps if you are related to it or feel like a part of the audience. That happened to me with “Narcos”. Me and my family lived in Bogotá around the same time as the story line in the first few episodes, and when I was reading the script, it felt like I already lived it. It was easy to start visualizing it.

So the creative process is not the difficult part. It is more difficult to not pay attention to your family for at least six months. I now have a little daughter, and I have to take her with me. She has to move with me to wherever I have to go for the film.

Kirill: Do you have a shorter version of it when you talk to somebody new that you meet at, let’s say, a party?

Diana: I create a visual universe for a story. The story has certain characters in a specific place at a specific time. Everything that is around that has to be aesthetically coherent and cohesive.

Kirill: How would you compare the art form of architecture and the art form of film? In one you create something physical, something that can be looked at from different angles. In the other it’s perhaps more temporal, something that you can’t reach out and touch.

Diana: It’s definitely not as three-dimensional as a cathedral. You can feel the truth and realism of architecture. The materials and the engineering are real, and that is what I miss in architecture. It’s the feeling that this is something that is permanent. You look at Machu Picchu, and it’s a miracle. It’s been built stone by stone, in the perfect place at the perfect moment. It’s completely different from what I do. This is the reason I went to study architecture in the first place.

I don’t think that in film we do real architecture. We do create ephemeral architecture by layers of information trying to mimic the reality or fiction of imagined spaces. That was art direction and production design 20-50 years ago. Now we have new technologies, with 360 cameras and VR.

Still from “Elizabeth Harvest”. Production design by Diana Trujillo.

I just worked on this film by Ang Lee that was shot part in Cartagena, for Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas. There was this amazing camera that records every piece of information. It’s all new technology, like almost a 360 experience, and the actors couldn’t really wear that much makeup, because that camera sees everything. You can not cheat like you used to. Art direction right now is less about faking reality, but instead more about making the reality look good.

Cartagena is a colonial city in Colombia, and we were faking a part of the historical wall that has been there for almost 500 years. Our scenic painters were having a lot of trouble doing it, and we’re talking about masters of their craft. They’ve been doing this forever, but then the camera will tell you if that’s real dust of many ages accumulated or just sprayed cocoa powder. Sometimes we use cooking ingredients to fake colors, damage and dust.

It has to be honest. If it’s honest for your eye against the light, the camera is going to feel that it is real and not just something made for a movie. That’s my new point of view.

Still from “Elizabeth Harvest”. Production design by Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: You talked a little bit earlier about the alignment between you and the cinematographer on how to tell the story visually. When you do consider joining a new production do you want your sensibilities to be aligned with those of the director and the cinematographer?

Diana: Definitely. When I started working in this field, I worked with my friends. It was like a utopia. The cinematographer was my friend. The producer was my friend. The director was my friend. Even the actors were my friends. It was like this for 3-4 years before we all started growing.

Then I was called by Javier Fuentes-León, a Peruvian director to do a film called “Undertow”, originally named “Contracorriente”. He picked me by coincidence during a Skype meeting, and he also had a recommendation for this Colombian cinematographer, Mauricio Vidal and a Colombian actor named Manolo Cardona. It was a Peruvian-Colombian co-production, and the three of us made the colombian contribution. We went together for the first time to work abroad and it was magical. You can call it crazy, but I always feel that whenever you have a great crew, it happens straight away. The minute you get together to scout for locations, magical things start to happen. I already have the story in my mind, and it’s like you turn into a scanner. I don’t know how it works. We get into a van, and then everything starts happening. We still remain very close friends after all these years because of those shared experiences and unique moments that will stay with us forever.

If you have the concept and the treatment is cleared with the director, then both the cinematographer and the production designer are working for it to happen. If it’s flowing and we are all connected, it will look good on camera.

Still from “Narcos” season 1. Production design by Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: How was your work on “Narcos”?

Diana: They wanted a Colombian designer to create the look of this unique story, and a realistic yet appealing ambience. I created the whole mood and feel, and designed the Art treatment for whole of first season. I did the final lookbook, mood boards and the overall color palette for this season.

That first sentence in the first episode when they say that magical realism is what happens when something is too strange to believe – that was part of my pitch. That was my introduction approach to the producers and director. I said that I wanted to treat things like magical realism, because Pablo was like that for Colombians. He was too strange to believe and so real at the same time. He changed the history of our country in such a short period of time. He flew an airplane from Africa with all of these exotic jungle animals, and he put them on his farm at Hacienda Nápoles as decoration. I remember when I was about 8 years old, I went there with my father and it was like a zoo or a safari, but it was not, because it was his house opened to the public. I saw hippos and giraffes in his backyard, at that time he opened it to the public, and it was a kind of magical realism at that point.

Color palette for “Narcos”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

I always thought of Pablo as a maker. You would turn on the local news and you hear that Pablo had the Rolling Stones at Hacienda Nápoles the night before. There were rarely pictures, but you knew it was true – because why not? Some stay as urban myths to date, but I always like to think them as facts. He could do anything he wanted. He was the richest man on Earth in 1982. This was my pitch to Jose Padhilla, the Brazilian director.

I created this world, and from the very first episode you can see how different and not cliché this version of narco traffic is. In my first presentation I said that for me Pablo had a really “unique” taste. I stayed there for eight months. The prep for the product concept was almost six months and I was there for a couple of months of shooting, and then I decided to give it a little space.

Lookbook for “Narcos”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: You had a strong emotional connection to this story, coming to it from what you’ve experienced in your childhood. In general, do you want to be connected to the story? Can it interfere with your job if it goes too deep?

Diana: In this case it got personal, and definitely that’s not a good thing when that happens. If it gets personal, you really want to tell the story as you need it. You want real things and you want the story to be told in an honest way. You don’t want to make it just look pretty, or to to exaggerate anything for audience reasons. You don’t want to put a lot of blood where it shouldn’t be. You don’t want to put words where there is no need for them. You really want to clean this path and heal through the process if possible.

Still from “Narcos” season 1. Production design by Diana Trujillo.

Sometimes it gets a little complicated. It happens when, for example, the directors are telling their own stories. If they wrote the script and in that story there is someone that is playing their mother or their brother, and they are directing a scene, you can see they’re struggling when they look at the monitor. They are living it… again. It’s a dramatic scene about yourself and they don’t really say it, but you can see when it hurts. But it’s creation. It’s part of art, this is a way of looking at it.

I learned a lot from “Narcos”. That experience made me what I am right now. When I’m reading a new story, I always know from the very beginning if I’m going to do it or not.

Kirill: Moving on to talk about “Elizabeth Harvest”, how did it start for you?

Diana: The first time I read the script from Director Sebastián Gutierrez, I felt I really wanted to do that film. The way it’s written is unique and original. It’s not a typical way of portraying a lab fiction or cloning individuals in a series, or some sci-fi story about creating a kind of Frankenstein’s monster.

I really liked what we accomplished with that universe. It wasn’t supposed to be in Bogota, or in any specific place, but we did film it there. It was one of the times when my background in architecture was helpful. The director and the cinematographer spent a lot of time searching for the right house. It is hard to find a house in Colombia that has a clean structure. Our location manager was showing us a lot of narco mansions. They were big, but not right for this story.

Lookbook for “Elizabeth Harvest”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

We ended up using four different houses. I found the main house through my architect/artist Colombian friend Carlos Granada. I knew he built something like this for a special family, but I’ve never been there. He told me the story behind it, and I said maybe this is what we were looking for. I called him one night, and the day after he called the owners and asked them to use their house in our movie. They didn’t want to let us in at first, and we had to convince them, and actually pitch for them. Afterwards they were very much in love with the story of the film. They also had a connection with the script somehow. So it was meant to be.

Everything fell into place, and then we started creating this universe. Sebastian the director had the complete vision in his mind, but he didn’t have specific architecture style or colors and textures. He described each one of the spaces to us, but they were not connected yet. I had to create a visual map of the house, and build the house projection around that. We couldn’t find everything in one house, so we had to go and create the library and chimney somewhere else. We had to create the exterior and the entrance to the parking somewhere else and then build a couple of sets on stage and recreate the exterior in CGI.

Floor plans for “Elizabeth Harvest”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

We also built on stage. We built her bedroom, walk-in closet and bathroom on stage, and the lab. It had to be connected to the underground corridor, so we mimicked this set to look like the original main house but with a different texture. It had to feel like it is underground, so it is made of concrete but with the same modular rhythm of the real one.

It was beautiful to work on this film. Everyone was trying to make it special. We didn’t want it to feel like Colombia, and the director didn’t want it to feel like any specific place. It had to be universal. The color palette for the film is different. We used a neutral autumn palette, with some accents of reds and purples, inspired by the different human blood hues.

The other part that brought the color to it was the costume design. Each one of the Elizabeths had their own personality, and the only way to show this was through costume. That was another layer that gave it a special twist.

Lookbook for “Elizabeth Harvest”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: Was there anything special for the flashback sequences that go back to Claire joining Henry at his house to work on his project?

Diana: The cinematographer and the Director had a color lighting vocabulary for different moods in the film. You can see the ambiance change when she’s happy or moody. There was always some kind of incidental color in the background complementing the art direction. If you look at the flashbacks, they all had another lavender blue to aubergine purple tone. It’s quite noticeable. There also are changes in furniture to show it’s a different moment in time. Before the Elizabeths the house was totally minimal and more masculine.

Lookbook for “Elizabeth Harvest”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: As you were shooting on all these different locations, how do you make sure that it feels the same place in the final film?

Diana: You bring different layers to the sets. I always break it down to layers – architecture, set decoration, props, costume design, makeup. And then there is another layer that I call lighting scenography.

You can see that this house has circular patterns imprinted in the concrete shell. We basically used this everywhere else. I created that world in each one of the other houses, mimicking this specific architectural detail. We used a lot of velvet everywhere in furniture. There was always a velvet piece somewhere. There was always something connected to animals or erotic art. There were mirrors and reflective surfaces everywhere.

Lookbook for “Elizabeth Harvest”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: How do you keep it visually interesting to the viewer, as the storyline is confined to this one house?

Diana: We had conversations about that. We wanted to make it special so that it wouldn’t get boring to look at the same decoration everywhere in the house. That’s why we did the wine cellar in a different style. The art room had a more accented red palette. We had a plant room where he was growing the orchids, and it had a totally new style approach, but you only see a flash of it.

We had a lot of fun with the lab. It was supposed to be minimalistic, something a bit like an Apple Store. We wanted to play with light and let the light tell us what to look at. That was a fun collaboration with the director of photography.

Still from “Elizabeth Harvest”. Production design by Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: How did you approach creating the lab? How much time went into planning and building that set?

Diana: They wanted to have specific lights with different RGB colors that he was going to work with. I think it looks different from the house, but it has the same visual approach that everything else has.

There is only one piece of live nature that you can see in the moment when she first opens the door. There’s a part of an underground rock opposite that door, as the house is supposed to be built into the cliff.

Lookbook for “Elizabeth Harvest”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: Going back to the different houses you used for the film, how much did you change in each one?

Diana: Everything. The only thing we didn’t touch in the main house was the actual architecture. Everything else was the decoration that we brought in. The entire set decoration style was built from the ground up.

If you look at the bedroom and the lab that were built on stage, we designed some furniture for those. The chairs in the bedroom, for example, were inspired by a piece of furniture from 1920s. The main character is a Nobel prize winner, and I wanted him to have this collection of very nice special pieces. These pieces tell you a little bit of his background, like Bauhaus or an Adolf Loos piece. Sometimes an object tells a story, and that’s what that furniture did.

We had flowers everywhere, but we didn’t want it to look like a flower shop. Maybe there are a couple of scenes where you see too many candles and flowers. It was his obsession.

Lookbook for “Elizabeth Harvest”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite scene or set in the movie?

Diana: I don’t have any favorite set. I really liked it all. I think we created something original, something different from everything else. It was mostly a cold palette for the interior of his personal spaces. The more public it was, the warmer it got. It is a mind of a cold person and how he reacts to society. You can definitely feel his personality and his dark side. I’m very proud of the styling we did to show that.

Kirill: How does it feel to see your sets being torn down when the production ends?

Diana: Sometimes it’s difficult to watch. I did a film set in 1949 in Colombia called “Roa”. Around 60% of it was exteriors. We made another layer of how the city of Bogotá looked like back then, and we did it on the real exteriors. That one really hurt. We did a whole street with shops and signs from 1950s, with a theatre and all, and it looked so beautiful. I really wanted it to stay like that. You go to a location and you do some changes, and people also want it to stay like that. They want to keep it – from the colors to the furniture to the lamps. If they like it, they often want you to leave it, and feel a part of the story through the art direction.

Lookbook for “Elizabeth Harvest”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

Sometimes you do change people’s lives. Last year I was in Dominican Republic doing a 10-episode show called “Rubirosa” based on the 1950s playboy and General Trujillo. It’s not out yet, but will be soon. They loved what we did and it was a great experience. No one wanted to put it back. Sometimes you feel like you contribute to people’s lives because they want to leave their houses as part of the story, and they feel proud in some way to be part of the screen.

Kirill: Looking back at your productions, what stays with you after some time passes?

Diana: There is always the human part. I always make new friends, as I get close to the people I work with. We create a family each time we work together, especially with my teammates. After you spend three or four months with the crew, it’s difficult to say goodbye. Those friendships and alliances stay with me. That’s the good part. That is why I have this studio called “MOOD” – to stay connected and, as much as possible, share a creative path with these artists.

Whenever you work in a film, you then feel like an expert in something. It is real. I did this series about a Colombian boxing champion, and after six months of working on it I am suddenly an expert in boxing rings. I know all the legal specifications, what the right materials are, all the World champions of four decades, etc.

After “Pescador” and “Narcos” I got myself a reputation as the best fake cocaine brick producer in Colombia [laughs]. Not that I loved it, but something like that stays with you. I got a call from a producer in Mexico later asking me if I could sell some of these bricks to them for another production. They were really nice on camera and easy to work with for the actors.

Still from “Narcos” season 1. Production design by Diana Trujillo.

Sometimes I design custom-made furniture or objects or wall papers, or create posters or art pieces, and the directors or the producers or the actors or the location owners want to have them in their houses. Sometimes I have to go, and then they want me to redecorate their houses.

I also have a little bit of each one of my films in my house. You’re a collector of these stories, and they now have to live together in just one space. It’s not like my house looks like a set, but there’s something different to it. It’s very interesting.

Lookbook for “Elizabeth Harvest”. Courtesy of Diana Trujillo.

Kirill: You mentioned that you spend a lot of time away from your family and friends, and the hours are pretty long. What makes you stay in the industry?

Diana: It’s addictive. When I read a script and I like it, and I can’t fall asleep during that night, I know I am going to make it. When that happens, I’m always sure that I’m going to be happy on set, even if it feels difficult or challenging.

I met my husband 15 years ago, so he knows the process. He knows when I get excited. Back around 2010 I used to do 3 to 4 films a year. Right now I am very specific of what I want. We split our time between US and Colombia. For example, I really wanted to do that Ang Lee movie with Guy Hendrix Dyas. That was an opportunity to do something different, so we moved to Cartagena for 4 months. Or when I did “Rubirosa” with my producer friends Manolo Cardona and brothers from 11:11 Films who are like family to me, we moved for 6 months to the beautiful Dominican Republic.

When that happens, I’m always going to be open to keep on working on my career, and to travel if necessary to follow the next story.

And here I’d like to thank Diana Trujillo for graciously agreeing to answer a few questions I had on the art and craft of production design, and on what went into creating the worlds of “Elizabeth Harvest”, as well as for sharing the supporting imagery. The film is out now in digital formats, and will be available on BluRay in December 2018.

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