Alexandra Schaller is a New York City based production designer, predominantly working in independent film and commercial work. Her work has recently been screened at festivals including the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW, the Berlinale, the Tribeca International Film Festival, and the Sundance Film Festival. I caught her between projects in New York this cold February to chat with her about her experiences working in independent film.
First, congratulations on your films at Sundance - you had two screening, Little Men was in the Premieres section, and Maggie’s Plan was part of the Spotlight section, having premiered at Toronto. Both films take place in New York, but have different stylistic edges. Maggie’s Plan is brighter, with an air of quirk, while Little Men leans to the real. How were those born out of your collaboration with the directors?
Thank you so much. I was very lucky - both directors really trusted my creative sensibilities and instincts, but it was definitely a big collaboration with each of them. On Maggie’s Plan I also worked really closely with the DP and costume designer. You’ll see that many of the colors are complimentary between the production design and the costumes, which was a deliberate choice.
They are two very different movies - Maggie’s Plan is a comedy and we wanted to push that and heighten it to create very specific characters, while still keeping it plausible, grounded and relatable.
In Little Men, the style is much more naturalistic, Ira was influenced by a lot of classic french movies from the 70s and 80s, so there was a much quieter, romantic style to the film. Almost a painterly quality. But, because it’s a film with two kids as the leads - which is very different from Ira’s other films - we had the idea of elevating certain scenes from the kid’s perspectives and selectively adding strong punches of color, particularly as one of the children is an artist. A lot of the design of that film was based around a child’s interpretation of the world so at times we chose to draw attention to certain colors or textures - those things that when you grow up you remember from being a kid. So there’s a dichotomy in the film between bright and colorful moments and much more muted, naturalistic scenes with the parents but Ira and I wanted to make sure they blended together seamlessly - and figuring that out together was a lot of fun.
Stills from the sets of “Little Men”
You were involved in Maggie’s Plan for quite some time before production began. Were you able to use the time you had to develop the style for the film and begin collaboration?
Yeah, with Maggie, I came on a long time before we started shooting. I was attached, and then the project pushed for various reasons - so there was a comparatively long period of time for us to develop the characters and the color stories for each of them. Maggie, played by Greta Gerwig, is a much more colorful, whimsical soul than pragmatic Georgette, played by Julianne Moore, who is much colder and more severe - so her world is much more monochromatic. That was a lot of fun to play with, and there was a lot of opportunity for that because it was a comedy, so we could really heighten it.
How did you begin that collaboration? Did Rebecca initiate the conversation?
Rebecca is a very collaborative person and it was really inspiring to work with her because she has a strong creative voice and values her creative department heads in their own right but also as a collaborative team. I came on three or so months before hard prep started and from that point on, we aimed to have a weekly meeting about the design. I would go to her office and present new pictures every week - which was a huge amount of work to do before “officially” starting - because I was juggling it with other jobs I was working at the same time, some of which were out of town. I spent hours in the library, where I was pulling a lot of my pictures, making these moodboards. Rebecca comes from theatre like I do, and loves tangible things, so I made her real, physical boards instead of digital ones that included images but also fabrics and tile samples - lots of textures. We would put all this around her office, which became an “ideas station,” and she would have other meetings for the film in that room. Everything grew and built from there until the room became a cocoon of the movie because we kept adding and adding. I think it was inspiring for everyone to be able to “stand inside it” so to speak.
I’d never worked that way with a director before, which made it very special. She’s a director with high expectations (in a good way), and knowing you have that weekly meeting means you have to keep thinking about the film. The movie’s always on your mind. It keeps things building, and by the time we started hard prep and my crew started showing up, we were ahead because so many decisions were already made and our goal was clearly formed in our mind. It sounds like that should be the way it always works right? But we never get to do that on lower budget movies so it was a very unique experience.
Images from an early look book for ”Maggie‘s Plan”
Did you have that kind of time with Ira?
Not quite the same amount of time but the movie did push so we got a little more time than we originally thought. I was working on another film at the time, but I did put together a lookbook for his film for the interview. I knew that because it was Ira Sachs, he was probably talking to a lot of very talented designers, so I tried to create a comprehensive lookbook for our meeting that laid out all the main strokes of how I imagined the film. From the beginning, I felt strongly that there should be a kid world and an adult world, but that they shouldn’t feel too apart from each other and Ira agreed with that. Ira is a remarkable cinephile, so the research period was our watching movies with the DP and costume designer and talking about those films. Ira would also bring photography books to the office and we would leaf through them. I also feel that we were able to capture the essence of the movies he was inspired by with the cinematography so everything came together nicely. It was definitely a smaller period of development, but it was also a much smaller movie.
I know that Ira Sachs prefers to keep his teams very small, he likes the intimacy of a smaller budget. But that can put a lot of strain on what you as a designer, the less money there is, the fewer people and resources you have, though a director’s vision often doesn’t get diminished. Do you ever feel like the directors vision of how they want the film produced and what you have to do to create the vision are at odds with each other?
I’ve been so fortunate that my sensibilities often align with the directors I’ve been able to work with. If you’re working with a director, like Ira or Rebecca, who has made many movies with different budgets, different sized teams, different actors, different styles, they come to expect a certain level of professionalism and finish. That’s what’s hard, trying to achieve the perfect level of polish on a smaller budget. Luckily on Little Men the line producer, Jonathan Montepare, was an amazing human being and such an understanding and supportive ally. He was interested in the creative aspects of the film, so he tried to facilitate with labor and a little bit of money where he could. The location manager was also really great and that goes a long way for us designers! One good thing is that Ira is able to pull in a very talented and professional crew and working with pros definitely helps when working with a smaller budget.
Did that turn out to be one of your most important, and maybe surprising, collaborations?
Yeah, he was great. And as I mentioned, the location manager, Jillian Stricker, was also amazing to work with. Everyone should have her on their movie! She had a very nuanced and sensitive understanding of the script, so she’s really looking at places based on script motivation, as opposed to looking at places and saying “eh, this could maybe work, they could fix this.” Not that anything was “walk in and shoot” - what Ira wanted was very specific - so we redressed most locations 90–100%. But she worked collaboratively with the art department as someone who understood the budget and script and story. Whenever we would walk into a location scout we were never scratching our heads asking “what the hell is this for?”
Were there parts of the film you wanted to have more input on? Were there films where you experienced a lack of collaboration?
I’m a pretty vocal person so no, I insert myself, haha. Though there’s a certain thing to be said about the fact that once you start shooting a film, that relationship between the director and the DP can be alienating. Especially when you’ve been working with a director so very closely up to that point. Though, the DP from Maggie’s Plan, Sam Levy, who is an amazing person, once told me “don’t worry, I’m looking out for you - what’s good for me is good for you.” And that’s stuck with me ever since because when you build something together, it’s true.
The DP can become an important supporting position for a PD on a film set. They are the ones that go into production and put what you made on film, while you’re often not there. Often and even getting a lunch meeting is difficult -the director is maki