“I’m Always Attracted to the ‘Mutt’ Aspect of Sets”: Production Designer Michael Shaw on Orange is the New Black
Michael Shaw has had an illustrious career as a production designer, moving from some of the most notable independent films of the 1990s (Heavy, Boys Don’t Cry, You Can Count on Me) to a string of this decade’s top television shows (The Big C, Orange is the New Black). On Saturday, July 25, he’ll be leading a production design masterclass focused on Orange is the New Black at the IFP’s Made in New York Media Center. Shaw kindly took time out from designing the Wall Street environs of Showtime’s upcoming Billions to speak about his career as a production designer, Orange‘s prison set, film vs. television, and how he prepares to meet a director for the first time. Tickets for Saturday’s event are still available.
Filmmaker: Let’s start by talking about your upcoming seminar. At your Made in New York Media Center production designer master class this Saturday, what will you be discussing?
Shaw: I’ll be showing pictures of what inspires me. What’s great about [teaching] this class is what I do is never recognized. It’s almost subterranean, in the background. People don’t notice it, and that’s what I love about it. So I’ve put together some reference images from my large library, and I’ll talk about my background and then go into designing Orange is the New Black.
Filmmaker: You’ve gone right into one of my questions, which is about how you prepare for a job interview with a director. I presume you, like most production designers, put together some kind of look book. What’s your process for that?
Shaw: Yes, I have a lot of images from years of observing and photographing. And a lot gets pulled from the internet — great images that speak to me. For certain projects I tend to pull from [visual] art. Movies and TV can be more painterly, but, generally, I pull from anywhere. When I’m interviewing for a job, I spend days putting together [the look book]. And it helps me get through the interview. [The director] and I have something to look at and talk about.
Filmmaker: Have you ever gone into an interview and had the director just, off the bat, reject the approach you’ve prepared? When I interviewed with Darren Aronofsky for The Wrestler, I just had a complete vision that was opposite his. My vision was more stylized. I loved the script, but I wasn’t picturing it as a super gritty handheld thing. They said, “This is not what we are doing.” They were looking for someone who was going to go in and augment locations. That was what they wanted.
Filmmaker: Do you ever ask for a redo, to go back in and pitch another approach?
Shaw: By that point, frankly, I wasn’t interested in doing that. I had spent days and days on it. Most of what I pulled was from photography — a more artistic stylized reality. I don’t want to say like William Eggleston, but it kind of had that look. I think I talked about dressing sets more than they wanted.
Filmmaker: So you are rolling the dice when you go in and pitch your approach.
Shaw: You are rolling the dice. And I am totally willing to roll the dice and go in full on with what I think, and most of the time I am close enough. Sometimes it’s like, “Well, yeah, that’s really good, but we’ll go in this direction instead,” and you kind of develop a dialogue. And those are the people you want to work with. They are flexible, you are flexible and you develop the look in the interview. That’s when you know the job is going to be really, really good — when there’s a willingness to see where the vision and script takes it, as opposed to [the director saying], “This is what we’re doing, you’re either on the ride or not.”
Filmmaker: What about the more practical elements of the job: size of budget and crew? When do those play a part?
Shaw: I’ll know going in. I can tell based on the budget and script what kind of job it is going to be — whether it will work or be a struggle. Sometimes I’ll take a job even though I know it will be a struggle because it’s such a strong piece. I’ll do whatever it takes to get it done. But if the appetite is too big for the budget, I will turn it down. [In those cases] you’ll always be running up against the budget and won’t be able to design what it should be. And somebody is going to be let down.
Filmmaker: How do you assess whether the appetite is too big for the budget?
Shaw: It’s just experience and instinct. You might know who the line producer is, or about the director’s past work. Things like that. There might be too many locations that are difficult locations to find already dressed. Or the look is period, or very designed, and they’ll be a one sentence description in the script: “We track down the street, follow someone and they turn a corner going into a store.” That’s one little moment, but if it’s a period film that’s potentially a lot of work. If there are too many of those, you have to say, “Are we going to do this whole street and make it look period for that one scene.” Or, there was a script and the whole thing was set in New England and it was during the week leading up to Christmas. Because of the tax credit, [the producers] were going to shoot in Louisiana in the summer. “That’s going to be a nightmare,” I said to the director. “You’re going to be inside all the time, and you’re going to hate it. Everybody is going to be sweating.”
Filmmaker: One of your early films as a production designer was James Mangold’s first, Heavy, in 1995. What’s changed about your job since then?
Shaw: Probably the biggest change is that budgets have gotten a lot tighter but the appetites have stayed the same, or, in a weird way, have gotten bigger. Budgets got tight when the economy went into a downturn, and then they never loosened up, and that has affected everything. But on the small movies I was doing back then, the appetite was always bigger than the budget. And that’s kind of a great challenge, a great way to learn to make anything. One of the things that I weirdly enjoy about working in TV is that you are always forced into a position of compromise. You have to make it work, and the same is true for smaller movies. You start out thinking this, and wanting that, and circumstances prevent you from having what you want, and you have to pivot quickly. The best teams are like good surfers: they can ride the wave and go with whatever that wave is. I don’t want to lose sight of the end goal, but sometimes what is being asked for can be unreasonable. Normally everyone will understand if you do your best to see that vision through under the circumstances you are given. So, in a way, nothing has really changed!
Filmmaker: What about digital?
Shaw: I remember in the beginning having to do research with huge library books I never look at now. I used to have to hire someone to do research. Now it’s so easy. And then there is the precision of the drafting [digital allows]. I use 3D modeling a lot. I come from an art background, and I really like getting my hands dirty — hand drafting and drawing and sketching. But now I hire people who are proficient 3D modelers. With a 3D model you can walk explain things to your creative team by walking them through it. You can take a location and in one day in Photoshop turn it into what you want it to look like. With graphics program on the computer, you can send [a visualization] to people in the form of a little movie. To get everyone to approve what you are doing, it’s so easy to make a little Quicktime movie and everyone walks through it on a conference call.
Filmmaker: How detailed are these early movies?
Shaw: I usually start with something rudimentary — shapes and windows. Once [everyone] likes it and approves, we go in and refine. These tools are dramatic and hard to wean yourself off of. And then there is the ability to fix things in post, like [removing] a wire. Before, you might have had to hide that wire in a complex way in order to do a stunt. Now you can have that wire in the shot and erase it in post. And in a period piece, you can erase things you don’t want to see. Set extensions — we use those all the times. Like in Orange is the New Black, we did an Afghanistan set that we had to shoot five minutes away from our prison set. Everything was green around it, but I built everything knowing we were going to insert the desert later.
Filmmaker: Is your collaboration with a d.p. different in film than in television?
Shaw: On a movie, the d.p. would be on early. My experience so far in TV is that they are kind of late in the game, which is always unfortunate. On Orange, we probably had 50% of the set done before a d.p. walked in and saw what we were doing. We had had conversations, but without standing in space you don’t know how it feels. On Orange, the budgets are always tight, and everyone wants to spend less money. We had to make decisions about ceilings in certain places on the set. We had to cut the budget, so we removed some ceilings and built the walls higher to accomodate that. The d.p. came in said it wasn’t working. He wanted to bounce light and never wanted to remove a ceiling. So, we had to add some ceilings, and then some walls in some of the hallways were higher than I wanted them to be. It didn’t feel as claustrophobic as I would have hoped. We fixed it by suspending lighting a foot down from the hard ceiling and defining space that way.
Filmmaker: What are other set building decisions that shift according to budget?
Shaw: Where the windows are, and how close the drops are to the set. You want [the backdrops] as far away as you can get them. If they are too close you don’t believe them. A minimum of 12 feet is what you need to get away with. But on Orange, I knew we could get away with something even closer because our windows were so layered with wire and dirt that they were obscured. You are only catching shapes and a feel. So, we got away with much more inferior drops and where we could place them. But everything on Orange was sized down because you couldn’t fit everything on that stage. It was like a puzzle. Directors would come in and say, “Wow, I thought the set would be much bigger!” It really photographs larger.
Filmmaker: Where is Orange shot?
Shaw: Stage E at Kaufman Astoria — the largest stage there!
Filmmaker: What attracted you to Orange is the New Black, and can you discuss the creative concepts that went into the set?
Shaw: I’m always attracted to the “mutt” aspect of sets, the juxtaposition of ironic and unusual pairings. So, as soon as read the script, with its different, diverse people coming into this place, I wanted the set to be a character. It had reflect everybody there, and it had to also reflect a dysfunctional bureacracy. To me, it was always about a kind of patchwork of buildings that were of different eras, and different textures, different finishes. One of things I love in life is when an institutional setting is older and is repaired repeatedly. You can see evidence of its patches and scars, just like a person’s skin. All those flaws — that’s what this was about. And because we are in the prison so often and so much, people would get bored quickly if we made it like a real prison. A real prison is kind of dull. So, I had to maintain the dullness and monochromatic qualities because you have to feel that. The challenge for me was to make it not fatiguing to look at. But the more we toured real prisons, the more ideas I got, and so many had exactly this thing. So, [the set] was influences from different places mashed up.
Filmmaker: Finally, what advice would you give to a young person wanting to become a production designer?
Shaw: For someone starting out, it’s about really doing that design work. Looking at and interpreting the world, just like a painter would, and really just production designing. Working for people is great if you can get under someone’s wing. We all have to do that. My experience was in every job in the art department, understanding what people do, and then designing low budget and learning by the set of my pants. And I have I found that because of my experience, I come at problems and challenges with a kind of quick response about how to fix them. And part of that is just because there was a scrappy beginning.