• A Brighter Lens


This week we chat with Emmy award-winning production designer, Amy Williams. Amy has worked on over 40 films, including a number of Sundance selections, in addition to several TV shows. She won an Emmy for her scenic design work on A Crime To Remember, and some of her other work includes Master of None season 2, HBO’s Crashing, and the Apple+ series Little America. We chat specifically about Amy’s recent work on Amazon Prime’s new series, The Wilds. Enjoy!

Click here to listen to our interview with Amy Williams on Apple Podcasts.

Episode transcription below.


Jennifer: Thanks so much for joining us, Amy. We're so excited to hear about the show that you worked on The Wilds and your whole production design process. So the show, The Wilds recently premiered on Amazon prime, could you give us a brief synopsis of the show and tell us how you became involved with it?

Amy: Hi! Thanks so much for having me. The show is called The Wilds, they describe it as a dystopian slumber party, but really it's more of a bunch of young women who are suddenly due to a plane crash stranded on an in a hospitable Island.

And we find out very quickly in the first episode that there's a more than what it seems, that this is a part of a greater social experiment. So you can sort of say it was like Lost meets Lord of the Flies, but with an all -female cast.

Larkin: So within your production design, you brought to life an Island plane crash in addition to flashbacks and flash forwards, which really sounds like a design challenge. We're wondering, how did you approach all of that?

Amy: It's, you know, it's a little bit of a logistical nightmare, but when you read the scripts, you commit to the design for three different periods. So it sort of looked at it as a before, during and after moment.

And you've got the Island, which is its own world. Then you have sort of the, the after where the girls have been rescued. They're getting questioned. You don't know what exactly is happening, it's a little like obtrusive and kind of a scary and then you have the, before, which gives you each woman's backstory, you know, where they grew up, what sort of eventually led them to joining this, like all female retreat.

Larkin: How do you even begin? Like, what do you pull from, or at least from this? Like, what were your inspirations?

Amy: You know, you start initially, obviously it all comes from the script and the creators, Sarah Streicher's amazing, brilliant , demented head, and I think what they established in the pilot was that, you know, this was going to be a show where you have girls trapped on this Island, but it's not like your typical tropical paradise.

It's black sand harsh cliffs, it's really, you know, inhospitable and kind of cold and scary. And I think that really set the tone for the mood of the show. And then, you know, I really wanted to play into sort of the naturalism of what it is to be a teenage girl in America and what their spaces really look like and what their worlds really look like.

And, you know, not to create sort of this like bubble gum candy version of what being a teenage girl is like, but to give it the real deal. then for. The the post rescue facility in the Dawn of Eve. I wanted to create some sort of sense of being in a completely foreign land. I really latched onto the idea that the girls were somehow taken to a post communism sort of bunker area.

Actually like a communist era bunker that had very like cold brutalist architecture was very functional but interesting, too. And it could be anywhere in the world where an army station or a federal government building could be. So we really leaned into that sort of give it that, that mystery and a little bit of a sense of confusion as to, you know, who's, who's funding this where's the money coming from, who's the leader of this, experiment. So yeah, those were, those were kind of the, the approaches to the different worlds. And then, you know, things just really open up as you start scouting and, and the palettes become a parent and you know, the shapes and the forms of the different characters' personalities start to really come through.

Jennifer: Wow that's fascinating. We know that you shot on location in New Zealand, which sounds like a dream right now. How did you-- just hear you talk about your process-- how did you incorporate the landscape of New Zealand into your design for The Wilds?

Amy: New Zealand becomes almost a character, even though you, there's supposed to be a bit of mystery as to where they are in the world, you don't want to give that away immediately. So, you know, we sort of use New Zealand as this kind of other worldly fantasy. Nature moment in the middle of nowhere.

So it could be an Island in the South Pacific, or it could be, you know, somewhere off of Africa. you know, but New Zealand gave us. That gorgeous backdrop of, really severe looking cliffs and mountains and really contrasty colors and like great foliage, really good flora and fauna everywhere that really gave a lot of dimension to the world where these girls were placed. The raft formations are incredible and the volcanic activity on the Island really make it. Really special. So the biggest challenge was, you know, we filmed all the beach stuff in New Zealand. We also filmed all of the stuff that takes place back in America, in New Zealand.

So it was cheating America in New Zealand. That was where the biggest challenge was. It was easy to shoot outside.

Larkin: There are so many people that help to bring your design to life. And we're wondering how do you approach leading a team and setting the tone while working on a production?

Amy: You know, you try to have as much face time, which is a kind of new. You know, th we did this a year ago and that's when you were able to do that, and you could sit in a room with people and show them images and, you know, have discussions about characters and narratives of backstory.

And, you know what I do is it was, it was a whole new team that I had never worked with before, because I hadn't worked in New Zealand. So you use a lot of references. I use a lot of photography as inspiration, I use a lot of, you know, I even put together a playlist for my team so that they can kind of get, feeling for the mood and tone.

then it's just a lot of architectural references and personality references. I did a profile for each one of the girls, as far as, you know, what their tastes were, their favorite colors, their, you know, their they're adjectives, they're worlds that we're creating. So it's just a lot of sharing of visuals.

Jennifer: And yeah, there's so many different points in the design process. So we're curious if you have a particular favorite part while you're designing?

Amy: I really try, like this sounds so corny, but I really try to embrace a each stage. I definitely love the beginning part where it's just me and my head and I'm researching and looking up images.

And you know, the great thing about being creative is that the, you know, You become the sponge and the world turns into references for you. So you start like, like the sheen on a wall and you're like, Oh, we definitely, you need to put that into the Dawn of Eve set, or you see, you know, certain shapes or light fixtures or patterns in the cement.

And it all becomes inspiration. And so you just sort of pull from your immediate world and expand on what you feel. The script is trying to narrate. So I love that part. I also, I really get into the like details of the set decoration working with a set decorator and that moment of details and feeding little personality cues into a set is really important.

You know, Nothing is arbitrary. You know, everything is like from the bottle of water, to the sofa, to the shampoo bottle on their shelf, you know, everything has a meaning and a purpose. And you just hope that, it helps support the actors and helps support the story. And then I also like making spaces like the architecture of set design and, and figuring out that practicality and how it can sort of support the storyline and you know, how a hallway should curve because eventually in episode 105, we need, you know, we need a reveal of Tony and the talky chips. So that's really, that's a really fun sort of like detective moment is it's piecing together a set and, you know, working within the confines of.

Budget. And, you know, you only have so much stage space at this stage and the shaped like an L. So you've got to kind of, you know, rework what you originally had planned to make it work for this space. And, you know, you only have X amount of dollars to do it. So maybe we leave the roof off or maybe we, you know, have a false window or frosted glass.

So there's lots of little, little moments that are really fun. there's scouting too, which is know, it can be really tedious, but when you're in a place like New Zealand and you get in a van and all of a sudden, you know, a half hour later in front of a waterfall, you're like, Oh, I think we're going to need to see a few more waterfalls to pick the right thing.

And your whole day turns into looking at waterfalls and getting on ATVs and going through sheep herds, you know, that's amazing.

I would not have thought about that. Yeah. Wow. and it all seems so distant now. Like the good old days,

Larkin: Yeah. I mean, I guess, I don't know if you can talk about what you're working on right now, but just what are some of the new, hurdles that you're dealing with in COVID scouting times?

Amy: Yeah. But you know, the biggest hurdle is the FaceTime you have with your other collaborators. You know, there's, there's a special time. In a scout van when you're with the director and the DP and you know, maybe a line producer or those show runner and, you know, the ideas start to pop off and, you know, you're, you're looking at the same things.

You're experiencing the same things you have talking about the script. And you know, now there has to be this physical separation and you just don't have that. And it's terribly frustrating because it's, it's hard to communicate in such like a flat plane and emails, are the worst for creatives.

We're terrible at So, it's just sort of adapting to that and, you know, talking to people through mass and you know, with production design, you're communicating with the directors and the ADs and . Your own team and the location department. And so it's, it's even harder when you have to sort of block that up.

And I just find that there's never enough time in the day-- there wasn't before COVID, and now there isn't so. my last show, right after New Zealand, I went to London for a Netflix series and and that we started prep and about six weeks later, we were shut down in March. We resumed again and August and it was, you know, it was, it was a very different situation. You know, you have to have much larger spaces. We couldn't have in-person meetings. I couldn't share an office space with the rest of my art department. it was a lot of adapting and then, you know, moments where someone in the editing department tests test positive.

And so the whole show goes down for a week. And so you're like, okay, I guess, try to take advantage of this extra time and not get stressed out. You know, that shoot, we just wrapped on Sunday and I'm like, so relieved, really great. It's like, such a feat with All the obstacles of COVID and worring about people's safety.

And, you know, also worrying about if your vendors are open or you know, you can get to the lumberyard in time because they're closed or they're having issues, or the prop houses are closed. So you don't have as many resources as you once did. And I think it'll equalize, but it's tricky.

Jennifer: Yeah, I'm struck by how much adapting for just communication you have to do right now and how that impacts collaboration because the communication directly, you know, informs that.

I just haven't heard it in that context, so yeah. Wow.

Amy: It's different than, you know working with a set designer and sort of sitting, sitting next to them and, you know, having that body language to explain, you know, Oh, let's make those steps, add three more and do this. It's a little bit different over Zoom.

It's not impossible, but it's a different way of working.

Jennifer: Well, we end every interview with our lightning round, so you can answer in a word or phrase. So we'll start with three, your favorite or most influential film?

Amy: Right now I would say. the last film I saw was Killer of Sheep and it had some beautiful framing and cinematography.

Larkin: Two: dream person you want to work

Amy: Paul Thomas Anderson would be amazing to work with.

Jennifer: One best advice you've received.

Amy: very early on in my career someone told me. Not to Excel in any talents that have to do with assisting. So he said don't ever be the pretty girl at the front desk that, knows how to type well or knows how to be a great assistant And I really took that to heart. And I think know, in a lot of ways, some of my choices were to take, you know, a more challenging role that maybe I wasn't necessarily equipped to handle or experienced enough to handle. But there's a lot of, you know, fake it till you make it sort of another.

A bit of advice that sort of helped me out in my career because eventually you do get there and you absorb things like a sponge. So, you know, not to start off with the assistant jobs,

Larkin: And action. Where can people follow you on social media?

Amy: I'm on Instagram @AmyRWilliams.

Jennifer: Thanks so much for joining us, Amy.

Amy: Thanks guys. Thanks for supporting the show an, it's a really. meaningful project because it represents so many different moments in an adolescent's life and, it's, it's a diverse cast and you get different body types and different, you know, personalities and challenges.

So, hopefully our show kind of people find themselves a bit in it. And you know, I'm glad that it's got an audience now.

Jennifer: Yes. And it's, it's not back for season two, right?

Amy: It's coming back for season two. Yeah, I just read the first couple of scripts. Very exciting. People are hounding me for what comes next, but yet this time they're shooting in Australia.

Larkin: Awesome. New waterfalls to visit. Yeah, the

Amy: waterfalls. Yeah. All right. Bye.