"Expats" Reunites Director Lulu Wang, DP Anna Franquesa-Solano and Editor Matt Friedman
"Expats" creator/showrunner/director Lulu Wang (photo by Matt Morris)
And "The Curse" proves to be a blessing for production designer Katie Byron

Writer-director-producer Lulu Wang--with an independent film pedigree punctuated by The Farewell, a Humanitas Prize winner, recipient of the Best Feature honor at the Independent Spirit Awards, and one of the AFI’s best films of the year (2019)--has made her way into this season’s Emmy conversation with her initial foray into television, the limited series Expats (Prime Video). Wang served as creator/showrunner and directed all six episodes of Expats, which is based on the novel "The Expatriates" by Janice Y.K. Lee. 

Wang not only spearheaded adapting the book for the limited series but also adapted herself creatively--most notably by becoming part of a writers’ room for the first time. That represents a major departure from her feature film norm in which writing has been a solitary task. 

Wang embraced the group dynamic which opened up “the opportunity to bring other voices in, people who have different perspectives than I have, who can challenge any of my blind spots.” Wang tapped into not only author Lee but also writers such as Alice Bell, an exec producer on the show, along with Vera Miao and Gursimrah Sandhu who both served as supervising producers. (Wang earlier teamed with Bell on writing the short film Nian.) 

Wang noted that Lee was not overly precious about her words. The author afforded all the writers a measure of freedom by noting that they didn’t have to be absolutely faithful to her book. Having her in the room saying that unleashed a creative energy, shared Wang, which the writers deeply appreciated, all the while committed to “honor the tone of the book which we loved so much.”

Expats centers on three women--portrayed by Nicole Kidman, Ji-young Yoo and Sarayu Blue--who are expatriates living in Hong Kong. Their lives are dramatically altered when the young son of Kidman’s character goes missing. 

Wang brought some continuity into her television pursuit, recruiting cinematographer Anna Franquesa-Solano and editor Matt Friedman with whom she has a collaborative track record which The Farewell and Nian. Franquesa-Solano and Friedman, though, have different ways of working with Wang.

Franquesa-Solano related that Wang brings her very early on into the proceedings. The cinematographer shared that she is “already kind of visualizing” while the project is taking shape in the writers’ room. She and Wang “bounce ideas” off one another at a very early stage--conversations which also often include production designer Yong Ok Lee, a colleague on both The Farewell and Expats. Franquesa-Solano said that having an idea of what Wang has in mind, her vision for the project, provides a leg up on developing and defining its visual language.

The conversation can also be within Wang who, for example, noted that her thoughts are not only impacted by what Franquesa-Solano says--but also by what she might say or be thinking to herself. “As I’m writing, I’m thinking about what Anna might say,” related Wang. “She may say this feels like ‘a movie moment’ or this doesn’t feel right. ‘How do we shoot the subtext?’” This anticipation stemming from the creative shorthand they enjoy can help to inform and fine-tune the visual aspect of Wang’s writing.

Editor Friedman meanwhile likes to enter the process further down the road. “I prefer to be a little bit distant during pre-pro,” he said. “I found in the past that if I know too much about the different versions that the story goes through, that can influence or cause me to make assumptions based on that knowledge. I’ve found it more effective to not have that knowledge.” 

Wang elaborated, “Matt often doesn’t like coming on set--so that way he’s not biased.” She described his approach as being along the lines of “I don’t care what you intended. It either works or doesn’t on its own.” 

Wang added, “I can hear Matt’s voice as we’re shooting,” causing her to think about how a scene is evolving. Then her conversations with Friedman help give further shape to the narrative, considering how to most effectively keep the audience’s attention, to convey suspense when needed. “How do we tighten that with sound design? How do we use off-screen dialogue to accentuate the emotion?”

Friedman said his free-wheeling discussion with Wang is invaluable. He will ask Wang about the inner workings of a character in a scene. “We have a discussion about what a character is thinking in that moment,” he said. “I can’t cut a scene if I don’t understand what a character is thinking.”

In that same vein, Friedman said that Wang is adept at and astute about defining a character beyond the words said in a scene. Wang, he assessed, is great at what goes on in-between lines of dialogue. “All of her movies have these still, quiet moments.” He observed that there are scenes in The Farewell, for example, where nothing physically happens. “But when you watch that film--and it’s true for Expats too--those quiet, ‘empty’ moments are completely full of emotion, thought, anger, fear. Lulu and I talk about those moments in excruciating detail.” 

Friedman and Alex O’Flinn were the editors on Expats. Friedman cut episodes one, four and six while O’Flinn took on episodes two and three. They teamed on the fifth episode, which Wang took to a new place. She lengthened that installment to some 90 minutes and shifted the focus to the domestic workers, expats themselves, who are tasked with keeping the protagonists’ households running smoothly. The chance to delve into the lives of characters who normally would be incidental or overlooked--to feel what those expats experienced--brought a new dimension and empathy to the show.

Franquesa-Solano said that working on Expats, what amounts to being a film of more than six hours, with Wang was a remarkable, inspiring experience--particularly as she saw Wang fight for her vision of what Expats should be, and stayed true to that throughout. The DP affirmed that this creative vision is realized only when you have “a leader” like Wang who “makes it happen,” creating a shared spirit of commitment permeating the cast and crew.

Katie Byron
For production designer Katie Byron, the opportunity to work on The Curse (Showtime) was a blessing, presenting creative challenges, initiating new collaborative bonds and continuing a longstanding working relationship with a set decorator friend and colleague. Set in the New Mexico desert, The Curse introduces us to newlyweds Asher (Nathan Fielder) and Whitney (Emma Stone) Siegel, self-described pioneers in the new frontier of eco-conscious housing which they are trying to bring to the predominantly Latino town of Española. The homes themselves are a reflection of the neighborhood--both literally and figuratively--thanks to a mirrored exterior. The interior is graced by the work of local Native artists. 

The Siegels are looking to offset any gentrification-fueled higher cost of living in Española by donating a portion of the revenue generated from sales of the eco-friendly residences. Meanwhile the married couple aspires to a higher celebrity profile with their own potential HGTV series titled Flip-lanthropy. Assorted twists and turns ensue as the satiric narrative has a sorcerer of sorts putting a curse on the Siegels for a perceived transgression. However, the perceived curse ultimately isn’t what it was made out to be. Neither is the offbeat story which takes on some weighty reality, including our society’s housing crisis while raising questions about those who recklessly gamble with the future of communities at large through financial and real estate speculation. Indeed the Siegels find themselves caught in a web of ethical and moral gray zones--all while trying to keep their relationship intact.

Fielder and Benny Safdie, who also stars, teamed to create The Curse--and the atypical environments central to the story were fertile creative ground for a production designer. In fact, Byron cited two of those environs which posed among the biggest challenges to her as an artist. 

“It’s a toss-up here,” Byron shared relative to the two most pressing settings she had to address. “The mirrored homes posed a significant challenge for budget and time reasons. We built three exteriors for the show. Two of them were built over existing homes and one was built in an open field. We chose Whitney and Asher’s because the tree out in front was perfect and sizable for our final scene. Unfortunately the house that was on that lot was very complicated to build around as the original architecture bled into the stone wall that surrounded the property. We had to take careful measurements and design an exact exoskeleton that could fit perfectly around it. Because it’s mirrored, there’s no problem solving with spackle or bondo. We wouldn’t be able to do any easy fixes upon install. The surrounding rockwall we covered in plaster which fit the wall like sleeves. Everything needed to snap together. Then the yard needed xeroscaping and the overhang needed reinforcement and cuts to allow for the wirework of Nathan drifting off towards the tree. 

“These houses were very difficult to keep clean in Española’s climate and needed to be covered to avoid setting the neighborhood ablaze. We had our team on cranes each night tenting the houses when we weren’t shooting them.”

The other major challenge cited by Byron was building the “right side up and upside down bedroom for the finale. The bedroom and hallway sets were designed with the gag in mind. My rental in Santa Fe had these amazing vega beamed ceilings and I thought how fun it would be to integrate something so playful which also speaks to the architecture of the area. When we embraced adobe interiors, we could then also design lots of thick walls with built in bookshelves. I thought that could be a really fun way for Asher to interact with the space. I wanted to build a jungle gym for Nathan. In order to build the upside down version of the set, our set dec team led by Rachael Ferrara installed the furniture on the floor and our grip department created a rotisserie rig to rotate the floor up air. The vega ceiling became the floor and was hazardous to walk on due to the slope of it, so we had build the vega ceiling flooring with capacity to roll in and out as needed for rigging. The overall effort was a real fit of engineering where all departments came together. Our art director Cat Navarro was instrumental in facilitating all of the moving pieces.”

Byron’s collaborative relationships with Navarro and Ferrara made those and other challenges manageable--and served as a source of creative and personal fulfillment for the production designer.

“This was the first time collaborating with Cat Navarro,” related Byron, “and it certainly won’t be the last! She was a dream come true and has a particular kind of genius where she is so calm and easy going yet able to solve the most difficult problems. She’s also a great production designer so it felt very collaborative to work with her and pass ideas back and forth.”

Meanwhile Byron has been working together with one of her best friends, set decorator Ferrara, for 15 years. “Aside from our close friendship and the length of our working history, she is the best in the business,” affirmed Byron. “She is so dedicated to caring for the finest details and finding the rarest treasures. We both really wanted to show off some of the magic that Santa Fe can deliver in terms of decor and bring rarities into the set. We’d go to estate sales weekly and she tracked down some exceptional artists in the area to work with for handmade pieces.”

As for her biggest takeaways or lessons learned from her experience on The Curse, Byron observed, “The experience of making a project is the most important part of the project. It’s the whole reason I take a job. When I initially came aboard, I figured the experience of working with Nathan and Benny as a collaborative force would be my lasting impression. And though getting to see the two of them communicate and build the series was definitely unforgettable, the most important thing about the project was learning about Española and its history. A lot of what we learned was woven into the writing of the show.”

Among Byron’s notable production design achievements are those that came out of another close-knit collaborative connection--namely with director Olivia Wilde. The two teamed on Booksmart, Wilde’s auspicious feature directorial debut, and then they came together again for Don’t Worry Darling which entailed Byron having to create an appealing, seemingly idyllic yet ultimately sinister world. Ferrara was set decorator on both films.

(This is the third installment of SHOOT’s weekly 16-part The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. Nominations will be announced and covered on July 17. Creative Arts Emmy winners will be reported on September 7 and 8, and primetime Emmy ceremony winners will be covered on September 15.)

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