How to Be the Production Designer’s Favorite Actor on Set

Article Image
Photo Source: Bettina Strauss

For BritBox’s “The Bletchley Circle: San Francisco,” production designer Joanna Dunn Thompson had to transform the flats of Vancouver into the hills of 1950s San Francisco—a literally steep task she achieved with some outside-the-box dexterity. Dunn spoke with Backstage about that specific challenge, her general approach to collaborating with actors, and the one time an actor overstepped their bounds (and how you can avoid doing so!).

How would you describe the role of production designers?
You are the large umbrella that oversees construction, paint, green screens, props, set directing, palettes of the show. You work closely with the costume designer, but you’re not really in their world as much. [However], you want it to look like the worlds live together. Pretty much everything to do with before the camera shows up—I have my finger in all the pies.

READ: How Production + Set Design Will Help You Develop Your Character

How closely does the production designer work with the director on TV shows?
You’re the constant in a TV series, because new directors come every episode, but you have to still be faithful to the look of the entire show. So sometimes directors are like, “I wanna do this, this, this,” and you’re like, “Really? We can talk about that, but it’s not exactly what our show is doing.” That’s where TV is very different from film. In film, the director is usually God and the producers are the money people, but it’s the director’s vision. In a TV series, where the directors keep alternating, you have to have somebody else, and it’s usually the showrunner that’s the final say.

Do you work with actors at all?
I believe you have to have [actors’] input if you’re making an environment for their character. If you’re creating a world for the actor, you want them to feel comfortable in that world. Often, I won’t get them started really early in the process, but I’ll be like, “Here’s the design of your apartment. This is what I think this character is,” and whether they agree or disagree with me, I’ll make little notes. Most of the time, it helps inspire them to find something.

Does actor input ever impede upon your process?
It’s a double-edged sword. I had one actor, he kept wanting to come in and change every single thing, and I was like, “We already discussed this with the showrunner,” and it went on for weeks. Then I was like, someone needs to tell him this is where we’re at. But other times, I’ve had actors be so amazing in that process, where it was such great collaboration and their input was amazing. That’s the joy of film in general: None of us are creating in a vacuum. If someone comes forth with a great idea, that’s awesome. You can’t have a big ego when you’re collaborating with 200 people to make a movie.

How did you initially get into this area of design?
I was a dancer, and when I could no longer be onstage because your body gives out, I wanted to do something different. I tried acting, and then I was at one rehearsal, and I was talking to the director about all these cool things we could do with screen and backlighting, and he looked at me and he was like, “Have you ever thought about design?” No. Not one iota. He was like, “I think you should.

What would you tell someone who wants to break into production design?
Never stop learning. You think you know everything, but you just never know enough. It’s always changing. The camera’s always changing, people’s perspectives are always changing. You need to research old periods, new periods, science. And don’t get discouraged. If this is something you love to do, there’s always a door unopened. Opportunities are there for people who make them. I keep taking classes, I keep upgrading my skills, I keep going back to school, and I think that’s a constant process that you need to do. The business is fast, it moves fast, and you have to keep up with it.

Looking for a gig? Check out Backstage’s TV audition listings!