Production designer Amy Williams recently took the time to talk to Martin Carr about her involvement with Little America, her passion for the subject matter and some challenges that brought with it…
How did you first become involved in Little America?
My involvement stems from a working relationship with the producer, Alan Yang, on back-to-back projects over the years. We were collaborating on a show called Forever when Apple was developing Little America, and that’s when he invited me on board.
How did your approach differ for each story considering their diversity?
We had news articles, which were all based on real people, and provided some backstory that the scripts were written from. Some of my episodes had a lot of media coverage prior to the scripts, so I had a lot of access to research material, plus access to the real people. Also, in some cases, I was able to reach out to them directly and discuss intimate details about their lives and environments. From there, because we explore different countries in the backstories, I was able to do a lot of research into the culture. I have worked on several projects that touch on the immigrant story in the US, so I had some familiarity with the immigrant décor. That includes what elements you bring from your home country and how you adapt that into a new life. It was a production design dream for me because I got the research material, back history, and access to real people.
What were the thematic conversations like in each instance and how did that influence your creative choices?
We filmed this all in New Jersey, which was the biggest challenge when you are trying to recreate not only so many different regions of the United States, but different countries and different time periods. We had some amazing location managers, and I was able to provide everyone with detailed descriptions of the kinds of environments we were looking for. Much of it we had to build from scratch, including the construction of a Ugandan village in Paterson, New Jersey, which made for a completely different landscape work-wise. The fun challenge was finding red soil that matched Uganda, then adapting American architecture by using facades to imitate Nigeria. That was both a tough and cool aspect.
In terms of maintaining and building on the authenticity, was there anything within the project itself that you are particularly proud of?
There are several things, but I would say the Nigerian night market was quite an accomplishment – purely because we had a lot of challenges finding the right location, and finally stumbled on an abandoned cement factory, which provided the bones that allowed us to build on top of that. Being able to bring that particular set to life was very rewarding.
Each segment feels tonally consistent, yet retains its own identity. How did you go about achieving that balance?
We had three different production designers because of the manner in which we were filming. Little America is an anthology series, so each episode is essentially a mini film. It needed a lot of attention, and we had different directors for each episode. We wanted to establish what the look would be, what the directors wanted, and what the story was asking for. The overall intention was to instil an authenticity through naturalism which celebrated each character’s culture by exploring color, texture, and patterns.
How did the research visually define the characters, and how does that lend itself to the story?
Firstly, bringing heavy research to the adaptation of these stories makes the series more cinematic than if it were just done in a documentary style. It gives it a visual structure that you don’t always have control of with real people. So it just wraps them in a safe environment that is visually interesting to the audience. A lot of the research came from documentary footage, journalistic photography, and street photography. From there we pulled inspiration from the emotion and feeling that each story told.
Looking more at the collaborative nature of Apple as a corporation for this particular story, were they completely collaborative or were you given free rein in terms of production design?
I have worked with many networks and Apple was definitely at the top of creative support. They were certainly involved and wanted to know what was happening for each episode. We put together very elaborate presentations to demonstrate the locations we had found, to illustrate the direction we were going not only with sets, but also costumes and this entire world. Of my three presentations with the directors, Apple seemed to love it all and there was never any push back, it was always just full support.
What are the key considerations which ultimately influence your decision to become involved with any project?
It starts with the collaborators that are involved both in terms of personality and reputation, then there is the content in terms of depth. Right now, I am drawn to stories that haven’t necessarily been explored as much as some other narratives. For me, Little America diving into the immigrant story was a fantastic opportunity for a production designer, just because of all the time periods we got to represent, and all those countries and cultures. Life is pretty short, so if you can make something you are proud of and that inspires people then it’s just icing on the cake.
How do you think our current lock down situation will impact your role long term within the industry?
I was prepping a project in London, then the pandemic was announced and two days later I was back at home, and everything was on hold. All the heart and soul I poured into something was suddenly halted. I am a firm believer in an all “hands on deck” type of collaboration, and my concerns are mainly around that getting lost in the mix of how production gets restructured. Purely because for me, my job is so difficult to do remotely. Collaborating with directors, producers and directors of photography so much can easily get lost in an email as far as the translation is concerned. So much more can be done when you are sitting in a van together, scouting the English countryside for the perfect location. My overriding concern is that due to inherent restrictions and safety measures, the creative element may ultimately be sacrificed.
What projects do you have in the mix that you can discuss at this point?
I have a film out on Netflix called Tigertail, which Alan Yang and I collaborated on together. It also touches on immigrant stories, and I think it and Little America are beautiful companion pieces. Hopefully the Netflix series I was prepping in London will come back, which is kind of under lock and key, so I can’t reveal the name of it. I am also working with Deepa Mehta who directed The Manager, and she has asked me to join her film in Canada next year called Annabelle.
Describe your perfect Sunday afternoon.
I have gotten really good at this because every day feels like Sunday right now. For me it is sleeping in, having a good brunch with friends, and then a nice bike ride in the afternoon followed by some lazy reads, and maybe a good film in the evening.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to Flickering Myth about Little America and stay safe.
Little America is streaming now on Apple TV.