Production design of "Mrs. America" by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Production design of “Mrs. America” – interview with Mara Lepere-Schloop

August 27th, 2022
Production design of "Mrs. America" by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Mara Lepere-Schloop. In this interview, she talks about her background in architecture and the transition to the world of visual storytelling, research for period stories, the increasing level of expectations from episodic productions, and finding ways to detach one’s own political and social views from the needs of each story. In between all these and more, Mara talks about her work on the magnificent first season of “The Alienist” and the recently released “Pachinko”, and dives deep into creating the worlds of “Mrs. America”.

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

Mara: It was theater for me. I was in first or second grade the first time I went to see any theater. I went to see “The Magic Flute” and I remember more than anything, being mesmerized by the scenery, by the fact that they had created a space and the mechanics of how that was being operated. I thought that aspect of it was just the most magical thing, which is not the typical takeaway. I couldn’t tell you anything about the performance that happened that day, but I remember watching the set changes, and the curtain going up and down, and thinking it was just such a cool thing.

I grew up in Detroit, Michigan and I went to public school there. When I was in the fifth grade, a theater group called, Mosaic Youth Theater of Detroit, came on a touring production to our school, and they had a technical component to it. It wasn’t just kids performing, it was also kids designing the sets and operating them. And that was it. That was the thing that I wanted to do. So I joined that program from the age of 11 and was involved off and on until I was 18. It was basically an apprenticeship program where they taught us every aspect of the technical trades – lighting, sound design, set design. We even built all of the sets ourselves. Once I had been introduced to this world, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do anything different.

My father is an engineer and my mother is an educator, and they challenged me to not go directly into set design for education, to try something else, whether it was engineering or architecture. So I ended up going to school to get my masters in architecture. If you look at design in general, there’s a lot of overlap in thinking between set design and architecture.

I graduated with my master’s from Tulane University in New Orleans, and I was working as an architect, and also designing and building furniture when Hurricane Katrina hit. It was one of those things that altered so many people’s lives in so many ways, and there were a lot of ways that it affected me personally. In terms of a career, the firm that I was working for was then contracted by FEMA to do door-to-door inspections to survey the viability of housing and to track the impact of the hurricane. We did this every day for several months. As you can imagine, it was fairly depressing, and eventually I needed to change something.

I left the firm, and the day that I finished working, I randomly got a call from a friend of a friend about a film opportunity. Going back to the architecture school days, I had made a documentary about the American perspective of architecture through the lens of home improvement reality television. I was curious about this transitory, temporal concept of design and its impact on American culture. In so many other countries, architecture and design are careers that are very much respected and appreciated, while in the United States design is treated in a superficial way. I was very interested in how this new phenomenon of home improvement reality television was impacting how people thought about architecture.

So I went around the country interviewing people who have been peripherally involved in these shows, as well as people on the street about architecture. I made this as a stand-alone exercise, and I never thought that I’d go into filmmaking. It just was the medium through which I wanted to document this conversation. So flash forward and this friend of a friend had seen it, and he had written a screenplay about insurance companies after hurricanes checking in on houses. He knew that I had just had this experience working for the firm going door-to-door and he had dug the documentary, and he asked if I wanted to art direct this movie.

I had nothing else lined up. I didn’t know what I was going to be doing, so I decided that it will be this one-time thing over the summer, and then I’ll really figure out what I’m going to do with my life [laughs]. That was about 20 years ago, and I haven’t stopped working in film since then. It was a non-traditional path into things – word of mouth, one thing after the other – and I went from art directing and then set designing, art directing again, and then finally to production design. There are still times where I think it’s just a temporary thing. I think that I’m still going to go back to architecture or theater which was my first love, but there’s something addictive about film and television, and the adrenaline.

You work intensely for a relatively short amount of time compared to other careers with a small intense group of people, and you create this thing together and it’s magical. It’s a miracle that anything is ever good [laughs] with so many people that have their fingerprints on the product. I can’t think of any other medium of art where you get to collaborate with so many incredible people and produce something in such a short amount of time. It’s really on the backs of so many that it has the chance of being good or not. It’s pretty incredible.

Production design of “Mrs. America” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Kirill: Comparing it to other art mediums, do you feel that there’s certain transient aspect to it? It’s captured by the camera and then is gone from the physical world. It only lives as a flat artifact on a DVD, or maybe even just zeroes and ones nowadays in the streaming world.

Mara: It’s funny. A lot of people ask me at the end of a project if I’m sad to see the sets go away, and the reality is I’m not at all. The only thing that I have to say I’m sad about is the waste involved. I wish that there were more comprehensive ways for us to reuse things, but the industry in the whole is getting better about that.

Beyond that, it’s a part of the magic. You are creating these spaces and these environments specifically for this one story. There’s something so just magical about that if you can get past the waste part [laughs]. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on a few different shows where we’ve built fairly large back lots. One of them was for “The Alienist” that we build in Budapest. At the time the show was potentially going to run for several seasons, and so the decision was made by the studio to invest in a 30-year engineering to support that backlot. That set is still standing, and people are constantly sending me photos from new movies and TV shows that have shot there. Over time it’s been slowly manipulated by different people, and there’s something really wonderful about that. It’s a large set that spans multiple city blocks and is several stories high. It’s great that that’s being reused. On the flip side, you have small, one-off sets that you build and when the show is over, they are gone. That temporal quality is part of the magic of making those things. It serves a singular purpose as an element of visual story-telling.

Production design of “The Alienist” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Kirill: When you work on stories set in the past, like “Mrs. America” or “The Alienist”, do you feel a responsibility to be as authentic to that era as possible?

Mara: I do. I’ve been lucky enough to do several different period shows of different eras, and I take on a responsibility in terms of what I’d want to receive as a viewer. It’s about making an enveloping world that can be just as informative for the audience as the actors’ performances. This is not to say that it needs to compete or take away from the performance, but that it’s an element that lends itself to new information.

This is what we wanted on “Mrs. America”. We wanted to create these immersive worlds for the characters that were as true to life as possible. We didn’t want to compete with a stylistic version of the ’70s. We wanted this to be the real lived-in world of these people. We were always trying to make sure that we weren’t going overboard with something so that it became a cliché. The performances weren’t that, and so the world that they lived in needed to be just as real and visceral as they were.

A show like “The Alienist” is a tricky one because it came from such a beloved source with the novel, and so much of that novel was integrated with the history of New York. It had these milestones of the murder sites being iconic New York places, and it’s all about the building of this new industrialized city. On the one hand there was a certain commitment to making sure we were presenting that as realistically as possible, but then it’s also a story of fictional murders and so there’s a little bit of flexibility there.

Production design of “The Alienist” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

I just finished the first season of “Interview With the Vampire” for AMC which is being made into a television series. The story line has been moved into a different time period than the novel. It’s now set in the 1910s and 20s in New Orleans, the era of Storyville. As I live in New Orleans, there was a responsibility I felt to depicting Storyville in as real a way as possible, and to surround ourselves with research to flesh out the details and the nuance of those things. I felt this responsibility because that part of the city no longer stands, and it has rarely been depicted in film or television but it is an integral part of the cultural composition of who we are as a city. At the same time, it’s a story about vampires, so it’s not real, it exists in a world of fantasy. It’s not like “Mrs. America” where we were recreating specific aspects of someone’s lives. These are fictional characters and there is space to bring a certain amount of sexiness and drama because of that.

For something like Interview with the Vampire, I start aggressively with the research, the history, and the reality of what that time period was, and then selectively tease out the details that are going to help support the dramatic side of things in a fleshed out way. With “Mrs. America” it was really holding back instead of elevating the stylized elements of period. It was suppressing the caricature of period to make way for the real.

There are different ways to do period, and there’s a lot of shows now that are experimenting in ways that are really interesting. “The Queen’s Gambit” is period, but it’s heightened and stylized. It’s taking the sexiest parts of an era to tell a story that is amplified and made more visually intriguing because of that. You also have shows like “The Great” and “Bridgerton” that are doing period, but with these modern influxes of language, but also textures and textiles and all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily period – but it feels period-ish. There is a new approach to period storytelling that is less rigorous and I imagine that it comes from a place of accessibility.

My anchor is always going to be an aggressive push for period and authenticity in a way that is informing the audience about how people lived or what’s happening. That may have roots in architecture and feeling a certain loyalty to the past that needs to be presented in authentic ways. That’s not to say it can’t be made sexier, but I think my interest is in hoping that the audience can learn something new about a time and a place when they walk away from it.

Kirill: Speaking about authenticity, how do you do your research? Is it mostly online, or do you go to archives and libraries?

Mara: It depends on the project and the availability of resources. I usually start with a search of what books exist. I like tactile research. I like having books in front of me to be able to scan images, and go back to them, and show them in meetings. But then there’s so many incredible archives now online, be it the Library of Congress or others. There was an insurance company that went and surveyed many large cities in the United States called Sanborn, and there’s a record of every lot size in the major cities, and they did it every nine years or so which allows you to look at the same lot in different time periods.

When you do shows like “Interview With the Vampire” and “The Alienist” that are deeply rooted in American history, those drawings and maps are treasure troves of information about how people lived. You see sewer, electric, steam, all these services that are embedded in the drawings, and it keys you in on when they’re being introduced into the city, socio-economic indicators and density.

The other thing that I advocate for on productions and have been fortunate enough to work with like-minded showrunners and producers in the past, is to hire consultants that are informed about the specific place and time. On “The Alienist” we had Richard Zacks who wrote a great book (Island of Vice) about New York in our time period. He would do these comprehensive phone calls with us, but then he’d also be available by throughout the production. On “Interview With the Vampire” we used Richard Campanella who is a prolific author in New Orleans who writes about the history of the city.

Production design of “The Alienist” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

There’s not enough time in the world in the prep for a movie or a TV show for us to become complete experts in anything. So anytime you can get your hands on someone that can give you these anecdotal stories or insights into how people lived or what happened, I find it so enriching and helpful. It also helps set a mood for the crew as well. When the consultants have their initial conversations with the show, I like to have as many people in the art department to see them as possible. That way everyone can start to inhabit that headspace of what it was like to be in that time period.

We had so many resources at our fingertips on “Mrs. America”. We had a great researcher who actually was Guillermo Del Toro’s assistant. His name is Ian Gibson and he’s one of the best researchers I’ve ever worked with. He would go home and in his spare time in the evenings he would read the biographies of all the women in our story, and he’d come in the next day and he’d have highlighted sections for me to look at. There’s a lot of things that I had on my plate at the time, so as much as I wanted to be reading all these things, managing a department was taking a lot of time. Ian would come in with these great book reports and insight that would flesh out the characters.

As an example, he read Florynce Kennedy’s biography, (Color me Flo) and he would come in with details about her apartment and observations from other people about how she lived. He’d be able to come in and tell me what art galleries Betty Friedan was going to see in 1974. All those things really helped key in characters in a way that are so amazing for the show. I like to think of it as the “Sex and the City” that intellectual women always wanted. You have the array of women and personality types, and everyone can relate to someone different from the 1970s women’s movement.

Our job was to make their environments so real and lush in detail so that there was more for the audience and for women to relate to on a personal level, and to humanize these icons. The nuance and the intricacy of that detail was so important, and we went to so many different resources to find that.

Kirill: What I love about the show is that it didn’t portray Phyllis Schlafly as a one-dimensional villain, which would probably be very easy to do in the political and social climate of divisiveness and demonization of the “other” side in the last few years in the States. She’s shown as a multi-dimensional character with some positives and some negatives, of course depending on your own personal views. Is it sometimes difficult to detach your own political or social views from how the character “needs” to be portrayed for the story?

Mara: We all have very strong opinions and beliefs, and I think anyone that works in film has a fairly sizable ego, so they’re bringing a lot to the table.

I have a background in debate-related extracurricular activities, and I think that being able to look at things from different perspectives is such a huge part of what production designers have to do. You’re never going to be handed a script that embodies everything you believe in or the way you live. You have to be able to put yourself into a position that allows the creation of that world and space, and detach yourself from judging what that space is.

What was so compelling about this from a world building perspective is that you had so many different types of people. On the pro side you have Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm, and they are three very different people, and how they lived was very different. And then on the anti-side representing the American housewife there was a lot of nuance within that as well. We go into Phyllis’s world and into Brenda’s world, and it was another incredible exercise.

Phyllis Schalfly in her home.

The incredible thing with Phyllis was that she invited press into her home so often, and there was a lot of photographic reference for us to go off of. There’s a lot of photographs of her in her office, and so in some ways we meticulously recreated as much as we could. But there were other rooms in the house that we didn’t know about, like her bedroom for example. So that became a real character analysis of taking and teasing away things.

It would have been very easy for Dahvi [show creator] to villainize Phyllis given the contemporary climate of politics in our country. Making a show that looked at this from one side and chose to take that position from the get-go would have been easy. Instead, what we got was this really fleshed out character analysis and a story that was told over the course of a decade. You watch this evolution of a person happen. The irony of the show is that on the conservative side the presumption from people that didn’t see the show was that this was liberal fodder, but it was a critical examination of Schlafly. And on the liberal side you have Gloria Steinem publicly saying that Phyllis Schlafly had nothing to do with why the equal rights amendment wasn’t passed.

You have people on both sides who are denying the context of this situation, and to me that’s even more fascinating [laughs]. Television now can allow for these studies of gray area, and it’s not always a victory when you make everybody mad, but there’s something compelling about that, that you can look at these things from so many different sides and you can go into detail about things that aren’t that known. It’s an exciting time to be working in this medium.

Production design of “Mrs. America” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Kirill: Speaking of exciting times, do you feel that some stories do need the “right” moment to be told? Perhaps “Mrs. America” would be perceived differently if it was made after the 2008 elections instead of after the 2016 round?

Mara: I definitely do. The phenomenon of all of this is you never know when things are going to hit. Looking back at the time period when “Mrs. America” came out, the country was so exhausted. It was just the beginning of the pandemic.

It’s a truly brilliant show, and I don’t say that just having worked on it. What’s unfortunate about it is that it’s a little bit like having to take your medicine. It’s an education that people don’t necessarily want to stomach. And when you’re in the throes of a pandemic, you don’t want to go into a headspace of even more concerned worry about something. So the show didn’t get the viewership that I think it deserved to have gotten. You always wonder what could have been had it come out at a different time.

I think critically it was received very well. Critics really love the show. I’m always shocked, especially when I talk to women who are engaged in politics or in other aspects of social justice issues, that haven’t even heard of it. I think that that is so sad because it’s such a remarkable capture of a time. Not a lot of my generation know the specifics and the details of that time, but we’re rehashing it in a lot of ways right now. It’s unfortunate that the timing of things can sometimes throw things off.

Another show that I worked on in the last four years was “Pachinko” for Apple. I don’t want to sound like an egomaniac [laughs], but it’s another incredible show because of the narrative, the story, and the universality of that story for so many people. But it’s a tough story about immigrant life and it’s not an easy watch. It’s again a little bit like taking your medicine. I don’t think people want that right this second. There’s so much content right now that comes out that you get steamrolled and with the pandemic, I think escapism and whimsy is more desired. There’s all this great stuff that’s coming out, but if it doesn’t peak for whatever reason or if it doesn’t whet the appetite of people in that moment, it just disappears.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next 10 years with all of this content being made, because there is a lot of really good stuff, but there’s so much of it. And you just have to wonder how is this sustainable, how do we keep making these things that people aren’t watching.

Production design of “Pachinko” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Kirill: You’ve talked about “Mrs. America” and “The Alienist”, and you have your earlier work on “True Detective” as well. Maybe 15 years ago these would have been done as movies instead, maybe some for that “prestige” category that aims for the Oscars. Does it feel that the viewers are being asked to devote more time to these stories nowadays?

Mara: Yes, but also there’s an appetite for that. Speaking personally as a viewer, I probably lean to watching episodic television more than movies now. First, a lot of the shows that are being made are much better than the movies that are being made. But also the long format storytelling to me is just so much more compelling. There’s so much more you can do with character, there’s so much more you can do with world building, but as someone that works in the industry, it drives me crazy [laughs] because they’re so much harder to make.

You’re devoting a lot more time and energy. It’s basically making five movies at a time, and the demands of the viewers and the studios keep getting bigger and bigger. You have the expectation of the amount of time that things can be made and how big they can be. People are hungrier and hungrier and there’s not necessarily more resources being provided for that. It’s a little scary.

After every television show I’m exhausted, and I tell myself that I can’t do it again, that I need a movie. I say that to my agent as well, and then it feels like the only movies being made are these giant action or talent driven pieces that have huge budgets that are basically all the above the line, or these micro-budget indies that are just fighting tooth and nail to make themselves. It feels like every year there’s less and less of these 30-to-60 million dollar character-driven movies. I don’t know the culprit. I don’t know why that is.

Production design of “Mrs. America” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

The last couple weeks were the upfronts for television, and someone mentioned to me that there were something like 600 new shows being pitched by cable networks. That’s crazy to think about the number of writers and showrunners that are having to turn these things out. As someone that works within the technical or the creative parts of this, what’s hard is that you see these hungry appetites by the studios, but there’s not necessarily the time put into the writing, into the development of these things. So you get into these situations where you’re making a huge, movie-quality epic television, but you’re doing it under the circumstances of an antiquated system of television.

You’re getting scripts turned out at what feels like a very slow pace. I’m sure to the writers it feels like a breakneck speed, but for all of us that have to create and build these things, time is of the essence. There’s a mash-up happening right now that just doesn’t feel sustainable. It doesn’t feel like this can continue at the rate that it’s going, because otherwise it’s going to be the largest industry in the world. We’re just going to constantly need more builders, more writers, more cinematographers to satisfy all these things.

Kirill: That sounds like a good problem to have.

Mara: It does, but again – are there enough viewers to watch all of that? Is it really lucrative enough to keep this amount going? Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe there is. Maybe this is just the fate we’re headed towards, but it does seem disproportional to me right now.

Kirill: But what also I’m seeing, and that maybe started when Netflix got into releasing their own shows on the same day, is that you don’t have 20+ episode seasons. You have twelve, or ten, or even six. Seasons that got split into two, like the last season of “Stranger Things”. Shows that don’t hold themselves to release a new season every year, like “Westworld”. Maybe it’s the system that is self-correcting in order to maintain the quality.

Mara: You’re right. There are models that are indeed self-correcting, but there’s a lot of other examples where that is not happening. “Interview with the Vampire” is going to be on AMC, and they want it to come out in tandem with the finale of “The Walking Dead”. Some would argue that the viewership doesn’t necessarily overlap – zombies and vampires – but that doesn’t mean that there’s no push for it. This is my own thinking, and I’m sure there’s a lot of wiser people on the studio system side that have put a lot of thought into this. We’ve been given this deadline of release, and over the course of our shooting year we had a hurricane hit in New Orleans, we had the potential strike for the union, we got hit by a tornado. You’re hit by all of these outside factors, but that deadline never changed. What the pandemic taught us, or at least gave us a glimpse of – was that those deadlines are malleable, it was a bit like seeing behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz. Once you see the mechanics and how they can change, it is hard not resent being caught up in the old machine.

Set plans of “Mrs. America”, courtesy of Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Kirill: You mentioned the rising expectations from the streaming and episodic productions. Speaking about the technical side of things, do you find that developments in technology such as 3D printing or materials help to try and match the evolution of expectations?

Mara: It’s another incredible tool in the toolkit. Every show is so different and every tool has its place. But the reality of 3D printing, CNC and other technologies is that you still have to draw these elements. They have to be drawn in 3D to be able to be produced, and so you need set designers who can do that.

Here’s an example. New Orleans is surrounded by this beautiful wrought iron lattice. It’s everywhere. We were fortunate enough to make this first season of “Interview with the Vampire” in New Orleans, and because we’re here, we were able to work with a 100-year old wrought iron company, to go through the catalog and order from. But if, let’s say because of tax incentives we were making this in Bucharest, and there’s no such company and shipping is 3 times more expensive, maybe you can find a great 3D modeler. Maybe it would be easier there to draw it in 3D, print it or see it than it would be to buy the hard materials.

A big part of our job right now is navigating how to utilize as many tools as possible as effectively as you can, so that you can get as much on screen. With some of the new technology it really depends on time and place and the type of crew that you have. When you have these huge shows, you have a lot of tools in your toolkit, and you can be agile in how you figure out how to do things.

As another example in Budapest on “The Alienest” we had access to stone cobbles from Slovakia and these incredible local artisans that produced stained glass. So we used real stained glass and actual cobbles that would be unheard of in the States, because you don’t have the same artisans to pull from. If I were to do the same thing here, we’d likely hire a graphic designer to design and print, or maybe have our scenic artist paint the stained glass window. That’s part of what I love so much about what we do. It’s always expanding your horizons on what mediums you have to work with.

We have to be budget conscious. We have to figure out how to do this as effectively and as time consciously as we can. So pivoting from one thing to the other as needed and as dictated by the project is a big part of it.

Set plans of “Mrs. America”, courtesy of Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Kirill: So when that budget takes to Budapest for “The Alienist” or Toronto for “Mrs. America”, you can’t really push back against that.

Mara: It really depends on when you get involved in a project. I’m likely going to be doing the second season of “Interview with the Vampire”, and because I have a relationship with that group of producers and the showrunner now, they have been engaging me from the get-go about where and how to shoot the second season. So this summer we went and scouted a couple European cities to look at – not just the location potential, but also the cost of construction and stage spaces. There’s a lot of variables, and they’ve given me the chance to be able to weigh in on how to make a successful second season. There’s a lot of other factors involved, but I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to share my expertise in this area.

There’s other times where you come in a little bit later in the game, and those decisions about where and how and when have been made for a number of reasons. On “Mrs. America”, for example, the decision had already been made to do the show in Toronto before I started. It’s always fascinating, because it’s one of those things where you never know what strange series of conversations were had to get you there. I’m sure someone said “Oh, it’s just like New York” and it may be able to cheat for contemporary New York, but it doesn’t have a lot of relevant architecture for the 1970s.

But that was the situation that we found ourselves in, so you have to figure out how to make the best of it. Had we been in other places, we probably would have shot a lot more on location, but because we were in a place that didn’t have a ton of locations that were super great, we ended up building a ton of things on stage. From the get-go I made a strong case that there should be a New York unit, and eventually we shot New York for a small unit towards the end of the shoot just to get a little bit more scope for the show.

That’s another side effect of the industry being as busy as it is right now. A lot of it is now dictated by stage space. Studios are putting holds on stage spaces and different cities in the world without necessarily knowing what they’re going to be shooting there. Sometimes as designers, you inherit these circumstances as it is literally the only available place with stages and crew and now you have to design your sets around available stage space. Even though the scripts may dictate that more should in theory be built, you may not have the space to do it. So then you have to work with the writers to figure out how to fit within these production parameters that have been pre-chosen before you’ve come on.

Production design of “Mrs. America” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

That’s part of what makes the industry so incredible. We all have to be very nimble. You have to be able to pivot and figure things out. But this is also an area where I wish the industry could self-correct, as you said. I wish that productions would engage designers and location managers in the process earlier on to help facilitate a smoother process of filmmaking. It would make it easier – and cheaper a lot of the times – for everybody.

When television used to be completely shot on stages and then controlled environments and were written to sets that were available, I understand why people weren’t engaged in that phase of production. But now that so much of filmmaking revolves around relying on the physical world, on going out and shooting things in these environments, you need to have the expertise to weigh in on these things earlier on.

And likewise, I advocate that prep and post both need this self-correction to happen. Visual effects are so integrated into things, and more often than not you don’t have a lot of time. So a lot of times on set there’ll be a flippant decision of “Oh, we’ll just fix it in post” but the reality of most designers and art directors is the last day of shooting is the last day they’re involved with a project. Suddenly, fixing it in post when it’s part of the visual environment, you don’t have those people who are so intricately involved the entire way to weigh in.

Set plans of “Pachinko”, courtesy of Mara Lepere-Schloop.

This is a very broad generalization, but what I find is that typically in the art department you have set designers who come from a world of architecture, who come from an education that’s based on the built world or engineering. And a lot of times in VFX you have people who are self-taught or who come from the gaming world. What tends to happen is that there’s a fundamental disconnect between scale. Architects are always working in relationship to the human body and the scale of the body in relationship to space, and gamers are thinking about things spatially and three-dimensionally, and not necessarily about how they relate to the person. I’m always shocked when I’ll see these rough cuts of things, and there’ll be a helicopter that is a hundred times the size of what it should be. There is a disconnect between the scale of what a thing should be.

When you’re on set and someone says “Oh, that building isn’t period, we’ll fix it in post because it got into the shot and it wasn’t supposed to” then the show will wrap, I’ll move on and then months later I’ll see a final/rendered shot, and they’ll have replaced it with something that’s equally inappropriate. This is a problem that needs to get ironed out with the unions around the involvement of different people at different phases of things. If you’re going to have a VFX producer and coordinator involved all through prep and shooting, why isn’t the designer involved in post to help maintain a structure and identity to the look of a show. And as we talked about before, in prep having the location managers or production designers engaged to help make a more viable production strategy for where and how to shoot these things. Those are two big things, speaking only to my area of expertise.

I hope in the next several years we’re able to navigate these two things gracefully.

Kirill: Is it difficult to talk about what you do with a person who’s not in the industry? You’re an artist and a craftsperson, but also you wrangle the budget and manage people, and so many other things.

Mara: It’s so hard. I’ve just stopped trying to encapsulate all the many things that go into it. I have been fortunate enough to do thesis reviews and other design reviews for architecture students and design students, but also speak to high schoolers and college students.

Whenever people ask me what additional degree they should get to go into film or design, I always say psychology. The reality is that so much of what we have to do – and this is for any interest in film at all, not just design – is about interpersonal relationships and navigating, communication and management of people.

This goes back to your question of designing for characters you don’t necessarily politically align with, as a manager, so much of what I have to do is understand where people are coming from. We’re working in this fast-paced crazy environment. Everybody’s stressed out, everyone has their own issues and problems, and it’s not going to get you anywhere to push back on that and to be aggressive. You need to find empathy of where that person is coming from, and navigate communication in a way that’s going to be able to get you both forward. That is such a huge part of what we all have to do.

You also have the shifting expectations of how we all work in this industry since the Me Too movement, and that it’s not just about men anymore. It’s about understanding that there are certain things that aren’t going to be accepted in terms of how we do these things. It’s so important to be able to figure out – in a healthy way – how you are going to ethically enter this arena and get through it without feeling regrets about how you’ve had to do it. It’s a fast-paced, crazy environment that is prone for attitudes, anger, frustrations, and burnout. It’s a tough field to live and work in every day.

Production design of “Mrs. America” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Kirill: Going back to when you switched to the film industry, and knowing how the industry works, if you knew it back then, would you have made the same choice of going into the industry?

Mara: It’s an interesting question. My father is a retired labor leader from Detroit, and my mother was a public school teacher. They both were and still are politically engaged activists. There’s a part of me that wonders about an alternate life path that would have been a bit more proactive in the social justice and engagement field of wanting to make a difference in things.

I had a revelation in my career early on. For a long time I resented myself for working on popcorn /fluffy movies. I didn’t see a lot of value in what I was doing. I had to sit back and realize that the choices that I make, and the types of projects, and the types of people that I work with, and how I’m able to manage my department – that there are statements that I can make within that that I can be proud of. That the final outcome of a show doesn’t have to the metric through which I judge my imprint on the world, that the process can be a barometer as well.

I’m so proud to be a part of shows like “Mrs. America”. It was such an important thing to document, and to talk about, and to get people to talk about. And I look at “Interview with the Vampire”, and superficially it’s a vampire story, but it’s also a queer romance and this new retelling is interracial. I have to be mindful of choices that I’m making and the projects that I’m picking, so that I don’t resent myself at the end of the show. I’m picking things that I can be proud of, on not just an aesthetic level, but also on a human impact level.

Kirill: With the time perspective in mind, looking back at “Mrs. America”, is there such a thing as your favorite set?

Mara: I really did love them all. We had a tremendous graphics department on that show. We just threw them juggernaut after juggernaut at them. You look at a detail like the newsletters that Phyllis Schlafly produced, and we painstakingly recreated every one of them. You have the mailers and the stamps. It took countless hours of research and several members of the team to create, all for milliseconds of screen time. Those were tiny details but then we also had these graphic heavy set pieces like the three different conventions for the show.

There’s so many things that we were doing at this this huge scale. Just the amount of detail they went through, and there’s a lot of things that you don’t even see on screen. They went and they made the every badge, every brochure, and every bumper sticker for every candidate. All of those things were made with such care. What’s amazing about working on a show like that is that our art department was full of people that couldn’t get enough of it. They just loved getting into the research in the history just as much as I did, and they would constantly be elevating what it was that we were producing. So even though it’s not the sexiest or the funnest, I think the conventions were something that i just was so blown away by the amount of effort and energy that the team put together to create these things. It’s going to have a special spot in my memory forever.

Kirill: Makes you appreciate what goes into making the actual conventions every four years.

Mara: They usually have a few more people involved than we did [laughs].

Production design of “Mrs. America” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Kirill: When Covid hit the industry, there was a lot of talk and expectations around how the industry might change the way these productions are made, to be perhaps less intense and demanding. Looking at it today, does it feel like it’s going back to how it used to be, or do you see significant changes afoot?

Mara: It feels like it’s gotten more rampant [laughs, sadly]. We all had hopes in the early days of the pandemic that it was going to slow things down, that there’d be a mindfulness inserted into things about health. I don’t currently see that.

A lot of people were hoping that the early lessons of the pandemic would reveal the arbitrariness of the release dates that are forcing this ticking clock, that are forcing this momentum. There were movies that pushed their release dates because they wanted an audience, and there were television shows that were shut down and their release dates fell by the wayside. So to me that was the hope. I was hoping that there would be the realization that the ticking clock is irrelevant, that nobody cares if your movie is delayed three months or not, that the world keeps moving.

But unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that’s been the takeaway [laughs, sadly]. What I see instead is again this insatiable hunger by all the competing streaming networks and other people to do bigger, better things. On the one hand, yes that’s very exciting. The jobs that I’m getting called about are incredible and amazing. But it’s at the cost of, and again, speaking from looking for stage spaces this summer, there’s nowhere to shoot things. There’s no crew to shoot things.

I’ve worked on a few shows since the pandemic began and I find that there is this relentless drive. The pressure was to get it going, to get it done. There were all of these steps in place to be mindful of health and preventative cases, but if at any point there was an issue, it’s not like we stopped to regroup. It was always- how do we keep going, how do we change the schedule, what do we do to keep filming. That drive never left. We lost the social aspect of filmmaking due to safety measures of distancing, but we gained this intense backdrop of perseverance at any cost.

Back when I went to Budapest to do “The Alienist”, I was still able to interview multiple people for different positions, and sometimes bring them in from other countries. Now a lot of times you go to these different cities all over the world, and you’re handed a crew – because it’s the only crew that’s available, and that was part of the deal of the studio coming there. You’re losing the ability to create these environments. You’re thrust into situations where you’re having to go back to the writers in the studios and say “Unfortunately, we can’t do that because we don’t have the person that can do that or because you don’t have that”.

There was a time early in my career where I couldn’t imagine ever saying that to a writer or a director. Our jobs were to go back to the drawing boards as many times as we could to figure out how to do the impossible and work our way around it. And now we’re being put into these situations where because of time, because of crew, because of where we are, because of what’s happening, where we’re constantly having to say “No”, and maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that is a self-correction that needs to be made in the industry. But it also might be an indication that too much is being asked, that there’s too much at one time and you’re not you’re not setting yourself up to do it well.

This over-saturation of things dilutes what you’re able to do. It’s tough to say where this is going, and what is the end result is going to be. Maybe it just means the industry gets bigger and bigger, and we train more people, and there’s more to go on. Or maybe some of these streaming studios go bust. Maybe not everybody can do this, and it’s going to simmer down into a smaller group of people and a smaller pool of streaming producers, and people do more things well over a longer period of time. It’s so hard to say. It feels a little bit like the Wild West right now.

Set plans of “Mrs. America”, courtesy of Mara Lepere-Schloop.

Kirill: Is it a good problem to have, or maybe a painful problem to have, when you are in the middle of working on a great production and the call comes to join another one and you have to refuse it?

Mara: Oh the painful stabs of FOMO [laughs]. It always feels like the second you lock in a deal with something that you get the call for the ultimate dream project.

That’s another thing that time and experience has let me ease up on myself about. When you’re young in this industry, you can get really caught up in that and always be worried about what you’re missing out on. Now for my own mental health I’ve just had to get to a place where I’m in the project that I’m in, and I’m as present and as at peace with that as I can be.

I’ll also say that I’ve come to a point where it’s not so much about chasing the project anymore or finding that perfect story. For me it’s more and more about the collaborators, and being in a healthy work environment, and working with people that make it an exciting, challenging, creative space – but also one that’s healthy.

Kirill: Going back in time again to when you started in the film industry, if you could tell your younger self to not worry about one thing, what would that thing be?

Mara: It’s that FOMO thing. I wish I would have known this a bit earlier. I would tell myself to just enjoy the ride, to be present, to not always look for the next thing or feel the pressure of taking the next thing.

There was a 7-year stretch where I don’t think I had more than a day or two off between projects. I couldn’t even tell you much about that time. I couldn’t tell you much about even the projects that I worked on. It was this relentless slog of working, and of working with people that I didn’t actually like a lot of the times. I felt, back then, that this was an opportunity to be chased. Now I wish I would have allowed a little bit more space to breathe, and live a little bit more, but also be a little bit more selective about who I was working with and what I was doing, as opposed to what I was working on.

Kirill: But maybe the flip side of it is the choices that you made back then is what got you to where you are today. If you made different choices, it would have been different for you today.

Mara: A hundred percent, and it’s an excellent point. Back then I probably wouldn’t have listened to my own hypothetical advice. Honestly, if I could change anything, I don’t know if I would have.

Even on the shows that were challenging or difficult, that allowed me to figure out the boundaries that I’d like to set in the future, and that adversity is what taught me about what type of management I wanted to instill as a leader in my department. It’s important to go through those things in order to come out of it with your own life philosophy.

Production design of “Mrs. America” by Mara Lepere-Schloop.

And here I’d like to thank Mara Lepere-Schloop for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the supporting materials. You can find more of Mara’s work on Instagram. 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.