It’s a question everyone in a creative industry gets asked — “how’d you get that job?” And do production designers really get to shop all day? We went behind the scenes with production designer Erin Magill on those very topics (and for the second one, the answer is… kinda!). We spoke with her about her recent work on the indie film Swallow and how she shopped sources like Chairish to find the furnishings to create a mid-century-infused thriller where things aren’t as they seem. See what Magill had to say about becoming a production designer, how she develops the worlds where film characters live, and how she focuses her tastes when creating her own homes in Brooklyn and LA.
What inspired you to pursue set and production design?
I began my career in the art department of Ratatouille at Pixar. It was an immensely creative environment, full of talented artists all working incredibly hard. I’m forever grateful for the lessons I learned while working on Toy Story 3, but my heart was not devoted to animation so I left for Los Angeles to get my MFA in production design at the American Film Institute. I was lucky enough to have a teacher at AFI recommend me to Dan Bishop, the production designer of Mad Men when he was looking for an art department assistant for season 6. While their tones were vastly different, there was a similar palpable energy in the halls of Mad Men to what I had experienced at Pixar — a commitment to excellence and constant raising of the bar.
Was there a particular film that resonated with you?
My step-grandmother loved to share old movies with us when we were kids and Rosalind Russell’s Auntie Mame from 1958 was an instant favorite for me as a child (and to this day). It’s sweet, hilarious, and shockingly still socially relevant. The definition of a person lighting up any room they walk in, Mame oozes charm and taste onto the screen and set. Watching her apartment decor transform throughout the film brings me joy no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
What kickstarted your interest in the field?
My mother was a painter and studied interior design. Growing up she always encouraged me in my creative pursuits and interests — a painting class, a trip to a local museum or of equal value to her, a junkyard. She also loved the movies, whether we were headed to the theater or watching one at home. I probably saw a few I shouldn’t have at such a young age, but I was definitely drawn to the escapism of another world. Then during my undergrad at UC Davis, I took a theater design course. At the time, the theater was less enticing to me, but our teacher, John Iocovelli, was also a production designer, and he shared his behind the scenes photos for a film he had designed, Honey I Shrunk the Kids. The film itself wasn’t something I was necessarily attached to, but I did remember fondly the giant world he had created. That was a definite “a-ha!” moment for me in terms of, “wait, that’s a job, why didn’t I know this, and how do I get that job?”
What is your artistic process like?
It depends entirely on the script, story, and tone of a project. But with all of them, story and research are always first and foremost, uncovering the motivations and backstory of characters while also examining the sociological and cultural themes within the film. I would best describe my production design style as layered with a heavy attention to detail. Some projects’ sets visually express this idea by physically consuming space and screen, and others might be more subtle by alluding to another time in history or artist’s work that fits in thematically. No matter the time period or genre of a story, I always use a tremendous amount of material samples, color swatches, and imagery as a jumping off point for discussions with collaborators.
On the Film “Swallow“…
How did you first get involved with Swallow? At what stage did you come in?
I was introduced to the producers through a mutual friend and was immediately drawn to the complexity of the main character (Hunter) and her journey in the script, but I was also very interested in meeting the man who had written this woman’s story. In my first conversation with writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, I learned about his personal motivations and inspiration for writing a female-led thriller film examining the complexities of trauma and mental illness. But it was through our discussion of traditional gender roles and their often harmful visual portrayal, that I not only believed his empathy for Hunter was in good faith, but that Carlo and I were visually on the same page. It all happened very fast and I left LA for New York a week later — we only had 18 days to prep for a 20-day shoot, which is definitely the shortest amount of time I’ve ever had on an independent film.
Once you read the Swallow script, what got you excited from a production design standpoint?
Hunter, first and foremost. Her past and present story, the part she was playing as a doting wife; while simultaneously unraveling her world and exposing the cracks in the Conrad family facade, we were also empowering her. Exploring these ideas and her journey on a design level was really exciting to me.
What inspired the look and feel of Swallow? It’s so unique.
While Hunter’s story was specific, I think we all felt the overall film was a bit more of a fable, and choices could be made across departments to represent certain archetypes. The film opens at Richie’s parents house, the visual culmination of the American dream. To heighten the oppressive nature of this world and the archaic role Hunter was expected to play, we played into the monochromatic palette, neoclassical furniture designs, and rich textures of their grand living room and dining room. Along with costume designer Liene Dobraja’s savvy choice to have Hunter’s vintage-inspired outfits blend into these environments, we were able to complement Haley’s nuanced performance of a woman under overbearing pressure to fall in line. Emblematic of life in the 50s, we chose Richie and Hunter’s house — an isolated mid-century modern-inspired mansion built on a cliff above the Hudson River with floor-to-ceiling windows, glass railings, and colored glass partition walls — for exactly this reason. The house imprisons Hunter with the weight of keeping up the slick perfection of the family’s expectations of her.
How did you approach the interiors of the house to reflect the relationship between Hunter and her husband?
We wanted the interior design of the home to appropriately reflect their socio-economic status but also the tension in their relationship. Lacking a certain level of comfort and a deeper lived-in feeling, she is not comfortable in this home or with herself; everything is very “surface level.” The claustrophobic feeling can be credited to our masterful DP, Kate Arizmendi, and her genius framing of Hunter and Richie throughout the exterior and interior of the home. On a script level, Hunter is also tasked with decorating and she dutifully executes a vision that Richie and his family would approve of, with updated versions of classical furniture silhouettes. Her illness is also taking hold as she is decorating, and I liked the idea that unconsciously she might be choosing furniture, fabrics, and tchotchkes that have luscious and rich textures or a similar shape to the unconventional items we eventually see her swallowing.
Much of the set includes mid-century modern furniture and decor. Is Chairish a go-to source for your projects that require period pieces?
Absolutely. I love that there is often the full spectrum from the “real deal” original to an inspired version that needs work, and more. The interface is very user friendly in my opinion and I love being able to search by ZIP code, especially on an indie film with a limited budget where you are often far away from a big city with more rental houses and vendors. We are able to find sellers and work with them on pricing and pick-ups.
What are some of your favorite pieces from Chairish that appeared in Swallow?
Hunter’s vanity was a hugely important piece of furniture to the story. The director and DP had some very specific shots planned so the relationship of where this piece of furniture would live in their bedroom, its relationship to the existing architecture, and the rest of the aesthetic was a tricky balance to find. Thank God for Chairish, because when we found the 1960s brass-and-smoked-glass vanity in Pennsylvania we knew it was the winner. I also loved the Milo Baughman-inspired chrome glass coffee/side table we found on Chairish. It was right in line with my idea that she was choosing pieces of the furniture unconsciously reflecting the items she was swallowing — the base reminded me a lot of a playing jack.
On Production Design…
Tell us a bit about the collaboration and relationship between the production designer and set decorator.
The relationship is imperative for successfully achieving the design envisioned for a film. They are your right hand, but a creative in their own right. My art director serves as almost more of a project manager, overseeing the timely and on-budget construction of sets, often reminding me to pick a paint color for the scenic work to a location or a carpet sample for our set on stage. The set decorator is the interior decorator, bringing in the life and layers to a location or a built set — from the tiniest of details of art and Post-Its on a noteboard to the choice of drapes or blinds. It’s imperative we have a common visual dialogue and that they can understand my visual references and inspirations for the project while also contributing and bringing their own ideas to the table.
How soon before production begins do the production designer and their team begin working? What are your initial tasks?
It really depends on the scale of the production and whether it’s episodic or a feature film. As I said, Swallow was definitely the shortest amount of prep I’ve ever had for an indie film — usually it’s five to seven weeks out from production for a smaller-scale film. Depending on the needs of the project you may be on for 12 weeks or more before production, but that likely means there are set builds involved.
The production designer is the first department head hired to work alongside the director, writer(s) and producer(s), and is responsible for the overall visual look of the production, taking into account the script, the director’s vision, and variety of production restraints you may be under. A production designer wears many hats — historian, sociologist, anthropologist, color theorist, architect, artist, interior designer and engineer. Initial tasks include a detailed breakdown of the script, discussing the motives, intentions and backstory with the writer and/or director, and an incredible amount of inspiration gathering from a wide variety of visual sources.
How do you approach designing for so many different genres and time periods?
As a designer, I want to create something visually interesting. Whether it’s drama, action, or horror, for me it always starts with the story. When reading a new script, if there are complexities to unpack within a character or restraints to examine further in a world, those are usually the sparks that get me excited. Creating an authentic world true to the story is what drives me; sometimes that involves the design being front and center, but more often that not, if I’ve done my job well, a viewer doesn’t even notice or realize “work” was done.
As a key part of the filmmaking process, no matter the genre or time period, our ability to empathize is critical and the bedrock of good storytelling. My job is to visually interpret that empathy and understanding of what I have read. It depends on the story’s content, but I always use a tremendous amount of imagery from my personal library of art, architecture and photography books and magazines as a jumping off point for discussions with collaborators.
You’ve mentioned the difference between the tiny budget you had on Swallow and the “HBO-sized budget” of a production like Mad Men. What are some of the creative ways you’ve learned to source while staying economical?
The goal with a low budget indie film like Swallow is to always “put the money on the screen.” In order to do this, it’s a combination of constant communicating and collaborating with the director and DP on their planned shots and use of a set so I’m not focusing on decorating areas we may never see on film. Depending on the economic demands of our set, it is about getting creative with shopping, from making deals with vendors on Chairish to scouring estate sales, flea markets, and other sites for deals. Because Swallow was set in the present day, I was also able to do a fair amount of shopping at furniture outlets during sales. A huge part of it is about knowing the history and style of the world you are trying to create and how you can best emulate that on screen, even if you don’t have all the money in the world. Sometimes we may buy something that is broken but won’t ever be seen on camera from that angle, or we give furniture a fresh coat of paint.
On Design Choices…
How is designing for TV or the movies different from designing at home?
Designing for TV and film is about the narrative needs of the story and the characters within it. I might be designing a home for a type of person I have never actually met, who lives in a city I’ve never been to, at a time when I wasn’t alive, and is going through something I’ve never experienced, but this is exactly why I find the research and unknowns an exciting challenge. The discourse with my collaborators that eventually leads to my design choices for a set is why I love my job. So when I’m designing at home, it’s a different exercise creatively. I’m no longer ruled by the restraints of the script or the director. It’s about what I personally like and the only one I have to answer to is myself!
What is your approach to design in your own home?
I obviously enjoy a story, so I’m always interested in the history of something, from the architecture itself to the hardware or furniture. This leads to an eclectic mix of styles — definitely a lot of vintage, but maybe a piece with a fresh coat of paint, or a new shade. The balance of these pieces and their relationship to one another is something that is very important to me. Shape, proportion, texture, pattern, and color are where I tie it all together. I’m not afraid of mixing patterns and colors. I want my home to be functional and comfortable as a living space, but most importantly a reflection of me, the life I have lived, and the life I hope to live.
What is your favorite piece of decor in your home, and why?
My mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer while we were shooting Swallow and unfortunately lost her battle with it a year later, a few weeks before Swallow premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. She was incredibly pleased that her years of encouragement had led me to find a career that I loved and also happened to involve me hunting at estate sales. An artist herself, she painted and explored printmaking throughout her life, so much so that as a child I would joke about what we were going to do someday with the vast quantity of her work. Of course now I’m incredibly grateful for her passion and each piece of art, invaluable to me, placed through my homes in Brooklyn and Los Angeles.
Favorite decorating cheap thrill:
I love nothing more than being in the middle of truly nowhere and stopping at either a yard sale or an old thrift store, finding something I probably didn’t need or even know existed, but definitely need to purchase because now I can’t imagine not owning it. It reminds me of searching through my grandmother’s house as a kid or going to yard sales with my mom — the nostalgia for the thrill of the treasure hunt.
Favorite paint color:
Oh that’s really tough. I’m not sure I have one favorite. There are too many colors I fall in love with. I guess you could say some old faithfuls are from the Benjamin Moore Historical Collection: Hawthorne Yellow, Montgomery White, Van Deusen Blue and Sherwood, Harrisburg and Lehigh Green. Clearly I have a thing for greens.
Favorite design destination you think every decor lover should visit at least once:
Casa Azul — the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City — but really all of Mexico City as well.
Favorite design influences and icons:
Elsie de Wolfe, the interior photography of Francois Halard, the art of Joseph Cornell and Robert Rauschenberg. Mabel Dodge and her Los Gallos ranch in Taos, along with the plethora of artists who passed through it. Anything from the Bauhaus movement.
What do you find most compelling about Chairish?
I love that it makes a spectrum of design and decor accessible to the masses. There’s still a hunt aspect to it that is fun and challenging to me, but there’s such a vast network of sellers that I feel like it’s always possible to find what you are looking for — and more than likely 20 other things you didn’t know you wanted but now do.
Besides the films you’ve worked on, what movie have you seen the most in your life?
Hmm. Tough again, as there are movies I watch for inspiration and those that are for comfort. Besides Auntie Mame, I would say these are just a few where I continually return as a film lover and as a designer: Harold and Maude, Children of Men, The Silence of the Lambs, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Troop Beverly Hills, In the Mood for Love, and Goodfellas.
Where do you go for inspiration?
Everywhere! Walking around my own neighborhood, observing how others live — how they decorate their front yards or what I might see from the street in their windows. Travel is also invaluable, whether it’s a new city I’ve never been to in the U.S. or a country halfway across the world. I think it’s important to visit the major capitals and their museums, learning about artists you may have never heard of. I also love just walking the streets or back alleyways of neighborhoods off the beaten tourist paths, where everyday people live, so I can observe the textures and details of their lives. I take a lot of pictures when I travel and I use a lot of photography when creating mood boards for projects. For instance, for Swallow I used a lot of the work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Tina Barney, Greg Crewdson, and Vivian Maier.