Production design of "Sharp Objects" by John Paino

The art and craft of production design – interview with John Paino

June 14th, 2020
Production design of "Sharp Objects" by John Paino

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome John Paino. In this interview, she talks about changes in the way stories are made in movies and television over the last few decades, the ever-raising quality and expectations bar from the viewers, what captures the audience’s attention, and what stays with him after a production is over. In between all these and more, John dives deep into his work on “Sharp Objects”, “Big Little Lies” and “The Morning Show”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself, and how early you knew that you wanted to be in this field.

John: Going to a movie theater is magical, and I would go whenever I could. I actually was more inclined to be a fine artist, and I went to school for cartooning in New York in the early ’70s. I found that cartoonists are the worst teachers in the world. They sit at their desks and they’re so into their inner life. They’re not good communicators. So I gravitated to the fine arts department at the School of Visual Arts.

Once a week I’d go to St. Marks movie theater and watch “Blade Runner”, so I was always intrigued by that world. After I graduated from the art school with a degree in fine art, I got kind of tired of the whole New York art scene. One day I happened to wander into a theater and just volunteered, starting building and painting sets. It was in the off-off-off-Broadway theater world. Then, slowly, some people who were in theater started doing music videos in the ’80s. Then I started designing sets and doing production design for music videos and commercials. And then some of those people started doing films.

That lead me to working on low budget indie movies in the early ’80s in New York, and that’s how I segway’d into film design. That’s been my path into this field.

Production design of “The Morning Show” by John Paino.

Kirill: If I had a time machine, and I could bring the young you from the ’70s / ’80s all the way into 2020, would you say that the overall structure of the art department of these productions would still be recognizable?

John: I think they still would in the art department. We still have to physically make things. We still have to design them.

Sure, the computer technology has shortened some work times. But there’s also the human factor. Directors, for the most part, still want to walk in a set. They want to see it. They want to look at the reference you’re putting together. My big thing when I design is making mood boards that convey atmosphere. With those images, you still want to go get those out of magazines. If I can, I still go to the New York public library’s picture collection and pull swatches from there.

I still have bags of fabric. The art department still has bags of fabric and pictures from old newspapers. Computers certainly have shortened some work as far as getting from point A to B in certain respects. But people still have a tactile need. I have to carry this stuff around from place to place, and I wish everything was digitized. I wish I could have someone digitizing all my art books 24/7 [laughs].

There’s still a physical aspect to designing movies, seeing things built, and the director walking into an office and seeing all kinds of stuff laying around – tile, samples of wood, etc. I don’t think that aspect of it will ever change.

Production design of “Sharp Objects” by John Paino.

Kirill: Is there something that is feasible to do today technically or maybe economically that wasn’t as achievable – or not achievable at all – 20 years ago?

John: I used to do a lot of high-end commercials. Let’s say you go back 20 years ago, and you wanted to have daisy petals come out of a flower and then fall on the ground over and over again. I had incredible prop makers who were able to build a physical flower that had a cable running through it where pedals would come out of it and then drop to the ground and then be resettable. That was expensive and a lot of times commercials would not do those things, because they were just too expensive.

The other day I saw a commercial where someone is in a nondescript office and their computer starts spitting out shredded paper by the thousands, and it fills up a room. Only the biggest clients would be able to do that physically, and I worked for high-end clients that would go for it. We would do it physically, and that was really interesting and challenging. You’d have to have really skilled people to be able to do it and then reset it. You’d have to think about it more.

Now it would be achieved with CGI. I’m not saying you don’t think about it as much, but there’s something lost when you’re not as involved with it and it gets subbed to someone else who will be creating it. From the economical standpoint, you can do all that a lot cheaper, and people are doing it more and more, not just in commercials.

The flip side of that is that people who are trying to do a million dollar movie have at their disposal these incredible visual effects to achieve things that were simply not available to me back in the ’80s when I was working on indies. That’s a positive thing to have people being able to do that. These are the two sides of technology in film.

Sketches for “Big Little Lies”, courtesy of John Paino.

Kirill: Between this technical side of your craft, and the artistic side of it – finding the “right” expression to tell the story – do you think there’s more importance to one of these sides, or do you need to strike some kind of a balance between the two?

John: You’re working as a collaborator, so you have to have a balance because you can’t do everything yourself. Filmmaking is very much about point of view. How do you want people to see something – between the camera work and then the design work? What do you want to emphasize or not emphasize? How do you want to set an atmosphere?

It’s really important to have a very strong point of view. But you’re working with many people and you can’t do everything yourself. We’re all servicing the director and that person’s vision. But you want to have other people’s input, and sometimes their input and reaction is a good thing. It’s tough to find the balance between having a strong point of view and realizing that people are people, and that they are putting in their life experience into how they interpret the material.

I remember reading about Francis Ford Coppola who decided early on to have two or three visual things that he would always fall back to answer any question. Maybe the actor would ask him how the shirt should be buttoned. Or the production designer would ask him about putting a feather in the cap. Or the cinematographer would ask him about the lighting. He’d always have three things that he would fall back on so that he could corral all the input. I was interviewing with a director the other day, and he said something very interesting along this line – that we have to develop together the tracks for the train of this TV show, to lay those tracks because they will take us to the end.

Coppola had three things, and this gentleman I was talking to would have three tracks. It’s a lot of problem solving and a lot of guessing how things go because you’re always dealing with practicalities. You want to have those tracks to put your train on.

Production design of “Big Little Lies” by John Paino.

Kirill: You’ve had a fruitful collaboration with Jean-Marc Vallée over multiple projects. How do you choose your collaborators? Do you want a close alignment of artistic sensibilities, or do you think there’s value in having differences of opinions?

John: I would rather have more synchrony. There’s always going to be a clash because everybody brings in their own experiences. You go to a location and you might see something that you want to feature, but the director is interested in something else.

I prefer a harmony because you get to the root of what you’re trying to do quicker. That doesn’t mean that you finish each other’s sentences, because that’s never the case. It’s hard and it takes a while to figure out what is the proper atmosphere for a project, so it’s good if you get along at first [laughs]. At least you can have some basic ground rules with that person.

One thing about this field these days is that you get less and less time to do TV shows and films. You have to find that way a lot quicker than you used to. So it’s good to have harmony.

Kirill: It looks like you’ve migrated from the world of feature films into the world of episodic storytelling for your last few productions. Was that intentional or accidental, and what kind of trends do you see in the world of visual storytelling these days?

John: It wasn’t intentional. I didn’t do any TV before that, and it might sound stereotypical, but the TV world 15 years ago was not what it is today. The budgets were not there. For most people I knew, if you were serious about filmmaking, you were going to be working in film. You had more money and you were making a cohesive vision with a handful of people – the producer, the cinematographer, the director and the designer. Compare that world to TV – which traditionally had many directors and many writers. Like for most people, it wasn’t intentional for me.

But what was happening is that TV got more interesting, the budgets got bigger, and quite frankly the budgets got better than on most movies. I don’t work on movies that are more than $40-50M, and TV started approaching that. Indie directors were being courted by TV, and they started going there. That’s how I migrated to it. There are so few films being made these days that are interesting. I’m talking about myself as a designer and being able to have the means to contribute to them. That sweet spot of $15-30M has very few movies now. There are many movies being made that should have that budget, but they don’t.

The first big TV show I did was “The Leftovers”, and I was really fortunate that the show runner and the writers let me contribute. I came into it thinking that I’d be working in my corner. But they were so great about letting me in the writers room, make contributions and be a part of it – sometimes more so than many of the features that I had done before that. That was a happy surprise.

Shows like “The Leftovers” and “Big Little Lies” started to have budgets where you could do something and contribute greatly to the story. And that is missing from film these days – unless it’s a Marvel movie. Quite frankly, that world is slowly disappearing – if it’s not already gone.

Moodboard for “Big Little Lies”, courtesy of John Paino.

Kirill: Looking at the credits of your four shows, on “Big Little Lies” you had two seasons, each one with one director and one cinematographer, and you’ve worked with the same director on “Sharp Objects” – vs “The Morning Show” and “The Leftovers” where you had multiple directors. Do you have a preference on which setup works better for you?

John: I prefer to have one director – or one showrunner and director – and one cinematographer. I think it just helps the series look cohesive. TV moves very quickly. Schedules are tight and there’s a lot to be done in a little time, so that’s why it’s preferable from a practical point of view.

I also think that the vision and the cohesiveness throughout are really important. The best TV shows are the ones that have a very strong sense of place and atmosphere, and that is harder to maintain when you have directors come in. Some directors come in and they’re very experienced; they understand how to keep the same thing. Other directors are looking to build a reel. They will come in and want to do something that is outside of the world that we’ve created – but it’s got a lot of bang and flash. That’s when you need a strong showrunner.

And it helps to have the same cinematographer. We work so hard to create that world. I don’t just mean the production design. It’s the costumes, the atmosphere, the lighting – things that should stay throughout.

Kirill: Is it easy or hard to talk about what you do for a living when you work on shows that are set in modern time? Do people ask you what is it that you do, as they see these houses and settings in their everyday lives?

John: Sometimes you run into people who think you just go into someone’s house and shoot with their silverware and whatever food is in the refrigerator. The degree of how TV has become as detail-oriented as film traditionally is – that is lost on people.

As far as real life, when you go into someone’s house, it’s dirty. I find that i’m editing. I think that that’s the key word here. When you are doing contemporary, you want to edit to direct the eye. You want to edit to tell something about the character. I always find that when I go into a lot of locations, a lot of places look the same [laughs]. You want to add that layer for this guy who we think is a soccer coach, but is actually a CIA agent.

It’s harder to do in a contemporary setting than in period. In a contemporary setting you have to quickly reduce and edit when you walk in that room, whereas in period you walk into a Victorian home and you know right off the bat what it is.

It’s tricky. What are the ’80s? What are the ’90s? I have this discussion with people all the time. What the hell was the ’90s as far as furniture and other things? Contemporary is harder than period in a lot of ways, because you’re still figuring out what it is. But it comes down to editing, and people don’t realize that real life doesn’t tell you a lot. You have to edit.

Moodboard for “Big Little Lies”, courtesy of John Paino.

Kirill: Moving on to the specific productions, perhaps we can start with “Big Little Lies”. How did you approach dividing your attention between not just a couple, but five or six major characters on the show, each one with their house, each one from their own socio-economical background?

John: A lot of that is talking to the director and thinking about how do we differentiate these people. What are they about? What are their inner lives about?

In that case you want to quickly determine their relationships. In “Big Little Lies” it was about their proximity to water and their socioeconomic place. Proximity to water in Monterey and Carmel is a sign of wealth. So Jane who is at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder is nowhere near the water, whereas Celeste and Renata are right on the water – but with different kinds of wealth.

We wanted to make a chart of how they related to each other. You want to create the atmosphere and also to juxtapose things. You want to compare and contrast. That’s how I started looking at it – comparing and contrasting. We’re making the map of the world. Here’s the capital and here are the suburbs.

I also try to make a map – whether it’s a map of color or a map of houses. I make a reference board, or just start drawing. On “The Leftovers” we drew a map of Miracle. Here’s the town, here is where the events happen, here’s how you get in and out of town. That’s really helpful. It’s the same as the blueprint of the script. It’s just another blueprint to help you create the world. In the case of “Big Little Lies”, we actually did a lot of shooting in Los Angeles and very little in Monterey. We built a lot of sets that would be the interiors of the exteriors that were in Monterey.

But that was the overall approach – juxtapositions and similarities, creating a chart of the main characters.

Moodboard for “Big Little Lies”, courtesy of John Paino.

Kirill: Is it easy to convince people to let you take over their houses?

John: No, it’s not [laughs]. Locations is a hard job. People are a lot more savvy about what a film is. Some people who are wealthy and don’t care about money might think that it’s interesting, and other people are absolutely against it. It’s a very long process to meet and greet and convince people to do that.

On “Big Little Lies” Celeste’s house was one of the last things we found, probably two weeks before production started. Surprisingly, in Monterey there are very few houses on the water that were majestic enough and that the people wanted to have anything to do with us – because they were wealthy, and they wanted their privacy, and money was not going to get them interested.

Kirill: In general, how do you decide on build vs location? Is it schedule, is it budget, is it different on every project?

John: It’s really all of the above. It depends mostly on scheduling and actors – where they need to be. But a big part of it is also the style of the shoot. For instance, Jean-Marc doesn’t like sets. He’d rather shoot in locations, even rooms that are hard to shoot in, like our bathroom was. When I first started working with him in film, he wouldn’t build any sets. Now he’s come around and we build a lot of sets. He also has a small crew that doesn’t have all the film equipment, so that determines whether we’re going to do locations or builds.

On “The Morning Show” the show runners and the directors they wanted a different style. We had four cameras and they wanted to cover all the angles at once, and that’s hard to do in a location. Certainly money and scheduling are important. If you have a show based in Washington DC, of course you’re going to build the White House sets. But if it’s not something as obvious the inside of the submarine, it’s about the money, the schedule, and how the show is going to be shot.

Sketches for “Big Little Lies”, courtesy of John Paino.

Sketches for “Big Little Lies”, courtesy of John Paino.

Kirill: There’s a lot of scenes in “Big Little Lies” outside in the nature. What do you do for such environments?

John: It depends. A few years ago I did a movie with Jean-Marc called “Wild” that was mostly exteriors. There, and this will apply to “Big Little Lies”, we had to do the entire Pacific Crest trail which goes from Mexico to Washington State and has about 15 different ecosystems, from deserts to rain forests to redwood forests. So we had to create all those in Oregon. It’s the same thing. Even though you’re outside, you’re never shooting where you should be, and that’s how it was on “Big Little Lies” as well.

We’re shooting LA for Monterey. It’s a completely different light. It’s different plants and trees, so we’re bringing those in. If you don’t notice it, that’s perfect. That means we did our job. We’re not there to stare at the conifer trees that we brought into a park in LA. Even though we’re outside, there is always a lot, because we’re seldom shooting where we’re supposed to be.

Production design of “Big Little Lies” by John Paino.

Kirill: Was it complicated to return to the second season of “Big Little Lies” as originally it was planned to be a mini-series?

John: Yes. We tore down all the sets. Very little of the set dressing was saved because we were not supposed to go back. It was difficult. The set decorator had to find the same furniture, reupholster it the same way, etc. All our sets had to be rebuilt from scratch again. A lot of them had antiques and things in them that were sold, so it was difficult from a practical point of view [laughs].

Kirill: You did “Sharp Objects” in between the two seasons of “Big Little Lies”. You talked at length about your collaboration with Jean-Marc, and you’ve had a few productions with Reese Witherspoon as well. What kind of relationships do you get to build with the cast and the crew?

John: Production designers don’t spend a lot of time on set. If the set is done, I will come in on the first day that they’re on the set. I’ll make sure the director’s happy and the actors are happy, but after that I’m usually running off to the next day set or the set that’s in a month. I don’t really spend a lot of time on set, but I do get to know what they like and don’t like. That’s great. Having a shorthand with people is not a bad thing. Things change all the time and there’s always something that’s happening.

Jean-Marc is very much about the actors improving. You’ll come to set and he’ll say that he needs 50 bags of potatoes for the actors. There’s always something like that. Any time you can get to a good symbiosis with the actors and the director – as far as predicting and knowing them – it’s a good thing.

Production design of “Sharp Objects” by John Paino.

Kirill: How much time and effort went into that big rustic mansion in “Sharp Objects”?

John: It was built from scratch on a stage. We had scouted every single Victorian mansion that existed in LA, and that was great to have reference and to be able to see Victorians of a certain period. We actually started to prep one, but we decided at the last minute that it wasn’t going to satisfy the look of the show. So we abandoned it and did what we wanted to do in the beginning – which was to build it on stage.

We were able to find an exterior of one in California that, with modification, would match what we were building on stage. I was very happy about that because then we could really give this house a sense of character.

Creating the dollhouse for “Sharp Objects”, courtesy of John Paino.

Kirill: What was the process of making that dollhouse?

John: The parallels between the ivory floor and the teeth in the dollhouse were in the story. The dollhouse was one of the most complicated things I’ve ever been involved with building. First we had to design the house. Then we had to pick the furniture, the wall coverings, the paintings and everything for the house. And then Jean-Marc being a stickler for detail… that dollhouse had to match it exactly – and that’s hard on people.

My fabulous decorator Amy Wells would get these different sofas, bring them into the room and see what worked and what didn’t work. All of that had to be done before we could even start the dollhouse, but the dollhouse had to be on set the first day. That was really hard. And also it was in a scale. We built four or five different-sized dollhouse scales for Jean-Marc to look at and see if they were too big or too small.

The scale we picked is one where you can’t really get any furniture forms for it, because it was a strange three-quarter size. We weren’t able to get a lot of help with buying stuff off the rack that we could modify, so it was built from scratch. Those things usually take a year or two to build, and we built it in 3 months. It was complicated because of all the steps to create it, based on a set that we were building at the same time.

Moodboard for “Sharp Objects”, courtesy of John Paino.

The floor was a really interesting thing. I started looking, and I figured that somewhere in the world someone had built an ivory floor, some sultan maybe. And there was nothing. I was able to find pictures of ivory inlaid on furniture and boxes, but I couldn’t find an example of an ivory floor. So I came up with the idea of cross sections of tusks – whale, elephant, walrus – that were cut to resemble tile. It was also made to look like something that would be handcrafted in the 1860s, which I think worked successfully. We had the pattern printed on vinyl, laid that down and did some painting on top of that to achieve the floor.

It had to be cleaned and it had to be durable, because a lot of shooting takes place in there. And that came from the book. It was tricky because you look at it and you want to be able to say “Hey, what is that made of?” but you don’t want it to immediately look like the tops of the teeth in the dollhouse. It’s tricky. You want people to know that it’s a floor made out of ivory, something really unique. You want to see the organic toothiness of it, but you don’t want it to hit you over the head and show you where she’s putting the teeth later on.

Production design of “Sharp Objects” by John Paino.

Kirill: Where did that dollhouse end up after the show was over?

John: That dollhouse was a six-figure thing as far as cost went. I believe it is at the VFX company that was working on it in post. It had to be scanned after it was built. There’s some VFX work you see when Amy looks in it and thinks she sees one of the figures move. It probably still is at that VFX company. At one point they were going to take it a grand opening at HBO, but I think that they were worried about something.

Kirill: I was hoping that you might have it in your basement.

John: Definitely not [laughs]. It was north of a quarter of a million dollars. It would not be in my basement.

Production design of “Sharp Objects” by John Paino.

Kirill: One last question on “Sharp Objects” is about the richness of interior design, from the furniture to the wallpaper to the floors. What’s your process there to define the colors, the level of detail and the depth of it?

John: Each designer has a thing they focus on. Some people like sculpture, for example. My thing is color and saturation.

The book lays it out, and Jean-Marc brought a twist on it into the show. He wanted Adora to be sophisticated, as she is the wealthiest person in town. The book describes the house as old and dilapidated, but the idea I brought to Jean-Marc was that everything in the house should be rich, swampy and fecund – because she’s poisoning people. There’s this English company that named some of its colors after the base materials of minerals, and one of their colors is called arsenic.

It’s this arsenic’y green, and I convinced him to go down that route where her house is a sealed, swampy poisoner’s lair. I’ve seen this picture of Marie-Hélène de Rothschild who was a rich countess in the 20th century, and at the turn of the century and she had a room with this chinoiserie hand-painted silk wallpaper. That wallpaper just reminded me of a swamp. You’re in the South. It’s humid, it’s fecund, there’s kudzu growing everywhere. It was a theme. It was that color. It was a metaphor, another track for her character. That’s how that house became rich and saturated. It’s fecund, swampy, perspiring.

We were lucky to get De Gournay to sell us that one-of-a-kind wallpaper that they just happened to have. We were able to use the actual silk wallpaper, and there’s nothing like it on camera. We tried to do a version of it digitally, but we were quite lucky to be able to find some that’s hand painted. I think you see the difference on camera. Ten years ago on a TV show they would just tell you that you’re crazy to even think of buying real silk, incredible expensive wallpaper for that wall.

Sets of “Sharp Objects”, courtesy of John Paino.

Kirill: Do you want me as a viewer to notice these little details?

John: Yes. That kind of wallpaper is so expensive, that if you had that in your house, it would never be taken down. It would probably be a selling point of your house – that’s how rich she is. Just that one wall costs about $15,000, and that gives you a sense of her place. But I also just think it looks gorgeous. There’s a hand-painted quality and translucency to it that printing digitally would not have come across.

Kirill: Given how deeply you go into these details, how annoying is to go to your friends’ houses and see these badly calibrated TV sets?

John: It’s easy to fix, but it is annoying. That’s the one tragedy of working in TV as opposed to working in film, and I mean film in a theater. When you go see “The Irishman” in a theater, it has that beautiful Rembrandt atmosphere to it. No matter where you see such a movie in a theater, it will have that, because someone is taking care to make sure it’s projected and it’s all properly balanced.

But it is annoying and there’s nothing you can do about it [laughs]. That’s one of the drawbacks of TV – how you see it on the box is sometimes not up to snuff.

Production design of “The Morning Show” by John Paino.

Kirill: Your most recently released production is “The Morning Show”, and that broadcast studio set is the centerpiece of it. As we see so many similar sets on national and local news shows, how do you bring your own twist to something like that?

John: That was a challenging set. I always try to do something different, and I’ve never done a morning show set. I’ve never done that before, and I thought that I could have some fun with this. But you can’t have fun with it [laughs]. There are so many of them out there, tens of thousands of examples of these things.

I was lucky enough to go and visit the Today’s show and watch Good Morning America being filmed. So much has to be done. They have to be so versatile. They have to have so much technology built into them, with lighting and video feeds. It makes it very difficult to have fun with it. They have to be a certain way, and you also have a lot of baggage with what they came from, what they you know and what they’ve been over the years. I was a bit naive in thinking that we could do anything with these things.

Then I started talking to the producers and the showrunners, and we wanted this to feel like if you were flipping channels and you saw this fake show, you’d be “Yeah, it’s a morning show”. But we also wanted it to convey some metaphors and some themes of what the show’s about, the transition from things being news as opposed to being entertainment, the role of new technology in TV, and that fine line between entertainment and news.

I travel a lot, and every time I come to New York, it starts looking more and more like Hong Kong and Tokyo. There are LED screens everywhere. I wanted that LED screen glow to be a big part of what this set became. I started out thinking that I would be able to do anything with it, but it turned out to be complicated in a different way. Not only were we shooting that set, the set was being shot by broadcast cameras. You have cameras on the peds shooting the show, and then the film crew is shooting the show. All of those feeds needed to work together as they went into the control room. Everything had to be balanced. The set had a lot of lighting in it, and I was learning about LED screens.

Sometimes it’s good to have those things. They’re not obstacles. They guide you and help you make decisions. But they very much had to be taken into account.

Production design of “The Morning Show” by John Paino.

Kirill: Was the apartment of Jennifer Aniston’s character a real location that you took over?

John: No, it was a build. That was her fortress of solitude. I based it on a Richard Meier building that we were hoping to shoot the exterior of, right off the West Side Highway in the West Village. One of the themes for that was making it vertical. New York is a vertical city, and I really wanted to make that feel vertical. That was one of the themes that had something to say about her life and where she was. That’s the idea behind her place.

Reese’s hotel room was build as well. There’s a lot of builds on that show. Funny thing – it’s set in New York, but shot in Los Angeles. So when we’re outside, we have to do a lot of stuff that doesn’t “show up”. Good production design is never on the nose, unless you’re creating worlds from whole cloth. But even if you do that, if the viewer doesn’t notice that it’s designed, then you’ve done your job.

We never shoot things in sequence. We never shoot things in the place we’re supposed to be in. All those things are what makes for a successful production design. It’s suspension of belief, but not so much that it keeps you from believing the story.

Production design of “The Morning Show” by John Paino.

Kirill: Does it feel liberating that you have these big budgets from the networks or the companies that are producing these shows?

John: Let’s be honest, one of the hardest things when you’re a designer is not being able to do things because you don’t have the money to do them. So that’s one of the things that I enjoy in TV so far. There’s more money to do things right and to have that final good layer of paint on the wall that really kicks. That is great [laughs]. I hope it lasts.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as just enough money?

John: Sure. We’re not burning money. We have just enough. The process is to come up with a design, a plan or a sketch that everyone feels is right, and then allocate enough money to it. You’re making the decision that that’s worth it.

If you have four cameras rolling, you cannot shoot in a hotel room. And shooting in hotel rooms is expensive too. No hotel will let you just rent a room. They’re going to make you rent the entire floor, and you’d need to put up the crew and the equipment. And there’s another thing that determines whether you’re going to build that set or not on TV. If we’re planning to do three seasons of a show, and Reese’s hotel room is there, it makes sense to build it. It’s hard to light a hotel room that’s on the 15th floor, and there are other practical reasons to have it be a build. It’s good to have the money, because we need to do those things. It might be an hotel room or something else. Having enough money to do it right is important for everybody. It actually saves money, and it’s smart.

Production design of “The Morning Show” by John Paino.

Kirill: I look at these three productions – “Big Little Lies”, “The Morning Show” and “Sharp Objects”, and I see them looking at “uncomfortable” issues such as sexual harassment in the workplace, violence towards women and inflicting harm on yourself. Is it important to you to participate in telling stories that raise awareness of such issues?

John: I’ve been lucky to work on shows that say something. I’m not casting any aspersions on pop shows where people are beating up bad guys. I’ve been lucky to work with people who want to tell those stories in the last past couple of years.

Even back when I was doing films, I’ve tried to work on things that were involved with the zeitgeist of what’s going on in the world. It makes it more interesting to me, for sure. I’d still love to do a hard science fiction movie that has nothing to do with anything [laughs]. That would be fun too.

But I also pick things that I’ve never heard of before. I look at these subcultures that you have to learn. You have to learn the subculture of people who cut themselves. You have to learn the subculture of people who run these TV shows. That’s all they do. They get up at 2 AM every day, and they do it for 20 years. That aspect of production design is incredibly fascinating to me – learning about these other worlds.

Kirill: These three shows have enjoyed a lot of success among the viewers, as well as critics. With so many stories being told in episodic productions, is it hard to stand apart? Does it sometimes feel almost “random” what manages to capture the audiences?

John: There are some shows that I’ve worked on where I thought that they were really good, and they were ignored for one reason or another. There’s luck and fortune. I did a film called “Margin Call” which I think was a very good movie, and it got a lot of traction in play because just as it came out, the stock market collapsed – for the reasons that were portrayed in the movie. But believe me, the people who were making the movie were not thinking that the stock market was going to collapse in a year when the movie comes out [laughs], so let’s make the movie. They did not. It was a good movie, but it certainly propelled it into conversations.

That’s one of the reasons that I gravitated away from the art world. I thought it was hermetically sealed. I love the fact that you can be stuck in an elevator with someone, and you could talk about “Star Wars” with them. There’s a sense of communication in making films and TV that you just don’t have with any other art form. That appeals to me, as opposed to sitting in a room and doing paintings that, perhaps, are not reaching people.

It’s great to go to a restaurant and hear that people are talking about a show that you worked on. It’s interesting what they think, and how they see it.

There’s a lot of great stories out there right now, and that means everything has to be so good to fight for people to look at it. I’m not talking about the money-making point of view. It is about having something to say and thinking that it’s important, and getting it out there. You have to tell it really well through everything, from costumes to cinematography to the design of it, to the acting and the writing. It makes us all better filmmakers. When we did “Sharp Objects”, I wanted to have that level of detail even though we didn’t have the budget of “Game of Thrones”. And it does.

I can’t tell you how many independent filmmakers have gone into TV because that’s where the work is. But they are also being given the means to tell stories that they used to tell in independent film. And it gives them a bigger canvas to tell that story in an episodic format.

Sketches for “Big Little Lies”, courtesy of John Paino.

Kirill: What do you remember when you look back at productions that you did, let’s say, 5-10 years ago? Do you remember the good parts, the bad parts, or some mix of the two?

John: When you’re doing indie films, you just don’t have the money or the time to do anything. What stays with me looking back at the smaller-budgeted films is that I was able to give them a sense of atmosphere, a sense of presence and space and time. Those things really stay with me. I didn’t have the money, I didn’t have the crew, on some of them I did the props or painted the sets.

I am really happy with the look of “Sharp Objects”. I think it is incredibly rich, atmospherically compelling world. That is successful in the same way as “The Station Agent” is for me, even though it’s a totally different world and a totally different budget.

Kirill: Even as the whole world right now is on this forced break, what keeps you going? How much fire do you have in your belly to continue telling these stories?

John: The thing that helps is to have a compelling script and a great group of people involved in it. That’s a big boost for everyone. The team that I have with me loves to work on things that aren’t just the same old thing.

If I’m able to, I’ll keep designing for as long as I can, if I can work on things that are interesting to me. I want to work on something that I myself would want to see, whether it’s on TV or in a theater. That, as well as telling something about the world right now – there’s always that big boost. That helps a lot because it’s a hard job. It’s a lot of time away from home, and a lot of very long days. It helps to have a good script and good people.

Production design of “Sharp Objects” by John Paino.

And here I’d like to thank John Paino for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design and for sharing the supporting materials. If you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.