In some respects, the road to Sara K White’s first nomination for an Art Directors Guild (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award went through The Wilds. That was the title of an Amazon series for which White production designed the pilot, marking her first collaboration with director Susanna Fogel. Their positive working relationship prompted Fogel to immediately reunite with White on The Flight Attendant (HBO Max), and that’s where both artisans scored major award recognition.
Fogel helmed the first two episodes of The Flight Attendant, winning the DGA Award a couple of months ago for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in a Comedy Series on the strength of the first installment, “In Case of Emergency.” Meanwhile the series earned White her first ADG nod--it came this past February in the One Hour Contemporary Single-Camera Television Series category.
The Flight Attendant introduces us to Cassie Bowden, the title character portrayed by Kaley Cuoco, who after a one-night stand with Alex Sokolov (played by Michiel Huisman) awakens in her hotel room in Thailand to find him dead--and she has no memory of what happened. From there unfolds a story that is part murder mystery, comedic thriller, dark introspection into the doubts and demons within us, and more. Part of that more, said Fogel, was departing from a course which often relegates the woman to being “the vamp” and/or “a victim.” Instead, The Flight Attendant gives us Cuoco, someone you feel could be your best friend, and drops her into this mix of genres not normally associated with female characters. Cuoco’s performance expanded the perception of what she could do dramatically, offering the audience a character they could trust in and relate to--what Fogel described simply as “a dimensional woman.”
Fogel opened The Flight Attendant door for White, arranging for the production designer to connect via phone with showrunners Meredith Lavendar, Marcie Ulin and series creator Steve Yockey who turned out the TV adaptation of Chris Bohjalian’s novel, “The Flight Attendant.”
“It took only one call to feel we were on the same page so we decided to go forward,” recollected White who described The Flight Attendant as “a special show” that while categorized as a comedy has much dramatic gravitas, delving into areas such as personal denial, trauma and addiction,
Cuoco, who also took on an executive producer role on The Flight Attendant, makes her character fun and relatable--even in unrelatable circumstances, observed White, noting that those nuances are important to the design of the show. “So much of the show is about the inner world of Kaley’s character, Cassie--the way that she was working through her past and her own present issues alongside the murder mystery. We worked a lot to bring in and relate to her psychology in the design of her space.”
Though it was a location and did not entail set construction, Cassie’s apartment, still reflected her personality and state of mind, showing a fun side on one hand but some incomplete tasks on the other (pictures not yet hung up on a wall), suggesting a hesitation or perhaps a fear of putting down firm roots.
White added that “most design choices come from understanding the characters, their arcs, the way they are developing. I bring those sensibilities in whatever subtle ways I can to the space they inhabit so that we in the audience are taken on a journey along with those in that space.”
Fortuitously two key collaborators came into White’s space for the first time--art director Christine Foley and set decorator Jessica Petruccelli, who too were part of the ADG Award nominees’ team. White learned of Foley through a fellow trusted production designer. White found Foley to be a happy discovery, citing her “great calm and smart energy,” making for “a wonderful collaborator” who brings a lot to the table, including problem-solving acumen.
Meanwhile Petruccelli is a set decorator whom White has wanted to work with for awhile. “We’ve been in each other’s orbit for quite some time,” said White. “We almost worked together before but things never quite lined up.” White described Petruccelli as both detail- and character-oriented, relating that they saw eye to eye when it came to design nuances reflecting different characters.
Dovetailing with these and other collaborators was essential, said White, who worked with crews in Thailand and Rome as well as New York to bring the design of The Flight Attendant to fruition. “A good and effective manager has to be able to bring out the best in everyone, to inspire people to do their best work and to support them.”
White added that she felt herself growing professionally through her dealings with the showrunners and creators. “I was able to have an dialogue with them about how to work with the subconscious in a way that supports the vision of the show. It was a really exciting process.”
The aforementioned ADG Award nod has also been exciting. White has been an avid follower of the Guild competition, affirming that to be nominated by her peers is very special and humbling. “Every project that gets recognized by the Guild shows such a high degree of execution in beautiful and nuanced work. I’m so proud to have been involved in a project that gave me the opportunity to do that kind of work.”
Editor’s note: This is the second installment of SHOOT’s 16-part weekly The Road To Emmy Series of feature stories. The features will explore the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, writing, producing, showrunning, cinematography, editing, production design, music, sound and visual effects. The Road To Emmy series will then be followed by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners in September, and then the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 19 broadcast live on CBS and streaming on Paramount+.Category: Road To Emmys Annual Series