Production design of “Inherit the Viper” – interview with Tracy Dishman

January 16th, 2020

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Tracy Dishman. In this interview she talks about the importance of script, changes in the world of feature and episodic productions in the last few years, working on contemporary stories, and the hidden complexity of everything that goes into bringing these stories to our screens. Around these topics and more, Tracy dives deep into her work on the just released “Inherit the Viper” that looks at the impact of the opioid epidemic – a story about three siblings at war with themselves and each other, whose lives are still poisoned by their long-dead father.

Behind-the-scenes on “Inherit the Viper”. From left to right – production Designer Tracy Dishman, assistant art director Maggie Kimball, art director Prissy Lee. Photo credit Dodd Vickers. Courtesy of Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: Please tell about yourself and how early did you know that you wanted to be in this industry.

Tracy: I’m Tracy Dishman and I’m a production designer. I only started designing about 4.5 years ago. I got into the industry around 2005, and I did not go to school for it. I didn’t even know that working on movies was a job that people could have, and I have a more eclectic, rambling path into the industry.

Kirill: What drew you into it?

Tracy: I moved to LA on a whim. I happen to have a lot of friends who were in the industry, and I found myself with a liberal arts degree and no job. It was a time when there were a lot of people making shorts and little indie films. It was around 2005 in Los Angeles and there was a big rush of digital. You could just go get a camera and go make something. It was a fun time to be here and my friends just threw me on a set. I went and I did that, and I’ve been parlaying ever since.

I found that I really loved the environment and the creativity, and I’m good at it. Who knew? [laughs] I’ve learned it on-the-job, sort of baptism by fire, and worked my way up.

Production design of “Gemini” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: Was there anything particularly surprising or unexpected for you when you joined your first production?

Tracy: The whole thing – it’s nuts, and I had no idea. It’s insane how many people it takes to make a movie and the efficiency of it is crazy. I come from a military family, with a conservative lifestyle.

I thought that my liberal arts degree, my art community and my more bohemian lifestyle were the furthest thing from my military upbringing, but in fact there are a lot of overlaps between military life and filmmaking. It’s scheduled and regimented. People have their designated roles, and things need to happen with efficiency and on time. When I go away for a job for three months, it’s like being deployed. Who knew that you can’t escape your destiny?

Kirill: Stretching this a bit, probably you can question orders and push back, depending on your director.

Tracy: Sometimes. It depends on the director. It depends on your relationship with people. You need to checking your motives. Why am i pushing back? Is it a creative dispute? Is it a logistics dispute? There’s so many personalities and so many things to navigate on a shoot. It’s exciting, I love it.

Kirill: How do you know that the production is right for you when you choose your next one?

Tracy: I am a sucker for the script. It’s really important for me to connect with the script. It’s also about people. Usually I do an interview with the producers and the director. I want to know who the costume designer and the DP is, and I want to know what talent is attached. Then I ask if it’s going to be out of town, what’s the budget, etc. But it really starts with the script.

It doesn’t matter how much you throw at it. If the foundation isn’t there, it shows.

Kirill: Do you feel that there’s a lot of technological changes happening around you in the last few years?

Tracy: Yes and no. As far as technology goes, the HD aspect has affected design. We have to be very careful with our patterns, wallpapers, wood grains, fabrics because of the sensitivity. Technology is almost too good. It’s hyper-real. We have to make sure that things don’t and we have to make sure that things don’t moire and that you still have a natural feel to things, despite the crispness of the image.

But I would say that the big changes right now are more in the way the industry runs. Pilot season is not what it was. Your pilot season is year-round now. You’re not doing a 3 month pilot and then getting a 22 episode order for something. You’re doing a straight-to-series 10 episode order and then you see if it works. The big change is how production companies are investing the money, the stories that they’re telling and the chances that they’re taking.

Production design of “SKAM Austin” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: Do you see a certain tension between the worlds of feature film and episodic / streaming productions as far as where the more interesting storytelling is happening?

Tracy: I think we all know TV is where it’s at right now, and that is hard for people to adapt to – at least for people who are maybe used to the Golden Age of mid-range features. Those just don’t really exist the way that they used to. I can do million-dollar movies all day long, and then maybe there’s one Marvel out there. But that sweet spot of 10 to 30 million dollar movies where people used to do the risk-taking, that field of diverse voices – it’s all on streaming and cable now. It’s on Netflix, on Hulu, on Amazon, on HBO, and probably a few more.

It’s where people are taking their chances. And you just get more eyeballs there. With the streaming anyone can watch it anywhere. You don’t have to get someone into a theater to support the work. It’s the path of least resistance.

Kirill: Do you think it’s harder to capture the audience when there’s so many more productions “fighting” for the audience?

Tracy: It’s almost like yes and no. There is a saturation of content. There’s so much out there. Have you see this, have you see that, have you seen that other thing? There’s not enough hours in the day for people to watch all of it. And at the same time people are watching things that they never would have watched before – just because it’s on the homepage of Netflix. It’s being suggested and they play next episode.

Kirill: You’ve been doing productions in both of these worlds since you’ve started. Do you have a preference either way?

Tracy: I like both. I like the stability of a TV show, and I like knowing that I’m going to be somewhere for a little bit. We’re always getting new scripts. You’re always doing research, you’re always scouting, you’re always prepping as you go along. With features you get it all up front, you nail it all up front, and then you turn it over to the shooting crew.

My heart is in indie film, but my paycheck is in television [laughs].

Production design of “Other People” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: Is the current pace of episodic productions sustainable?

Tracy: I don’t think so. And people aren’t going to pay for 25 different streaming platforms. I don’t know what’s going happen, and they’ll need to figure it out. Obviously Netflix has the court, but places like Disney+ and Apple TV+ are catching up.

People have been flirting with shorter episodes. People are experimenting with 15-minute episodes on Snapchat where you don’t have to be engaged for as long. I don’t know. We’ll see. That part is not my job. I just show up for whatever they decide to do.

Kirill: When you look back at your older productions, what stays with you? What do you remember?

Tracy: First of all, I remember my mistakes [laughs]. They haunt me forever. But otherwise it’s always the good stuff. I look at it through rosy lenses. It might have been stressful, someone was making you crazy, you lost a location, whatever it might be – you forget all that stuff and you just remember the people, the relationships, the location, and the time that was spent.

It’s intense, it’s meaningful, and it’s good deep connections that happen on a film crew.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as enough money on a production?

Tracy: Yes and no. Yes, there is enough money. Yes, you can you can do it. But the more money you get, the more people want to do – and then it’s not enough anymore [laughs]. The expectations are really what needs to be managed along with a budget. People think that they have more money and therefore start thinking about adding 17 more things, and now you’re over budget again.

Production design of “Inherit the Viper” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: Tell us about “Inherit the Viper”.

Tracy: It came out last week as a limited theatrical release, as well as on digital distribution channels. It has Josh Hartnett, Margarita Levieva and Bruce Dern, and it was directed by Anthony Jerjen.

It is a small town, impoverished opioid crisis thriller-drama. We shot it in Birmingham, Alabama, and it was an incredible experience.

Kirill: What connected you to the story? As the opioid crisis has been at the forefround of the public discussion for a while now, do you want to work on something that has a certain social impact?

Tracy: Absolutely. I have a personal relationship with addiction and the poverty, as a result of changing industries and losing infrastructures in small towns. So these are both two stories that are very important to me.

And while I’m very interested in social, political, personal stories, I also am not judgmental. I don’t want to make a statement about it. I just want to tell this story and let people come to their own conclusion about things.

Kirill: Does this emotional connection to the story sometimes interfere with your objectivity?

Tracy: I don’t consider it interfering. I consider it an asset. I like to advocate for the stories that we’re telling. I want to make sure that we are grounded in realism, and that it makes sense for the characters. Nothing’s worse than working on a movie where everything is based on another movie. I want to bring the realism to it.

Kirill: What happened during the pre-production phase on this movie? How much time did you have, where did you go to scout, how much was built vs taken over?

Tracy: We had about a month of prep time. I usually have 4 to 6 weeks prep on something of this size. I was in Austin, Texas at the time. So I just drove to Birmingham, and kind of got the lay of the land on my way into town. I brought some of my crew from Los Angeles, and then hired some local as well. It was really cool to see the two work together.

My crew from LA is trained in a different way. LA is the hub. We have all the prop houses, all the sound stages, infrastructure that can spoil you. And my local crew knew all the hacks. They knew all these places, or somebody’s roommate had something, or somebody’s buddy had this other thing. Together those two skill sets really nailed it.

Anthony Jerjen the director is from Sweden, and so one of my roles was to make sure that the Americana subtleties was coming through. One time we got into a friendly argument over how many cars this family would have. They’re in a lower socioeconomic class, and he didn’t understand why they would have several cars. From a European point of view, that’s a luxury. But in America, you don’t have one good car that works. You have four and none of them really work very well. It was about translating the nuances of what these people’s reality is.

Production design of “Inherit the Viper” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: Do you think that some viewers take for granted what they see on the screen in a contemporary production, something set in the modern day? If it’s set in today’s Alabama, it’s probably “just” going there and shooting whatever you find, so to speak. Does it bother you that some people might think that there wasn’t much effort that went into a contemporary piece?

Tracy: It’s never going to get the fanfare that some period piece or a spectacular sci-fi thing are going to get. But I think it’s almost what makes it interesting. If design is really there to enhance the story, to ground the actors, and to allow someone to get lost in the visual experience, making something that subtle and understated is its own challenge in my experience. Making it feel familiar to a wide range of people is an art of its own.

We definitely used mostly locations on this project, but everything gets altered. In some places we completely emptied it and re-did the whole thing. Some things were a minor tweak for blocking or for lighting.

But thought, planning, and hard work goes into everything we do.

Kirill: How much do you obsess over these details? Do you have an “off” switch that you flick in the evening?

Tracy: No [laughs].

Kirill: How is the experience of watching something that you’ve worked on? Do you look out for mistakes and think how it could have been fixed if you could go back?

Tracy: Watching my own work is not an enjoyable experience [laughs]. But that’s also the movie magic. Sometimes the mistakes you never could have planned for happen, and it actually turns out better than what you were expecting. You do at a certain point just have to turn it over, and let it have a life of its own. That’s what happens. But you also want it to be what you want it to be.

Production design of “Inherit the Viper” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: On a subject as complicated and painful as what “Inherit the Viper” is focusing on, how “real” do you want it to be? How do you find the line between not making it look like a documentary and not adding too much glamour in a sense? How real do you want it to feel to me as a viewer?

Tracy: It’s a fine line to walk. I do want to curate the image. I want it to be balanced. I want it to be aesthetically pleasing. But I also want it to be rooted in reality.

I work with color palettes. I work with a lot of texture. Most of my work is rooted in what makes sense for the character, so I’m very into character development. What’s their backstory? What are their interests? We often get a lot of effects from the talent that are playing the characters, so that we can pepper the sets with their actual photographs, mementos or things that are meaningful to them. That way, when they’re in that environment, they feel rooted and supported.

It’s also working with the DP. How are we lighting this? How is it being shot? What’s the style of this shoot?

I’d say that the dressing and the palettes would be documentary-inspired, but ideally the shooting, the lighting, and the movements are elevated. It’s not a documentary, it’s a cinematic experience. So it needs to offer something that a reality show wouldn’t.

Kirill: Did you get a chance to be there when they were shooting, or are you always on to the next set?

Tracy: In this particular experience I was there a lot. Sometimes it’s always on to the next thing, and I’m really thankful for technology. We’re sending each other pictures, I’m giving digital notes, sending things back, communicating with my crew. In a way, I feel like I’m in multiple places at once.

But it really depends on the pacing of the show, how far away we are from each other, and how much I can bounce back and forth. I like to be there. But also sometimes it’s best for me to just hand over the set, walk away and let what’s going to happen – happen.

Production design of “Inherit the Viper” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: And yet even without all of this digital communication methods, people have been making great films for almost a century. How important technology is vs finding the right artistic expression to tell that particular mood?

Tracy: I have a couple answers for this. One, a lot of scripts I’m finding in the last few years are contemporary scripts that involve characters on technology – and it’s a challenge to make that interesting.

You have a character that’s on Instagram or Facebook. They’re logging in, they’re logging out. How many different ways can you shoot a computer or a phone screen? There’s been a resurgence of ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s storytelling because it forces your character to go down to their friend’s house, knock on the door, and talk to them. They’re not just going to instant-message them. That’s an interesting thing, and it’s not just the art department that’s battling with it. It’s actors, it’s writers, it’s directors. Everyone is trying to figure out how do we tell a story when the people could just text each other [laughs].

And the other things is the technology that we use to actually work. It’s about being able to expedite the schedule. Computers, phones, Wi-Fi and cell service – all it does is it enables you to do something faster. That’s where we are in the industry right now. People just want content. They don’t want to spend 6 months prepping a movie. They want to do it in 6 weeks. And you’re able to do that with that connectivity.

That said, this other movie that I just finished this last summer was up in the Adirondack State Park. We had no Wi-Fi and we had no cell service. It was on the landlines in our cabin, calling each other, leaving each other notes. And it’s like what they were doing during that time period that you mentioned. When we first got there, we were asking ourselves how we were going to do it. And then you accept it, and you say that we’re just going to do it the way everybody did it before this technology existed.

Kirill: How many hats do you wear on the set, as you juggle the technology, the art, the crew, the budget and the schedule. Does it feel like the time you spend telling the story is dwarfed by everything else?

Tracy: It is a balance, and that’s what the job is.

First of all, everything comes back to the story. If I’m trying to manage people, trying to manage certain work being done or tracking things, it’s always triaged in honor of the story. What are we shooting next? What needs to happen next? It’s really being one step ahead of camera most of the time, and not getting lost in the minutiae or my ideas about what I think should be happening. It always has to come down to what do we need today – and letting the rest go.

Production design of “Inherit the Viper” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: Do you feel it’s getting easier as you get more experience, or do you always run against the increasing expectations of productions?

Tracy: I came up through the art department. I started as a PA, and then I was a prop master, and then I was a set decorator, and in the last 4-5 years I’ve been designing.

My asset is that I have done a lot of the jobs. When I’m reading a script, I know what is being expected of my crew, what needs to be looked at, what is no problem, and what is going to be a challenge. That was definitely an asset to have in my back pocket when I first began designing. You get to know the functionality of a shoot so well and so intimately.

The challenge has been about my expectations on myself. I always want to push myself and do bigger and better jobs.

Kirill: Is there ever such a day where you look back at the last 12-14 hours, and you think to yourself that it’s been a great day?

Tracy: Always. That’s the goal. Life is too short to be miserable all the time. It’s got to be fun, and it’s got to be an adventure. Otherwise, what are we doing?

Kirill: Can you introduce us to “Black Bear”?

Tracy: “Black Bear” is going to premiere at Sundance this year. It was written by Lawrence Michael Levine, and it stars Aubrey Plaza, Sarah Gadon and Christopher Abbott. It was produced by Richard Bosner and Tandem Pictures.

We shot in the Adirondack State Park in upstate New York. When people hear upstate New York, they think Hudson Valley. But we were upstate closer to Montreal, an hour and a half from the nearest Target. As I mentioned, we didn’t have Wi-Fi or cell service. We were all staying out in these cabins in the woods, and it was a lot like a summer camp. It was a wonderful experience and I think it’s going be really good. I’m excited for it.

Production design of “Inherit the Viper” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: As your job takes you away from your family and friends for these long periods of time, do you have a mechanism to cope with it?

Tracy: It’s just part of the job, and it’s also why you become so close with the people that you’re working with. Not only are you working with them through intense and long hours, but they’re sort of filling those roles of your friends and family that you’re not getting to see. That is part of the makeup of the social interaction of film shoots.

For me, personally, it’s important that I plan vacations in between jobs, that I regroup and spend time with my partner. I spend time in my home. I make myself take the time off. It’s really easy to go job to job to job, and then years have passed and you haven’t done anything just for yourself.

Kirill: If I look at other art forms, such as painting, sculpture or architecture, there’s a certain physicality to them. You can get closer or step further away, you can look at it from different angles or in different light, you can step through or around it. And in this visual storytelling the artifact is that shiny spinning disc or the ephemeral bits that encode that digital stream. How would you compare what you do to other art forms?

Tracy: It’s more like performance art in that way. It’s more of an experience, and you have to be there. I’m okay with that. I don’t need an object.

Kirill: What goes through your mind when the shooting is done and they start tearing down your sets that you’ve worked on for weeks or months?

Tracy: It doesn’t even start when they’re done shooting. It starts as soon as company rolls in. We start flying stuff out for first shot, and there’s a very brief moment between everything being ready and then everything starting to get taken down – just to accommodate whatever is first up.

That’s usually when it’s a good time for me to leave [laughs], because it’s hard to watch. But it’s a necessary evil. It’s what has to happen.

Kirill: Do you keep mementos of your productions?

Tracy: Sometimes, and I’m also lucky to work with such talented people. I always get really beautiful behind-the-scenes pictures from people. I have a nice digital photo album of my different jobs.

Production design of “Inherit the Viper” by Tracy Dishman.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do for a living with somebody who’s not in the industry, how difficult is it to convey this complexity, this multitude of roles and things that you do?

Tracy: You can’t explain it. Nobody understands and I don’t even try. If I’m talking to someone who knows nothing about moviemaking, then I just simply say that I’m in charge of the sets and the way it looks. If I’m talking to someone who really wants to know about movies or has an experience around it, I’ll get a little more detailed.

It’s difficult to explain, because it’s so crazy. I don’t think anyone really believes what we do [laughs]. People don’t understand that we work 14 hours a day – easily. It’s beyond comprehension.

Kirill: Do you want people to know the complexity of what goes into telling that 90-minute story?

Tracy: That’s why things like this interview are so amazing. It’s the opportunity to peek behind the curtain is amazing for people who are interested in it. But I also feel a sense of protection for the naivete of it all, the movie magic of it.

You don’t need to know that someone had to get stitches after that scene, or that somebody didn’t sleep for 17 hours. That is the movie magic. It’s the blood, sweat and tears that goes into all of it, into making it seem so effortless.

Kirill: What is success for you?

Tracy: I always want a project to be good. I want people to like it, but I don’t do a deep dive into reviews or ratings. Sometimes I’ll get like a text that somebody just watched a movie and saw my name at the end of it, and I love stuff like that.

But true success for me is a good working environment. I want the time spent making the thing to be as valuable as the thing itself. For me it’s a success if we’re all happy in the moment.

Kirill: What keeps you going in the field despite all the crazy hours and the occasional stress? If you won the lottery tomorrow, would you still be in this creative field?

Tracy: I would still do it. You can’t help it.

What keeps me going in the field is curiosity, FOMO, the thrill of the hunt. I just love it. I feel privileged to be able to earn my living doing something that’s so fun and so wild. I can’t imagine not doing it.

Production design of “Inherit the Viper” by Tracy Dishman.

And here I’d like to thank Tracy Dishman for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the images for the interview. You can also find her on Instagram. I’d also like to thank Nathalie Retana for making this interview happen. The movie is available on a variety of digital platforms. 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.