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.