Written by Malin Evita
On the 43rd episode of Making It: Women in Film, award-winning production designer Amy Williams (‘Master of None,’ ‘The Wilds,’ ‘Little America,’ ‘A Crime to Remember,’) sat down to discuss her career journey, craft, and give a deep dive into the behind the scenes making of Master of None season 3. Listen to the full interview, available on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts: #43 | Character Roots Through Production Design with Amy Williams (‘Master of None’)
Amy describes her work as the essential worldbuilding that is necessary in order to create a trustworthy story. It can be so subtle you barely notice it, or so flashy it engulfs you. “A really simple explanation for production design is sort of, everything you see on a show that doesn’t involve the actors, more or less, every other visual is production design,” she explains, “The objects that the actors hold, the environments that they exist in… We collaborate very closely with the director and the DP. And, you know, colour pallets and lighting and exploring the characters on a psychological level.”
And it is not just a flat visual either, it’s a three-dimensional element that shapes the movement and dynamic of the actors – with each other and the objects. “You can sort of motivate actions of the actors and how they move within a space. I’ve worked on projects where I have intentionally put windows very high, [so that] the actors have to look out or very low so they have to be very physical in the space just to make things look a bit more dynamic,” Amy says.
After working in the industry for a while, she got onto the Master of None production after chatting with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, all connecting over their love and passion for tasty, cinematic, visuals. The creators of the hit Netflix comedy, focusing initially on Dev (Ansari), a somewhat struggling actor living in New York, didn’t want their show to look like a regular, default sitcom. They wanted to indulge in the scenery and lighting, exploring the characters and the state of the story through their surroundings.
“Because Aziz is in front of the camera and directing, a lot of our meetings takes place over meals. It’s brilliant. It’s a full sensory experience as you are, sort of, eating the foods and drinking the wines and talking about the colours and the lights… we even all share music together. Music supervisor Zach Cowie will send me playlists for different episodes and different scenes, so I will listen to that while I’m designing,” she says, reflecting on the time she spent during the second season, set and shot in a luscious Italy. “It’s a tasty experience; it’s very sensory.”
Around the summer of 2019, having just finished a two-year renovation on Ansari’s (a now dear friend) house, she started to feel that the next season would explore something completely different from the previous two. “When [Aziz] told me ‘I’m thinking about the third season, you should watch Scenes From a Marriage. I really want to explore a couple’s relationship long-term, and I want the couple to be Denise and her wife – who we don’t know yet.’ And I was, like, floored and so impressed that he would come up with this idea that was so timely and important and… humble. He also said ‘I don’t even know if I’ll be in it. I think I’ll just direct it and, you know, Lena [Waithe] and I will work on the scripts with Alan [Yang] and it’s just gonna be about this couple in their, you know, upstate house,” she recollects, “It was a complete shift of focus.”
Moments in Love
Not only did the character focus change, but the whole show did. It became a slow burn view of a relationship; it went from light-hearted comedy to breath-taking drama. It was shot on film and in a 4:3 ratio, in mostly still and wide shots that lets you soak up the space, making you become one with the home these characters share. With that, it became the perfect opportunity to really use the interior space as a way to explore who these characters are.
“The characters are both different, so we wanted to really bring a balance of what Denise brought to the décor and what Alicia brought to the décor. It was also about bringing two women from two different countries and two different continents together, and [asking] how do you represent their history and their past,” Amy says. As they had to pause production midst the pandemic, it gave the creative team a lot of time to talk and dig into how they wanted to represent this relationship and these two very different women. For Lena, one of the things she and Amy connected on a lot was their passion for showcasing artwork and artists of historically marginalised backgrounds. And with Naomi, the two spent a lot of time talking about her West-Indian background and East-London upbringing – talking about the types of patterns and textures her character would bring with her to her new found home in the States.
Another thing Amy did to create an authentic and also familiar space for the actors to be in, was ask the two leads to send her pictures of their current nightstands. “For Lena, it was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got some weed, I’ve got Advil, I’ve got my Vaseline, and, you know, here are the books I’m reading.’ And with Alicia, she was like, ‘I’ve always got a cup of tea, a book, and something like incense – something spiritual.’” One of those books that made it into the show is Girl, Woman, Other – a novel written by Bernadine Evaristo. “That was Naomi Ackie! She was like, ‘I want this book in here,’ and luckily, we were able to get permission for it.”
From the stacking of the books to the different woods and fabrics and endless number of antique lamps, one of the things that really makes you feel like you step into a true home is the layers of the design. It’s definitely not something that was bought in one shop from a Spring Furniture pamphlet. “One of the fun things, especially working with a decorator, is you start to think in objects. You assign a history to them, you assign a character to them,” Amy explains, “Kim [McBeath, set decorator] would go out and shop and show me objects and be like ‘Oh, I think Alicia got this from her mother for Christmas one year,’ or, ‘here is a vintage object that maybe Alicia found and gifted to Denise because that’s Denise’s interest.’
You start to talk about all of the things on the set not in terms of design, but in ownership and backstory.” This, she says, is what helps sell the realism. This is also why she tries to work in life layers and mistakes into the design – the ugly bits that weren’t thought out, the mismatched curtains, the cushions without a proper place. It’s part of what makes it so beautifully authentic. It’s a collection of memories and moments – a live museum.
“The way that they decided to visually explore this season – being very still – the audience does have to be patient and I was aware that there was going to be more of a focus on their spaces.”
Shooting in the U.K. while masking it as the States presented some challenges – from electricity outlets to toilets. “Finding the washer and dryer was almost impossible. I can’t believe we found it! That was a really hard one, ‘cause they are very different.” One of the biggest location-manipulation achievements in this show was Alicia’s Brooklyn based apartment, also located in the U.K. “While I was doing her apartment, I was in communication with my partner back in Brooklyn and I would ask him to send me pictures of the tiles or the floorboards, or, ‘Can you measure the case moulding around a door frame?’ And it was the same thing with friends, like, ‘Hey could you send me what your windows look like? I need to show an example to my crew of what a typical child guard in front of a window looks like.’” Immaculate attention to details we most often never notice or appreciate – as that is the goal. To create a seamless world that looks real and authentic.
But even though the bathrooms were a sweaty challenge, it was also Amy’s favourite part of the season three project. “I really loved doing the bathrooms this season. That was really fun because we wanted to make the house they lived in very old, at least a hundred-and-fifty years old. We wanted to represent people that had lived there in the past and choices that were made in the past for the structure of this house,” she says, “Being this old, it didn’t have bathrooms when it was originally built so those had to fit into spaces that may have been bedrooms or other areas or additions that may have been built in the 30s or 40s. So with the bathrooms, we decided that those were something that was added in around the 30s. So the wallpaper was vintage. The toilet, tub, and basin, were all vintage. And we did a lot of research on 20s and 30s and 40s bathrooms in the States.” It was another part of the design in which the characterisation was a massive part, “I always pictured that when they were house hunting for this house that Alicia and Denise walked into this bathroom,” Amy says, “which some people would think is very achy and would want to renovate right away, and I think someone with Alicia’s eye would say, ‘No, let’s keep this crazy bathroom!’”
This third season is a feast for anyone with a visual eye, and especially for a production designer to put together. From the vintage tapestry to five hundred terrifying teddy bears, the Moments in Love project remains a treasured part of Amy Williams’ career.
Listen to the whole journey and learn even more about what her craft and what the process of working with the brilliantly talented people behind and in front of Master of None is like. Available now on Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts!
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Written by Malin Evita
Evita is the host and producer of the podcast, Instagram curator, and a writer focused on script, cultural commentary, and film analysis. She is a Vocal grand prize winner and recently finished studying Professional Writing at college. Through storytelling, she aims to amplify empathy and human connectivity.