Production design of “El Camino” – interview with Judy Rhee

December 15th, 2019

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it’s my pleasure to welcome back Judy Rhee. In this interview she talks about the changes in the art department in the last few years that follow the rising demand for original content, the blurring lines between storytelling in film and in episodic productions, what defines success and what keeps her going. Around these topics and more, Judy talks about her work on “Jessica Jones” and “Better Call Saul”, and dives deep into creating and crafting the world of “El Camino”.

Kirill: Since we spoke last back in 2012, you’ve done quite a few productions, including “Jessica Jones”, “Better Call Saul” and your latest “El Camino”. Has anything changed for you in general in the art department in these last few years?

Judy: It has changed a lot not just in the art department, but in the industry in general, because there’s a greater demand for original content. It has increased the volume of work not only in New York but nationwide and possibly worldwide. There’s a lot more work to choose from. It’s mostly streaming and TV. A lot of interesting projects that have come my way have been mostly in TV. I still like to do feature films, but there isn’t as much movie work as there are for TV.

In 2017 I worked on “Jessica Jones” Season 2, and that was a really great project. It was one of many Marvel streaming shows that was shooting in New York at the time. It was a great opportunity for me, because it was the first time I worked on something that involved a lot of stunts. It was interesting to design with that in mind, knowing that certain walls had to break a specific way, or specific elements had to collapse on cue. It was a fun and challenging project.

Because there is so much original content being made, there are also higher expectations to make your show stand out from the others. That drives the art department to make it as visually interesting and original as possible.

After “Jessica Jones” I worked on “Better Call Saul” Season 4 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. That was a lot of fun and another huge honor for me to work on as I was also a fan of “Breaking Bad” and of “Better Call Saul”, so I was thrilled to get the call. It’s definitely an added bonus to work on shows that you’ve watched and been a fan of.

I met Vince Gilligan while working on “Better Call Saul”, and I was called a few months after we wrapped to work on “El Camino”. We finished shooting “El Camino” about a year ago, which was recently released on Netflix.

The last 5-6 years have been non-stop for me work-wise. My first TV job was in 2013 on a show called “Alpha House” with Amazon. It was one of their first original series that they introduced – before people knew Amazon was doing original content. I worked on the pilot and two seasons with writer/show-runner Garry Trudeau.

After that, I worked on “Patriot” with Steve Conrad, another Amazon show. The pilot was shot in Montreal and then we did Season 1 in Chicago and Prague. That was also a great project with interesting & original writing. All these projects I have worked on had great writing. I feel very fortunate to have worked with such great writers, show-runners and directors.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

Kirill: With this variety of productions on Amazon, Netflix and AMC, some releasing episodes on a weekly basis and others releasing the whole season at once, does it feel that the line between what is a movie, what is a TV show and what looks like a TV show but might be a 10-hour long movie is no longer as distinct as it used to be?

Judy: That’s one way to look at it. Some of these shows are like extended films, depending on how it’s available. Some shows you do have to wait a week for the next episode. Certainly, viewing habits have changed because of how the formats have altered. A lot of people watch the entire season in a weekend, so it is like watching a 10-hour movie.

The approach in shooting these shows depends on the program. Sometimes you have all the scripts up front, so you can prep it like one long movie. But more often than not you don’t have all the scripts up front, so you’re getting the information as it’s happening, so you don’t always have the luxury of planning ahead. You have to take it one script at a time. You may know the general arc of the characters for the season, but not always. You don’t always know where it’s going to end up. You try to make each episode as interesting or visually engaging as possible – not necessarily knowing if you’re returning to that same set or location?

It’s not something that I consider when I am designing because you don’t always have that information. On a 10-episode series you may just have the first 3 or 4, so that’s the only information you have to work from.

Kirill: You worked with a single cinematographer on all the season episodes of “Jessica Jones”, and the same on “Better Call Saul”. Does it make easier for you to keep a consistent visual language, even as different directors come in?

Judy: Absolutely. It’s important that the director of photography [DP] and I are in sync and in constant communication. You start to develop a shorthand, knowing how they prefer to light. You take that into consideration when designing the sets. You have as many conversations as possible during pre-production. You go through each set, whether it’s a palette, a mood or certain angles for each set and character development.

All those things get discussed early on with the show-runner and writers. But once we start shooting, it becomes harder to sit down and have these conversations because everyone’s time becomes much more limited. My time as the production designer is prepping one episode ahead, if not more, so I’m rarely around after I open sets (if I have time?). Some shows have alternating DPs, but that has not been my experience.

Kirill: As you’re doing shows with an established visual look, how much freedom does it give you to have your own take on it?

Judy: Although, “Jessica Jones” and “Better Call Saul” had established looks for their shows, there were new sets to design, which made those specific seasons interesting for me to work on.

I enjoyed watching the first season of “Jessica Jones” and I thought the writing was really good. Melissa Rosenberg did an incredible job of bringing in a female superhero’s point of view based on a trauma for her specific superpower. Melissa also had an interesting & fresh way of casting the first season with diversity in mind that was noticeable. You saw people of color in roles that weren’t traditionally cast in the past.

Back to your question, when I interviewed before joining the second season, I did have questions about how many new sets there would be to the new season? Melissa Rosenberg and Raelle Tucker ensured me that there were many new sets coming up, and there would be lots of opportunity for interpretation. They said we would see Jeri Hogarth’s apartment in the 2nd season, which sounded interesting to me. It was a great collaboration with David Schlesinger the set decorator. We had a lot of fun creating her space. Knowing the history of Hogarth’s character originally being a man in the graphic novel, and understanding how that can be reinterpreted for a female character was an interesting process. And that was just one of many new sets we designed & redesigned.

It was a similar situation for “Better Call Saul”. When I interviewed for season 4, they told me that there would be a decent amount of new sets & locations. Although, “Better Call Saul” is a prequel to “Breaking Bad”, the look of the show was established on “Breaking Bad” because the show was shot and aired before “Better Call Saul”. The timeline of both shows interweave with each other through flashbacks, so there was a lot of details to keep track of, which I found challenging & interesting in a specific way of the show’s language.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

Kirill: You mentioned the rising level of expectations from the art department. Do you think that’s one of the factors why most of the new shows at that level do 10-12 episode seasons and not the more “traditional” 20+?

Judy: I think for some of the newer streaming / TV shows, they don’t always know how many seasons it will continue for so they write with new sets & locations to try to keep it fresh & interesting.

There are some established shows that have been around for several seasons that shoot 20+ episodes straight through. It’s hard to really know how they determine the shooting schedules of these shows?
I’ve never worked on anything beyond 10 episodes for one season. I think to sustain that schedule it’s helpful to continually go back to the same sets & locations.

Kirill: Looking forward in time, if we talk again in 2029, do you think this level of expectation is going to continue to rise?

Judy: I do. Who knows what’s going to happen to all this original content in streaming. Everyone’s getting in on it at this point, and there’s more and more every day that are wanting to do their own original series. The demand will be there for a while. I don’t know how long that’s going to last, but because of the competition they’re going to have higher expectations. I see it continuing for a while.

Kirill: Going back to your work on “Better Call Saul” and “El Camino”, it’s a well-established universe with a lot of time jumps in the timeline. How do you keep track of everything in that universe so it remains internally consistent for the viewer?

Judy: There’s a huge team of people in addition to the art department that keeps track of all details. It’s tremendous. “Breaking Bad” shot before “Better Call Saul”, but the later is a prequel. So you do have to go back a lot to “Breaking Bad” to see what was established, said or seen previously. The great thing is that there’s lots of opportunity for Easter eggs to bring back things from “Breaking Bad” to “Better Call Saul”.

Everyone knows that it has a tremendous fan base and that every detail will be scrutinized closely, so you have to make sure your T’s are crossed and your I’s dotted.

Kirill: How did “El Camino” start for you? You said that you did it right after “Better Call Saul”. Do you look forward to collaborations with people who you already worked with?

Judy: Absolutely, it’s nice to have a certain shorthand or language that you share with a director or writers. It’s a luxury to work with the same people, having established a relationship you know and can count on, understanding their specific expectations and style of working. Everyone has a different process, so there’s less time learning how they work and more time actually doing the work.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite set on “El Camino”?

Judy: Kandy Welding was a lot of fun to build. We got to layer a lot of character elements and personality to that set. Another fun one was Todd’s apartment. Vince Gilligan was open to my interpretation of Todd’s character and we had many discussions about him, which lead to the end result.

There’s never one way to do anything. You just have to make a decision on what feels the most authentic and what will help tell the story in the most visually interesting way. Todd’s character is complex. On the one hand he’s very polite & friendly, he’s the man always willing to help the old lady across the street. He’s also someone that won’t think twice about killing you if he has to. He may also feel badly about it? So, how do you show that kind of dichotomy in where this person lives, without it being over the top? How do you make it feel unexpected? Are you giving too much away? What is it that you want to say or not say about this character?

On the surface he’s a sunny human being, and I thought we should reflect that somehow in his apartment, to be sunny on the surface. We took the idea of the palette of Easter eggs, which is soft & cheerful, festive and childlike. There is something childlike about Todd’s character. So when I ran this idea by Vince, he thought it was great and that it would help reveal or not reveal what we wanted about his character.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

We started with the idea of walking into his apartment and getting that first impression of it being sunny. But then as you go further into his space, down the hall and into his bedroom, the palette gets darker.

It becomes more like an anatomical medical chart which is graphic and more saturated in its palette. We reveal Todd’s bedroom when Jesse first wanders throughout the apartment looking for the money and where the shootout almost happens with him and the two fake cops. When Jesse tears apart the bedroom in search of the money, the audience has an opportunity to see in detail the heart of Todd’s space. The twisted model-making hobby, the high-end, expensive scorpion chair, the custom-made tombstone like headboard and his peeping telescope.

Vince Gilligan and Marshall Adams, the DP agreed that having the bedroom be a darker palette where those specific scenes would take place would be interesting as a backdrop. In the end, I think it worked out well. It helps tell the story of Todd.

Kirill: How much time does it take for you and your crew to prepare this apartment set to look like it’s been completely torn apart before and during Jesse searching for that money?

Judy: We shot the entire set completely intact, and then changed everything with the pre-prepped destruction walls and set dressing for Jesse to destroy on camera. When you see him ripping the wallpaper off the walls, those individual wall panels were replaced with prepped wallpaper that would rip easier than it had originally been installed. It took us two days to have the apartment to look like it had been destroyed, searched and dusted by the police.

Then for the finale, we shot the overhead shot, where we see Jesse searching & destroying the apartment from high above the lighting grid & catwalk as if he is caught in a maze he cannot escape.

When I first read the script, I saw the scene as a bird’s eye view of Jesse being stuck in a rat’s maze. The set was designed with this in mind as well as for the aspect ratio we shot. Vince thought it was a great idea, and so we implemented that as the final shot of Jesse searching for the money.

To fit the shooting schedule, we had to prep & convert the set overnight, to lift all the ceilings pieces and to prep all the walls.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

Kirill: You’ve been doing this for a while now. Does it feel a bit sad to take these beautifully designed sets and start tearing them apart for the production, or perhaps afterwards when they’re no longer needed?

Judy: It’s always a little sad to destroy the sets that everyone worked so hard to build, paint & dress. But knowing that it will live on in the future for everyone to see is some comfort. The saddest part is that I don’t always have time to take photos. I’ve been trying to be better about recording my work, but I don’t always have time.

There’s so much work that goes into designing a set, and then making it what it becomes before shooting it – you have carpenters, scenic artists, set dressers, lighting it and then gets destroyed in a matter of hours.

Kirill: You mentioned Kandy Welding as one of your favorite sets. Was that an existing location, or did you build it from scratch?

Judy: That was a location we found that we built an extension to and also built a set on stage to match what it would look like at the location. The exterior shots where Jesse is looking in through the window before he goes into the space – we built the exterior of that at the location, and then we matched the interior on stage.

The layout was built for a certain choreography that Vince wanted for the shootout, for how many people would be in the scene, and what he wanted to take place for each scene. The glass wall into his office was designed for the glass to shatter during the shootout. The door was placed where it was for him to be shot and then slide down leaving a trail of blood.

Kirill: How many vacuum cleaners were there in that vacuum cleaner shop?

Judy: It was a real vacuum cleaner store in “Breaking Bad”, but since then it closed and became a furniture store in the last 2-3 years. So the set decoration team had to locate, find, buy, rent and salvage all those vacuum cleaners and parts that you see in that set. It took weeks, if not months to accumulate.

We took over the location for several weeks to prep it including wall plugs, painting it to match it from “Breaking Bad” and dressing it. There were a few changes we made to it. That counter was moved to a new placement, and we built out a wall plug to have another opportunity to light them from behind the counter. The set dressing department did a great job of recreating a well-known set.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

Kirill: What went into finding the right cars for this film?

Judy: It’s definitely a hunt. It takes time to find them and most often you have to modify, fix or paint them to get it to be what it needs to be. The El Camino car had to be found with duplicates. I think one was local and the other from out of state?

They didn’t keep a lot of the cars from “Breaking Bad”, so those had to be found again and painted to match along with all the other details of what was needed to get specific camera angles.

Finding picture vehicles in Albuquerque falls under the job of the teamster team, whereas in New York it’s the job of the Propmaster. They did a great job with all the cars.

Kirill: Have you gotten used to Albuquerque weather by now?

Judy: In the desert it gets cold in the mornings and evenings, no matter what time of year it is, and in the winter it can get really cold with snow & ice sometimes. It’s different from New York where I live, where it’s a wet cold. It’s a dry cold but it still gets really cold.

I think the lack of moisture and the elevation are the most obvious things to adjust to. There’s no moisture in the air, so your skin feels it right away, you get dehydrated faster, your body has to also adjust to the higher elevation. It took me a few weeks to adjust on “Better Call Saul”, but by the time we were shooting “El Camino” my body had adjusted.

Kirill: My last question on “El Camino” is about the cage where Jesse was kept. Was that built underground, or as a set?

Judy: It was both. We built it on stage for all the shots where we’re inside with him looking up. There were also a couple shots where we’re up top looking down at him, and that was also on stage. But on the wider shots where it’s supposed to be located right next to the Quonset hut, that was dug at a location.

It didn’t make sense to go to the original location where they shot that in “Breaking Bad”. All those structures were gone, so we would have had to build all those structures. We narrowed it down to the needs of the script, which was that we needed to see it next to a Quonset hut. So we found an existing Quonset hut in downtown Albuquerque, and we dug a hole next to build a slightly smaller scale cage.

When Jesse is in there looking up and Todd drops in the cigarette, that was all stage work. Then, when we see Todd on top of the cage, that’s all at the location.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

Kirill: You mentioned that your involvement with “El Camino” finished a year ago. As this time passes, and you sit down to watch it for the first time after all the edits, sound, effects and color grading went it, do you get to enjoy it as a story or do you look at things that you did on it?

Judy: I had both things happening simultaneously when I watched it for the first time. The first time I saw it finished was at the premiere with all the color correction and the sound mix, etc… They had occasional works-in-progress screenings of rough cuts in LA, but since I live in New York and I was working here, I didn’t get a chance to see it until it was finished.

I am able to watch it and enjoy it as a viewer following the story. But also there were moments where I remember specific details of that shoot day. For example, the welding piece that we had to put in to the Quonset hut where we recreated Jesse running back and forth on the leash – that whole thing had to be recreated from scratch, so I recalled all of us analyzing previous footage and moments to make sure we got it right with the set dressing details.

It had been a full year from finishing “El Camino” to seeing it done, so enough time had passed where I was able to see it more as a viewer than as a participant.

Kirill: Do you have a definition of what success is for you? Is it the acceptance of critics, of your peers, of the audience or perhaps the longevity of some of your productions?

Judy: Success for me is to continue to work with interesting writing and scripts. To me it’s always about the writing. That really is what determines what projects I take. So because of that I still travel a fair amount for work, because not all the scripts that I am given or have the opportunity to work on are in New York.

Success also is to be the acknowledgement of my peers. I don’t really care what critics write or say. I never have, even before I went into this business. I judge work based on what I think is good, not what others say or write. I don’t pay that much attention to what’s written about, whether it’s an art show, a book or a Broadway play. I have my own criteria of what I think is good, and that’s what I seek out.

Kirill: What keeps you going in the field?

Judy: As mentioned, it’s about the writing. I’m curious to see what new challenges I can experience in the material. It would be interesting to always keep it new and different and not do the same thing over & over.

Maybe there will come a time where I’m less willing to travel and would prefer to stay home in New York, but that hasn’t happened yet. For me it’s really about the writing and what the material offers.

Production design of “El Camino” by Judy Rhee.

And here I’d like to thank Judy Rhee for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick for making this interview happen. “El Camino” is available for streaming on Netflix. 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.