‘Under the Banner of Heaven’ + ‘Maid’ Production Designer Explains How Design Impacts Storytelling

Article Image
Photo Source: Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix

Renee Read is most strongly drawn to a project when it “explores critically important and relevant issues,” she says. It’s a thread that runs through her work on recent projects like Netflix’s “Maid,” about a young woman who cleans houses to support her family after fleeing an abusive relationship; and FX’s “Under the Banner of Heaven,” about a Mormon detective who begins to question his faith in the aftermath of a murder. Here, she takes us through building the visual worlds for her projects and the important lessons she’s learned over her nearly two-decade career.

When you start on a new project, what is the first resource you go to? 

Generally, I’ll get one or two scripts if I’m being considered for a job and haven’t yet had a conversation with [the creators]. I’ll spend days with the script, dissecting it, pulling out notes and words, and then what I’ll do is spend about four or five days gathering images—like, thousands of images. I’ll distill those down to approximately 300, and then I build a website that explores the tones and pitch and palette—even a little bit of the cinematography—that I would love to explore. It takes me anywhere from a week to two weeks of working straight at it. I don’t sleep much during that process, but it’s a state of flow for me. At the end of it, I have this really lovely website that can be navigated in a way that feels like the project’s already been shot, because it’s got all these pages that explore the different possible avenues of design within one project. 

RELATED: How to Become a Production Designer for Film, TV, and Theater

So it’s like a dossier for your whole vision.

Yeah. What’s really interesting is to look at the final product. And in this case, with “Maid” and “Under the Banner of Heaven,” the final product is remarkably in line with the original design.

Tell me about your vision for “Maid” and how you executed it.

The visual design, like the storytelling, had to be fiercely sincere and utterly convincing. My biggest concern was for it not to change lanes into hyperbole. [Margaret Qualley’s character] Alex’s journey is often dark and overwhelming; but ultimately, it’s a story of hope. It’s a systemic contrast: veneer and vulnerability, public versus private, privilege versus poverty, and the instinct for Alex to give up versus the natural, deep longing to hope for something better that we all have. 

[Also re: “Maid”] Were there other things you were drawn to while creating the world of this series?

I tried to see the homes as characters. In Stephanie Land’s book, she gives these homes names like the Porn House, the Loving House. So when we look at the really fancy house [owned by Anika Noni Rose’s character, Regina], that’s the veneer; she’s living in this fishbowl. And when we built the trailer for Alex, every single piece and wallpaper choice and texture [inside] was chosen to feel vulnerable and like it was on the brink of coming apart at the seams. It was also very important that we didn’t slip into what’s referred to as “poverty porn.” I would approve every single object that would land on a set, because it’s so easy to take a shortcut when you’re dealing with this type of subject matter. 

Nicholas Carella and Andrew Garfield on Under the Banner of Heaven Nicholas Carella and Andrew Garfield on “Under the Banner of Heaven” Credit: Michelle Faye/FX

What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned while working on all these various projects? 

There still exists a fear of saying, “I don’t know” or, “I don’t know how that works,” “I don’t know the best way to do this.” I think as you’re cutting your teeth, [like I was] as a young woman in her 20s, being in a van all day with a bunch of white dudes in their 50s, year after year, I never wanted to say that I didn’t know the answer. Because I was concerned that would be it. They’d kick me out; they’d know I didn’t belong. Now, I’m much more comfortable asking for advice and saying, “I simply don’t know” or, “I need to think about that; let me get back to you.” 

I’ve also wanted to hire for personality over experience, because you can’t teach drive and organization and an eye for design. The most important skills aren’t teachable. If I have to choose between somebody who has a so-so reputation and has worked on the biggest shows and somebody who’s coming up from Anytown, who has an excellent reputation for being a passionate collaborator, I’ll often go for the passion, because we sacrifice our entire lives to work in this industry. We spend 14, 16 hours a day with these people. They are my work family, and it’s important that I legitimately love them.

What excited you most about working on “Under the Banner of Heaven,” and what was that process like?

The scope was deliciously ambitious—it not only spans a century and a half, it unfolds in dozens of cities and towns, each with a wildly different aesthetic. Dustin Lance Black is an exacting creator—he knows every microscopic detail of this story inside and out. He actually started out in the art department as a production designer and grew up inside the Mormon community, so his input and eye for detail were acute and helpful.  

Every single object that came to any of those sets—1820s, 1940s, 1980s—had to pass four tests. Is it period-accurate? Would this object be in a Mormon household? Then, because this is based on true events, would this particular character, inspired by real people, actually own this object? And then, after those three things, only then would we ask: Does it actually support the overall design? It’s very involved, but the most demanding part was the weather, the geographical scope, the timeline, and the fact that it’s very recent history. The birth and maturation of the Mormon Church is exceptionally new, so unlike other religions that [began] thousands of years ago, the major developments and communications that we’re re-creating in the show—they’re very well documented in modern form. When we were looking for locations to re-create these canonized moments in history, they had to be pretty exact.

What advice would you give somebody starting out in your field?

There are two tracks to go up through film. You can go through indie and get to know the whole gestalt filmmaking experience, because you’re asked to do many different things. You can move up more quickly because there’s less at stake. Or you can go [through] the union world and work your way up more slowly, but work on much bigger shows. I chose the former. My advice would be to try the indie track first to get a better sense of where you want to land. You don’t have to do that forever, but once you’ve given it a try, you may have a clearer sense of where you want to land in union town, and that lateral transition is not terribly difficult [to make].

This story originally appeared in the June 9 issue of Backstage Magazine.