Theater zealots who’ve had the chance to watch Netflix’s “The Prom,” Ryan Murphy’s sparkling adaptation of the 2018 Broadway musical, saw some of their favorite Theater District haunts onscreen—sort of. Production designer Jamie Walker McCall explains how the team recreated the best of Broadway on-camera.
How did you come to work on “The Prom”?
I’ve been working with Ryan for a few years now, and I was in New York working on season two of “Pose,” and that’s when I got the call. Ryan asked if I was interested in doing it, and it just so happens that they had me staying at 48th Street between Fifth and Sixth [Avenue], right near the Theater District. So I popped over and saw “The Prom,” and ended up seeing it a couple times; I went to Sardi’s a couple of times—had dinner, had drinks. It was perfect because I was right there, so I could really jump right into the whole project and actually be in New York, and then take everything I learned and all the walking the streets multiple times on different days, and bring it back to Los Angeles.
Tell me about putting together that sort of “best-of” version of 44th Street.
We call it ‘our 44th Street.’ We combined a bunch of different theaters, and we kind of took the best of each street and threw it all into ours, because Ryan really wanted all these lights and movement. We originally tried to look into shooting in New York, but it’s impossible to shut down Broadway for an extended amount of time. On top of that, there’s all the scaffolding that’s everywhere. So, with Netflix’s help, we decided we should just build it, and that’s what we ended up doing. It was great, because it gave us the artistic license we needed. We were able to do everything we had to do. We could do massive wetdowns. There’s details in the designs; I actually went over architectural drawings of the Shubert and used some of the older ones rather than the new. We tried to keep it to that old New York style.
How did you go about recreating Sardi’s?
I love Sardi’s, and I tried to pay homage to it as much as I could, but it just doesn’t lend itself to a giant musical scene. I’m sure you’ve been in it. Also, it’s not right across from the Shubert, which we needed for the sign for [the fictional musical] “Eleanor.” So we took some artistic license there, but I tried to keep the vibe the same with the rug pattern and the wall colors and all the artwork on the walls. We tried to make it at least recognizable, because I know how important it is in the theater community. A lot of the choreographers and people that we were working with, they were like, “Well, this doesn’t look like Sardi’s.” I’m like, “I know! I’m trying!” Sardi’s has a vibe. I know it has such a special place in everyone’s hearts, and I tried to do it justice.
How would you describe the role of a production designer?
A production designer, to me, is: It’s our responsibility to design the overall look of the show, and it’s our job to take the script and break it down and come up with the overall concept of what the entire feature is going to look like. And then, it is our responsibility to design each individual set and make sure it comes together, and make sure the look of the show stays online throughout filming. It’s literally every single set [and] every single design element that you see anywhere. We work really closely with the cinematographer to just make sure that the original mood [that was] pitched reads on screen.
How does your work as production designer help deepen the audience’s understanding of a character?
Especially for this one, I feel like the sets help tell the story, especially with Sardi’s and Broadway. It doesn’t look like that in real life, so I took the approach [of]: I want to build Sardi’s and New York streets the way I think theater people see them. They have such a love affair with it. I really wanted to take that and expand upon it [as though] we’re seeing it through the eyes of these actors. Once we get to Indiana, too, I wanted to take something that looks mundane, everyday, but then we give it a punch of color and color blocking and really delve into the saturation of what life can be for the characters.
Do you have to constantly be in conversation with the cinematographer and the director as far as nailing the aesthetic?
Always. With Ryan, especially, we usually spitball a little bit in the beginning, and we had a good base to go on [for “The Prom”] because it was a Broadway show. And Ryan expressed what he wanted this movie to be—the feel of it and the vibe. I started to put mood boards together. And then once Matty [cinematographer Matthew Libatique] came on, we talked a lot about color blocking and how to make that work for the whole show. It’s very much a collaborative effort between the three of us.
Since you work with Ryan so often, can you speak to what about his aesthetic style makes your partnership such a natural fit?
Ryan is an amazing storyteller. He paints such a vivid picture for me in my mind that it’s easy—well, I wouldn’t say easy, but he brings you into that world instantly through his writing or just his speaking. And I always love every meeting I get to [have] with him to talk about a project or work on a project that we’re on, because he’s so specific. He has such an idea in his head, and then it’s just my job to pull it out visually, to make it happen. He’s so collaborative in that way, and he really does paint the picture for me. And then it’s just my job to make it happen.
This story originally appeared in the Jan. 14 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.
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