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Issue 002 Spring 2021 Interviews

Mixing, Layering, and Making Worlds

A Conversation with Production Designer Nora Mendis

by Farrah Rahaman

For over a decade, Nora Mendis has combined her technical know-how and experience as a production designer with a natural talent for the aesthetic and spatial. Her credits include Passing (2021), Betty (2020), Couples Therapy (2019), Topside (2020), The Incredible Jessica James (2017), The Sound of Silence (2019), and many other films and episodic works. As one of a handful of Black women at the helm of the art department, Mendis expands notions of production design into a space of world making, a process of collectively visioning and building worlds from mere concepts and ideas into physical settings we might, if only temporarily, inhabit.

I first met Mendis this past January, through my role as curatorial assistant for BlackStar’s upcoming exhibit Swarm, a retrospective of Terence Nance’s work, curated by Maori Karmael Holmes. Mendis is the exhibition designer, so we toured museum sites for the exhibit over FaceTime. I walked her around the space, in my palm. We paused as Mendis noticed the details of the installation environment, its modularity and dimensions, the placement of lighting tracks, and how much light came in from the windows. A few weeks later, and nearly a full year into the pandemic, we spoke over Zoom with Mendis’s infant by her side.

It’s very important to show the interiority of a character through the way they move around in the world. 

Farrah Rahaman: You’re an incredibly prolific designer! Let’s talk about your background and your journey to the art department. How did you become a production designer?

Nora Mendis: Thank you! I went to art school for film, but it was geared towards the gallery and fine art world. I did a lot of silent, Super 8, and 16-mm movies. I also stayed painting. When I graduated, I didn’t know which direction I wanted to go. I was interested in film and making my own films, but I didn’t know how to pursue that. I went into the industry and started from the bottom and wasn’t sure which department I was interested in. I felt most aligned with the art department.

I’ve done almost all of the positions in the art department and set building, the idea of designing a world. I came up as a set decorator and eventually became a production designer. It was sort of slow and wandering. The industry can cause a lot of burnout. There were moments where I wasn’t sure if I was ready to do this all of the time. For a couple of years, there was a bit of an on-again, off-again thing. But I always come back to it.

FR: How do you decide to take on a project?

NM: It’s hard. It depends on many things, but mostly whether I feel aligned with the script and the director. Now I’m able to be more choosy. At first, I did all kinds of films.

FR: Where does the interpretive process start for you?

NM: The moment I read the script is when I start to think about everything from a design perspective and then from a logistical perspective. I’m a research freak. I go deep into the research and love pulling tons of references and spending time at the library. New York City has incredible resources that existed for designers and architects before the internet. The New York Public Library’s main branch has a print collection. Most museums have resources for designers as well. The Cooper Hewitt, for example, has architectural plans. The Met has a textile gallery.

FR: How granular do you get in your process? Are you mood-boarding? How are you saving your references?

NM: Essentially, everything you see on camera that is not an actor or their clothing is the art department. Everything from the room they’re standing in to the objects they’re holding: phones, drinks, books, food, cars. It’s very important to show the interiority of a character through the way they move around in the world.

My department functions essentially like a triangle, where the production designer oversees the overall design, then you have your art director, your set decorator, and your prop master, who are all heads of their own departments, but under the art department umbrella. I work closely with those three people and their crews. We’ve got our construction crew, carpenters, shoppers, scenics, set dressers, and our prop assistants.

From the moment I start pulling references, I want to make sure that everybody looks at them. It’s mood boards, shared Google Drives, Dropbox, and things like that. I make a book of references for each set or each character, depending on the film. The point is to get everybody on the same page. I also like to do an art department movie night, obviously pre-COVID, where we choose a movie that is a strong reference for the film and hang out.

FR: You’re working in all of these different colorways and modes. Betty and The Incredible Jessica James are so expressive. Their worlds are bright even when they’re grungy, but you’re also making more distilled spaces with Couples Therapy or The Sound of Silence and the black-and-white world of Passing. How do you approach each color palette as you’re layering, texturing, and building the worlds?

NM: In an ideal world, the color palette conversation would happen immediately with the director. Again, it depends on the script and the characters. For The Incredible Jessica James, it was Brooklyn but heightened. It’s like Jessica Williams but more. I’m always into some full-on pattern mixing and layering. When we decided that we were going with the super bright, super heightened palette, we just went all the way there.

The Sound of Silence is about a quiet, lonesome, maybe even lonely main character. The question is, what has he been collecting his whole life? What is his palette? How is it different from other palettes in the film? His home was very analog, very brown, but not lacking in texture. His foil in the film is this very corporate office, very fancy, very glass.

Shooting in black and white for Passing was a different way of looking at the world. When my decorator sent me photos of furniture, I had her only send me photos in black and white. I wanted to see the textures and the way an object interacts with other objects. So, if something’s super smooth or super rough, that’s going to show up. I didn’t want to get distracted by the color. Although iPhone black and white is not the same as the way the film was graded, it still helped me see. We chose bright carpets and textiles. When you walk into the space, you’re like, Whoa, too much. But in black and white, it’s amazing.

And then Betty is more naturalistic. We’re trying to get the vibe of what the women’s spaces are in reality. Maybe a little bit heightened, but we’re not trying to make it super “for TV” either.

Even when you’re in a space that has no actors in it, the story is still there.

FR: Betty is impressive. It feels so familiar, especially as a young femme of color. There is a deep late-millennial, early–Gen Z vibe that feels like you’re plopped into their world. It feels very distinct from the glossier shows featuring people of a similar age.

NM: All of that is super thought out. It was important to me that Janay’s hair products be different than Camille’s hair products, for example, and that people’s spaces feel realistic. With Indigo’s apartment, she does have art up on the walls, but it’s local Brooklyn women-of-color artists, designers, and painters. She doesn’t have original art on the wall; she has a print because she’s in her twenties and lives in Bushwick. When we go to her mom’s super fancy apartment in SoHo, we see actual pieces that we rented from artists. We did a lot of work to find artists we felt represented who this Black professional woman would have in her house. It is really fun to be able to have the money to support artists and bring their work into the show.

FR: That makes me think about the various scales of the operation. You’re attuned to the conceptual workings of the characters’ worlds, but your mind is on the logistical and financial considerations as well.

NM: Yes, and I don’t think there’s any scale where you escape that. Unfortunately, in the art department you never have enough money. You are thinking about the bigger picture of the budget. Budget concerns are serious concerns for the art department, but also everything is possible. I’ve done a ton of little movies, and everything is possible—it’s just harder. With the bigger jobs, you have more room for clearances or custom building, finding the perfect chair and being able to pay for it. But it’s not necessary to create a perfect film, you know?

FR: Do you feel the muscles you’ve gained on smaller sets have translated to the larger operations?

NM: Absolutely. I feel like those muscles are indie muscles. You always need them in some way. Even if you have fifty carpenters at your disposal, it’s important to remember the many ways in which filmmaking can work and not just be beholden to one way. It’s not just Hollywood and industry. It’s not just having huge crews. There are ways of making interesting work that people forget, and they become less creative. Then something amazing like Moonlight [2016] gets made, and they question how it’s even possible.

FR: Who are some of your North Stars in terms of production design, or just design and aesthetics more broadly?

NM: I am drawn to a lot of painters and photographers. In terms of film and aesthetics, this is such a hard question! I love Claire Denis. My favorite film is 35 Shots of Rum [2008], full stop! It’s so naturalistic, and in a lot of ways it just feels right. I love Kevin Jerome Everson’s experimental work. He’s been doing it for a long time and he’s so prolific. His work is incredible—talk about witnessing and distilling something into a film in a way that is so visually compelling. I don’t have specific production designers as much as movies I’m drawn to and the ideas behind them.

[Talking to her baby, Amaru] So you want to be part of the interview now?


People act like the diversity is coming or it’s here already, but there’s a lot more work to do both in front of the camera but also behind it.
FR: I have a question about Baby Amaru, who I love seeing photos of, by the way! Has having a child altered your orientation to the production space?

NM: It’s complicated. When I was first pregnant, I designed Topside, which premiered at Venice last year. It was a mother-daughter story about people who live in the subway tunnels in New York City, specifically the Freedom Tunnel. It was a really dark, sad film. I’m into dark dramas, but being pregnant while designing that film changed the way I looked at it and changed my connection to the actors and main characters.

The other big thing is figuring out how to work with a baby and figuring out how that negotiation works. The good thing about filmmaking is that you work really hard when you’re in production—maybe you’re working fifteen hours a day for months—but then you can take some time off to do something else, like raise your baby.

I interviewed for Passing about a year before it was supposed to go into production. I was connected to it far earlier and have been obsessed with the book, by Nella Larsen, for years. I have family members who have passed, and my grandma still talks about these cousins who came to Thanksgiving for a few years and then just disappeared. That’s real in our shared history. I was extremely pregnant when we shot the film, because production kept getting pushed and pushed. The last day of production was four days before my due date, so I was nine months pregnant. I almost was reconsidering, but I was obsessed with the book and with director Rebecca Hall. I felt so connected and considered if I wasn’t pregnant I would have 100% done this movie, so I did.

FR: I hear you. I’m struck by how much New York is a character in so much of the work you do. How do you approach working with the city’s different scapes, from the wide outdoor environments to the very contained spaces?

NM: love New York. My partner and I moved to Mexico City for a little while, then moved to the Bay Area, and then we came back. With New York City, it’s just all there—1920s New York is still here. The lives of these skateboard girls exist alongside the lives of people who are living in the subway tunnels and the couples in therapy.

In fact, with Passing I was shocked by how much of old New York still exists. The fire hydrants look the same now as they did in 1900. Lots of subway stations, lampposts, and architectural features are the same, so it all just continues to be layered. It’s very interesting the way architecture can represent and show segregation. Even when you’re in a space that has no actors in it, the story is still there.

FR: You’ve worked as a producer and trained as a filmmaker. Do you think you’re going to dip your feet back in other storytelling roles?

NM: My partner [Sam Ellison] and I made a documentary, Chèche Lavi [2019], along with Abraham Ávila and Rachel Cantave. Being a producer on that film was a game changer in how I understand filmmaking. I appreciated that, but I really love and am committed to production designing.

FR: What are you hoping to do more of? Do you have a dream project you haven’t been able to take on yet?

NM: Period and futuristic stuff are really fun because I deeply enjoy the research. I love apocalypse movies, and I want to do a nerdy, maybe Afrofuturistic apocalypse movie. I’m more drawn to storytelling and the filmmaker’s connection to the script. I love telling stories that we don’t see very much or different perspectives on a “common” story. I love getting down with things that are experimental and weird.

I want to continue connecting to stories and bringing more people of color and Black people into the production world, because it is not where it needs to be. People act like the diversity is coming or it’s here already, but there’s a lot more work to do, both in front of the camera but also behind it.

FR: This highly collaborative, creative energy you’ve been describing upends the single-author philosophy that continues to dominate filmmaking, both in terms of how the industry rewards individualism and how audiences view directors. How have you come to understand this over the years?

NM: In terms of general audiences, it doesn’t bother me. I find it funny and think it’s great when people are like, “Oh, I thought you guys just found the apartment like that,” especially when the set was built on a soundstage. Even when shooting on location, a huge part of my job as designer is to do the director’s scouting and choose the location based on our vision. Choosing is a creative act, and you change a lot in a location. It’s interesting sometimes to read articles by film critics who have been doing their jobs for thirty years who don’t seem to know what a set decorator or a prop master does—to be so involved with the film industry but still not have a sense of what goes on behind the scenes.

FR: What are some tips you might have for emerging designers?

NM: The biggest one is to keep at it. Burnout is real. Make sure to take care of yourself and your crew. My note is for people to be intentional about the spaces they’re in. Being aware that you cannot do it alone is super important. Behind the designer, director, and DP, there is a lot of support and a lot of collaboration and creativity as well. Even if you’re working on a tiny movie and there’s only two or three people in the art department, treat everybody with respect and treat everybody as a collaborator.