Production design of “Poser” – interview with Juli Sasaki

October 11th, 2022

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Juli Sasaki. In this interview, she talks about the challenges of making indie films, working within budget restrictions, the variety of screens in our lives, and the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the industry. In between all these and more, Juli talks about her work on the recently released “Poser”.

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

Juli: I think I’ve been very lucky to stumble upon the path I’m on now. I grew up in a small suburb of Columbus, Ohio that felt very much like a bubble. My world view was so limited – I had this obsession with the idea of traveling the world but somehow never thought it would be possible. Then, I decided to take a leap of faith and took a year off of college to pursue an experiential learning program based in Slovakia. That led me to live in Madrid for a while, and that’s where my interest in filmmaking began.

I had no idea what the process of filmmaking was like, but I was very interested in photography at the time, and filmmaking seemed like the pinnacle of photography and all art forms coming together into one. From there, my friends offered me a job back in Columbus working as a production assistant at their small independent production company, Loose Films. We worked on mostly commercials and documentaries together with the goal of saving up and making a feature film. As I learned more, I started producing projects until we finally had the opportunity to make our first feature, which was Poser. From there, I kept wanting to learn more about the art department on bigger sets, so I moved to NYC with the hopes of joining the art department on a tv show. I joined The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel as a background extra, then a Covid PA, then Props PA, then moved to another show as an Art PA, and finally landed at The Gilded Age as a Graphics PA.

This year, I joined the 829 Union, and thanks to my wonderful boss trusting me, now I’m working as a Graphic Artist on The Gilded Age. It’s been a wild path, but I am learning so much and having a lot of fun!

Kirill: What is the biggest thing about your industry that the “outsiders” are not aware of / underestimate?

Juli: I think the biggest thing that people underestimate is the amount of time and resources it takes to make a film. Filmmaking is a huge effort that requires so much coordination between different departments. Everyone from the departments needs to be present just in case something is needed last minute, between takes, etc., and that often means a lot of waiting. That’s why our days are so long, because filmmaking is a little like a relay race sometimes.

Kirill: How difficult is it these days to make an indie film, in terms of raising money, finding the right people to work on it, and connecting to the audiences?

Juli: I would say that making an indie film is never easy, but I am happy that there is a growing support for independent film, and there are a lot of resources and networking groups that I’ve found specifically for BIPOC and under-represented folks in film. This means that more diverse stories are getting out there and engaging new audiences. The best crew I’ve ever worked with was a team of almost all women that I’d met at Sundance. My friend and I drove up to NYC from Ohio to work on a short film with them, and it was a life changing experience. In Ohio, the film community is mostly men, and I was often the only woman on set. There are a lot of supportive film communities online and in person, and those have been a great resource for finding a good crew.

Kirill: What does being an artist mean for you?

Juli: Being an artist means expressing yourself through creating something with intention, no matter what medium.

Kirill: Do you think an artist is somebody who is “born” into it, or can creativity and inspiration be taught?

Juli: I think there are definitely people who are born artistically inclined, but I am a firm believer that experience and hard work practicing one’s skill can make a great artist.

Kirill: Getting closer to “Poser”, do you see Lennon as the “bad guy”, or a person that is trying to find that creativity in herself?

Juli: For me, Lennon is a relatable character for most of the film. She is trying to find herself, and she ends up taking too much inspiration from others instead of using that to fuel her own creativity. Lennon takes the Picasso quote, “good artists borrow, great artists steal” to an extreme, and that’s where she becomes the villain. She becomes obsessed with taking over the persona of Bobbi, and that turns dark very quickly.

Kirill: How did “Poser” start for you, and what brought you to being both a production designer and a producer on it?

Juli: I was working at Loose Films, a small production company, and our goal was to make a feature film. We had planned to help make another film in Columbus in fall of 2019, but plans fell through, and so we had a chunk of time suddenly free in our schedule. We all started brainstorming feature film ideas with one another, and then one day Noah Dixon pitches Poser. It was an idea that we were all excited about, and it also felt like something we could do because the film took place in our environment.

A lot of the locations were places we would all frequent (or even places we lived at the time – Ori’s bedroom, the arts building I lived in, Ori’s and Logan’s old house, for example). Even so, we had to pull everything together super quickly and had a very short pre-production period. I had been producing at Loose, so it was natural for me to be a producer on the film. Then, our production designer fell through at the last minute. I had been interested in the art department and was learning from our commercial projects, so I offered to take over that position since we didn’t have many other options. It was a learning experience for sure and one of the hardest projects I’ve ever worked on, but I had two great art directors that helped me get through it.

Kirill: How much of the existing locations were you able to use, and how many did you build and/or dressed up from the ground up?

Juli: All of our sets were on location – no builds – and since we were tight on time, the majority of them we picked because they already looked really great and just needed some light dressing. We did have a really unique experience making the Williwaw House, where the small concert takes place in the scene when Bobbi sees WYD play. Ori and Logan had just moved out of that house, and so we emptied the entire place out, painted, and textured the walls. We also made several full wall collages. It was a giant art project and so much fun.

Kirill: What went into creating Lennon’s apartment, and finding all the analog equipment she’s using?

Juli: Lennon’s bedroom was actually in Ori’s actual bedroom. For around a year, he was living inside the set and couldn’t move anything around! Her room was really graphics heavy. The main elements, the band posters and the cassette tapes, were really fun to make. We also collected some real posters from bands that we knew. Ori’s room was blue at the time, which matched well with Lennon’s hair, and that ended up being a color we repeatedly associated with her character.

Her bathroom was just a one day shoot in Ori’s actual bathroom which was actually pretty big. In order to make it look smaller and grungier, like how we imagined Lennon’s bathroom to be, we put a flat in the middle of the bathroom and set the sink in front of it to cut the space basically in half. It worked out that the film had a really DIY look because we were a low budget film and ended up finding almost all of our set decoration and props from thrift stores, which had tons of analog equipment and pieces we needed. We also used a few pieces of equipment that some of us already owned, like Lennon’s camcorder.

Kirill: And the same question about making the spaces for Bobbi and her closest artist friends.

Juli: Bobbi’s apartment and some of the other artist studios in the movie were filmed at Milo Arts, a live-work artist space where I used to live. Milo Arts is a huge old school house with sections built from the 1800’s to the mid 1900’s. The natural character of the building really shines through in all the studios there. It’s one of the most magical places I know of, and our friends were so generous to let us decorate and use their spaces. Bobbi’s apartment exterior was such a lucky coincidence. It was filmed right outside Milo Arts next to 934 Gallery where artists paint murals every year. That year, an artist happened to paint these beautiful skulls right next to the doorway we ended up using as Bobbi’s apartment entrance. It was a nice foreshadowing to what happens at the end of the film.

Kirill: How do you see the budget restrictions? Do you get annoyed at bumping into those sharp corners, or do they guide your energy towards a more focused approach?

Juli: Even though Poser was a really low budget film, I was grateful that our directors really valued the art department and were willing to spend the amount needed to make things work. Most times though, I love finding creative solutions and using a little “movie magic” to work within a budget. There are some times though when the style of the film doesn’t allow for that, like here on The Gilded Age when things need to be period accurate.

Kirill: Was there any particular color or texture that you wanted to stay away from on this production?

Juli: The main colors I used were blue, pink, and yellow. Blue was Lennon’s color and pink was Bobbi’s, both because of their hair. You can really see those come through in Lennon’s bedroom and in some of the party scenes.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite set or scene on “Poser”?

Juli: My favorite set was the performance art space that Bobbi and Lennon visit together. I loved how the space felt kind of like a void, which lends itself well to the trance that Bobbi and Lennon find themselves in later as they mimic each other. I thought that the red minimal brushstroke painting worked really to visually separate the two characters as they were molding together – that’s completely a credit to the directors who decided to use the painting in that way.

Kirill: Do you see the industry going back to its “normal” pre-Covid pace, or are there significant changes to how productions are structured?

Juli: Covid has significantly changed the way that productions are structured. Right now on The Gilded Age, we get tested once a week, and those on set get tested even more often. We also have had to cancel shoot days multiple times because actors have gotten Covid, and that ends up shifting our entire shooting schedule. It’s been frustrating to deal with those hurdles, and I don’t see them going away anytime soon, even if symptoms are lessened with the vaccine.

Kirill: What are your thoughts about the wide variety of screens in our lives? Does a movie theater hold a special place in your heart, even as more people are watching these productions on smaller, phone-sized screens?

Juli: I believe that the best way to see a film is always in theaters. It’s so hard to notice all the small visual details on a small phone screen, not to mention the quality of sound. Even though it’s sometimes unavoidable to watch films on airplane screens or phone screens, I think you can’t beat seeing something on the big screen.

Kirill: Do you think we’ll ever run out of stories to tell?

Juli: Never! We are all so complex and layered, the same story can be told in so many different ways and end up coming out differently each time.

Kirill: What do you do between your productions?

Juli: I love traveling and focusing on my personal work during my time off between productions! This year, I am going to Japan and maybe Mexico. I am hoping to spend some time writing and working on some art projects too.

Kirill: What keeps you going in this field? Is there anything else you can see yourself doing for a living?

Juli: My job is so much fun if I’m working on a project I really love. Compared to graphic designers who create work for real life projects, I get to create work in fictional worlds that isn’t as commonly used, like Victorian storefront signage, fake letters, or graphics to go on a carriage. I’m currently working on a show that takes place in 1883, and I am learning so much from our researcher about etiquette during that time and what sorts of systems the Victorians were using. It really keeps my job entertaining. And most of all, seeing everyone’s work come together on set is always incredible.

It’s amazing what can be accomplished with huge teams of brilliant minds working together. I can see myself working tons of different jobs, and that’s part of the fun of working in the film industry! We’re not tied down to the same job for years and years – it’s actually the opposite. We’re forced to move on to new projects after a production ends, and that’s a wonderful time to explore other passions and learn new skills. For a while I was running an Etsy store selling candles and small rugs!

And here I’d like to thank Juli Sasaki for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design. The movie is available on a variety of digital platforms. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.