Production design of “Assassination Nation” – interview with Michael Grasley

May 16th, 2019

It’s loud. Irreverent. Vibrant. Vivid. Uninhibitedly visceral. And it’s not afraid to look at many of the issues that are polarizing our society in the last couple of years – from gender identity to women’s agency, from fascination with social media to mob mentality, and how things might look like when being outraged over the most inconsequential things is taken to its logical extreme.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Michael Grasley. In this interview he talks about this roots in the field of architecture, how art direction can make itself invisible to the audiences, choosing his projects, and his measure of success. Around these topics and more, Michael dives deep into his work on last year’s “Assassination Nation”.

Michael Grasley. Photography by Elissa Knight.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Michael: I didn’t go to film school. My path was a more circuitous route. I was always interested in design and I was always really passionate about film. When I was a teenager, I would watch all the end credits and take note of the cinematographer or the costume designer. I was passionate about film in that way – understanding how the films related to each other, or the director’s previous projects.

I went to art school and studied industrial design and later ended up going to graduate school for architecture. The thing about architecture that I loved as a student was that you work in this studio environment with a dozen people and you work crazy hours and it’s super intense. The culture of that is actually great training for working in film. You get these projects that last for 3-4 weeks, and the focus is on communicating your ideas. You have visiting designers, architects and professors from other academic institutions coming to see the work. You present to them and they critique it.

Architecture school is notorious for being harsh in a way that is not personal. It takes away being overprotective of your ideas. If it’s a strong idea and if you communicate it properly, then you have success. And if it’s not that strong of an idea, and / or if you can’t communicate it, you fail.

After grad school I got involved with design work for theater projects where I was able to work closely with the actors during the rehearsal process. That was really an amazing experience. I was living up in Seattle at the time but I had friends who were working at Ridley Scott’s company, RSA, doing commercials for a couple of big directors. They basically talked me into coming to LA. The lure of those original paychecks and the free-lance lifestyle was pretty seductive compared with what I was doing at that time.

At first I worked on art crews doing mostly commercials and music videos, but I would also do mood books for directors to present to clients. Basically putting images together into some kind of meaningful narrative for a pitch.

At a certain point one of the designers I was working for said to me “There are so many of these little films happening, why don’t you just start designing movies if that’s what you want to do?”

Kirill: Going back to your background in architecture, there you create something physical. You can get close to it, look at it from different angles, reach out your hand and touch it. How would you compare that with what you do for film or television, which might be more temporal or ephemeral?

Michael: That is true until the moment the film is released and then it lives forever. For good or for bad! I subscribe to the Roland Barthes theory that architecture and film are akin to one another. For instance, with a painting you might only glimpse at it and move on. Then compare that to cinema where you have to watch a film from beginning to end in order to understand the narrative. You might choose to walk out early, but you would also forfeit the experience. It is the same with a building. You step inside and in the logic of the architecture there is a narrative path. They both have a captive audience.

On the set of “Assassination Nation”. Photograph by Monica Lek. Courtesy Michael Grasley.

Kirill: As you found your way into the world of film, was there anything particularly surprising, as you started to get a glimpse into how the sausage is made, so to speak?

Michael: If you end up gravitating toward a career in film, you’re probably a person that enjoys seeing how the sausage is made. When I watch a film I try to appreciate the craft as I watch the story unfold – the image, its composition, the sets, the camerawork. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I sit at the back of the theater instead of losing myself in the front row.

Getting the chance to work on projects, and learning more about how things get shot and filmed is more like a view from the kitchen. I imagine that there’s a lot of cinematographers who can’t help but question the choices they see on the screen. When they see a particular flare and they recognize the lens. That’s where the sausage is really made I think. I’m not sure I would enjoy that level of technological awareness.

On the set of “Assassination Nation”. Photograph by Monica Lek. Courtesy Michael Grasley.

Kirill: What do you say when you meet somebody new, somebody not working in your field, and they ask you what you do for a living? How hard is it to convey the breadth and the complexity of what happens on and off set every day?

Michael: It is hard. It’s hard for people to disassociate a realistic representation of the world from something that’s been art directed. Which is why award recognition usually leans to period or fantasy films.

No matter the project, you start with the script and it’s just words on a page. Sometimes you start by picking the city. Then you’ve got to decide the neighborhood and which building, if you can even find a building that will work.

And when you aren’t able to make a practical location work you may need to build a set on a stage where hopefully the audience won’t even think about the art direction [laughs]? Not knowing it is a set. That’s the goal, though. You actually want people to take the scope of the work for granted.

On the set of “Assassination Nation”. Photograph by Monica Lek. Courtesy Michael Grasley.

Kirill: Is it disappointing, in a sense, that when you do your job well, it’s becomes almost invisible?

Michael: I think it’s only disappointing when the film isn’t successful. As a designer, you’re just one person that’s part of the team for just one part of the filmmaking process. You’re really only there for the prep and shoot, and then you’re gone. Then post production begins and the power of the editing phase transforms all the work that came before.

You might build a great set and have a terrific shoot, but it might not make the cut. It might not serve the story, or maybe they have to trim the scene, or maybe the performance isn’t that good. But your work isn’t really disappearing because the job is always about giving the director options. If a set gets cut I really don’t take it personally if it makes the movie better.

Kirill: How do you choose the projects that you work on? What attracts you, what makes you say yes or no?

Michael: I heard an interview with Stanley Kubrick, and he said that he often picked his projects based on genres that he hated. He didn’t like science fiction movies, so he decided to make one that he would like. Didn’t like horror films so he makes “The Shining”. His idea was that because he hated the genre he wouldn’t fetishize the conventions and create something wholly original. I love how goofy that is.

Sometimes it is a great script, but other times I might take a meeting and really love the director. If somebody reaches out to me and is interested in giving me a chance, it’s really hard for me not to try to give them a chance too.

I did a film that Mark Ruffalo directed about a guy in a wheelchair who seeks out stardom as an artist while coming to peace with his handicap. When I met with Mark, I could tell he was going to be great as a director. But I said in the meeting that movies about fictional artists are almost impossible to do. They’re sort of doomed. It’s a super hard thing to pull off.

As an example, if Jackson Pollock wasn’t based on a true story, most of the audience watching the movie “Pollack” would be confused as to why they should care about this guy who just throws paint on canvas and who’s clearly an asshole [laughs]. Instead, you watch and you know that this is a person whose work is meaningful and whose drip paintings hang in museums the world over. So you look past his asshole-ishness, and you see the drama of his struggle and it is a compelling story.

Anyway, I went into that meeting with Mark, and I told him that although I thought he was crazy to try to make the movie, I really liked the impossibility of it, and he ended up giving me the job.

On the set of “Assassination Nation”. Photograph by Monica Lek. Courtesy Michael Grasley.

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

Michael: The writer / director Sam Levinson and I go way back. I did his first film, and we developed a shorthand language by the end of that project that we were able to pick up again right where we had left it. I feel like you spend a lot of time at the start trying to make sure that you’re on the same page with your director, so having previously worked together was nice because we arrived in New Orleans and got straight to it.

Sam brought in Marcell Rév as the director of photography and the three of us scouted locations that might work for our fictional town. We had to find interior and exterior shots for half a dozen houses as well as civic buildings and some stage sets. In my office I usually do a giant timeline of the film and attach a mix of location photos, reference inspiration and palette swatches to it. Over the course of prep it turns into a de-facto mural of the movie.

Kirill: One of the things I liked about the film is how you portray the comfortable lifestyle of the four main characters – middle-class girls that don’t lack for pretty much anything from the financial perspective. Did you have any specific discussions with the director and the DP about the houses they live in, and the middle-class lifestyle that surrounds them?

Michael: We scouted a lot of houses that you might call “grandma houses” with design details that haven’t been updated in any way and had a lot of different things going on. A lot of houses that are built today tend to look the same, stainless steel and granite countertops for the kitchen for example. Those things make for a nice house, but they are incredibly boring on camera.

Our attitude was always making sure that every single scene had a lot of visual interest. A “More is More – why not?” kind of thing.

As a designer, you want to wrap your head around what kind of a film it’s going to be. Is it going to be scary? Is it going to be suspenseful? Will adding a detail of humor or kitsch subvert the suspense of a scene. Sam really didn’t see why we couldn’t have our cake and eat it too, so that was something that I struggled with on occasion.

For instance, in the script there’s a scene where the girls are upstairs when the s**t starts to hit the fan in the story, and they’re all wearing matching red vinyl coats. I remember asking Sam “Why are they wearing red vinyl coats” [laughs]. He loved it because it was an homage to a Japanese exploitation film. I also think the coats remind the audience that not everything will be or needs to be explained. They may just have these matching coats and they just put them on to be silly. It also sets up the craziness of the third act. The irreverence of that red coat detail helped me to let go of a lot of things, too.

Kirill: When the story focuses on characters that are going through experiences that might not be close to your daily life, and you get into exploring and creating the world for those characters, how do you know that you’re “ready for it”, so to speak?

Michael: I have thought about that, yeah. I know designers that go into the interview and they have color palettes mapped out for all the characters, for example. I always feel uncomfortable doing that.

My preference is to just gather ideas and then wait and see for a bit. I’m basically stalling [laughs]. My idea is to stall long enough to see more of the locations or the costume options. Rachel Dainer-Best was the costume designer on “Assassination Nation” and she brought the most to defining the characters. The costume designer just has a closer relationship with the actors in that way.

I sort of see it as an onion. You have all these layers that build out from the actor and what they’re trying to craft. That first layer really is hair and makeup and costume choices. So you start to see who this character might be based on the actors choices with the costume designer. The next layers out might be their car or their bedroom, and then their house, work, etc. My design work might get less rigorous with each successive layer getting less dogmatic. Anomalies can turn into increasing levels of randomness as you work your way out.

Kirill: You mentioned the sequence where the girls are upstairs and the mob is about to kidnap them. Was there anything particular you did to allow that camera movement up and down, around the house, as well as inside and out?

Michael: That was one of the first houses we found but at the time we thought that it might be great as a party house because it was kind of crazy and kooky. It had been damaged in one of the hurricanes and sat empty for years. We have a party scene early on in the film, and we were thinking that maybe that would be the place to shoot it, because it would be dark with a lot of people and we wouldn’t have to spend a lot of money cleaning it up.

It stayed on our board as a party house option while we searched for a different house that we could do a continuous shot that bounces from interior to exterior while the mob descends on the girls.

It became increasingly apparent that we really needed a house we that we could own for this sequence. We were going to be there for more than a week of shooting and the scene involved gunshots in the walls and there was going to be a lot of blood. So suddenly that house became our best option even though there was a ton of work to do on it.

The owner of the house didn’t live in New Orleans and didn’t really care what we wanted to do. I think he thought we were going to fix the house up – which we did, only to then turn around and destroy it again [laughs]. The owner allowed me to go in there and do whatever was needed. We could cut holes in walls to accommodate camera movement or allow for special effects as needed.

On the set of “Assassination Nation”. Photograph by Monica Lek. Courtesy Michael Grasley.

The camera move starts in the street as a techno-crane dolly shot that tracks around the house in order to follow a choreographed invasion of bad guys. They’re all breaking into different parts of the house and trying to capture the girls and the shot seems to go on forever without a cut.

The entire front of that house was covered in brush and crazy trees, so I knew we needed to redo all the landscaping and clear the windows because you needed to see into the house and not obstruct the dolly track.

I’m a big fan of making paper models. A SketchUp model is great at communicating what you want to do when you know what you want to do, but if you’re still proving concepts and trying to generate ideas, I think a paper model is better. It’s so crude and abstract and you can sit around it as a group to figure things out. If there was an idea for a camera move, you just grab the scissors and cut a hole. It lets the shot drive the design process.

The paper model bounced back and forth between the art department, the cinematographer and the director. Then we started to go in there and think about the color palette which changes over the course of the shot. The whole house was transformed by the time we started placing our set dressing to compliment the camera moves.

I’ve since heard that the house has been torn down by a new owner. Now it only lives in film.

Kirill: If we can talk about one more sequence on “Assassination Nation”, I’d love to hear more about the main character (Lily) being attacked in her neighbor’s daughter bedroom, and then as she runs into the bathroom, there was that a bit over-the-top graphical violence with lots of blood. Does that go back to trying to take the edge off of it and make it a bit less tense for the viewer?

Michael: The exterior of that house is established as being across the street from the mob invasion house, but there was only a tiny room upstairs at the actual house and once again we were dealing with blood and an overhead camera shot that would be impossible to shoot at an actual location. So we decided early on to build the entire upstairs as a set. It landed on the last day of shooting so we were able to work on that little by little and refine the space. The room you’re talking about is the little girl’s bedroom. She’s about 7, and the room is sort of a dollhouse. It’s filled with pastel colors, and has a cotton candy “My Little Pony” vibe that we knew would contrast nicely with the intensity of the blood. That contrast is over the top but I’m not sure that makes the violence less intense.

On the set of “Assassination Nation”. Photograph by Monica Lek. Courtesy Michael Grasley.

The script simply had a bathroom off the bedroom, but we added a hallway connection that grew from 4 feet to 16 feet long in order to exaggerate her escape. We also added louvered closet doors in the hallway that created this really incredible lighting effect that our actress runs past to escape her attacker. The camera leads her into the bathroom and then pivots above her to end in an overhead. That’s what was great about building it as a set. We could remove the entire top of it and look down on her. This part of our film shifts into horror. John Carpenter’s “Halloween” was also a huge influence on the film.

On the set of “Assassination Nation”. Photograph by Monica Lek. Courtesy Michael Grasley.

Kirill: Are you sad to see the sets that you’ve worked for weeks or months getting torn down by the end of shooting? Do you feel some kind of loss or regret to see them gone?

Michael: Never. I feel the opposite. The more destroyed they get, the more they’ve been used. I think you have more anxiety while you’re building the sets. They get dressed and they seem ready, but there’s a little bit of anxiety at that point. You wonder if it will work as planned for the needs of the camera and the actors.

Sometimes we’ve done work just in case it might be needed and it may never come into play. So if the set gets totally destroyed, I’m thrilled [laughs] because then you know that it’s been properly documented. It’s a huge relief because you know the camera captured the potential of the set.

On the set of “Assassination Nation”. Courtesy Michael Grasley.

Kirill: There are so many hands involved in making the final product, some of them stepping in after your part is done. What goes through your head when you are sitting down and getting ready to watch the final cut, which might be months after you last worked on it?

Michael: I had the opportunity to see a rough assembly and honestly, it is disturbing. It makes you appreciate everything that happens in post-production. There is a lot of polishing and tightening during the editing phase. This is before the color timing or the sound mix. So, of course all the dialogue feels flat and it is a real challenge to see past all of that. Frankly I’m amazed that the director doesn’t have a nervous breakdown because it feels amateurish without all of those adjustments. When you watch the rough cut, for me, that is just disturbing [laughs].

Then I saw the film again at Sundance. It premiered at a midnight screening and that was a dream come true. It’s probably the best experience I’ve ever had with an audience. People were a little rowdy because everyone had already been drinking. They didn’t walk in wearing the hat of a critic. They were just having fun, screaming at the screen, shouting and laughing. As a movie experience it was everything that I knew Sam our director was hoping for.

On the set of “Assassination Nation”. Photograph by Monica Lek. Courtesy Michael Grasley.

Kirill: Do you look for some kind of validation or success? If so, how do you define success? Is it critical acceptance, the acceptance of your peers, the audience, or maybe the financial numbers at the box office?

Michael: The measure of success, at least for me, happens during the last few days of shooting when you see that you’re going to make it [laughs]. Maybe that comes from my past experience doing music videos where the only concern is that it look really cool and you finish on time.

If the critics love it I’m happy for the director, actors and producers. And I feel happy for the investors who put down the money to do the project. Hopefully it leads to more projects with them in the future.

On the set of “Assassination Nation”. Photograph by Monica Lek. Courtesy Michael Grasley.

Kirill: If you look back at productions that you’ve been involved with a few years ago, what stays with you?

Michael: Each project was so different. It’s one of the things that makes it exciting and fresh. Being able to start with the words on the page and to have conversations with people that are creative in their own right, working together to figure it out. It hasn’t been boring, that’s for sure.

When you’re just starting out, you admire the work of other designers and project onto them an almost mythic wisdom to the their craft. Then you start to get these opportunities yourself, and because each project is different, you realize you will always be figuring it out as you go. I’ve tried to learn to roll with the punches and not feel self-conscious about that.

I’m also a big fan of a lot of the other folks who’ve been interviewed by you, so I have to say it is pretty great to get a chance to talk to you about my work on “Assassination Nation” and be in their company.

Kirill: What makes you stay in this field?

Michael: Putting together an art team is exciting. You sort of feel like a you’re part of an elite organization [laughs] that can assemble with a few phone calls. You come together, you descend on a project, you hit the ground running, and you’re going 100 miles an hour. The mix of people is always different so the dynamic becomes different too.

And I think it is exciting to be part of a project that takes narrative or aesthetic risks. Not always knowing what will work is the artistic part.

I know that you are interested in the role of digital technology and how that might drive the process, but I feel like all of those things are secondary to me. You don’t really want to experiment too much with the technology because you don’t want to experiment at the expense of your director or the people who are financing the film – at least to the point where the risk of failure is too great.

That is true for hiring crew as well. Talent is just one part of the equation. It means more to have a reference from someone you know who worked with that person and had a great experience. You sure don’t want to gamble on that. You need to be surrounded by a team that you can rely on first and then the talent is a bonus.

Knowing which tools you should reach for, whether that be personnel or equipment, is the craft part.

Kirill: Does it feel sometimes random to see what strikes a chord with the audience? I didn’t notice it when I was watching “Assassination Nation” in the theater when it was out, but as I was rewatching it for the interview, there’s a lot of references to the social and political issues that we’re experiencing, and not just in the US. It’s the hatred, the mob mentality, taking things out of proportion and being outraged over the most inconsequential things. Maybe in 2015 it wouldn’t strike as hard as it does in 2018 or 2019.

Michael: That’s definitely true. The attention that “Assassination Nation” received at Sundance was great. At the screening people were cheering. The reviews were also really polarizing, which I also think was great. There’s a bit of a formula to film trends that says “check these boxes, please”. I hope the festivals continue to celebrate projects that try to shake things up a bit.

And here I’d like to thank Michael Grasley 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 world of “Assassination Nation”, as well as for sharing the background materials for the interview. The film is out on BluRay, and other physical and digital formats. You can also find Michael on Vimeo. His next project is “Euphoria” and it premieres on HBO this summer.

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!