Lexie's room in Richardson house, 1997, in "Little Fires Everywhere". Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Production design of “Little Fires Everywhere” – interview with Jessica Kender

May 8th, 2020
Lexie's room in Richardson house, 1997, in "Little Fires Everywhere". Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Jessica Kender. In this interview she talks about the changes in the world of episodic productions in the last few years, being the guardian of the visual language on her productions, working with digital models, and willing to take more risks as time goes by. Around these topics and more, Jessica looks back at her earlier work on “Dexter” and “Medium”, and dives deep into creating the present and the past on Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere”, on which she did all the episodes.

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

Jessica: I got my start in high school doing stage crew for different theatre shows. The person who was in charge of our stage crew came from Broadway, and we would put on these huge productions unlike what I’ve seen for theater for high school before.

When I applied to college, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I knew I loved doing stage crew, but I wasn’t sure if that was it. I remember standing there with two letters, one that was for Carnegie Mellon and one that was for Brandeis. Brandeis would have been more of a general BA, while Carnegie is a conservatory. I ended up putting Carnegie in. When I graduated, I didn’t have any other skills. It’s a conservatory, so literally all I knew how to do was set design for the theater.

I always wanted to do TV and I wasn’t even interested in features. As a little backstory, I grew up without a TV. My parents didn’t have one, so it was almost like a rebellion for me. It was that because we didn’t have one. When I would go to friends’ houses, no matter when, even in the middle of summer, I just wanted to watch TV. I didn’t care if it was a soap opera or something else. I just wanted to watch.

So when I graduated in set design, I had the skills to set design for theater, but I knew I wanted to get into television. So I worked in New York for two years doing theater and then doing industrials. And when I came out to LA, I was able to get into TV and I stayed there ever since.

Kirill: Would you say that most of your career so far has coincided with two big transitions in the world of TV, the first being the depth of storytelling, and the second being the transition to digital, high definition technology? If so, how has this affected what you’re doing?

Jessica: It’s fascinating. My first production design job was on “Medium”. There, we made the switch to high-def in the middle of shooting it. I remember people being terrified of how would the actors look. There was panic, and it 100% changed the quality of the work that we do.

When I originally started, we would put together flats. You would paint those flats and they would go up on TV. Once we switched to high-def, we did a plaster skim coat on every single set, because you didn’t want it to look like raw luan. And that translated for everything.

I was recently looking back at some of my “Medium” work. Some of it I’m very proud of still to this day, because we did a lot of fun stuff on that show. But from a set point of view, you can tell that’s an older show without even watching it. I’ve edited the pictures of those sets on my website and I’m still proud of that work, but when you go through them, you would see that it’s almost a more rudimentary or a slightly theatrical approach to production design and the way we built stuff back then.

Obsessive math professor’s apartment in “Medium”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

You’re right that it tied in with the fact that TV was starting to become the medium that was a lot more respected. It wasn’t just the formulaic one-hour dramas. After “Medium” I did “October Road”, and after that was “Dexter”. We played around on “Medium” and did some interesting ideas like plane crashes and flashbacks. But “Dexter” was the beginning of that boom.

Before “Medium,” I worked as an assistant art director on “The Shield” in 2003, and that was an FX show. That was also around the time the TV started changing, doing things that people didn’t see before. “The Shield” was based on the Rampart Police Department that was full of corruption. It was one of FX first signature shows, and all of a sudden you had the antihero but on TV. You almost never saw the antihero on TV before that time. Our leads were all corrupt, nasty people and viewers were fascinated. It delved into all sorts of stuff we didn’t see, but it took a while until you started seeing that everywhere.

Then all the premium cable networks started coming out and that just elevated everything. You had stories that weren’t meant to appeal to the general audience. Old TV had that more neutral flavor, because it had to make everyone happy. But once you had the premium networks working, you didn’t have to appeal to everyone, and you had more money. So we have this high-def coming along, and all of a sudden we have the money to back up the stuff we’re doing. Everything started to change. Everything started to look better.

On my very first union show as a production designer I was one of four people. And my art department on our current show is 11 people. Just the amount of people that you need to staff with shows the change that has happened.

Kirill: As the shows continue with the yearly schedules, is this why we’re seeing much shorter seasons, down from 22-23 episodes to 10-12, or even sometimes as few as 8?

Jessica: “Medium” was my only production design that was 22 episodes. “Dexter” had 12 episodes in each season. I just finished working on “Little Fires Everywhere”, and that was 8 episodes in 9 months. Back when I was on “Medium”, we did 22 episodes in 10 months.

So yes, we are doing less episodes, but we’re putting more into it. “Dexter” was still on an 8-day schedule. “Little Fires Everywhere” was between 11 and 15 days per episode, but the amount of prep that you do now for shows compared to back then is significantly more. You have more time to flesh out what you’re trying to say, to build all your sets, to really sit with everybody and figure out what is the look of the show.

In those early days you would come in, and start running and gunning. I was lucky if I had 6 weeks prep, while on the latest show I was on until it was shut down we had 14 weeks of prep. People have realized that TV is a different world now, and are treating it that way.

Indonesian motel room in “Medium”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: When you talk with people about what you do for a living and they ask you where did the nine months go, how do you convey the complexity that requires all that time to work on the show?

Jessica: This might be the first time anyone’s ever said that. When people ask how long it takes, I’ll say that we do a new episode every 13 days, with 20 locations and 15 sets. It’s the opposite of what you are asking – people are surprised at the amount of time it takes to put out that content so quickly.

Kirill: Do you find that technology, physical or digital, is making your life easier as the time goes, perhaps in the last 5-10 years?

Jessica: I think that the digital technology is like a fish in a fishbowl. We were able to produce the content of “Medium” with 4 people because the expectations weren’t as high for what we could accomplish. So as the technology gets better and you can create stuff, the product that they assume you’re going put out gets better.

It is helpful in that I could do things I could never do before. But because I can do things I could never do before, it raises the bar. The show that I’m prepping now is ’70s LA, which just means a ton of graphics everywhere. When I first started, we were just getting into Illustrator and making signage. There’s no way that the quantity we need could have been done in that time – and see as much as we are going to see here. I can give the world, whereas back then I would have to be limit it to much smaller slices. The camera wouldn’t be able to move as freely as it does today.

And that crosses over for everything we do. I do a lot of 3D white model walkthroughs with the producers. I’ll place them in a room, spin around the computer model, and they’ll look this way and that. It allows me to make changes faster. There’s a shift where more people who had the white model building skills now have the 3D computer skills. I don’t build white models by hand anymore. It’s all switched to computer. Technology in the graphics realm has been huge.

Kirill: Not related yet to the model you did for the last episode of “Little Fires Everywhere”, do you find yourself doing physical miniature models of sets to get the feel of space and how objects relate to each other?

Jessica: Almost never. The last time I did a white model was for “Station 19” in 2018, and that was very specific because we needed to to shift the space around. We had built this space out of shipping containers, and it was an easy medium to show what happens if I take this and then we move it here with a forklift.

But for the most part, most of what I show is a 100% 3D model in the computer. And in fact, that model will go down to the shop, because construction is now also all on the computer. They’ll use that same white model to decided which walls to break apart. They’re doing the same thing they did when we had physical 3D models, but now in digital. I haven’t built a physical one outside of that shipping container in years.

My husband is a set designer in film, and I think they do it more on the film side. But even that is shifting. I was a PA on the original Spider-man, and back then we were doing physical models of every set. But that doesn’t happen anymore.

Mariposa County DA office in “Medium”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: You said that you can do more than you were able to do before, at least in an economically feasible way. Do you still bump into edges that block you? Do you feel that there’s even more that you would like to be able to do?

Jessica: You’re catching me at a point in my career where I am getting the shows that I am hoping to get. Currently, I’m not sure how I could wish for more. At a certain point, even though the tools are there, you still need the people. And people still need time to use their minds to come up with that great thing, whatever it may be. That part of the process should not be rushed. So you have this great technology, but you need to wait for our minds to use it.

I feel like I am at a point where I am producing at the level and speed that I think is right for the shows I’m doing. The only thing I would wish for is even more people to do even more work. I don’t feel that the tools are holding the work back. It’s more of thinking that if I had one more person, I could work on that area also – but not that it’s too slow. Everything feels like it’s at a good speed to me – which I’m certain to look at in 10 years time and think that it was insane. But right now I don’t feel held back by any of our equipment.

Kirill: Is the other side of this coin where you work on bigger productions that you spend more time on the overhead, so to speak, of coordination, management, budget tracking, meetings etc – things that don’t necessarily have to do with the core of creating the world for the story?

Jessica: One of the things I love about my job is the people. I get to sit and create with people. I get to bounce ideas back and forth, and the set is better for it. On bigger productions you get more voices, and even if it’s nothing compared to features, I do have to take a step back. I always say that production design is 90% people management and 10% design. On my current production I’m taking one step back and my art directors are taking one step forward. Then, once they’ve done their revisions, we talk, and I’ve never had to do that before.

Jimbo’s in “Dexter”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Getting a little bit closer to “Little Fires Everywhere”, how do you choose your productions? What brought you to this specific one, and what kind of a collaboration are you looking for?

Jessica: I have two kids who are right now 12 and 10. I made a deal with my husband that we would not go out of town, and that definitely limited my options. I’ve been lucky to have always been able to stay in LA and work.

So when we had kids, I wanted to be around them and we said that we won’t go out of town. I worked on “Future Man” before “Little Fires Everywhere”, and it was an incredibly satisfying job. I’m a huge fan of Seth Rogen comedy and I’m also a huge fan of sci-fi. “Future Man” is almost a love letter to “Back to the Future”, “Top Gun” and similar movies of that time – at least the first season of it was, so when I got that show, it checked all these boxes for me. Then in the second season we went into the future and we did world building, which I loved.

Up until that show my approach to work in general was that if it was in town, I’d take it. I just happened to be lucky that I ended up getting good shows during that period. And at the end of “Future Man” I was so satisfied all around by it that I told my husband that I’d like to start to be choosy. It felt that I was far enough along in my career to have options. I was offered a show in LA that would have started immediately when “Future Man” ended, and while the scripts and the people were great, it felt very much in line with what I’ve already done up to that point. That was the first time in my career that I considered saying “No” to a show – unless I had two options at the same time.

I spoke about that with my husband, and he supported my decision. So, for the first time ever, I started turning down work. I turned down around a dozen offers and interviews, waiting for what turned out to be “Little Fires Everywhere”. I wanted something that was either going to be so high-profile that I couldn’t turn it down, or something that design-wise was going to be satisfying. And nothing seemed to fit. I was feeling OK because it was about 2.5 months, and then it went dead. And then it started feeling like I’ve made a terrible decision, and I started looking around.

Windsor apartment, flashback 1980, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

I did the pilot of “Tommy” with Edie Falco, and the same week I was working on that, the script for “Little Fires Everywhere” came to me. It came from my friend who is one of the producers on the show, and she said that this was the show that I’ve been waiting for. I read it and the scripts were so well written. They were so good, and it was a period that is clearly ingrained in my memory because ’97 is the year that I’ve graduated college. That was absolutely the show that I’ve been waiting for.

I would normally prep for an interview for probably 11-12 hours, but on this one I prepped for a week. I came in with a book on how I thought the show should be, because the characters were so clear. I went in, I told them that I had a midlife crisis, I told them that they were what I’ve been waiting for, and luckily enough they agreed [laughs].

Kirill: Probably a lot of the viewers that connected strongly to the show have teenage kids themselves, which would place them as having lived through the ’90s. How do you approach creating something that rings true to the time that people remember, but doesn’t feel like a pure documentary style?

Jessica: The thing that was interesting for me was that the ’90s is not a beloved period. When you mention the ’90s, no design comes to mind. People can come to mind. Some of the clothes can come to mind. But from a design point of view, the ’90s were bland. I can mention the ’70s, and you immediately think of a carpet or a piece of furniture. The same goes for the ’50s and the ’60s, but the ’90s doesn’t do that.

So when I started looking and doing my research,I saw that it does have a strong point of view. It’s just that we don’t like it. It’s not old enough that people feel that it’s beloved. In fact, the ’90s were kind of ugly.

The interesting and challenging part about it was that Elena’s house needed to feel dated, but also it couldn’t feel ugly. It needed to feel like an affluent family home. Those were the notes that we needed to hit. Some of the weirdest feedback I got on the show was how it triggered some people’s memories. People tell me that their family room used to look like that. That they used to have this yellow in their family room. Or the copper pots in their kitchen. It’s something that you don’t remember that you remember, and then it flips on. And we had great props like Slimfast, SnackWell’s, and that little Nicorette patch that he puts on.

Windsor apartment, Mia’s Stidio 1997, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: How did you approach creating the backstory of the places that we see in the flashbacks, like Elena’s house and Mia’s apartment?

Jessica: We scouted actual Shaker Heights for a couple days before we came back to LA. So we already knew what the outside of the house was going to be. We just had to find something that looks similar within LA. I’ve been on a couple shows that have done the East Coast look in LA, so you know where you’re going to go to look for those.

What I wanted most in Elena’s house was to be able to stand anywhere in it, and no matter where you stand, you can see into other rooms. She’s so much about the way she presents herself. But then, there are all these layers that people don’t want to see, so you always want to feel almost lightly voyeuristic – but also everything is a show. So every room on the first floor that you stand in looks into another room. And there was a lot of depth in those sets.

In my mind, if Elena was alive today, she would be in the all-white house. She’d be still all about control. She wouldn’t want to see dirt anywhere. She wouldn’t want to see any of that. But back in the ’90s, white wasn’t popular yet. It was beiges, so it became beige with white trim. And from there it was a matter of layering on the affluence, and bringing in those little bits we remembered like the Ethan Allen and the Laura Ashley.

As for Mia’s house, what I wanted for that space was to be able to walk in when it was empty, and have it already have character. They’re not going to move in immediately, so we’re going to see the set without a lot of furniture dressing it up for a while. We went in, and everything in there is a heavy plaster. I also tried to play around with depth in every room. Their stories are different, but they also mirror each other in some ways. So you want to have a little bit of that feeling.

We kept that house in the neutral tone because it’s a rental, but the walls wobble with age. There’s bits of the brick that have chipped off on the fireplace. There’s a worn quality to the whole thing, so that the set already feels a little more comfortable. You’re not afraid to scuff it up, whereas in Elena’s, if you scuff her floor, you’d be horrified. Mia’s house already had a little bit of that, so when she actually moves in with her stuff and she gives her vibe, it’s still an interesting set.

We tried to play it off. Elena is all about control, and Mia is the opposite of that. She puts together a space the same way me and my decorator Lisa would put together our rooms in college. She treats it that same way, where it’s a cool-looking room because you’re an artist putting it together. That way, when both of their daughters visit the other places, you get why both of the daughters fall in love with the spaces when they first walk into them.

Izzy’s room in Richardson house, 1997, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: What references did you have for Izzy and Pearl’s rooms? Did you watch any ’90s teenage movies to see how it was back then?

Jessica: I don’t love referencing movies for teenagers’ rooms, because I think that teenagers’ rooms are hard to do well. One of the reasons is that you can’t put up all the graphics that you would like, because they’re not cleared. Decorators have a hard time making it look real, because you can’t stick up anything you’d want.

Oddly enough, there are a lot of books about teenagers’ bedrooms in the ’90s, so we pulled a lot from that. We also pulled stuff from our own rooms. Izzy’s character is loosely based on Liz the showrunner, and she gave us some of the references of her room. We actually put on a graphic designer specifically to create content to go on the walls, so that we would have enough to layer.

Our goal was to have Lexie and Izzy’s rooms to be the pink and purple versions of each other. They both have very similar wallpaper and similar fabrics, but Lexie embraces her mom’s world and Izzy tries to cover it up. I also feel like with Izzy, everybody either was that kid or knew that kid. So while we had all this reference, everyone has a visceral reaction. That’s actually the room that people talk about the most. It’s not my favorite one, but it’s the one everybody responds to. So it was easy to know once we got it right, because people started saying “I know this kid” or “I was this kid”.

Pearl was a little different. They’re nomads and she’s trying to create her own space, so that’s what we tried to play around with. When I went in for my interview, I had found this piece of reference for Pearl. I was thinking what do you do if you are constantly moving around? How you decorate your space? I had found this person who had done an ombre of paint chips on a wall. I put it into my presentation and Liz had liked it so much during my presentation that she then wrote it into the script. This is why you see Pearl going to the paint store and then that stuff above her bed.

Then, when they wrote in that the walls were getting painted blue, I thought about how as a teenager who’s trying to be artsy and just learning about art, you’re going to go for the classics. You go for van Gogh and Klimt, as you don’t know obscure artists yet. So we tried to draw “Starry Night” in chalk on her ceiling and bits like that. Pearl is a mix of her mom with the occasional little pops of art she’s trying to get out there.

Pearl’s room in Windsor apartment, 1997, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: You mentioned that people expressed their opinions or reactions to the sets on the show. Do you want people to notice the details of the sets, or do you want them to be immersed in the story and take everything else almost for granted?

Jessica: If we frame it within “Little Fires Everywhere”, I would say that my job is not to have people notice what I’m doing. It should not be something where it takes you out of the story, because then it’s too much. I always say this about props. I know that my prop master is doing a good job when I’m watching dailies and I don’t have anything to say about the props. In general I would say it should be that way with the sets. You just feel like this makes sense, because they’re living there.

I do think that when you do a period show, it is nice to every once in a while have something that triggers a memory in somebody. I wouldn’t want anyone to watch the show and talk over the characters. That’s not good, because then what I’ve done is louder than what they’re doing. Either that means they’re poorly acting or I’ve done it wrong, and in this case they definitely weren’t poorly acting. But it’s nice to have an occasional message from somebody like my aunt who wrote to me to say that she still has that yellow in her sunroom because she thinks it’s so lovely.

I almost find that if it’s a show that is good enough that you watch twice, that’s when more comments like that should be coming out. And of course it’s flattering to have these occasional comments.

Kirill: How was it to go back into the ’70s/’80s NewYork for the flashback episode?

Jessica: I’m from Jersey, and I grew up right across the bridge from Manhattan. When hip-hop started getting popular, I was all in. I was a little bit younger than the characters are then, but I remember that vividly. My dad worked at Columbia, and I remember driving in with him in the mornings and seeing the subway cars covered in graffiti going by. I remember the feeling of the music.

Jeffrey Waldron worked on those episodes, and we got together for a meeting where we discussed how we were going to change the look to have a really strong point of view as a flashback, and a really strong point of view as a place and time. I said that what I remembered about New York in those times is that it was grittier. There were prostitutes and street crime on 42nd. So we decided that we were going to control the color palette more than we had in other episodes. If you look, it’s a lot of black, white and red that we play around with. Honestly, it’s such a simple reference, but when I think of Run DMC, that’s the colors that I think of when those scenes were blossoming.

We started playing around with those things and that’s a fun period. I think that ’80s people have a clear picture of the ’80s, versus when you say the ’90s and it’s still fuzzy. You don’t even have to push it to make it the `80s because the `80s was all about crazy intense stuff. If it wasn’t the black, white and red which is the way we went, it could’ve been all the neons. You’re not doing a caricature because the ’80s essence is almost a caricature. And that was a blast.

NYC subway, 1980, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: One particular set that keeps on recurring, first in Mia’s nightmares and then later in the backstory episodes is the subway car. Did you build that, or did you find it somewhere?

Jessica: What’s interesting is that there is one rental subway car in LA, and it has to work for everything – the past, the present, New York, Seattle, everywhere. It can only come in at 4AM because of its size and the shipping. It can’t travel during normal times. You can’t alter it, so we had to take the entire set and cover it in clear vinyl that then we put graffiti on top of. That way we could pull it off and have not damaged the set.

The best moment with that subway car was when the director had said that we were coming in to pull up at a stop. I’m not even sure if that made it into the show, but we were trying to figure out how to do that. We were limited on the amount of time and the plates they could get. So we went the old school way, where we built a bit of subway tiled wall, and the grips pushed it into frame. And it totally worked! That is probably one of those times where we went back 30 years in time with technology and it still worked [laughs].

Kirill: Going back to Elena’s house, was that a single set? When we go upstairs into the kids’ rooms, is it the same space as the kitchen downstairs?

Jessica: Different sets on different stages. We had just built enough on the first floor for you to go up the stairs and turn into the hallway. And then, when you’re on the second floor, you can come around the corner and you enter the hallway and that’s it. The second floor is all ground level.

Kirill: Is it difficult to let go of sets like these when the show is over and they are torn down?

Jessica: I have had people ask me that before. I don’t find it difficult. If it has been a satisfying show, I’m fine with saying goodbye to them. They’re always going to be there. I can look at them whenever I want. That show is now here forever.

All the sets are like my babies. When they’re going up and they finally get filmed, it’s an incredible. It’s a great adrenaline rush. It’s one of the best feelings to get a set right and have people see it. When it gets taken down, I am always taken aback by seeing the empty stage and seeing how much space it took up. But I never really feel sad, because I feel like it did its job.

Richardson house, flashback 1980, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Do you have a preference between building a set from scratch and taking something that exists and tweaking it?

Jessica: I always prefer building my own sets, because then you get to do everything you want without constraints.

Something comes to mind that we did on “Little Fires Everywhere”, and I’m not sure that this translated as well on screen because when they did the flashbacks, it was a lot tighter in those episodes. We took Elena’s house back to what her mother had in it before Elena had redone it, and that was thrilling to see. The other thing that comes to mind is taking the Windsor apartment and made it Elena’s when Elena lived there. That was fun.

I much prefer doing that compared to giving Elena a totally new space. I love taking the same space that we created and making it feel totally different. But I don’t love taking someone’s set and changing it myself. It may be a little egotistical but it is true [laughs]. I’d rather build it from the ground up.

Kirill: You worked with two cinematographers and multiple directors on the show. Would you consider yourself as one of the chief guardians of the visual language, so that the story feels to be told with a single voice from my perspective as the viewer?

Jessica: A hundred percent. I think that it is less so with the cinematographers because they’ve been in all the same conversations that I have. They know our language. They know what we’re saying. But it’s a bit different with the directors. There were times where I said “We don’t do that here”.

For example, I was on a show where we didn’t shoot establishers. So directors would come in, and you’d be on a scout and they’d say “OK, we’ll get the establisher”, and I’d be saying that we don’t do that on the specific show. And even if they went and did that, I’d tell them that it wouldn’t get into the show.

Things are shifting now. When I first started, cinematographers never came out on scouts with us because they were always shooting. On “Little Fires Everywhere” they were there, and they can speak for themselves. I find I watchdog a lot more with directors that want to play around with stuff that isn’t in the language. I’m in charge of building all the sets, and creating the color palette and tone. It’s much easier for me to do that in a way that makes them happy, but also stays in our visual language. They will say something, and I will mold it into what we’re doing.

I’m just always watching it, but I can do that in a way that keeps them happy and keeps our language consistent.

Junkyard, 1997, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Did the junkyard exist, or did you make your own?

Jessica: It’s a storage area that had a bunch of pipe and fencing in it. So if you consider that a junkyard, then we didn’t make it [laughs]. But we brought in all the trucks. We brought in thousands of dollars of stuff to put around it.

In fact, the second time we came back to shoot it, even more stuff was gone. It was almost an empty lot with a little bit of stuff in the back. So essentially we made it [laughs].

Kirill: The Shaker Heights model that Mia makes just before she leaves out of a couple flour bags and some water felt to me like one of those cooking shows, where they put in all the ingredients, and then pull out the whole meal that was prepared beforehand. How much time did it take to actually make that thing?

Jessica: That was about three weeks of work with five people working on it. It’s not overnight, and it’s not even flour.

Turns out that flour has a yellowish tone to it, so it went against what she was trying to do with her art. We actually started with some flour, and we saw that it was not going to work. It’s layers of spray paint and then baking soda sprinkled on top of it, with also some grout mixed into it.

Kirill: Would you even be able to make something like that out of flour without it breaking apart on touch?

Jessica: You could make if you added glue to flour, and you had little molds that you were making those houses in. You could do it, but as one person doing it on their own? I think it would be a challenge [laughs].

Mia’s model of Shaker Heights, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: You mentioned that Izzy’s bedroom wasn’t your favorite. What was your favorite set, if there’s even such a thing as your favorite, or perhaps the most challenging one?

Jessica: This one is actually purely emotionally based. I think that the Richardson house is the most impressive when you walked into it. It would take your breath away.

But the one that I loved the most was “Lucky Palace”. As I said, I graduated college in ’97. I grew up over the bridge in Jersey in the suburbs. I have three brothers, and every Friday we would rotate and one of us would get to pick up the restaurant to eat in. I would always pick “The Magic Wok” as my restaurant, and “Lucky Palace” was based off of “The Magic Wok”. My parents came to set, and I walked them to the set and I asked them if they’d recognized it. For me it brought back memories of me, my brothers and my family on our special nights.

The restaurant that they were going to was the same type of restaurant I always went to. So that one for me was special.

Lucky Palace, 1997, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: As you were watching the show, did it feel a bit surreal to see the “normal” everyday activities like kids visiting other families, going to a birthday party etc – at a time like now when everybody is quarantined at home?

Jessica: I have to say that I think it was very good for our show that it came out when it did. You have an audience you’re not going to reach any other time in the world – and it’s a good show. You’re giving people a really good escape. You have this bigger audience than you would ever have, and you’re giving them quality.

I got to sit there and almost get people’s immediate reactions. Nobody had to watch it at the same time, but everybody was watching. I shouldn’t say everybody likes it, but there’s been a lot of good feedback. Someone emailed me and said that they loved the show and that they were sad it ended. And oh, I married Mike Kender, and is there any chance you could be related? It was such a thrill to see a Kender represented on screen [laughs]. We’re not related at all, but that was fun.

I watched it not thinking that we’re stuck in the house and they’re not. It was more about that we’re stuck in a house and I can’t wait for everybody to see it. And everybody is. That was exciting. I wouldn’t ever wish it on anyone, but the fact that we could provide this entertainment in a time where people need it is great. I would love to have another “Tiger King” [laughs]. Having content out there that everybody’s watching and responding to at the same time is good for a time like this.

Richardson house, 1997, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Without explicitly tying the question to the show being centered around motherhood, do you find that as you grow and experience more in life, it makes you a better storyteller?

Jessica: I think that getting older lets me be a more aggressive storyteller. In the beginning you have a lot of people that you’re trying to please and make happy. With every decision I was trying to make, I was so careful and cautious.

If I go back to the things I mentioned about network shows, none of my decisions were risky. I didn’t want to take a risk and risk offending somebody. I think age has given me the luxury of believing that if I think this is the right way to go, everybody else will also. So I’m willing to take risks because they don’t feel like they have the same stakes they did before. I’m much more confident that if I see it this way, other people will see it this way.

It’s exciting to be able to go in and say “I hear what you’re saying. I don’t want to do that, but let’s do this way. I can tell you why, or you can trust me either way. But we should do it this way”. I think experience has done that for me more than showing me the world.

If you’re a good designer, even if you haven’t seen the world, you should be able to create the world with enough research and getting out there and learning about it. You should be able to build a world that, if not a 100% authentic, is pretty close.

Richardson house, 1997, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: How obsessed do you get about all the tiny details that go into the show you’re working on? Is it impossible to detach yourself from it when you go back in the evening to your family? How much of your work do you bring home?

Jessica: I’m lucky because my husband works in the industry. He will shop-talk with me and be excited by it, because we do the same thing.

I try to make my days so that at least 4 out of 5 of them I can drop my kids off at school – so I see them in the morning. I don’t talk about work in the morning as I get them dropped up at school. I’ll come home probably around 7PM and the kids go to bed at 8:30. I try not to talk work again, unless I’ve had a day where I’m really excited. Then I’ll usually get back on my computer and I’ll work from 8:30 to 11PM, probably next to my husband. We’ll probably have something on TV, but I’m working.

Everyone who’s in this industry for the love of art is a little obsessive about it. I love the work, and so it is rare to have it totally not in my mind. Even on weekends when I’m hanging out with friends, I talk about my work. It is very much part of what makes me, me. I would say separating from it doesn’t happen often [laughs].

But, I will say that my kids have taught me that they come first. When I was on “Medium” and I didn’t have kids, I would get up at 6AM, and I would think about work from 6AM to 10PM every single day. There was room for nothing else. They get their time now.

Cannery in “Dexter”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: When you look back at your earlier productions, something like “Dexter” or “Medium” that didn’t happen in the last couple of years, what stays with you?

Jessica: When I look back at my older stuff, I definitely think that I would never make those sets now. Those sets were from a different time, not only because I was a different designer, but because it was a different time.

I would generally say that my memories are very fond. With the occasional couple real bad memories in there, like the Me Too stuff and times where something went very wrong, the overarching feeling is one of great pleasure. I love this job and I feel really lucky that I get to do it.

When I talk about my past work, it makes me feel good. Things get a little fuzzy with time, but on “Medium” I can remember almost every single set I did. I used to be able to tell you what episode had what, not as much now, but I have them all in there. It made such a big impact on me that I was getting to do this, and that my grandma was getting to see it. I set out to do it and I was really doing it. And it was just as exciting as I thought it would be, and it continues to be that way.

So looking back, I feel good. I feel proud. It’s fun to think about those times.

Kirill: You mentioned it just now a couple of times, so let’s make it official for the last question of what keeps you staying in this field and not exploring other opportunities?

Jessica: I would say first off, I don’t have any other skills [laughs] so I literally can’t do anything else.

It’s just incredibly satisfying. When you do a set and you know that you got that set right, it’s like the best drug. When I have a set I’m proud of, I can’t sleep the night before. I can’t wait for people to come on and look at it. And then I get to have that feeling all over again when the public sees it.

I know that when people watch a show, they’re not watching it for my work. But if I’ve done my work right, you should be able to turn on a show and know what you’re watching even before the actors come on. I’m a part of what makes you feel the way you feel when you watch a show, and that’s a great feeling. I will be incredibly thrilled if I can keep doing this for the rest of my career.

Richardson house, 1997, in “Little Fires Everywhere”. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

And here I’d like to thank Jessica Kender for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the supporting images. You can also find him on Twitter. The first season of “Little Fires Everywhere” is available for streaming on Hulu. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.