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A PDC Interview: Almitra Corey

Almitra Corey is a bi-coastal Independent Production Designer primarily working in film and television. Her films have been screened at festivals including Sundance, SXSW, and she recently designed a show picked up by the HBO Network. She is enjoying a weekend of great success as her most recent feature film was just released to great reviews. Go see The Invitation and check out our interview below.

First, congratulations on your feature The Invitation, which screened last year to great reviews at SXSW and just opened on April 8th. How did you get introduced to the project and the director, Karyn Kusama?

It was pretty out of nowhere. I’d already been designing, but not anything very big - music videos and a few shorts. Stephen Beatrice turned out to be my angel and threw my name in the hat. He’s an amazing designer, mostly working in TV lately, doing White Collar, Power, Mr. Robot, but he came from the indie world. He did Sherri Baby, Adventureland, and Girlfight, which was Karyn’s first movie. I think he had been planning to do the film, but by the time it was a go he was no longer available. It was very surprising, I hadn’t seen him in two or three years, and almost no one knew I was trying to make the leap to designing. I wasn’t even sure! Apparently, he’d seen my name on the credits as Art Director for Spring Breakers and assumed I was on the path to designing and recommended me on the basis of that without telling me!

I met with Karyn somewhat blindly. I hadn’t seen Aeon Flux, but I’d really liked Jennifer’s Body, and of course loved Girlfight, which is an important film for me. But, I’d never spoken to her, so I just put together mood boards and went in and our images just matched up. We were both on the same page, taking the same visual assumptions, which was really exciting. Now that I think about it, I can’t believe she hired me. I didn’t know anything, but she was so wonderful. I feel both strongly that I was the right fit for the job, but also very grateful that Karyn thought so as well. It was one the best filmmaking experiences I’ve had. Everyone says that, but it was true.

The feature is a taught thriller all set in one location.

Yeah, it’s about 95% set in the one location. Which is a pro and a con for indie filmmaking. We had one house that was our set, our production office, our green room, our hair & makeup, catering. Everything. There was a lot of do-si-doing: this is a set now, but tomorrow it’s hair & makeup, and then it’s going to be a set again after that and then a different set after that! We had 12 actors who were in almost every scene, so there were a lot of people everywhere. I had a crew of four people and all 5 of us wore a couple of different hats (Art Director, Prop Master, Set Decorator, & Asst. Art Director), but it was still challenging. We were able to fit all these people in one house & work around each other harmoniously. Everyone just wanted to make the movie. Karyn is brilliant and I felt so lucky and inspired, which I think was a real driving force for us as a crew that combated any slight annoyances that came up. We also got to make Mexico in Topanga, which is just as chill as it sounds.

That could have been tricky, everything in one house. Did you have a good relationship with your script supervisor for continuity?

Luckily, it wasn’t as hard as it could have been. We shot it in chronological order. It’s a dinner party that devolves, but with our schedule, there was no “eating of giant meal” and then “conflict” and then more meal. I don’t think we could have done it otherwise. But yes, we had great script supervisor, Magan Rutledge, and I had a tiny but mighty crew that was just super down to make this movie.

Were you able to be a part of the location selection process?

Yeah, I was really involved in the scouting, which we started immediately. It was very cool, to come into this project with people who had been working on it for a while and to have Karyn & Martha Griffin, our producer, both be so open to my input. It was actually surprising to me. Everything I said was met with “that’s valid” - there was no writing me off because I had less experience. It was just that we were all happy to be working together and respectful of each other. So we got it narrowed down to a couple places. I remember there was one house we were leaning towards that had a totally different vibe, but there was still a dangerousness to it. It was this sharp house in the Hollywood hills, with an infinity pool, the whole thing. It was a place someone like Drake would Airbnb. And while it was very cool, I was thinking about it from a practical perspective as well - just all of us working there - and there was a cliff right along the back yard. I could just see a truck falling off the cliff, so I mentioned that to the team, but also, ultimately, aesthetically it was very white, which I didn’t think was the right vibe. So, so much white.

Practically, what was scripted was something that didn’t really exist - a very spacious mid-century house. The one we chose was a smaller house that had a lot of the look. It was Sylvester Stallone’s old house, a beautiful mid-century house in the Hollywood Hills, which his mother had redecorated at some point - all the porcelain fixtures were dark, deep chocolate brown, everything was brown, which was a bit weird, but we went with it. It was fun to figure out some inventive ways to alter the existing bathroom fixtures and kitchen on our budget. I got to try out the peel off glaze on the the brown bathtub, which is NOT as easy to peel off after as we thought! But there was just a lot to like about the house for us.

Brown is definitely part of the palette - the design is warm and textural, with what appears to be an extra interest in reflectivity and layering. How much of the design was the house and existing decor itself, how much was added and heightened through your work? Did you push the warmth in your decor selections, or balance what was existing?

We pretty much emptied out the house on the first day, I hired movers to get everything out of there that I could. The person who owned the house at the time was a house flipper/extended stay manager who would advertise “Live in an authentic Hollywood Home!” and it was bizarrely outfitted with a lot of stuff from the estate sale of the doctor that over-medicated and ultimately killed Michael Jackson, Dr. Conrad Murray. It was sort of Hollywood Hills opulence, decorated for European travelers and tourists. There was some pretty intense artwork of Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe all over the house, and all this white and glass furniture, a huge white shag rug. It was a bunch of stuff that wouldn’t be safe for our set - or in any of the scenes that had any of our action.

I was able to make a few custom things for our set. I got some couches made, some artwork made. All the curtains. To go from stuff where it’s constantly “I don’t have any time, I don’t have any money” it was nice to be able to make it special. Paint some stuff, build some stuff. And we built custom bars for all of the windows, which were many!

Right, and they are specifically subtle and elegant. Even in the trailer, when you start seeing that element repeated - once you know what it is - you start feeling that claustrophobia in the house.

I noticed in commentary and interviews with Karyn was that there was a lot of conscious effort to effect that feeling with the framing in camera, but I also saw it quite a bit with the design. A lot of interest in the doorways, and a layering of materials in the shots - wall panels, dividing screens and curtains - to create this varying transparency or add to feelings of imprisonment. Was that something you specifically discussed for the design?

It was pretty purposeful. Especially the curtains. We wanted something that didn’t exist there, an open weave 70s vibe panel, something deep orange with a sheer behind it. We couldn’t find them, so we had to make them. One of the references Karyn & I had when we first met were these Japanese movies that had a pop of red behind them, something like Raise the Red Lantern, where the frame was subdued and then hit with color. We wanted to aim toward that, but with a 70s paranoia vibe, with an orange-red, and that’s why we made the curtains.

It comes up a couple times in the movie. In the living room there are two “setting of the tone” scenes that happen there where the look is very soft, with gray and lavender, and the main character is wearing a white dress, and everyone is calm and relaxed, and then there’s a weird pop of orange that’s a little dangerous. Deep in frame, you can also see into the kitchen, where there’s a little hit of the shade of burnt orange back splash that you can see popping out in that first sequence. Later you can see it from an alternate side room that we turned into a sitting room, to allow the dinner party a space to mosey into. It was an interesting open layout, where everything you could see was pretty much a deeper brown, but we were able to make these bits of contrast. We also painted the window bars a off-white that contrasted all the warm tones in the house.

So yes, those elements were definitely discussed while scouting the house and once we chose it we were lucky enough to spend a few weeks basically living there during prep and really finding those areas. The steps were so terrifying to me…from the moment we saw the place. And there’s a great shot of the party moving upstairs that I know Karyn & Bobby had planned for very early on.

With the reflectivity of the glass and the wood paneled walls, that was all there, and you made a decision with the DP & director to highlight those, correct?

Bobby, the DP, is a dear friend of mine and was so much fun to work with. A lot of his references were 70s paranoia films - Klute was a big one for framing of shots. But the reflectivity we used because it was a really good way to highlight the duality of a few of the characters you’re trying to figure out. You want to know who is paranoid & who is dangerous - all of the characters have a secret, and the reflectivity is a nice subtle way to play with those expectations.

One of the reasons I was interested in the house was because from the back of the house it’s all windows or floor to ceiling sliding doors. So there were a lot of opportunities to heighten reflections and view portals. And really, it’s a small and open house. It’s hard to hide in it, which makes it dangerous.

The house has a history with the main characters and in the story, which you see a bit through flashbacks. What did you do to contrast the flashbacks with the present day?

There are two scenes of flashbacks, but they are pretty contained, so we didn’t have to redo the entire house. It wasn’t a complete overhaul, but the more intense thematic pieces - a masculine study, the bars on the windows - were pulled down, and we changed some art work. For the present day scenes we had some abstract art from an amazing artist, who happened to be the grandmother of my assistant art director. She lent us a few pieces that were just perfect, but they were dark and mysterious, so we don’t see those in the flashbacks. I also featured some more modern prints from an artist friend of mine named Patrick Berran. In my mind, his pieces represented the presence and influence of a new person in the house. The furniture mostly remained, but the accent decor items swapped out so the color palette lightened, and the DP brought the overall light levels up as well.

Another flashback was in the yard for a birthday, during the daylight, which was easy to contrast against the dark dinner party. A lot of work was actually done on the yard - we installed a bunch of 15’ ficus trees to soften the background and contain the yard in a subtly boxed in way. We also built a fairly lush little flower garden area as a reminder of who once inhabited the place. They were all rentals, so luckily I had a crew member with a green thumb that could keep them alive!

Definitely. I kill everything.

Me too! It was nice to be able to rent these things too. I don’t know how we would have been able to do some of the stuff we did if we were in New York. It’s just because LA is an industry town, so it’s easier to acquire certain things, have stuff fabricated for us quickly - not with a multi-week turnaround for a bunch of money. Some things are a little more within reach in LA with regard to specialized props and set dressing, which is part of what made this movie feasible on the budget we had, which I think was about $35k.

A general question about the filmmaking process, I’m always interested in how these small films get made. They are so reliant on collaboration to come to fruition. What was the most successful or surprising collaboration you experienced on the project?

Well, aside from Karyn hiring me in the first place, it was how collaborative she was during the filmmaking process. She was certainly precious as it was her movie, but she and the screenwriters, Matt Manfredi & Phil Hay, were so open about the collaboration even though there was an experience level gap between myself and the three of them. They do huge movies. Karyn has an incredible filmmaking background. But they treated me like an equal collaborator, they were generous with their compliments, and genuine with their concerns.

And Karyn was a great library of knowledge for the art department, which was fantastic. I mean, she literally has this wonderful library of books in her home that I was able to use for reference. We pulled a lot, not only from the general “mid-century” vibe that just feels natural with the house, but also from minimalism and Japanese influences. Wabi-sabi was a big influence. I hope it comes off as purposefully spartan!

The characters have also been gone for 2 years or so, which was also part of the concept. The characters have been gone, they come back, they do some light renovations, and then throw a party in a house that’s been empty for 2 years. So it’s a little empty. Which is the opposite of what I normally do - usually there’s piles of paper, deep life layers. Stuff in every nook, a pile of laundry in the corner, so this was a bit different for me.

Absolutely. I also usually have a lot of life layer in my films, which is something that I find really spiritually beautiful about the work. Getting into the characters in that way is so satisfying, and I know you do it well - along with feature films, you designed the last season of High Maintenance, which was just picked up by HBO, congrats! For those who don’t know, it uses as it’s plot structure the following of a “weed guy” delivery route, going into many different kinds of people’s lives in the city. So there are lots of sets deeply personal to the characters. Was this your first season designing it? It was. But luckily I was able to bring on some people who’d been a part of the prior seasons as part of my team.

It was an excellent resource having people who knew the vibe and the pace of the show. In all departments, many people were brought back from prior episodes, which says a lot about how consistently loyal Ben Sinclair & Katja Blichfeld (creators of the show) are to their team. But it really was also super helpful. Since Katja & Ben are not only co-creators, co-directors, co-writers, they also act in it a bit, there wasn’t quite as much creative access as I'd typically need coming onto a project. So it was great to be able to lean a bit on my asst. prop master, Katy Porter, who joined me this season after having worked on some of the Vimeo episodes.

I know the budget hadn’t been very high for past seasons, was working with HBO a big deal for the team, did you feel a change in expectation?

We definitely had more resources than prior seasons did, though it was still purposefully run pretty lean from the production side. However, I think the standards for the show were always very high. Even when they had five bucks to make it, the idea seemed to be “if it’s not right let’s not use it.” They have a very specific vision for the show and that’s why I think it was so successful as a webseries. I was already a huge fan, so it was literally my dream job.

You go into so many homes in the series, and without a huge budget, a lot of it has to be shot on location. How did you guys decide what to build and what to shoot on location? Would you scout until you found the right thing, and if you didn’t, you’d look to build it? Were camera moves or other production concerns the reason you would decide to build certain sets?

Initially we didn’t know what we would build. We had a really exhaustive scouting schedule because there are really so many locations on the show - just so, so many - so we spent a lot of time scouting. Because we’re following a delivery guy, and the people that he delivers to, and the places they visit - it’s a lot. Through scouting, we found a lot of places that were very close to ideal. Not that we didn’t have to change them! We did, which was super fun and satisfying! But there was one location that we just couldn’t figure out. Plus, it’s likely any location wouldn’t have fit into our schedule or the crew wouldn’t fit because it was supposed to be a smaller space anyway, so that one just clicked that it would be our build.

For me, this was the first time as a designer that I would be building a slightly more complex floor to ceiling, nuts-and-bolts set. Not just the “bathroom set“ I so often hear about for the tax incentive. I think it was also the first time High Maintenance had ever shot on a stage, and I think it was the first time our DP, Charlie Gruet, had shot on a stage. So I felt a lot of self-imposed pressure to make it feel perfect. (laughs) Actually, it wasn’t self imposed! I do this thing where every time I paint a room, I look at it while the paint’s still wet and I think, I ruined it. This is a horrible color and I ruined everything, and then I go home, come back the next day, and look at it and just think “Oh! It’s perfect! What was I thinking?!” I do it every time, it’s so stressful!

This time we had a great scenic come on and really age down the set, Sam Kopels. He did such beautiful work, in the end even the producers specifically complimented it. It was wonderful. But when I walked in while it was in progress, I saw the set and turned to him and said, “OK. I might have chosen the wrong color. You did a great job, but it’s the wrong color, I might have ruined the show, but it’s not your fault. I’m going to step away and decide what to do, I’m so sorry.” But I came back the next day and it was fine, it was great. I’d already warned Ben that I thought the color might not be right, and I apologized for being so concerned and thinking that I might have ruined the show. But he said “Good! That’s good. You should be worried that you might ruin the show!” Which was funny - I mean, what I think he meant is that I should want it to be perfect every time. Which I do. And it turned out well, actually exceeding my expectations. in no small part due to the excellent help of my decorator, Graham Wichman. I call him "the king of the life layers". I think he knows that. Ha!

There were a few other sets that were also difficult to find, and we ended up building out raw spaces to make what we needed. We were in Brooklyn and found what was basically an empty studio space and "built" two sets in it. We did a quick scene in it as an office, then came out of it, I painted it all, brought in a ton of furniture, and made a family home in it. It was a lot of work, and felt a lot like a build, but it wasn’t technically on a stage. We had a great DP on that episode and it turned out beautifully. It’s been an incredible experience on the show and with everyone involved.

I’d love to share your story of coming to the Production Designer position. You started as a sculptor, and then transitioned into film 10 years ago, experiencing quite a few roles before coming to Production Design. What were the roles that you took on the way to PD & how have they informed you?

Well, it’s kind of a strange path. In college my degree was in Sculpture & Extended Media with minors in Art History and Film. My thesis piece was what I thought of as creating an environment, but in retrospect it was a set! I mean, flats & jacks and all. I had no idea what I was doing at the time. Later when I moved to New York, I started working for French video artist, Pierre Huyghe, so I kind of got some production experience with him, it just wasn't called that even though we made a film. I worked on a specific project that went to the DIA:Chelsea museum, and while it was there I got a job as a docent at the museum. Mostly a bunch of cool kids standing around reading Dave Eggers or whatever, answering questions about Jorge Pardo tiles. A few months later the museum shut down completely, and suddenly I was living in New York without a job, which doesn’t really work. A good friend of mine, who is an actress, happened to be interning at a theater company, and a coworker of hers was a POC. She offered her a couple days work assisting accounting on reshoots. She couldn’t do it, but recommended me. I guess I was out of work for just long enough to be super enthusiastic about any job that came along, so I was really into it. Very enthusiastic about filing paperwork! That accountant, 8 months later, called me again for a job. I was available so I took it and that project happened to be as the accounting clerk for Law & Order: Trial by Jury. So, that was my first real job in film/tv.

I met such wonderful people on that show and learned so much about how things work big picture with production. Accounting is the first to find things out for the higher ups, so I learned so much about how it works, about budgeting and unions. I met a lot of the art department and originally thought I wanted to be a scenic because they were the most fun to hang out with on set when I would go hand out payroll. We had an incredible scenic department on that show. I would just wander around the stage gawking at everything, “how’d you make that look like marble?! How does that look like linoleum!?!” Seems a little silly or naive now, but at the time it was blowing my mind. I knew I didn’t have that skill set, but I thought that was what I might want to do. Either way, I knew I wanted to be in the art department. I finished that show, and spent about another year in accounting.

The UPM on the next show, Bart Wenrich, was starting up an indie film with a PD coming in from LA. He knew I wanted to start working in the art department, so he recommended me to be their art coordinator. I was so lucky to work with Richard Hoover, the designer on the movie. I learned so much from him, he’s incredible. He did Twin Peaks originally, he does a lot of TV shows now. But I’ve never worked with someone who had so much energy. He was in his 70s, but had more energy than anyone and just cranked out these giant beautiful drawings, and then wallpapers the office with them as a starting point for the work. It was a real treat, having him be the first designer I worked for.

Another huge inspiration and early supporter was Regina Graves, who was our set decorator. I learned a lot from her about how to run a crew and how to be a department head. She used to work at the NY Prop house Eclectic Encore back in the day, and she was the first decorator I knew of that was super hands-on. She wasn’t just pointing at things, asking people to move the lamp two inches over, she really was in it with her team. She is, to this day, still a really dear friend and a great supporter of me. When I started designing, she was the first one to say “yes, that makes sense,” which was so great to me because I was just thinking “am I a fraud, when will people notice I don't belong here?”

So when did you know that you wanted to be a designer? Was there a project where it just clicked?

I had been on the set decorator track when I moved out to LA about 5 or 6 years ago. I didn’t know that many people, but I wanted more sunshine and a different environment in my life. Eventually, I started art directing for my friend, PD, Elliott Hostetter and in between picked up some tiny tiny projects as a PD just to get more on-set experience. I thought it was going to actually help better my work as a decorator. Even though I was called the Production Designer, it’s not like I was building anything, it’s 95% dressing, so I’m just getting decorating experience. And in tandem, people started thinking I was a designer. And I started to realize that I was better at that. I had strong opinions about everything, I was thinking about conceptual aspects of the characters and the spaces as well as logistical crew stuff and collaborating outside of art dept. I liked being able to oversee all the aspects of the department and not just limit myself to Set Dec. I just cared too much about stuff that was technically outside of set dec. It happened organically, but it came as a pretty big surprise to me.

Finally, I want to thank you for coming to support the PDC at our Sundance panel discussion on Production Design in Independent Film this January. What did you feel was the most important concept that we addressed, or didn’t address, at the panel?

I guess it’s two parts. First it was very interesting to see the other production designers present their work, to see their process and how they create, it’s very cool to get to see into that world. Everybody has a different path to how they lay out their jobs.

There was another point about budgeting that got people talking about the difference between the materials and man days budgets that we often get handed that don’t feel like they make sense with the art department needs. They can feel arbitrary, even if people are asking for specific and beautiful things. You get handed a number that’s, say $30,000, which often feels like it’s based on nothing.

Do you feel like you have more understanding about that, coming from the accounting department? Are you more forgiving? Less?

I think the understanding I have is that a budget is made of moving parts. If I get handed a budget that is lined out, I know I can move those lines around, but the final number should really be the same. It’s always a conversation, but if you get one line for $2,000, another for $5,000, and you make the final number $7,000, you should be ok. You know. It’s that the bottom line is the one that matters, and you should always get approval and talk things out when spending money that is not your own.

I think that’s part of what you learn - if I see a number on the first budget I get handed that I think is baseless, instead of getting frustrated, I know I need have a conversation about it. The best projects are strong collaborations with everyone. Sometimes we're working with the First Team PA to make sure actors don’t walk through part that's in progress. It’s top-to-bottom. You have to collaborate with everyone, know how much to ask of others and how much they can ask of you.

Absolutely. It’s all about collaboration.

Definitely. Well, thank you so much for talking with me. It’s been a great pleasure to share your stories.

Thank you!

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