Juliana Barreto Barreto
Juliana Barreto Barreto’s two most recent projects—Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt and Savanah Leaf’s Earth Mama—demonstrate the versatility of her work as a production designer. Jackson’s film, an expressionist portrait of Black life in Mississippi, called for Barreto to employ a “macro yet hyper-close frame” when it came to designing the film’s lush visual landscape; for Earth Mama, however, Leaf provided Barreto with “a bible of research” so that she could nail the specificity of Oakland, California, circa 2006.
Both films are distinct yet not entirely dissimilar, centering on Black women who navigate tumult while being enriched by the natural and urban elements of their surroundings. They also required Barreto to enmesh her “soul, energy and body” into production. “As a production designer, you’re foreign to every project you get involved in,” she says via Zoom from her home base in Telluride, Colorado. “Our job is to understand as much as possible about the world we’re creating.”
Originally from Colombia, Barreto received a BA in Design from Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes, a degree she describes as advantageously “broad.” The curriculum included classes on textiles, communication, animation and more, encouraging experimentation and fluidity. She particularly flourished during her final semester in 2012, when she took a class called “Fictional Spaces,” where students were given a script and told to design a corresponding set. The course professor recognized Barreto’s talent and put her in touch with renowned Colombian theater set designer Laura Villegas, under whom Barreto worked for three years.
Barreto flourished as a theatrical production designer, but “was always curious about film.” She worked in Colombia for five years—getting a taste for film as a set decorator on Greg McLean’s Jungle, Sebastián Gutiérrez’s Elizabeth Harvest and Sebastián Silva’s Captain Dad—before her trait of “being a nerd who loves going to school” propelled her to pursue a Master’s degree abroad. She settled on NYU’s all-encompassing Design for Stage and Film program. “From what I saw, nowhere else seemed to offer both,” she says. “I’m really interested in creating worlds for something to happen in, whether it’s for performance or film. But that impulse can be applied in anything—I worked for some time doing window displays for this little boutique that I loved in Colombia.”
One of her favorite things about the program was working with students enrolled in NYU’s Directing MFA program, though it resulted in a collaborative frenzy that she recognizes as exhausting in retrospect. “I’m not going to lie, I overdid it,” she laughs. “I just wanted to design as many films as possible. My compass was finding the people I wanted to keep working with and discovering the kind of work I wanted to do.”
When the pandemic hit, Barreto was working on her thesis project and on track to graduate in May 2020. “At a certain point, though, I couldn’t keep doing my thesis,” she says. Despite the obvious trauma and human loss inherent in the pandemic, she considers it a personal “blessing in disguise,” as it motivated her to “take a breath” and move away from NYC. “I know if I stayed in the city, I was going to just keep doing job after job after graduation.” Contextualizing this mindset with the recent strikes, she states that film workers “love what we do so much that it’s hard to set boundaries, and powerful people take advantage of that.”
Living in Telluride resulted in Barreto working on former NYU colleague Max Walker-Silverman’s 2022 feature debut, A Love Song, shortly after she relocated, a collaboration that “set the bar” for her future projects. In fact, Barreto most recently wrapped on Max Walker-Silverman’s sophomore feature, though details can’t be shared at the moment.
For now, she’s just “taking stock and resting” post-shoot, while still being oriented toward future career benchmarks. “I’m drawn to nurturing relationships with women directors and cinematographers,” she says, emphasizing that she’s open to genre exploration. “So long as it connects to my sensibility, I’d love to do something fun like a comedy or sci-fi film.” However, she does dream of one day directing a live performance in her native Colombia. “The impulse of setting up conditions to tell a story takes many shapes,” says Barreto. “It just so happens that right now I’m doing it for film.”—Natalia Keogan/Image: Max Walker-Silverman