Isabel May as Elsa in "1883", courtesy of Paramount+.

Production design of “Yellowstone”, “1883” and “1923” – interview with Cary White

August 9th, 2023
Isabel May as Elsa in "1883", courtesy of Paramount+.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my honor to welcome Cary White. In this interview, Cary talks about coming out of retirement to join the sprawling universe of the Dutton family, from the original “Yellowstone” to its prequels “1883” and “1923”.

Cary White on the set of “1883”.

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

Cary: I started off as an art major in college. My mother always encouraged me as an artist, but my father was convinced that I would surely starve to death with a degree in Art. So anyway, seeing how many talented people there were out there and how all my roommates were studying serious stuff, I decided to give up on art. I changed my major to Business Administration and I got a degree in that, but it never converted me into a businessman and it was boring as hell.

But, then one day, while I was bored to death, I was thumbing through the University of Texas course catalog and discovered that I could actually get college credit for going to movies. I was hooked. I thought “going to movies is something I can do all day long!” and so, I ended up with a Master of Arts Degree in film and ironically, I’ve ended up as the head of the Art Department – back in ‘Art’ after all.

Kirill: Do you feel that there should be one path for people to get into the industry, or that the industry benefits from this variety or diversity of backgrounds?

Cary: Given my random path into the film industry, I would be the last person to think that there should be only one path into it. I think filmmaking is a collective and synergistic art form and that different people with different backgrounds all bring something special to the party.

Rendering of Hell’s Half Acre in “1883”, courtesy of Cary White and Paramount.

Kirill: Can you teach anybody to be not just a craftsman in the industry, but also to be an artist? Can you take anybody through an art school, and have them be an artist by the end of it – however you define what an artist is?

Cary: I have trouble calling myself an artist. It sounds too pretentious for me. I work with people who are extremely talented and I consider them to be artists. Collectively, we try to make art and I think our combined product can sometimes be greater than individual talents. One thing that I think is more important than a technical skill like drafting, for example, is the passion that a person has for what they’re making.

Production still of Hell’s Half Acre in “1883”, courtesy of Cary White and Paramount.

Kirill: Between the art and craft of it, you also manage people, budget and schedules. Is there any part of your daily routine that is, perhaps, a bit more boring than others?

Cary: As I was saying, I work with a large group of people – art department, construction, set dec, locations, directors, producers, and on and on. I enjoy working with people and for the most part, I love the work itself. I love what we do. Occasionally, there can be personnel issues with people working together and when this happens, it can be debilitating.

Kirill: Have we seen the end of the rising expectations from episodic productions, or do viewers – and perhaps productions themselves – keep on pushing for more?

Cary: Lord! We just finished a show “1923” that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I would read the script and think to myself, “How the hell are we going to pull this off?” The scripts were so ambitious and there never was enough time. Somehow, we pulled it off, but I lay awake at night worrying that one day they will set the bar too high and we will fail.

Rendering of Tattoo Ranch in “1883”, courtesy of Cary White and Paramount.

Kirill: Looking back 40 years, what are the biggest changes that have happened in the art department?

Cary: There are so many changes! I bought my first computer in 1988 – a Mac Plus. I was carrying around a pager – no cell phones. Digital photography. The Internet. VFX set completion. Now we have people in the art department working remotely. Clearance on what we see on screen is a big deal today. Photoshop. It just goes on and on.

Kirill: How do you explain the enduring popularity, and perhaps mythology, of the Western genre for US viewers, and how it translated to screen in Yellowstone and 1883?

Cary: The Western is pure, unadulterated Americana. It’s part of our mythology. A man on horseback fills up a rectangular frame perfectly. Most people watching Westerns today live in cities and don’t get to experience the Montana vistas in person.

On set photo of Tattoo Ranch in “1883”, courtesy of Cary White and Paramount.

Kirill: What brought you out of retirement to join the Yellowstone universe?

Cary: I was retired and living in San Miguel de Allende when they sent me the trailer for Yellowstone. I thought, Wow, this is no ordinary show. I think it was Michael Cane who said, “You don’t retire from the film business. The film business retires you.” And then, later, when Taylor Sheridan asked me, “How retired are you?” my answer was, “I guess I’m not THAT retired.”

A couple days after accepting the offer to design the second season of “Yellowstone”, a car picked me up in front of our house on Calle Suspiros (Street of Sighs) in San Miguel. Then, after a long day of traveling, I was delivered at the Utah Film Studio in Park City, Utah.

Kirill: How physically demanding was it for you on “1883” that takes place across multiple states, mostly out in the nature?

Cary: “1883” was physically demanding! We worked in the Fort Worth stockyards where the temperature was over 100 degrees everyday and worked in Montana in a blizzard and were freezing. The winds in West Texas were so ferocious that I told construction to shut down for the day. It was like were being sandblasted. Tents were being blown down and debris from the set was flying everywhere.

Rendering of the Yellowstone Ranch in “1923”, courtesy of Cary White and Paramount.

Kirill: How was “1923” for you, spanning multiple continents in the storylines, but also in the places you went to around the globe?

Cary: I’ve been a production designer for a long time, but I’ve never done a show where I had three art departments in three different parts of the world. Fortunately, they were all brilliant. I’ve worked in Canada, England and scouted Costa Rica, but I’d always wanted to get a show where I could do some globe-trotting. “1923” was a lesson for me to be careful what you wish for. In the states, we shot in Montana, Utah and California. I made four trips to South Africa, three trips to Malta, and one trip to Morocco. That was seeing some of the globe.

On set photo of the Yellowstone Ranch in “1923”, courtesy of Cary White and Paramount.

Kirill: How much of what we see in this show is built on stage, and how much is done on existing locations? Do you have a preference between the two?

Cary: Much of “1923” was shot on location, but the world has changed significantly in the last hundred years and that means that locations require a lot more work for them to be period correct. We did have a number of stage builds both in Montana and South Africa. We used two soundstages at the Utah Film Studio to shoot an African bush night exterior scene. The largest set we built on stage (actually the Butte Montana Civic Center) was the period “Yellowstone” kitchen and Great Room. That Great Room is a two story log room which is approximately thirty feet by seventy feet. It’s big!

Kirill: Did you have any time to rest between these seasons since you started on them back in 2018/19?

Cary: Yes, typically the seasons end for me in January and start again in June. The break between is greatly appreciated.

Drawing plan of the Yellowstone lodge in “1923”, courtesy of Cary White and Paramount.

Kirill: What has been the most challenging season so far in this universe across all three shows for you?

Cary: 1923 was the most challenging!

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite Yellowstone set?

Cary: The thing that comes to mind is a set we did in season four of “Yellowstone”. There was a bad-mannered Californian ranch owner who raised llamas. The scene called for Kayce Dutton, the Livestock Commissioner, to drive his truck through the rancher’s front gate. I designed an iron gate with two llamas facing each other and Taylor loved it.

The completed set of the Yellowstone lodge in “1923”, courtesy of Cary White and Paramount.

Kirill: Is it painful to see the sets that you’ve worked on torn down at the end, or have you made your peace with it by now?

Cary: After forty years of doing this work, I’ve made my peace with seeing them go in the dumpster. I just want them to have their picture taken before hand.

Kirill: What impact has Covid had on these shows? Do you see the industry in general going back to what it used to be before this pandemic, or are there any longer-term effects that are still affecting newer productions?

Cary: Covid changed everything with film production. Instead of filling up the 15-passenger van with the production team, scouting locations became a caravan of fifteen cars with fifteen people driving in their own car and production meetings were attended via Zoom. At times, I’ve had to get tested everyday and I got Covid last year on “1923”. I hate this new reality. It feel like some of the creative energy is lost in the process. The scout van camaraderie and synergy in the filmmaking process is just not the same and hopefully, those ‘good old days’ are coming back.

Rendering of the Messina outdoor cafe in “1923”, courtesy of Cary White and Paramount.

Kirill: Do you worry about the impact of generative AI tools on your part of the industry, and on artistic creativity in general?

Cary: I worry about AI, but I’m not concerned that it will affect me personally – I’m too close to retirement (and I mean it this time). The thing that worries me is that all the other technological advances have actually supported human creative efforts. This one wants to replace human creative effort.

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite color?

Cary: Not really. Taylor hates white. I avoid using purple in shows.

Kirill: Is there any piece of advice you’d want to give to your younger self back when you just started in the industry?

Cary: The thing that comes to mind are the job interviews where I blew it. I wish I had another shot at those, but, oh well, I got some good jobs along the way too.

Production still of the Messina outdoor cafe in “1923”, courtesy of Cary White and Paramount.

And here I’d like to thank Cary White for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the supporting materials. “Yellowstone“, “1883” and “1923” are streaming on Paramount. 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.