Production design of “Little America” – interview with Amy Williams

February 13th, 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 Amy Williams. In this interview she talks about changes in the world of feature and episodic productions in the last few years, doing research, choosing the stories that she works on, and the hidden complexity of everything that goes into bringing these stories to our screens. Around these topics and more, Amy dives deep into her work on the just released “Little America”, an authentic, heart-warming mosaic of immigrant stories of America in the last few decades, all based on real stories.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and what drew you into this field.

Amy: My name is Amy Williams, and I’m a production designer. I wish I had known that this field existed when I was studying art at university. I really wasn’t clued into it even though I studied film. They don’t talk about the behind-the-scenes artists as much as they do about the directors and actors.

I studied film in school, but my primary focus was art history. I moved to New York City in the early 2000s to work in the art world. I started interning at a gallery, and eventually became a manager of a gallery. I’ve curated a few shows, working with a lot of amazing artists. Some were even my heroes. But there was something about working in a quiet white space, helping others with their career but not creating anything on my own.

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and they had a friend of a friend who scouted locations. I thought it could be great – to incorporate my love of architecture and composition. So I started taking internships, working on student films and getting introduced to this art form. I quickly figured out that the art department was where I wanted to be. I started art directing commercials without knowing what I was doing [laughs], and from there you meet more people, you get a hold of more projects and you just start creating. It was a pretty fast realization that this was my dream job, and now here I am making amazing film and TV series.

Kirill: Is there anything that still manages to surprise you when you join a new production?

Amy: I’m still surprised by every single show I do. There’s a new experience, there’s a new story to explore, a new problem to solve that I haven’t been exposed to. It may be figuring out how to build a hospital room that floods, or diving into research about what a Nigerian immigrant’s home should look like. You get to learn and absorb a lot about the world.

I think the biggest surprise for people working in the industry is just how many moving parts there really are to create this. Going into it, you romanticize the art of it. But you don’t really know how much of the politics, the management and the people skills you need to handle on a daily basis. I wish it was all creative, but it’s not [laughs]. There’s a lot of logistics to work out, and there’s a lot of personalities to navigate.

Production design of “Master of None”. Courtesy of Amy Williams.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do with somebody who is not in your field, is it difficult to convey this complexity of being a production designer on a feature or on a TV show?

Amy: Definitely. To start off, most people don’t know what the title of production designer means. It doesn’t tell you right away what my responsibilities are.

If a person isn’t familiar with film, I usually start by saying that I do the art direction on films, I take care of the environments and the sets. It’s even as simple as saying that I’m in charge of the visual look of everything you see on camera that doesn’t have to do with the actors. People are curious and they become engaged, because it is an interesting job.

Kirill: Do you find that there are some aspects of it that get a bit easier as you gain more experience?

Amy: Every production is its own challenge, but you do get better prepared to navigate the situations more smoothly. As I’m sure it is with any industry, as you gain more experience and you take on bigger projects, you work with more people. You really have to support people you work with, trust their skill sets and delegate responsibilities if you’re going to be successful. That’s the part that continues to grow and evolve.

Kirill: Is there any part of your job description that you wish to skip and have it somehow just “take care of itself”?

Amy: Budgets are not my favorite part. I’m not into any of the math that has to go into it [laughs]. My only other complaint about the job would be the hours that our industry has created as the minimum and as the mandate of what needs to happen to get a job finished.

Production design of “Unconditional”. Courtesy of Amy Williams.

Kirill: Do you find that it’s connected to the rising level of productions, especially in episodic television?

Amy: One of the things you see in the industry is having less money, but also having higher expectations. It’s due to many factors, especially around the budget. You realize that you are an artist working for a corporation. The two are different animals, but luckily you work for a corporation that supports artists and lets us tell our stories.

Technology plays a big role in all of this, from research to photography to just the speed in which you can communicate your visual ideas with the rest of your team. It has sped up and amplified, and I think that certainly has helped with the overall production.

I think it also comes down to the viewer. They’ve become more discerning. They have better eyes for viewing these things, and that contributes a lot to the high mark that we try to reach on every show. And there’s also so much content out there, and there’s a lot of competition. If you’re not at the top of your game, things fall to the side [laughs].

Kirill: As you move between the feature world and the world of episodic / streaming productions, do you see shifts in where the more interesting storytelling is happening?

Amy: It’s really an interesting time to be in this business. The amount of diverse storytelling has increased. The acceptance of stories for people that didn’t have a voice even a few years ago has increased. It’s about the world opening up and about our industry opening up. There’s infinite stories out there that just haven’t been told. That is exciting, and those are the projects that I lean towards because I haven’t seen them on the screen and I want to be a part of that.

Production design of “Forever”. Courtesy of Amy Williams.

Kirill: As you look at the stories that you participate in bringing to the screens, do you want them to have social impact?

Amy: It can be social, emotional or representational. We spend so much time on these productions. We work 60-70 hours a week away from our families. So you want to work on something that’s meaningful, something that helps people. It gives it value, which does make it worthwhile.

Kirill: Getting to “Little America”, what drew you into it?

Amy: I worked with one of the producers, Alan Yang, prior. He’s one of the co-creators of “Master of None”, and we have worked on 4-5 projects since. While we were on Amazon’s “Forever”, the news broke that he was developing a new series with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon and that’s where the seed was planted.

I knew about the series early on, and I really wanted to be involved in whatever it was going to turn into. Then, about a year later and as they were gearing up to go into production, Alan introduced me to Lee Eisenberg and Sian Heder who are the showrunners, and I got into the fold.

Apartment plans for “The Baker” episode of “Little America”. Courtesy of Amy Williams.

Kirill: Coming out of “Master of None”, “Crashing” and “Forever” which are episodic productions, and into “Little America” where every episode is its own story and its own world, how different was it for you?

Amy: You have similar means to get there, but it is different. It’s an anthology story, and I worked on three of the episodes of “Little America”. They are mini-films. There’s nothing reoccurring, there’s nothing episodic about it. The only tie that binds it is the story of immigrants in America, and those stories are all so different.

It was great that Apple set us up in such a way where we had a lot of time to properly prepare the series. We had the right amount of resources and the time to spend with directors one-on-one. We had access to the individuals whose stories originated these episodes. Being able to pay attention and really focus was great. It was refreshing. I come from an indie film background, so to me these were like making many indies.

On the sets of the apartment in “The Baker” episode of “Little America”. Courtesy of Amy Williams.

On the sets of the apartment in “The Baker” episode of “Little America”. Courtesy of Amy Williams.

Kirill: Did it help that all your three episodes were with the same cinematographer?

Amy: Absolutely, because you work very closely with one another. The way our production was set up was that we had a Team Evens and a Team Odds production teams. Every department was divided down that line, and I was with Paula Huidobro the cinematographer on Team Evens.

We acted fully independent in the way we produced it with the other teams. That was necessary so that we could accomplish so much content and make it happen on a deadline. This show is not like traditional television. It’s an anthology, and the stories are so individual and different. It was a great way to work. It was beautiful and I love the team that I was paired with.

Kirill: You mentioned that research is one of the most enjoyable parts that you do on these productions. Your episodes are about immigrants from India, Nigeria and Uganda, and what I loved about them is how it’s not only tracing the intersection of cultures at one point in time, but also doing it across a couple of decades. How complex was it do research across not only space, but also time?

Amy: It’s quite a challenge, but luckily the research is something I really enjoy. Production designers generally love dipping into different periods and different regions. We create worlds, so it was an amazing job to be a production designer on this show.

We were filming everything in New Jersey because of a tax incentive. So not only did we have to create different regions of America, but we also had to flash back to origin countries where these people came from – and we had to find and create all of that in New Jersey. It was seemingly impossible and quite the challenge but somehow we pulled it off.

That was really exciting. We did the Oklahoma ranch in New Jersey. We did the Nigerian night market in New Jersey. It’s amazing to witness the magic and the skill set of the teams and the people you work with – when they gather together and create a story.

On the Ugandan sets in “The Baker” episode of “Little America”. Courtesy of Amy Williams.

Kirill: Where do you do your research?

Amy: For me it’s about visual inspiration. I pulled imagery from books on architecture and photography to create the mood and tone. That way it’s a little more tactile. You pull up films, documentaries and news footage, and all of this stuff is accessible online. We were able to pull up news stories about the first subject, the Spelling Bee champion, because he had received a lot of press in the early 2000s. I was able to see what the hotel that he managed looked like, what the stage looked like at the Spelling Bee, and all these little details that we couldn’t do even 20 years ago.

Kirill: As every episode is based on a real story, how do you find the balance between staying true to the essence of the story, but also making a little bit more vibrant for me as a viewer?

Amy: It starts from the writing. The interesting thing about the creators and the show runners who found and wrote these stories is that they wanted to give it a naturalistic sense. We wanted it to be real. For me it was really important that we didn’t romanticize or make these stories too flowery [laughs]. I wanted to see things as they really are, and hope that the viewer picks up on that.

Sometimes the goal of production design is that it’s not even noticed, that it feels so real that the viewer doesn’t pick up on certain things. But also, as filmmakers you have to make the spaces interesting. They have to be cinematic, and there’s lots of tricks that we use to compose a frame, make it dynamic, give it life and bring out the visual emotions surrounding the actors to help tell the story. You also want to give the actors a space where they can explore, feel and learn about their characters.

Production design of “The Manager” episode of “Little America” by Amy Williams.

Kirill: The first episode about Kabir, the Indian boy, is probably the most depressing one, as even when the family is reunited, it’s clear that everybody has lost the last 10-12 years when they were apart. Did you try to incorporate such elements into how the motel evolved over the years as the parents were gone?

Amy: Definitely. We had a lot of access to the subject of that story. We had personal photographs and conversations with him as to what that experience was like.

We had a very interesting task of creating the American dream at the beginning of the story. You have a family who’s running a successful business, and then they’re separated and this young child is left to manage his parents’ home while he’s still in school. Certain things fall to the wayside and you need to represent that in environments. It’s challenging. You want to give sympathy and emotion to the situation.

Kirill: My favorite parts of the episode with Iwegbuna, the Nigerian student, are when he’s listening to the tapes that his family sends him or talking on the phone with them, as they are physically transported to occupy a shared space. How did these transitions affect the design of those spaces?

Amy: That was a tricky one, and it caused a lot of headaches for some on the crew. It started with the writing to bring those calls to life, to bring people together into their homes.

We knew ahead of time that we had to accommodate a goat [laughs]. We scouted for that location all over New Jersey, and we just weren’t finding it. The thing that was important to me was that it was a realistic space that this student would live in. It’s not a massive apartment that he lives in, since he has limited means. And that’s not easy on a production when you choose a smaller space. It gets hot, you don’t get as many camera angles as you’d like, you don’t have the space to accommodate a crew of 60-70 people behind the scenes, the filming doesn’t run quickly because you only have a couple of access points.

Production design of “The Cowboy” episode of “Little America” by Amy Williams.

The director, Bharat Nalluri and I felt strongly that this was the right space for this character, and it had the elements of separation that we wanted. So we found a real location – a basement apartment in Paterson, New Jersey. We augmented a few spaces, like windows that we could look through or a special staircase for the goat to come into the space, because goats don’t go downstairs. It didn’t have a kitchen, so we created a kitchen space and made it more of a studio apartment.

That was a fun one, and I’m proud that we stuck to our guns, because I think it reads really well.

Kirill: What about building the spaces from Nigeria, the market, the family house, the post office where his family is standing in line to have a conversation with him?

Amy: We struggled a lot for those locations, because the topography of Nigeria is much different from that of New Jersey’s. We ended up finding an abandoned cement factory that had the bare bones that we could work with to create the night market.

The Nigerian post office was a location in the basement of a university classroom building. We had to make it work in a less than ideal location because of scheduling. We had a lot of classroom scenes that we had to accommodate, and this was a smaller scene. We had to find a space within this University, bring in the build, bring in the elements and bring in the atmosphere to make it feel like a Nigerian post office.

Production design of “The Cowboy” episode of “Little America” by Amy Williams.

Kirill: What about the cowboy shop?

Amy: The shop was a shoe repair store and we displaced a family from their business for a few weeks. It was special because the gentleman that owned the place was himself an immigrant from China. When we took out all the elements of his shoe repair shop and started bringing in our cowboy Western elements, he actually jumped in and helped us out. We learned that he was a set builder when he was growing up in China, and that he was familiar with the industry. For him it was a good escape from his day-to-day business. It was nice to have that personal touch, and that helped in that space.

The shop street on “The Cowboy” episode of “Little America”, before the team took it over. Courtesy of Amy Williams.

The same street after the redesign, production design by Amy Williams.

Kirill: What I also liked about that episode, and perhaps that’s a common thread that runs through all of them, is that it shows that you do have to adapt to the new culture to find your place in it. Nobody forces him to dress like a cowboy, but he sees that he does need to change to become “accepted”, to move ahead in his professional life with that professor.

Amy: That story exposes a lot of different social norms. Nigerians are honest and open, and speak their mind. And Oklahoma in the ’80s was not necessarily like that. So you adapt to your environment. In that episode particularly, you have the tension of potential racism, standing out and being different. You read this professor character as dismissive, and it makes you feel terrible for this person.

But he also gets to the point where he proves that his diversity is actually a strength to the study of economics. It’s beautiful to see that stern professor character soften and accept. The moment where he goes into the hat store and you’re worried that they’re not going to accept them, and it turns out the complete opposite. It’s very warming and beautiful, and shows you the great things about human nature.

Production design of “The Baker” episode of “Little America” by Amy Williams.

Kirill: And then you have the story of Beatrice, the girl from Uganda that is trying to find her place in Kentucky in the ’70s. My favorite part of that episode was at the very end, as we witness the transformation of her bakery when her mother steps in and slowly looks around the place. How did you approach designing the interior of that space, incorporating the vibrancy of her culture into what she always dreamed of doing?

Amy: That’s a beautiful story, because it’s about accepting who you are, what your talents are, and what your background is. That’s where your true success lies, and it was an American dream story to bring it to that point.

But it was also important to bring another part. The reason this woman was successful at selling cookies in Lexington, Kentucky was because she was truly authentic to herself. She embraced her Ugandan past and culture, and her family’s history of baking. So we really wanted to bring that in to the mix. We wanted to bring in personal details that showed that she has a son and is a mother herself, but also she has a mother at a great distance from her.

We incorporated a lot of textiles and patterns from Uganda, and a few statues as well. The shop was uniquely her as an American. It’s the colors she chose, and the signage that she made for the shop. We used baskets and fabrics and all this great stuff from Uganda to give that space life, and not make it just about cookies.

On the bakery set in “The Baker” episode of “Little America”. Courtesy Amy Williams.

Kirill: Were the cookies real?

Amy: Cookies were real. I had a couple [laughs]. We had endless meetings about what exactly the size should be, should they be chewy or soft or crunchy, what kind of packaging they should be in, what kind of labels we should use, should they look homemade, should the labels look homemade, how sophisticated is the operation, etc.

And that evolved as the show went on. When she first starts selling the cookies in the diner she works in, they’re just wrapped in plastic. But by the end of the show with her mother there, it’s a nice cellophane wrapper with a beautiful sticker that shows her business logo. You see the evolution of the details in the props and the small details.

Kirill: As you spend those long hours on a project, is it possible to switch it off as you’re done for the day? Do you try to distance yourself from it a bit in the evenings?

Amy: Truthfully, both happen. If things are running smoothly, you are able to afford the time to turn off and recharge. As I do this more and more, I find that it’s an important element as someone who creates things. You need to give yourself rest. You need to nourish your body and soul. You need to spend time with people outside of the industry.

But then there are moments where you’re rushing to finish the set, and the dirt didn’t get delivered on time for the Nigerian market. You’re trying to pull together odds and ends. Scripts are coming in last-minute and changes are happening. It’s beautiful that sometimes it’s really immersive and you can’t escape it. But also you have to recharge. You have to step away to be able to really give the show all the dedication it needs when you’re there, to be fully present when you’re there.

Dancefloor plans for “The Baker” episode of “Little America”. Courtesy Amy Williams.

Dancefloor rendering for “The Baker” episode of “Little America”. Courtesy Amy Williams.

On the dancefloor set of “The Baker” episode of “Little America”. Courtesy Amy Williams.

Kirill: Do you want the viewers to know how much time and effort goes into each one of these half-hour episodes?

Amy: You definitely want people to focus on the story more than on your personal efforts. That’s important. You can’t help but make it about yourself, because you do invest so much time in it and you work with so many talented people.

I have the biggest team on a production. I’m in charge of construction, props, painters, set dressers, set builders, designers, graphics, etc. Everyone is so talented and you want them to get their spotlight. But to do it in the moment, in the camera – is not appropriate. It’s about the story. We’re telling stories and it’s only when we get a chance to talk to people like you that we get that exposure to the process and what it’s like to be a filmmaker.

You hope that people like what they see. You hope they think that sets are cool. You hope they appreciate the evolution, but you hope they stick to the story first and foremost.

Kirill: How does it feel to see that sets that you’ve worked on getting taken apart and broken to pieces?

Amy: It’s heartbreaking because it’s a lot of work. Sometimes it’s fun to create these massive worlds, we put a lot of time into it. Then you shoot it for a day or two, and you just tear it all down to make space, and you bring on another one. The amount of waste is upsetting to me. I think the industry could do a little bit better as far as the environment is concerned.

The thing that’s toughest for me is that when we spend a lot of time, energy, planning and resources on a set and you don’t see all the parts of it. Maybe it didn’t make the edit, maybe they ran out of time and they couldn’t turn around and look the other direction, maybe the scene gets cut in a script the day before we’re supposed to shoot. That’s the most heartbreaking – when we have all these sets that the world will never see.

Spelling Bee competition rendering for “The Manager” episode of “Little America”. Courtesy Amy Williams.

The final set of the Spelling Bee competition in the “The Manager” episode of “Little America”. Production design by Amy Williams.

Kirill: What do you do between productions to recharge?

Amy: I travel a lot and see family. The great thing about my job is that the more experience and access you have to life, the better you should be at your job – because you have experiences that you can relate to and recreate. So for me travel does that really well – removing yourself and taking yourself into a different environment.

I have my hobbies. I’m into basketball. I have a 4-year old son and we spend a lot of time together. I love to scuba dive. The production I just wrapped took me to New Zealand for six months. I heavily committed to seeing as much of New Zealand as I could on the days I was off. I would try to go for a scuba dive on a Saturday, or go for a hike and clear my head. You to live in the moment so you can create these moments on camera.

Kirill: What keeps you going in this field?

Amy: It’s the kind of people you get to work with, the stories you get to tell, and just being able to create art. It’s an interesting medium. It takes practical intelligence and creative intelligence to pull it off. I feel like I had the opportunity to experience and see more of the world than so many other people do, because my job takes me to these distant locations. To make it worth it, I try to involve my family as much as I can. I drag them along for the ride and hope that seeing different cultures and different worlds helps them grow.

I wouldn’t trade it. I would love if the industry was more supportive of families and our personal time. But I can’t believe the kind of opportunities that it’s also given me and the worlds it’s opened up.

“Little America” was a really fulfilling job to create these worlds, to solve problems that go into trying to create Uganda in the middle of Paterson, New Jersey. It’s thrilling on its own. It would have been great to go to Uganda, but it was also quite special to recreate a place where it shouldn’t be.

On the sets of “The Cowboy” episode of “Little America”. Production design by Amy Williams.

On the sets of “The Manager” episode of “Little America”. Production design by Amy Williams.

Kirill: This is what I love about these stories – how seamlessly they transport me to times and places that I would never have visited otherwise.

Amy: Some of the best compliments I received when we were working on the show were from background extras that we had in the Ugandan bakery in that village. The actor that plays the father is Ugandan. He walked up to me while we were filming and said that he couldn’t believe that we got the color of the dirt correct [laughs]. That’s a beautiful compliment to hear when people say it feels like their home.

You put a small detail on a coffee table, and it’s great to hear that it’s something a Ugandan person would do. You open yourself up to people’s stories and find out what their worlds are like.

Kirill: It’s a little bit overwhelming though, as there’s so much great storytelling happening in the last few years, and I sometimes find myself having to choose what not to watch because there’s not enough time in the day.

Amy: I think we’re all overwhelmed with the amount of content, trying to catch up on what the good stories are and what the entertaining stories are. Social media, personal recommendations and word-of-mouth still count for a lot. You put your ear out and hope to find out what the good shows are.

Probably one of the best ways people connect is talking about their shows. Look at “Game of Thrones” and the sort of social impact, and how that connects people and excites people.

Kirill: Does it feel sometimes a bit random what manages to capture viewers’ attention, and what never seems to find its audience?

Amy: It’s an interesting time, because you do have these shows that maybe five years ago you didn’t think you’d ever see on TV, and they really attract you as a viewer. And then you do see, especially around award season, certain productions and films that pale in comparison to some of the smaller films with less exposure and less of an advertising budget. That’s heartbreaking, but it’s also the nature of the business.

It’s great that overall it’s celebrated and there seems to be an audience for all this content somewhere, somehow. Some of it is not always seen as much as it should be, but the people that do catch it, love it and appreciate it.

Production design of “The Cowboy” episode of “Little America” by Amy Williams.

And here I’d like to thank Amy Williams 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 and Twitter. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick for making this interview happen. The first season of the show is streaming on Apple TV+. 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.