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?