Production design of “Daisy Jones & The Six” – interview with Jessica Kender

August 5th, 2023

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome back Jessica Kender. In this interview, she talks about the impact of Covid on the industry, advances in generative AI, the art of visual storytelling, and how she does research. Between all these and more, Jessica dives deep into her work on the recently released “Daisy Jones & The Six”, and the enduring appeal of the ’70s in our popular culture.

Kirill: We talked in April 2020, right when Covid shut down everything, but it wasn’t immediately clear what would be the implications on your industry. How has Covid impacted you and your field since then?

Jessica: For “Daisy Jones and The Six” specifically, it ended up being a benefit for the show overall, because it meant that the band rehearsed for an entire another year. While we were shut down, they kept what they called “band camp” going. So by the time they came back from Covid, they did this small concert for about forty of us, and everybody was amazed how well it worked.

It did make things a lot trickier with using the venues, as we were a primarily location-based show on this one. When we were coming back, live music was coming back, which then shortened the windows for places like “The Troubadour” or “The Whiskey” and for how long they would let us in. We’d have a day and a half to prep, shoot and strike, because they wanted to get live music back in the venues. They wanted us there, but didn’t want us enough to push the bands who had blocked days out of the way.

Overall for the business, it allowed more ways of flexible working. We all realized that we could do the job remotely, at least up to a point. I have found that within my art department we can be more flexible. I said to people that I always want to have two people in the office at all times in case construction needs something printed, or whatever it might be. And then I let my department figure it out. It’s interesting, because I found that a lot of the younger people wanted to come into the art department a lot, and the older people preferred to work from home. It lets people create the work environment they want to create, and I’ve liked that part of it. That created a better work-life balance that didn’t exist before.

We’re still working crazy hours. But if I want to run to my kids school to see a performance of theirs, I can do that now where before it was never an option.

Kirill: Back in late 2020 and early 2021 I was almost 50/50 on whether the theatrical exhibition business would even survive the pandemic. Was there any pessimism that you can remember around how the industry might not survive or how the industry might get decimated?

Jessica: I never felt like this. There was worry that a lot of people were going to lose their homes, that there was going to be a lot of people going into poverty because of it. But I don’t think there was ever any fear that the entertainment industry would go away. When we were at home with the pandemic, what did you do? You turned on TV and you watched stuff? So everyone knew content was important. It was just a matter of when we would get back.

And then there was such a massive boom when we came back, and it very much reassured everyone that this industry is important. Entertainment is the way that people can forget that they’re going through a pandemic, just for that tiny little bit of time. There was not fear that it would go away, but there was fear of who would be left standing at the end of it. And now the strike is doing the same thing. Covid was the first time in my life where everyone that I worked with and was friends with, all lost their jobs at the same time. We were all out of work for months at a time, and it’s similar to what’s happening right now. You hope people have money saved, you hope we’ll get through it, but you know that there will be something to come back to.

Miami Arena, built on location in New Orleans. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Speaking about entertainment as a form escapism, is it surprising to see seemingly almost no shows centered around the pandemic itself? There are maybe a couple of movies that did talk about masking and social isolation, but everything else seems to be pretend that nothing happened and the world kept on going with no pandemic.

Jessica: I was surprised by that because entertainment is almost like a mirror. When you have the best entertainment, people can either see themselves in it or imagine themselves in that situation. Removing the pandemic from entertainment was a surprise, because it was something we were all going through, and we were all scared and isolated. There were a bunch of people who were doing stuff that had the pandemic in it, and when those shows were testing, everyone was so traumatized by the pandemic that nobody wanted to have that reflection of themselves at the time.

Maybe ten years from now, there’s a show about the pandemic, and people look back and remember it. But it’s too close now. Nobody wants to go back to that world. Sometimes we want to see our own trauma and how did people relate to it, but this one was so bad that the studios maybe realized that people didn’t want it.

And then on top of that, having a mask on your face is such a big thing. It was already hard having a face to face conversation when you were both masked. Everybody remembers having to wear the mask all the time at work. And if you have entertainment where you rely on people’s facial expressions – and you can’t see them – that’s another step that is being removed in that process.

Kirill: Do you worry about the effect of generative AI down the road?

Jessica: I don’t worry about it, because I see it as another technology that can add to what we’re doing. I see what they’re doing on “The Mandalorian”, and you have this created world all around you. But then you always need to have stuff that people are interacting with. The technology will get better and better, but we’re still people, and we still want to interact with stuff. If right now my world of production design involves building the entire room, maybe it becomes building just the consoles and the stuff they’re working on – but there’s always going to be me in it. It’s reworking the way that I work.

I don’t have any interest in working in a purely AI space. That that is not what I love. What I love is walking in and seeing something that we’ve created that looks exactly like it should, seeing it and believing that it’s real. As long as something like that exists, AI can add to it. It can take us to places that I don’t have the money to build.

I worked on “Tiny Beautiful Things” and it had this dream sequence where she walks up to the top of a glacier and then looks out. You work on a half hour single camera show, and you don’t have the budget to fly to a glacier. So we built a 30×16 foot mountain side, and covered it with snow so she could interact with the snow with her feet, and you can have it along the side before she gets to the edge of this cliff and she sees this world. It was fun to do because I got to build a mountain. We carved all this foam. We played around with what snow worked. And when I looked through my camera, you feel transported to a different space.

To me, AI is another tool that adds. It doesn’t take away from what I’m doing. And I don’t think it will ever be able to fully replace what we do, because we’re humans and we need to interact with things.

Teddy Price’s house, on location in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Getting close to “Daisy Jones” and the era that it is set in, do you feel that at least in the United States, there is an enduring appeal of the ’70s as the golden age of music, movies and art, and maybe living the life without worrying too much about climate crisis, AIDS, over-population and whatnot? Do we see the ’70s through rosy glasses?

Jessica: Absolutely. The ’70s is a beloved age. Compared to “Little Fires Everywhere” which is set in the ’90s, finding stuff to create a world in the ’90s is so much harder than finding stuff from the ’70s because people love that time, so there’s tons of furniture that people have restored. There’s tons of memorabilia that’s out there.

You look back at it and you see an interesting change of design where the world got freer and more open. Mid-century design movement ended with the ’60s, but it was still tight and stuffy. And going into the ’70s it was more freedom, and you saw the anti-war protests, and everybody looks beautiful, and there’s crochet everywhere. It might not all be true, but there’s a nationwide held belief that this is a great period. We see it through a veil of nostalgia, and of course back then the protests and the signs that were holding looked much more present and centered around the horrors of the Vietnam war.

I do think that this was the blossoming of younger people realizing that they have a voice that can change the world. I don’t see that when I think of the ’40s and the ’50s. For me it started in the ’70s and forward, with every generation coming of age and believing they can make a change. When I look back at the different eras, the ’70s does represent the time when they were so loud and so big that they were being heard and making a difference.

Kirill: Did you feel constrained about the color palette? Sometimes it feels like we have collectively agreed for the golden browns and yellows to be the visual representation of the ’70s.

Jessica: That was my choice, so I didn’t feel constrained by it. I do agree with you that this is not only a color palette that is representative of the ’70s, but even more so is representative of what we think of as the ’70s. If you were to take the photographs we all use for reference and really see them in the time they were, the colors wouldn’t be that unsaturated. They would be brighter. But because of our familiarity with how that time is represented now, we think beyond what we see in these photos, and we build the color palette from that.

When we were coming up with the concept of how we wanted the show to look, one of the goals was to make it feel real. But we are also a fiction series, what is real is what people think is real. There’s the extreme of going the Austin Powers way and throwing in all those saturated colors. But even adding more color that would be real at that time is not something that people expect. It’s not the type of show where you want to take people outside of the story. You can call it a heightened realism. Yes, all the other colors existed. But we are staying in this more constrained, heightened color palette of the ’70s.

Sound City spaces, Lobby and Studio B Live Room, on location. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Unwinding the timeline of the show, when young Daisy goes to the various music clubs, I understand that all those reference the venues that existed in Pittsburgh at the time. What kind of research is available to you around that time?

Jessica: That was primarily the Internet, and also my history with Pittsburgh. I was born in Pittsburgh, but my family left when I was five. And then I came back to college at Carnegie Mellon. And my Supervising Art Director, Brian Grego, was raised in Pittsburgh and went to college there. When I went in for the interview on the show, I told them that I knew where these people are, just from my own experience. And there’s a lot of Pittsburgh that hasn’t changed in a long time. So if you know the Pittsburgh area, you can pull up stuff from present day and see a lot of the homes that existed that way in the ’70s.

I was in my 20s when I was in college in Pittsburgh. I did clubbing, obviously not all of those same clubs, but you have a sense of size and scope. And then we would pull from other club references from all around the country to build what we wanted the insides to look like.

Kirill: What happens stylistically when they move to LA? How much of a visual difference did you want to have between the two cities?

Jessica: The contrast is having them move from a working town in the heart of the country that is almost still in the ’60s. The biggest moment for that is when they’re driving on Sunset Strip and you have all the neon signs. That’s when you see that classic ’70s dress. It wasn’t as much about changing the palette. We wanted Pittsburgh to look like the “real America”, if you will, so that you as a viewer relate to Billy and Graham, where they could have come from any other big or small city, and then they move to LA and experience the feeling that they are somewhere else, some place they’ve never seen before.

Band House exterior, on location in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: They move to LA and stay in this rented house for a while. Was that an existing place that you took over, or did you build it?

Jessica: It is an existing house, but we also spent around three weeks to make it into what we wanted. It’s not in Laurel Canyon, and the drive up is an asphalt flat area. And when you look at the house, you could see all of Eagle Rock, so we brought two 50-tons of greens to hide all of that, to make it feel like Laurel Canyon. We also brought truckloads of dirt to cover the asphalt. It also has the back house with a great relationship to the main house. But the place itself didn’t have the vibe.

I had pulled up a 1969 Crosby, Stills & Nash album that had this great picture of them sitting on an old sofa in front of a side of a house. It’s a white house with green trim. That’s what I used. We repainted the entire house. The porch that they sit on when Camila is making a phone call when she’s pregnant was a set of steps that went down into their lawn, so we closed all of that off. The inside of the place was dark wood, so we refinished all the walls. And while the relationship with the back house was great, it was way too small to shoot in. So the inside of the back house is built on stage.

That’s how we approached a lot of the locations. They were locations, but they were all almost builds within the locations.

Band House rooms, on location in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: When Karen walks into the house after joining the band, she’s a little hesitant, but it doesn’t look like the house is that bad. Does that go back to the heightened realism you mentioned before?

Jessica: When she goes into the bedroom, they give one line about this old lady that died in there. My set decorator, Lisa Clark, dove into this idea. There was this woman who lived there and died there, and they get the house, and the house already comes with all the furniture. If you look at that furniture, some of it is from the ’30s and ’40s. It all came from that woman. One of my favorite details Lisa did was with the little sewing area in the dining room, even if you barely see it on camera. The whole idea in that house is that it’s move-in ready, and it’s full of stuff from this woman who’s lived there since the ’30s.

As the story progresses, and Camila and Billy move out, you’ll see that we brought in a peacock chair and other elements from the ’70s that get thrown into it as they get more comfortable living there.

Billy and Camila house, on location in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Speaking about Camila and Billy’s house, and also about the producer’s house, are these real houses?

Jessica: They are both real houses. The person who lived in Billy and Camila’s house is in his late 20s, and he loves the ’70s. The house had the right bones in it because of his affinity to that time, but we still ended up redressing it, and it was so challenging because it is on a switchbacked, narrow street. It has stairs going down into the living room, and we had to get a piano lifted into it so that Karen could play. He had a replica of the ’60s fridge in there that clearly just wasn’t right, but he didn’t touch the tiling. All he did was fix it up a little bit, and we could come in and make it their space.

Teddy’s house is the one location that we had worked on for ten weeks before the pandemic hit. And then we came back and had to prep again. It was a perfect find for the show. It’s in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood with views for days. It was so right for us. There’s a family who lives there, so when you walk in, it’s so full of life and maybe a bit cluttered. But all the bones were so perfect. It took about two weeks to clear it out and redress the whole place. Some of the rooms even have vintage ’70s wallpaper with the matching drapes.

Teddy Price’s house, on location in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: How frequently does it happen that you want the house and it doesn’t happen?

Jessica: I’m typically not shown houses that I can’t have. The location manager will always present me with stuff that is a real option. What happens a lot more often is that none of the options feel right. If you’re lucky and you have a location manager who gets you, you’re going to have a winner 90% of the time. But if you have a location manager who doesn’t get you, you end up doing it twice or three times before you get it right.

Freddie’s house patio and Nicky’s house patio, on location in Hydra. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Is it real Greece that we see in Episode 7?

Jessica: Not only is it real Greece, but we also went to Hydra which is an island with no cars. If you want to transport anything heavy, it’s all by mules. Mules would carry sofas up. They would carry all the camera equipment up. They would carry some of the actors up. The side benefit of not having any cars is that you don’t need to deal with cars that are not period. But it does have giant cruise ships that come through it, so when we shot the bay, we would have to plan around when the cruise ships wouldn’t be there.

A lot of the homes are the homes that were originally built, and haven’t been updated since with the exception of kitchens and bathrooms. Other than these two places, they feel exactly like where they were before. And everywhere you go on that is island is stunning.

The only tricky thing was we were shooting Athens and we were shooting Hydra. And to get from Athens to Hydra is a two-hour ferry ride. We were there in the middle of Covid, and my Supervising Art Director/Set Decorator, Monica Alberte, got Covid while we were prepping, and had to work from home vs supervising in person. That meant that I would go back and forth every other day between the two. I’d travel, stay overnight, go, travel, stay overnight. The reason we were doing that is because everything you see in that episode that’s an interior New York City club, is actually shot in Athens as well to make that episode work. And the exteriors we shot for New York City were in New Orleans.

In the book, Daisy goes to Thailand where she meets Nicky, and then they go to Italy. But our showrunner, who also was writing and directing that episode, had just done “Mozart in the Jungle” in Italy, and decided he would rather go someplace new. He researched a bunch of hot spots in the ’70s, and Hydra was big with artists like Leonard Cohen and movie stars. That’s how we landed on Hydra, and that’s where we spent the last month of shooting to do that episode.

Kirill: What about the recording studio set?

Jessica: We were back and forth on how we were going to approach it, because that set had a lot of work in it. I drew up ground plans and elevations, we bid it out with our Construction Coordinator, Luis Aguilar, and we were set to build. But we also had been looking at Sound City, which is the place up here in the valley. The band was doing rehearsals at Sound City, and we kept on going back and forth between the two options.

Then Nzingha Stewart – who was our director for the second half of the series – walked into Sound City, and she said that we have to do it there. Her background is in doing music videos, and in her mind we would be giving the actors this gift to work where all these past albums were cut. There’s something intangible about the ghosts of the past to work off of. That’s how we ended up doing it there.

Sound City Live Room A on location. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

However, the entire Sound City have been modernized – with the exception of the board. If you look at the lobby, they took the ceilings down and made them open, and it has polished concrete floors. So we had to come in and rebuild the lobby, but because we’re not on a stage, we had to do more than we would on a stage. We had to create structure to hold our ceilings. The place where they would record, all the walls are done to have the perfect acoustics. So if we wanted to take their modern walls and make them into the ’70s, we would have to build them without attaching to their walls. It was almost like building a set within a location.

There were a couple of things that were these little gifts. We had a picture of Stevie Nicks signing in that studio, and the studio itself has large baffle walls. One time we were in the studio, and as one of my Art Directors was looking at the baffles, she pulled back a little bit at the burlap and it revealed the vintage fabric in the Stevie Nicks photo. And they allowed us to take that off. So when you see that studio, there is vintage fabric from when they recorded there. It was a nice extra Easter egg surprise for us.

Sound City lobby on location. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Do you feel that the viewers subconsciously pick on these small details? When the camera sees something, does it matters if it’s the original vintage thing vs a 3D replica printed from a bunch of plastic raw material?

Jessica: If you are an avid music lover that listens to Fleetwood Mac, I think it will matter because you’ll be looking for those things. My job as a designer is to make it so that if you are a viewer who’s turning this on to just enjoy it as a show, it shouldn’t matter. It is a great joy to find that fabric, but if I’m doing my job right, I should be able to give the viewer that same experience.

Kirill: What about the bigger concert venues when they go on the big tour? Was it one stage that you reconfigured to look like multiple cities or was it multiple stages?

Jessica: It was multiple stages, but there’s an interesting twist on it. A friend of mine works concerts, and I talked with him a lot while I was doing my research. I learned a few interesting things. When I was doing the opening set when they were at Diamond Head, I had put the speakers in line with the band. And we had a guy who had gone on tour with a bunch of bands, and he said that they would never do this because this would mess with the acoustics. But in looking at the research, it’s not something you realize exists because of those reasons.

So that friend of mine said that tours usually fall into three categories – a theater tour, an arena tour, or a stadium tour. You don’t do all three at once, because you have to come in and out so quickly, and it stays as one setup. But we needed to see the band grow, and it meant we did those three versions within our tour.

When you would see them in their theater shows, typically it was the same theater or the same arena that we were reconfiguring, but you were seeing three totally different things. And it was all in New Orleans, with different stuff on the same area.

Kirill: And you had VFX extensions for filling the space with the crowds?

Jessica: When they were in Soldier Field, there was never a crowd they were singing to. If you look the other way, it was massive lighting towers and the lighting control board. We were there for five days, and the first night they came out, it was just me and Frankie Pine, the Music Supervisor, dancing to their music. Everyone else was working, but we had done our part, so we’re out front as their only audience bouncing back and forth.

Billy’s tour bus, retrofit from period Greyhound. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: I’ve been on plenty of buses in my life, but it never felt like there’s enough space to have some sort of a luxury lounge feel to them. For the two tour buses you have on the show, are they life-sized, or did you play a bit more with extra space?

Jessica: They were real vintage Greyhound buses. We took all the seats out. There was a bathroom in the back corner that we pulled out. What you’re seeing in those buses is fully built in there.

We did build things for the camera to move around. The bed they slept on would flip up to the wall to give a little more space for the camera. We had small enclosed areas in the kitchen that could be taken apart for the camera to get in there. But it is a hundred percent real bus. You would watch grips pushing things in and out the side windows so that they could have a little more room. We had talked about building them on stage and making them bigger, but we needed so much to be movable.

We had a bed in the back of Daisy’s bus, and a couch in the back of Billy’s bus. That wraparound couch makes a difference even in that smaller space. When we first walked our actors through the buses, Sebastian Chacon who plays Warren looked at the couch and said “Oh, I see here’s the brooding couch.”

Kirill: What happened to the buses after the production was over?

Jessica: They pulled the buses outside for the premiere event, but I don’t know what happened to them from that point on.

Daisy’s tour bus, retrofit from period Greyhound. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite set on this show?

Jessica: I have two that are my favorites.

The first one is Teddy’s office at Ellemar Records. The name Ellemar itself is an Easter egg. You have to clear the fictitious names, and originally it was L & R. They couldn’t clear that, and then they tried Ellemenar. Eventually they decided on Ellemar which also incorporated the names of his wife and children, which was a lovely gesture. I loved the aesthetic of Teddy’s spaces. If I had to pick a place to live, that’s where I would be. Ellemar was our love letter to the ’70s.

And my second favorite is Soldier Field. It was so massive. It didn’t feel like we built a set. We built the whole stage where the set sits in. We had so little time for it, and our crews were running around the clock. We had a tornado that ripped off the top of the set, and we had a hand painted scrim ripped apart and rushed a backup to replace it. You read the script, and you imagine it in your head, and you do so much research, and you build it, and it’s amazing to see the final finished thing.

Soldier Field, built set on location in New Orleans. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Do you see a little bit of yourself in any of the characters?

Jessica: Teddy maybe. He’s a manager, and he loves the people in his band. That’s the way I feel about the people that I’m lucky enough to work with and to create something great together.

Kirill: One of the central ideas in the show is that great art comes from broken people. Do you agree that you have to be broken to make something that connects and resonates with people?

Jessica: There is truth in that statement, but I don’t think it’s a universal statement. I worked with a lot of unbroken people who create great art. As cliche as it is, you need to have a passion for it. If you love something and really put your heart and soul in it, people will feel that. You can evoke those emotions without having trauma in them. It can be just joy and hard work.

Kirill: Do you feel that viewers want to see some sort of trauma on the screen and hear it in stories in general, even if people who are telling them are not broken? Are people attracted more to drama and less to happiness?

Jessica: If it’s a trauma, it perhaps should take you on a journey. You’re hoping to see some positive resolutions that will allow you to have hope, and feeling hope feels good. I love a happy story, but if you’re taking me on a journey that plays with my emotions, that can be more exciting.

Billy and Camila house, on location in Los Angeles. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Is “Daisy Jones” a happy story?

Jessica: I would say that it is in the end. It’s not a story filled with joy, but it’s a happy story. Even though they went through all this trauma and pain, in the end they still come out on top. You’re rooting for them, and in the end they win. You have that final closure when Daisy and Billy meet at the end. He got to have his happy marriage and he ends up with Daisy. They had their hit song together, even if they didn’t make any more of them. You get to see these flawed characters come out on top. Eddie’s not where he wants to be, but he’s not terrible either. You still feel like they all won in a way. They just had to fight to get there.

Kirill: In the flash forward that talks about what happened to the band members, Karen plays keyboard in this music video. Was that video inspired by “Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer?

Jessica: Yes, definitely. We made the video to look like that one, except that in the original all the women are in the background, and in ours she’s in the foreground.

Kirill: What piece of advice would you give to your younger self back when you just started in this field?

Jessica: To be honest, I think that I’ve had a pretty great career, so I thank the young me for making a lot of good choices [laughs].

I would probably reiterate something that a set decorator said to me once. He said that when you pick what you do, keep in mind that you will not look back and remember specific days on the shows that you worked on, but you will remember the specific days that you missed in your family’s lives.

One of the things that has kept me happy at work is remembering that while I love this work and this work is really important to me, my family comes first. I have always been grateful that he had told me that, because he was absolutely right. When I was in Greece, I missed my daughter’s 8th grade graduation, because it was impossible to get back and forth from that – and I’m going to remember that for the rest of my life. And I could not even tell you now what I was doing on that day in Greece.

That’s maybe not quite as poetic as you were hoping for, but it is something that has allowed me to continue to love my job, because I don’t feel like I have to give up that much to do the thing that I love.

Sound City exterior, on location. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

Kirill: Speaking of Greece, do you see yourself working until you can’t anymore, or do you see yourself retiring to a place like Hydra with your Prince Charming? What was interesting to me in that episode was that every artist that she was introduced to was saying that art doesn’t have to be for others, that art can be what you do for yourself, and even if it’s not published, it’s still fulfilling.

Jessica: I have a little bit different view on art. The reason that I am in this world is because I love people seeing what we do. I love that people are excited about it, and that people want to talk about it.

However, when I hit 65, I would love to retire and go on a roadtrip with my Prince Charming which is my husband Sam. I want to do this because I love it, but also this line of work demands a lot from you. It demands a lot of time. It demands a lot of focus. It is not my number one, even if it is very close to it. When I had my children, I didn’t want to be a stay-at-home mom. When I get to 65, I want to travel and spend time with the grandkids. I want to look back at the stuff I did and feel proud, but at that point I’ll be ready to give it to the next generation.

Soldier Field, built set on location in New Orleans. Courtesy of Jessica Kender.

And here I’d like to thank Jessica Kender for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the supporting material. “Daisy Jones & The Six” is available on streaming on Amazon Prime. 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.