On the set of the "Dollhouse" episode of "American Horror Stories", production design by Eve McCarney

Production design of “American Horror Stories” – interview with Eve McCarney

November 16th, 2022
On the set of the "Dollhouse" episode of "American Horror Stories", production design by Eve McCarney

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Eve McCarney. In this interview, she talks about balancing the art and the craft in the field of visual storytelling, doing research, the ever-rising bar of expectations from episodic productions, and the impact the global pandemic has had on the industry. In between all these and more, Eve dives deep into her work on “American Horror Stories”.

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

Eve: I’m a production designer for film and television. I was working at a boutique advertising agency in New York City in 2007 when I started looking for another career since I wasn’t inspired by my work anymore. I remember watching the Oscars that year, and there was an art direction category. I thought, I’m an art director what’s the difference?

I started doing research on what the job entailed, and the more I read, the more interested I became. I had also worked at a newspaper in New York, and with that professional experience together with my work at the advertising agency, it looked to have a lot of overlap with my skillset along with my studies of film and art history. My background as an artist and photographer didn’t hurt either.

I applied and was hired to art direct a short film called Officer Down shooting the very next weekend, and that’s how my journey in the world of art direction and production design began. When I walked into the prison on the first day of shooting, I just knew this it was it. It was exciting and social, creative, and challenging. I was 27 at the time, a bit older than others when they join the industry and already had two careers at that point. About six months later after designing various small jobs around NYC, I quit my job and moved to Los Angeles.

Kirill: Do you find that your background in other industries give you a bit of an edge who have started in this industry straight out of college?

Eve: I think so. I find that my previous experiences help me in ways I couldn’t have envisioned prior to being in this field. Dealing with clients has been quite helpful in dealing with producers. Dealing with ad campaign budgets has translated directly into managing budgetary complications for sets builds. My extensive background in graphic design translated directly into a skill set for creating presentations, concept art and environmental design pitches.

Most production designers come in after having learned architectural design in college. I love taking classes and expanding my knowledge and skill set and I made it a goal to learn the technical side of designing by taking courses to learn hand drafting, sketch up and photo render programs. As I started working on bigger shows around 2010, I gained practical experience with larger set construction and was able to apply the skills I gained into technical applications.

Dollhouse bedroom keyhole, production design of the “Dollhouse” episode of “American Horror Stories” by Eve McCarney.

Kirill: If your start was watching that Oscars ceremony, how much of your work life is glamor, and how much of it is grind and long hours on set?

Eve: Very little glamor [laughs]. It is a grind. It’s hard work, but I was an athlete my whole life, and I’m used to working hard. I used to wake up while it was still dark and practice in the pool in the winter in Pennsylvania, and I would train all summer too. I’m used to that dedication and hard work.

Quite honestly, I thrive off it. When I’m working and creating, I’m at my full potential. The hardest times for me are the breaks between the jobs. It’s definitely a grind, but I’m happy to do it. I find so much joy in designing.

Kirill: How many hats do you wear? You’re an artist, a craftsperson, an accountant, a timekeeper, a psychologist / psychiatrist, and maybe a babysitter for grown people in your department. Does it get overwhelming sometimes?

Eve: Sure, sometimes it can, especially on the smaller projects where you have less support. In that case you are wearing many hats and you’re doing things practically with all of those various hats. I’m designing the graphics, and creating / managing the budget, and helping to paint the set, whatever was necessary on those earlier shows. On the bigger shows, when you have a full team in place and a proper support structure, it makes a world of difference.

I was fortunate to have two amazing art directors on “American Horror Stories” as well as two fantastic set decorators. My construction coordinator is fantastic, along with his whole team. When you have that support in place, it takes a lot of pressure off. Regardless, it can be overwhelming at times. During those moments I’ll take a minute, breathe and try to get some perspective. In my experience, it’s always worked out. You need to stay positive.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as being able to say “No” to some requests, or do you always have to find a way?

Eve: You’re not really supposed to say “No” [laughs], but there are ways around saying “Yes”. For me, if I’m not sure if we can afford to do something, or if we can’t do something logistically, I’ll say “Let me look into that and get back to you”. That way I can come back to it from a place of truth and look at it more in depth. If it’s something essential, then those logistical obstacles would need to go back to the producers to maybe find more money or time. There are ways to work around things. You’re supposed to be a person who creates miracles [laughs], it’s just a part of the job. I try to be as supportive as I can. If you need something to be done and it’s important, I will 100% try to make it happen.

Otis bedroom, production design of the “Dollhouse” episode of “American Horror Stories” by Eve McCarney.

Kirill: Speaking of “American Horror Stories” and in general about episodic productions, does it feel that we are in age where there is so much demand and so many expectations from these productions, and that it doesn’t really matter if it’s a feature or a streaming show or something else? Do you see that the quality expectations keep on rising every year?

Eve: 100%, and I’ve seen it evolve over the course of my career as well. I started on the feature side, and that was the artist’s dream – to design a feature. You had the time and the resources, and big creativity was expected. Back then, TV felt a little less special. But that has completely flipped on its head, and streaming is another facet to the whole dynamic. Sometimes I find that series look better than films.

The demand is super high, and beyond that you have the Ryan Murphy element. He’s known for the most beautiful, high end series and shows out there. When I was interviewing for “American Horror Stories”, they said that it needs to be elevated and heightened. I knew going in that that was the challenge for the series. It was exciting for me to try that on such a demanding schedule, and I feel that this season we delivered on that promise.

We had no more than three weeks to prep each episode and sometimes it’s ten days. Typically, we’re building three or four sets for some of the episodes. And some of them are period. It takes so much time and effort to do the proper research, which is essential to the process, for accuracy and beauty. It was challenging, but also a lot of fun. The exception to this rule is the first episode, Dollhouse which we had seven weeks to prep. It was period 1961 and we barely got it done with all the details and special builds and engineering required.

Kirill: How do you do your research? You had an episode set in the 1960s and one in the 1700s. Do you find that the Internet is both a blessing and a curse? On one hand, there’s so much out there, but on the other hand, you might be at the mercy of the search algorithms and how they decide to rank results.

Eve: The Internet is essential. I don’t think I could’ve prepped these episodes without it in this amount of time. I have certain sites that I like to go to. Pinterest is a great resource. Google of course, but you must wade through all the links, some of which are less accurate than others. Library of Congress is a great resource for period stuff.

I have the Taschen’s decor through the decades book series. If I’m in the 20th century, I can go in there decade by decade, and it’s something tactile to look at. I have a lot of art and architecture books that I use as well. I like to mix mediums when I do research. My art directors would also do their research, and we’d combine them to see what speaks to us, and what speaks to the story.

“Dollhouse” [Episode One of second season] was different. Even though it was 1960s, we were not leaning on that decade for the interiors. The father had built the house in the 1920s, and it was created in a Victorian style, but the wardrobe has the 1960s aesthetic. It was interesting to combine all those elements together.

Dollhouse salon, production design of the “Dollhouse” episode of “American Horror Stories” by Eve McCarney.

Kirill: Was there a particular directive from Ryan or the producers about keeping the design close to a particular style?

Eve: Yes, for Dollhouse, we got the directive that it should feel a little like “Alice in the Wonderland”. They wanted a bit of fantasy and the accompanying uneasiness that goes with it. The set decorator, Julie Drach and I worked together on how we were going to achieve that.

We have the animal menagerie wallpaper with an oversized ostrich and giraffe, and we played with scale. We had small chairs and huge chess pieces in different rooms, and we started to play with the sense of “Where am I” when she wakes up, so that it has that dream-like feel to it. The additional directive for Dollhouse was a Victorian house – this was scripted. It came down to the locations that we found and then had to transform to fit the narrative.

The Dollhouse was in three places overall, and it was a monster to pull off. We built a partial exterior facade (which would be extended and enhanced with VFX) at the Van Wirt Mansion to tie the main house and dollhouse together on the same property. The interior was the McNally house in Pasadena, and we painted the front of the house red and white, added the Victorian gingerbread detailing and all the bannisters so that you can see them when we look out the windows and could get some entrances and exits on site. The full exterior was the Queen Anne Victorian at the Arboretum in Arcadia. The VFX team needed to alter the architecture to match the McNally House downstairs and also add the keyhole window I designed onto the tower which ties to our stage bedroom set. Lastly, they needed to add greenery indicative of Mississippi.

“Milkmaids” [Episode Four] was listed in the script as the 1750s in New England, so we had a clear directive there. It was all about the research and what structures exist here that are period correct for our exteriors. Most of our interiors were built on stage.

Kirill: I wish that at least the “Dollhouse” episode was a full feature.

Eve: It felt like we were prepping a period feature. We were right up against it with how much we needed to do. We sourced the dollhouse door, salvaged it, and made it look like it had eyes. We designed and molded the escutcheon plates, and the hand handles were one of a kind from Indonesia. We engineered the injection infusion machine that made the dolls along with the doll mold. The human doll mold was a combination of sculpture and 3D print. Everything was considered and thought through.

On the sets of the dollhouse for the “Dollhouse” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: How deep was that well?

Eve: We had one on location (the above ground wishing well) and one on stage (the well interior). On location it was about 4 feet, just enough for them to fall in and out of frame, and on stage it ended up being 8 feet.

Kirill: It’s an anthology season, and every episode has its own style. Speaking of “Dollhouse”, is it difficult to manage so many saturated colors in one episode without overwhelming the viewer?

Eve: Yes, it requires a ton of coordination between the departments. Especially on this series, I’m so engaged with the costume designer. We see concept sketches, we have fabric swatches and colors, and I have my wallpaper samples, and we’re having constant meetings to look at all of these together and ensure it works.

“Dollhouse” was interesting because they wanted to go very bright with the costumes, yet I had these two-tone textured wallpapers. Some of the wallpapers had a sheen to them, some had dimension, some had patterns with multiple colors. When I was selecting them, I thought it was either going to be great, or not work at all [laughs]. But it did, it all worked. All those meetings paid off.

Kirill: Is there any latitude to designing and dressing the sets in terms of where the camera is going to be looking? Or perhaps the assumption is always that the camera is going to look everywhere?

Eve: The assumption is usually that the camera will look everywhere. It’s important to be able to see what we can in any way we can. For the most part, we’re building and dressing four-wall environments. Sometimes if it’s a short scene, we will discuss if it could be a three wall or two wall set. I’m always looking for ways to save. I turned the cellar from “Bloody Mary” to the shed in “Milkmaids”. I pulled out the stone, we already had the wood, we re-jigged it a bit, adding a door and a couple of windows, and we had our set. And that was a savings, a way to repurpose and reuse. I do try to cut corners whenever we can within reason, as long as it doesn’t hurt the story.

Kirill: In this interconnected world of the shows where sometimes an episode references other episodes, do you try to introduce half-hidden elements for the viewers to discover?

Eve: The first season we Easter-egged an ashtray that was a hero element in “American Horror Story: Murder House”. We had that in the assets, and my prop master and I decided to put it into every episode. In one episode there’s a set of keys in it, in another someone is smoking a cigarette and ashes in it, in another it’s just on the table as a decorative piece. Only the most die-hard fans would have recognized it, but it was fun to hide the little gems. I did the same thing with the Rabbit Rabbit poster later in the first season.

The main house in the “Drive” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: Jumping to “Drive” [Episode Three of second season], what is the story of the house? How did you find it, and what were you able to do inside of it?

Eve: I was working with locations, and we couldn’t find anything that looked cool. We wanted it to be stylized and modern. And eventually I found it on a real estate site, Zillow or Realtor.com.

Luckily, they do filming at that house all the time. It had been sold within the last couple of years, and they started planning to rent it. We went there to scout it, and I loved it right away. It was exactly what was in my head when I read the script. Everything inside was extremely expensive, so we emptied the house to create our blank slate for the episode.

I didn’t do too much to change the exterior besides clearing plants and homey accents. We wanted a very cold look. There was a big, hardwired neon sign that we couldn’t remove, and it didn’t work for our characters, so we created a piece of custom art that leaned into the creepiness of the story to cover it. The bones of the house were so fantastic, it was all about the set decoration and how we were going to make this house feel like our couple’s home. The basement and torture room were built on stage.

On the sets of the “Drive” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: Where do you find all those scary looking metal pieces? Is it all standard medical equipment?

Eve: Some of it was standard medical, some of it was S&M stuff. The prop master, Mike Trudel had some elements from “Necro” [Episode Seven] with all the morgue props, and some of it came from the first season. The rest came from the set decorator, Ryan Welsch.

I found this cool metal mesh to use as the backboard for the tool rack. I wanted another element of creep factor. I wanted something sexy but creepy, so that’s why we used the mesh to hang the instruments on – the layered effect is unsettling.

Production design of the “Drive” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: Do you sometimes want the camera to look more at the dressing, and maybe not so much at the actors?

Eve: Sure [laughs]. It’s always a bit heartbreaking when you spend so much time doing an environment, and it’s in a medium or a tight shot the entire time. You want that big, gorgeous, wide shot.

The toy factory in “Dollhouse” was a huge undertaking. It opens with a wide that pushes in, and then you’re inside the office. When I designed the toy factory office, I had the idea for an angled skylight. We also built the doll head drying racks, injection infusion machine which you see in the opening shot; and the human-sized mold as well as the doll-sized mold. We did so much fabrication for that factory, and it’s only a couple of minutes in the episode [laughs].

Kirill: Staying with “Drive”, maybe in the house itself, or maybe in the night clubs, were there any particular colors that you wanted to stay away from?

Eve: We had two clubs that we actually shot in the same club, and the task was to figure out how to make them look different. We had two bars, so we used one for Nirvana and the other for Chaos and we decided on a blue and pink color palette for Nirvana, and a green and yellow for Chaos. The color helped quite a bit, but I also wanted to add some architectural elements. We found these great dimensional screens with hexagon which you could shoot through and I did changing up with milk plexiglass and astera tubes.

All of that, combined with the graphics on the screen and shooting two different ways allowed us to pull it off to have two clubs – as long as we avoided using one club’s colors in the other.

The house itself is monochromatic and I liked that. Our accent color was red and the painting that we created featured this color to foreshadow the carnage and her murderous intent. We did it subtly for just a moment. It wasn’t all over the place. Everything else was black and chrome and white and grey. Marcie struck me as cold and a pretender. She’s trying to appear normal when she’s anything but. That’s what I tried to show through her environment.

Kirill: When you work on a story like that, a story where every character is damaged in their own way, do you find yourself trying to get into their head, empathizing with them, and imagining what their world would look like through their eyes?

Eve: The heart of a good design is trying to get into your protagonist’s head, to understand what makes them tick, to see what types of things they would have around, and what types of things they would not. That’s what makes a difference between what’s authentic and what feels staged. I always strive for authenticity.

I’m a lover of horror. I watch a lot of horror content, and a lot of true crime series and documentaries. So, I guess I have a pretty good grip on the mind of a psychopath [laughs] from all of those things. I pull from that database whenever I do an episode like “Drive”.

On the sets of the “Milkmaids” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: Going to “Milkmaids” [Episode Four in second season] which takes place in 1757, how did you approach designing a set to respect the building materials and the lighting sources available at the time?

Eve: The main source of light was either candlelight or fireplaces. We were faced with a conundrum because we needed a light source in the barn, and of course you wouldn’t have a fireplace in a barn. A blacksmith stove came up in my research, and it looked so great. It’s authentic and it made sense for that environment.

For the barn materials, we used a twig and stick style fencing for the cow pen which was accurate to the times and felt right for our story. The barn itself was a location and our main task was covering or replacing the non-period hardware throughout.

The vestry was another stage build. When doing my period research, I was struck by an image of a cross shadow, and I had the idea to incorporate this idea into a window design for the vestry. It would be graphic and relevant to the scenes in the set. It also provided the DP with a great light source for daylight or moonlight. The director loved it so much that he did a push in through from outside the set through the cross into the room. And he even added a scene with the boy that wasn’t originally in that script. It’s nice to create an element that can change a story in a way that you didn’t expect.

The church vestry on the “Milkmaids” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

The materials we used in the vestry were a continuation of the materials in the church interior. White clapboard along with wood beams for the walls & ceilings. Research is key when building period accurate interiors.

For Thomas’s house we used the candle wall sconces, but we also had a lot of windows. The settlers’ houses had lots of windows on all the sides, and that gave us the ability to push moonlight or daylight respectively. We had fireplaces in every room. That’s how the heated things, that’s how they lit them.

As far as the materials, in Thomas’s house we used wide plank boards that matched the type of wood that they would have used back in the day. There were a couple of options for moldings, and we chose what we thought was the best one for our characters. We also had a couple of moments of plaster. Some of the walls were plastered, a lot of them were wood, as I didn’t want all the walls to be the same.

The series loves fire light. If there’s a fireplace in a house we’re shooting in, it’s on. Whether it’s summer or winter, doesn’t matter.

Thomas bedroom on the “Milkmaids” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: And then you have episodes that take place in present day. Do you find that sometimes that particular work doesn’t get as much recognition because people see on screen what they see around them every day, and don’t think that it still needs to be designed and built?

Eve: Absolutely. When it’s something that’s an everyday thing, something that everybody’s familiar with, it’s hard to take something like a high school and make it really special. It’s a high school and we all know a high school. What are the high school colors? What are the mascots? You’re designing those spaces through graphics and use of color to give whatever them tone you want. But if you’re not building that high school from scratch, then you’re limited to what you can do.

They get less attention than the more special episodes. Everybody wants to talk about “Dollhouse”, “Milkmaids” or “Bloody Mary”, but even on that last one we have an 1850s flashback with the cabin and the cellar that we built. I enjoy doing all different styles, genres and periods because it shows a range. “Bloody Mary” had certain things that were difficult, so having something like a high school that requires a little less thought was helpful. If every episode was like “Milkmaids” or “Dollhouse”, I don’t know how we would have finished the season [laughs]. It would be remarkably hard.

“Aura” is a perfect example. I’m proud of what we did, because we had to design three full house interiors. It was all papered, paneled, painted, and dressed for the characters. We had the Hendricks’ house, Hwan’s house and then we had the Taylor house. I had distinct color palettes and themes for each, and it took a lot of thought. It was a lot more work than it seemed on the surface. It took me a full 8-hour day to pick the paint colors, materials, flooring and coordinate them all and lock it down.

Taylor house bedroom on the “Aura” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: Do you want the viewer to be thinking about this amount of work and amount of thinking that goes into it?

Eve: No. If you our job well, then the viewer will not think about any of it. I want them to be engrossed in the story, to exist in that space with the characters.

Kirill: What went into building the underwater world of “Lake” [Episode Eight in second season]? How do you research something needs to be underwater? How do you build it? How do you age it? How do you make it presentable the camera in this monochromatic world?

Eve: We built the entire underwater lake in a tank at Sable. It was something I’ve never done, and I was excited for the challenge.

The story revolves around a town they flooded to create a reservoir. I started my research there and we discovered images of these towns that were recently revealed due to the nationwide drought crisis. We looked at how they looked before the flood, what the signage was and what type of materials they were made of and all of that information provided the inspiration for our underwater structures.

Our construction department used a special type of lumber due to the swelling, and a special type of plaster for the submerged structures. As far as the aging, everything had to be washed out per the research, so I made sure to incorporate a lot of texture elements to keep some dimensionality. I had brick underneath crumbling concrete, broken edges with pebbles, plaster cracking, pieces of rebar sticking out of columns. We added these moments of algae growth, and that gave a little bit of pop of color coupled with the vibrancy of the later added greens.

I was also trying to protect and not see the edges. The edges are black, so they fell off. You want to think that there’s more buildings. It’s that trick of deception, layering the foreground and making the viewer believe that there’s more.

The story required a specific topography and I figured this out by creating an overhead sketch of the tank and then laying out all the main elements. Once I had this, I sat with the director to finalize. We ended up with a flushed-out plot complete with arrows marking the paths of our characters. That way everyone knew what the angles would be and the action. There was heavy coordination with props, special effects and wardrobe prior to the tank filling.

On the sets of the “Lake” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: How big was the tank?

Eve: It was around 170 feet long, and around 100 feet wide at its widest. We created our world at the biggest end to maximize on angles and depth. The smaller end of the tank was used for the drowning scene when they start to flood the town. This stunt required a special effects platform rig.

I was a swimmer, and I had an idea to go swimming in it once it was filled but I missed my window. I wish that I could have done that, because that would have been so fun to swim through my set pieces.

Kirill: That was my next question. When you flood something, you don’t really get to walk through it anymore, and make changes.

Eve: We did a walkthrough the day before they filled it, with the director and the DP for any final notes. As it turned out, my prop master & his assistant have their dive cards, and they became our underwater art crew. Once the tank was filled, they would take GoPro videos and show me, and then I would make little adjustments to things. It required a lot of layering and took three days to get it camera ready.

On the sets of the “Lake” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: Is it more difficult to dispose of something that has been underwater?

Eve: I would have to ask my construction team. My foreman had done something like this before, he knew exactly what to do which was super helpful.

Kirill: In general, is it just a part of your field that things that you design and build, end up getting chopped up and thrown out?

Eve: I am a big advocate of recycling and reusing, and I always have been. We keep everything we possibly can within reason. We had all the walls from last year when we went into this season. At one point in the season, we were running out of space because I like to keep everything. My coordinator & I went through and determined what would benefit us to reuse and save time and money, and what was just taking up space.

When disposing of set pieces, I always try to donate. There are a few spots that will take the set pieces and rent them or reuse them. We gave our wishing well set piece to a green’s vendor. I didn’t want to throw it out given all the work that went into it.

Production design of the “Lake” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: We’ve been talking for a while, and you keep on coming back to the word “layering”. Do you feel that it is the core piece of creating a set that doesn’t feel like a set, that feels like a real environment?

Eve: Absolutely. I’m always talking about layers with the art team. It’s so essential, all the little details truly matter and directly affect the success of the set.

Kirill: How difficult is it to answer the question on what is your favorite episode of the show?

Eve: Depends on the show. I have a very clear answer for “Into the Dark” because there was just one and it was period, of course [laughs] The Current Occupant.

American Horror Stories is a bit more difficult because I love what I’m designing each time. Every episode is a different challenge, and I like different things about different episodes. But if you were going to ask me about this season, the answer would be “Dollhouse”. When I watched it, I was so thrilled with the final product. With the massive collaboration from all the departments we created a magical episode that, to your earlier point, feels like it could be a feature all its own.

Kirill: How difficult is it to stick to schedule and budgets the bar of expectations keeps on rising?

Eve: This type of series is extremely challenging to bring in at budget and on time, because of the pace and the fact that there are no permanent sets. On every show the sets are always evolving, even if you have a permanent set, the next season it might change a little, or you want to move things around within the set – but you’re not building something from scratch.

Anthology is especially challenging – cultivating the idea, location scouting, deciding what’s on location and what’s on stage, getting it all done in two – three weeks, and then have it meet the expectations of the show. But I feel like we’ve hit a pace with it.

Last season was different. We had Murder House, and I feel it was a bit easier because we were there for three episodes, and it was a known entity. This season was a whole another universe. I found it extremely satisfying creatively. And I have to applaud my team. They’re all managing their piece of the puzzle while I’m dealing with mine. I keep an open line of communication with the producers and I am transparent about what’s happening. It’s up to them to make the decision whether we can afford something and move forward with the vision, or whether we have to adjust in some way.

For the most part, we’ve been able to do what we need to do, which is amazing. It makes all the difference when you have producers that are behind you and believe in the creative vision.

Production design of the “Lake” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: Stepping outside of the particular show, I don’t think you mentioned Covid once. How was it for you professionally since it hit in early 2020, in terms of how much or how little has changed in how your productions are working?

Eve: I was on “Into the Dark” when Covid hit, and we shut down a week into the eighth episode (the second to last episode). To be honest, I was so exhausted at that point, I was glad for the break. I used it to work on my house and recover. We came back fairly early on – I think it was July? Before a lot of the big studios were back, which was great, because there was a ton of availability for crew and locations.

Initially, it was all a bit strange. Wearing masks at work and dealing with the paranoia of getting Covid. I was so glad I didn’t have to be on set all time, that I could check in and then leave. On that show I was also prepping mostly from home. Overall, the show did a great job of keeping us safe and making me feel more comfortable in this new normal.

When I joined “American Horror Stories”, for season 1, they had offices set up and wanted the entire art crew in house. It felt odd at first to be back in a normal production office after so long but it was a nice big open space and we had plenty of room to spread out. Later on, I found myself so thankful to have us all together.

We’ve had a few Covid events on the two seasons of Horror Stories. The major factor is how it effects the scheduling. I’ve had to switch sets around three and four times when jumping between flashbacks and present day as well as adding sets to stage when we have no other choice. Designing and building in a week or less. I’ve lost crew and had to literally wear five hats. It takes a lot, but that’s how I came up. I just fell right back into my old ways [laughs] wearing all these hats at once. It’s all part of the new reality for working with Covid.

The doll mold on the “Dollhouse” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: Do you see any significant changes happening to the pace of these productions? I don’t think I can say “post-Covid world”, as it may as well stay with is like the flu.

Eve: I agree, I think it’s going to end up being like the flu.

When we first came back, we had more shooting days and we were shooting 10 hours, and it felt like they were trying to keep it light. But I don’t think that that’s the case anymore, at least it doesn’t feel that way to me.

The big thing is we’re being tested all the time. I’m wearing my mask when indoors and around people. But outside of that, at this point, that feels like the only changes from how it was before. If anything, it feels harder now, because you’re doing all this hard work, and you have to make time to get tested, and you have to wear this mask – no matter how sweltering hot it is.

Kirill: As a viewer, going back to 2020, perhaps there was a very slight dip in how many shows were being put on. There were plenty of productions that wrapped up before it hit, maybe going into post-production or waiting for their window. So they had enough to fill that summer into the fall, and then it came back up to making new seasons and new shows. And now there’s, again, so many stories for me to choose from.

Eve: Yes, there was enough content (thank god!). It’s overwhelming because there is so many good shows everywhere you look. And not only does it look good, it’s got to hit and be popular.

That’s the new trend with all the content. Every week there’s something new on Netflix or Hulu or Paramount or Peacock. It’s good news for us that work in the industry, because there’s a lot of work, but there’s a lot of competition for the audiences.

On the toy factory set of the “Dollhouse” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

Kirill: If you could go back to when you decided to switch to this industry, and you could give yourself one piece of advice to not to worry about one thing, what would that thing be?

Eve: I guess it would be to not worry as much about the budget. Early in my career, since I was trained at my other jobs to be so attached to the budgetary side of things; my mindset was that we can’t do that, because we can’t afford to.

The advice I would give myself would be to ask for what you need and don’t take the budget at face value. Early on in your career when you’re doing smaller things, you have something like $5K or $10K, and you’re locked into that number to some extent. But the longer I went and the more I worked, the more I realized that it’s a negotiation. The money is not set in stone.

Kirill: What continues to attract you to this field?

Eve: When I look at this career, every project is a new adventure, a new story to tell, a way to grow, something new to tackle – whether it’s a genre, a period, or a character. I find that I’m constantly inspired and very passionate about my work. That will keep me in it as long as I maintain that passion.

The toy factory office on the “Dollhouse” episode of “American Horror Stories”, courtesy of Eve McCarney.

And here I’d like to thank Eve McCarney for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design and for sharing the supporting materials, and Ashley Abshire for making this interview happen. “American Horror Stories” is streaming on Hulu. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.