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A PDC Interview: Sam Lisenco

Sam Lisenco is a production designer based in Brooklyn, who is best known for his extensive work with the Safdie Brothers, including the critically acclaimed film "Good Time". He made the leap from the indie festival circuit to major network TV show with "Shades of Blue". His recent design work includes Bo Burnham’s directorial debut "Eighth Grade", which premiered at Sundance. He is currently working on Miranda July’s newest film.

"Frances Ha"

Where did you get your start in film?

I grew up in the commuter’s end of Brooklyn, in what they call a “two-fare zone.” Basically you had to take a bus to get to a subway, out near the Rockaways. My neighborhood was permeated with this attitude, beginning in elementary school, of “you gotta get out” otherwise you’re gonna wind up kind of existing in this Saturday Night Fever, bitter edge of New York City wasteland. The goal was always for me to go to art school for high school.

I attended LaGuardia High School at Lincoln Center, thinking that I was going to get into fine arts, into painting and illustration. But my hand isn’t very good. I think I have a good eye for composition and color, but it doesn’t come out in my fingers the way it does for people who are professional studio art makers. And so I started to fall into creative crafts that necessitated the same skill set, but were less physically talent dependent, like photography and sculpture. Things where I could really experiment with mediums at that age (LaGuardia didn’t offer film).

I also had grown up in a household of film and theater people. My mom was an off-off-broadway stage director when she was in her 20s and 30s and my dad was a commercial character actor. I kind of knew that that was the direction for me eventually. I thought film school would be a good route to go.

I went to Boston University where I met Josh and Benny Safdie. I wound up spending a couple nights a week hanging out on Josh’s couch, just crashing in his apartment. (He had a cool off-campus apartment.) We became roommates a little later on. Because we were know-it-alls and a little full of ourselves, we always had an impetus that we could probably do things better than the teachers could in a way. So we started making shorts on the weekends.

How did you begin making films as a student with limited resources?

I got a gig working in the film department equipment rental office when we were undergrads. So we had sneaky access to film equipment. We pooled our money for equipment. Josh and Benny basically asked all their family members to chip in to get them a 16mm camera one year for Hanukah. We made a big effort to experiment with film as quickly as we could.

It was a sheer numbers game. I would say in the first five years that I knew Josh and Benny, we made somewhere in the range of 200 short films together. Eventually, the more well-crafted ones and especially the ones that we were making as class assignments started to get into festivals. We were very lucky in that regard.

How did you find your role as a production designer?

In the early days of short-making, I didn’t really want to be a director. I had no interest in being a story-teller in that vein. For me, it was more about the art form itself. I am more interested in learning to represent the particulars of how society functions, aesthetics. I enjoyed acquiring individual skill sets like how to wire a lamp… that was always what I thought I brought to the table. I very quickly became the other guy in Josh and Benny’s world, the one who helped execute everything. In the early days, it was producing. But it was also building sets, painting things, creating props, helping draw things. The overlap with art department was pretty clear early on. I just didn’t have a name for it.

Were you even aware that production design was a thing?

They didn’t teach it in our film program. I was very unclear as to what the hierarchy of an art department was. On the early shorts, the credits that Josh and I would decide on would be all over the place. Sometime I would be an art director, sometimes I’d be a production designer. Nobody had told us what those job responsibilities were.

On a short or smaller project, it all blurs anyhow.

Yeah, definitely. Then I made an effort to learn. I thought I should go PA a little bit, learn how to use walkies and things like that. I did that for about a year. I remember thinking it was just so much more fun to make movies with my friends. By that point, Josh, Benny and I had garnered a little bit of festival acclaim for our work. We started a feature together that I was also producing at the time for them. It actually started out as a commercial. The contract basically said that we could keep all the outtakes, so we were like, “Fuck it, let’s do a movie and tell them it’s all outtakes.” It was shot on 16mm. That wound up being a real movie, weirdly. IFC bought it.

Which movie was that?

The Pleasure of Being Wronged. It started out as a Kate Spade handbag commercial that just ballooned out of proportion very quickly.

Five years out of school, Josh and Benny had become really successful in the festival world. Because we were so young we started picking up other young people friends who wanted to make stuff and were kind of on the fringe of the actual production world. By year five, we shared a studio on the edge of Chinatown and below us one floor was Greta Gerwig and Lena Dunham; they had a studio together in the same building. And across the street were Josh’s old friends from high school, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, who made this movie "Catfish", which went way bigger than they expected. Their editor, Zachary Stuart-Pontier, was the one who went on to make "The Jinx". It was a nest of people living within a block of each other. And then around the corner were the Court 13 guys, who made "Beasts of the Southern Wild". I had gone to high school with some of those guys.

A couple blocks away I lived with Ariel, the co-director of "Catfish", and Greta. We shared an apartment in Chinatown. That early period started to draw to a close around the time that "Frances Ha" was made.

Seems like a such a small world that all these people who were doing really interesting work would have such overlapping worlds.

A lot of us shared equipment; we had really limited resources. We were paying our bills doing stuff like branded content for Cynthia Rowley, for example. So a $10,000 budget job would come in, and we would try to share enough of the profits to pay for the studio overhead and then try to pocket a grand each. It was happenstance, but it developed out of practicality.

How did you get involved in "Frances Ha"?

SL: Greta had really blown up, after doing Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” She came home one day, saying “Noah and I want to talk to you. We wrote this movie, it’s about us.” I was like, “It’s about you and me?” And she said, “Yes, it’s about this apartment, us in Chinatown. There is a character based you; there’s a character based on Ariel. I just wanted you to read it before we start making it so that you’re not offended that it came out of nowhere.” I read it and it was so very obvious that I should design the movie, because it just made more sense than to not have me work on it and have me be around all the time.

I was doing another feature at the time for Adam Leon, a very talented guy. I came home from work after a shoot day. I very specifically remember, Greta and Noah were camera testing in the living room. The guy who was playing me, this actor named Michael, was in the living room, wearing clothes that looked kinda like my clothes, and he looked kinda like me, and Greta was on the couch, there was a film crew. I was exhausted, because I’d just worked a 14 hour day. And I just watched myself in my living room having a conversation with Greta, which was very, very strange.

After that, I think I saw Noah at a party, I had a couple drinks in me, and I just said, “Noah, you should let me do this movie.” He said, “Of course.” And we ended up doing two projects together.

Did you know that it was going to be shot in black and white?

There was actually one country where it was projected in color. I think Croatia. So everything in the movie was dressed for color, just in case. But we knew the whole time that it would be black and white. I would toggle back and forth on the monitor between color and black and white to make sure it was okay.

Did that pose particular challenges? Had you worked in black and white before?

Not outside of film school. There is a richness and depth to gray in that regard, where you can simultaneously get away with more, because you have this whole new language of dark and light to work with, within an intensity that kind of gets lost in color. At the same time, it’s clearly trickier, because you’re limited in so many other ways in terms of your palette. I’m by no means the greatest production designer of all time — I would just assume that as a starting place you work as though you’re considering it for color, and then take a look at how it feels, and if it’s not working, assess. Because you can spend too much time mulling over the minutia otherwise.

So much of the craft is about having the courage to rough something in and make decisions, and then problem-solve along the way until you get to a place where you feel like you’re making your aesthetic point clear or digestible.

"Frances Ha"

When you talk about your career progression, it feels very organic in having a cohort of collaborators that you could grow with. On smaller projects or student shorts, so much of what the art department does is really just problem-solving, trying to figure out, for example, what you can do with whatever location you’ve managed to convince to let you use and your $15 budget. As the projects got bigger, was there a clear shift where you started being able to think more conceptually about the kind of visual story you wanted to tell? Or was that baked in all along?

Inherently, yes. As the budgets get bigger and the support network gets thicker, it’s more about not stressing and really devoting the time to being able to digest what the look should be for something. There is a watershed where you realize that as a production designer it’s more about being able to politically motivate people to get them to a place where they problem-solve, instead of you having to problem-solve. Your boots aren’t on the ground in the same way. But instead, your role becomes more about communicating issues to people who you know can solve them. Because there’s always gonna be a guy who can lay tile.

But I would say that the somewhat frantic nature of being the only department that doesn’t have everything it needs in order to do its job at the beginning of each day doesn’t go away. There’s always a five percent chance that the director is going to say, “I need a giraffe for the next scene.” “Where the fuck am I going to get a giraffe? Okay! We’ll figure it out.” I don’t think that ever goes away. You just get better at pretending you’re not totally stressed out by it. And making sure people under you and above you are not stressed out. So much of it is creating an engaging, exciting environment where everyone wants to make the movie look great. There have been times when I’ve worked for other designers and I don’t understand why they stress. I think, “That’s the one thing you can do that will mess up the look of the movie, is to stress about it.”

On "Good Time", which was awesome, your DP Sean Price Williams had such a strong point of view.

Oh, I love him, but he’s all personality.

Visually, color-wise, that movie is just so intense. What was it like designing in that context?

For the majority of the stuff I’ve done with the Safdie Brothers, their projects are very tightly run. But there’s a practicality, especially in their rehearsals, that is moderately unpredictable. Even though they shoot so tight, I give them 360 anyway. Every single set, especially on "Good Time" because we had a bit more money, is dressed 360. Every surface, every texture you see is fake. Every drawer is filled with junk. Especially the living room set that the two of them are on the couch in. That whole thing was fabricated. The house in the beginning that he breaks into is a fake location. Working in a real house, we did wallpaper, carpet, the whole thing. It’s about giving them an environment where they feel free to—I don’t want to say explore, because it sounds improv-y, and they’re not improv-y—but give them the space to block-shoot it.

It’s really interesting and dynamic, for a guy like Sean in particular. He came up shooting up for the Maysles Brothers. He had a documentary background. As a designer I’m very conscious of the fact that he’s somebody who is really good at making everyday life beautiful. But he doesn’t necessarily approach making fake worlds look like everyday life. It’s more about finding the beauty in the everyday. That’s something to be considerate of when you’re dressing a set. This is the kind of guy who may want to deviate from what we talked about in order to make something more beautiful out of it. In that regard, yes, he can be a very forceful personality both in his shooting style and his demeanor.

You did "Shades of Blue". Doing a network show seems like the farthest thing you could possibly do from a Safdie Brothers movie. What was it like to make that jump?

It was awesome. I did this micro-budget movie for Barry Levinson, "The Humbling". And he then got this giant cop show on NBC. The network asked him who he wanted to design it. He told the vice president of entertainment at NBC that I was the only person he wanted to meet with, which was bananas. They gave me a union card! I had absolutely no business doing this show. I think I was 29. This was a big tentpole J. Lo thing. They expected great things. I remember taking a shot of whisky, saying “okay, fuck it, I’m going to go design this major tv show.” And it was awesome.

It was totally easy in all the ways that indie movie-making is hard, and totally hard in all the ways that indie movie-making doesn’t even consider. The politics of trying to express a vision of that scope, when you’re building three-story sets and you have a hundred-person full-time art crew, with additionals… That’s the stuff that gets really tricky to try to learn how to do, and you have to learn very quickly, because you can’t project a lack of confidence. On the other hand, there are moments, for example when I wish we could change that window to make it look more Louis XIV, and they’re like “Okay, no problem, we’ll draft it.”

There was also a lot of pressure from NBC on that show, because I was so young. They insisted that I fill up the art department with seasoned vets. So I had probably the most incredible salty old dogs in every key position under me on that show. My decorator, George DeTitta Jr., is third generation; he was the guy who laid the floor for "Saturday Night Fever" and did all of the 1980s movies in my look book. And my draftsman on Season 1 was the art director on "Muppets Take Manhattan". These guys were so so experienced. And I was so young and so green that I think they got a kick out of it. They were very willing to teach me the old world. We hand-drafted everything on that show for the first two years, which was awesome. Pulling out architectural detail from 1920s municipal city architecture was just so fun.

"Shades of Blue"

As somebody who didn't exactly go to school for production design, but has an obvious eye for aesthetics and design, are there technical skills that you've had to acquire along the way that are particularly useful to you now?

Not so much technical skills that are useful, but I think there are two major gains that I’ve made as I’ve progressed in some small way in my career. I think the ability to understand negative space, balancing a frame, understanding what shape and texture and object can do to a viewer, or how it can make them feel, is incredibly important. We’ve now had a hundred years of imagery that is meant through this medium for no other purpose than to make people feel a certain way, and that in and of itself can be a language of expression. Often times when I’m thinking about how to design a film, I’ll pull imagery or memory from the most mainstream sources I can think of, trying to acknowledge the symbolism the design of something like "Home Alone" or "Some Like It Hot" can do to a viewer. I think that way of thinking about film for me has just come with time.

I also believe that understanding how to communicate with a crew, to explain a vision, to digest and repeat the goals of a director, in a complementary way to their outlined vision, without fear of decision-making or at least to engage a crew in a way that gets them emotionally involved in an aesthetic, has become the primary way in which I’ve grown at all as a designer. It is so goddamn imperative to make sure that the people below you and above you in kind can all not only process and understand the vision of the film, but also be emotionally engaged with it. It can be as simple as goofing around, or can encompass days of going through research materials with a person, depending on the situation. But both politics can be seen as equally important. No two people see color the same way, so anything that can be done to help expression blossom in a medium that requires multiple people to come together is the most important skill one could aim to acquire.

Has your creative process fundamentally changed from doing early Safdie Brothers work to the films you're working on now?

Not really. I like to wait until the very last emotional minute, and then be forced to quickly make the kinds of choices that I know are the correct ones. I think it’s detrimental to overcook a film. If a set takes three weeks to build, then I don’t want to think about it for four weeks. I think that brevity of thought can be an ally, not borne out of laziness, but out of the fear of second-guessing oneself. That’s something that I had to learn working on the early stuff because of our limited resources, and I think has become beneficial when it comes to the scope of larger work. Making choices, even if they are incorrect, is often better than not making any choices at all.

We live in such a visually saturated culture now—images everywhere, from Instagram to Pinterest to the proliferation of some sixty-plus cable networks and streaming services. How do you dig through the morass to have an original point of view and where do you find inspiration?

I sort of touched on this earlier. I think it’s a tricky balance, to be an educated film viewer, to be able to read and digest cinema, and to then also have an innate language of Vine meme compilations and "Lethal Weapon" dialogue in your head. I was recently talking to a filmmaker friend about this very thing. The older I get, the more I want to make the kinds of films that stand the test of time, but the more I escape by watching garbage. It’s easier to remove yourself from process and digest culture when trope, or genre, or the removal of high concept has been injected into the stuff you’re eating. And I think in some ways it makes me a better filmmaker (I hope). That’s what I find most inspirational. I find "Lethal Weapon" most inspirational.

Any interesting projects on the horizon?

I’m doing Miranda July’s new film in Los Angeles, and then heading back to New York to work on the new Safdie Brothers film.

Sounds like a great year you’ve got going. Thank you so much.

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