Building Tension Through Silence: Ramsey Avery on Designing ‘No One Will Save You’

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Ramsey Avery, the visionary production designer behind Hulu’s thriller film "No One Will Save You," has received high praise from industry legends Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro for his unique visual approach to storytelling. The film follows Brynn (Kaitlyn Dever), an anxiety-ridden homebody who must confront an alien intruder in her home. With a script that contains only five words of dialogue, Avery’s role in unspoken storytelling becomes paramount. His intricate and meticulously planned sets not only reveal Brynn’s character and backstory but also convey her complex relationships with the townspeople through non-verbal cues. Furthermore, the production, classified for the Emmys under one-hour contemporary design, challenged Avery to seamlessly integrate sci-fi fantasy elements with the contemporary setting when the aliens make their dramatic entrance.

PH: No One Will Save You relies heavily on visual storytelling due to its minimal dialogue. How did you approach the challenge of using production design to convey Brynn's character and backstory?

Ramsey Avery: That challenge is exactly what drew me to the project - in addition to a pretty compelling script. I had already designed 10 Cloverfield Lane, a project where a resourceful young woman had to negotiate a mostly single-set story - and with aliens! I wasn’t sure I wanted to do something like that again. But the more I thought about Brynn, the more I wanted to know why she decided to stay in a town that hated her: part of that had to be the house itself and the memories it contained. I was especially intrigued by the challenge of how we could show that when the character could never tell us any of it.  So, the first challenge was to work out that back story. It was clear from the script that Brynn was smart and she had a talent for craft. But she was also a very young woman who spent most of her formative years in a jail setting, so she was a bit childlike. After getting out, with her family gone, she had to literally build a life for herself, one that gave her comfort. Brynn wanted a world that was comfortable and measured, but she had an underlying darkness. The director, Brian pointed me to the movies of Douglas Sirk, with their elegant visual clarity resting over unsettled emotions. Starting there, my excellent researcher, Lizzy Klein, and I reached to the same online sources Brynn would - Pinterest, Etsy, and various places that emphasized cottage-core - looking for that contemporary feeling of comfort and coziness. At the same time, we started exploring New Orleans and its surroundings for our actual exterior location. Along the way, I met with lots of local families that had been in southern Louisiana for generations and learned the ways they connected to their homes. The house we eventually (and at the very last moment!) found had its own compelling history. 

So, with all of that, I began to build a backstory for her. This house was first owned by her grandparents, who had found a comfortable 19th-century house and moved it to a piece of land Grandma had fallen in love with. After they had a family in the late 60s or early 70s, they decided to expand it. Brynn’s mom was born and grew up there, and eventually, she took over the house with her husband when her parents moved and passed away. That husband left, leaving her to raise Brynn on her own. She took to that with great compassion but not necessarily great success. She tried her best to connect with Brynn, sharing her love of craft (she was great at macaramé!) and collecting birdhouses. I shared this with Brian, and he liked it. Also shared it with the actress, Kaitlyn, and she liked it as well.  

Since there was no dialogue, every choice we made from that point on would filter through this story -  from the exterior location to the materials we used, to the colors, to the light, to anything we placed on a wall or in Brynn’s hand or for her to sit in; every choice had to tell us something specific about that story. 

PH: Can you discuss specific design elements or set pieces that were crucial in revealing aspects of Brynn's personality and history?

Ramsey Avery: Broadly, I came up with the idea of “Brynn-ification.” She had plenty of time, the money she was earning from selling her dresses, all the craft experience she learned from her mom, and access to all kinds of DIY websites. So she scoured the internet for ways to make her home even more “her.” A key element of this is using comfortable and patterned fabrics wherever we could. 

More importantly, we decided that she would literally change the feel of her house by bringing the things she loved into it with paint. She loves her yard and the freedom it seems to give her, so she wanted to bring that inside. She paints flower chains in the kitchen and tall blooms in her basement workspace. She paints the sky in her bedroom, rising above lovely trees with singing birds flitting about. There is a key scene in the climax of the movie where Brynn finds herself pinned to her bedroom ceiling. Early on, I imagined her pinned into the tight gable of a pitched roof, with a painted sky she had loved now encasing her, with birds she meant to suggest freedom but were now really just stuck on paint. This image guided the illustration of the bedroom I worked on with Rob Castro and was the first piece of art we created for the movie. It set the tone for the rest of the design. 

We made sure to have pictures of Brynn, her family, and, especially, Maude sprinkled throughout, but no pics of Dad. And there was lots of Mom’s macramé. The dressing had to show things from her grandparents’ and parents’ time, things she had as a kid, and things she could now buy online. Nothing too grand - they weren’t rich people. Our decorators, John France and Clair Sanchez, did a great job thinking through and sourcing this.

The clearest element of Brynn’s history was the secret room, where we see all of the letters she had been writing to Maude. We decided this was her childhood room, left mostly frozen in time at the point where she was removed from the house. The room had flowers in the wallpaper - (echoed in the flowers she painted later around the house), the watercolors she did as a child, posters of the period movies she loved, and all of her stuffed animals. (There was a playful reference to E.T.: the box Brynn hides behind has a very similar arrangement of stuffed animals as when E.T. hides in Elliot’s closet -  although this time it is the human hiding from the alien!)

Most specifically, the birdhouses and the birdhouse village were key to revealing Brynn. In the script, this was actually written as Brynn and her mom collecting Lemax ceramic Halloween houses. However, for legal reasons, we couldn’t use those, as all of those pieces are destroyed, and then one is used to kill someone. This actually allowed me to pitch Brian and the Studio a way to connect this important visual element to Brynn. What if, instead, they were birdhouses that she and her mom had built together? The metaphor of both something comfortable to nest in and also enclosing felt perfect for Brynn. Then, once we had found the real-life small village to use for Brynn’s hometown, we could actually have her build birdhouses to match parts of that. She then created her version of the perfect small town, the one she wanted to live in.

In the long run, these elements not only gave us ways to show Brynn’s history and personality but it also gave us a way to connect them with the movie’s finale, when she is shown to have found a way to reconnect with the people of her town. Not only do we see her happy amongst the same buildings she put in her perfect birdhouse town, but she now has Brynn-ified all of the storefronts in the real world. The town quite literally now reflects and embraces her.

PH: The film blends contemporary and sci-fi fantasy elements, especially with the introduction of aliens. How did you balance these two genres in your design to maintain a cohesive visual narrative?

Ramsey Avery: Really, the key was NOT to balance them. The aliens should feel like they are crashing into a very carefully crafted reality. The movie’s main reality wanted to feel as honest as possible, so the audience felt the aliens could be crashing into our world. The aliens then also wreak havoc on the world that Brynn has painstakingly built for herself. That is most clearly manifested when they flip her birdhouse village down on top of her, destroying it. But we get a sense of how Brynn is going to work through this challenge when she uses a piece of that destroyed vision to fight effectively back.

Side note: That birdhouse village was such a complicated and particular bit of dressing we hired an art director, Alice Alward, to deal with just that. In planning for shooting, we had to allow for three takes of its destruction, so she had to build three completely matching versions of it. The stunt actually worked perfectly on the first try, and we didn’t have to use the other two versions.

PH: What were your inspirations for the design of the alien elements and how did you integrate them into the otherwise contemporary setting of Brynn’s home and town?

Ramsey Avery: The aliens were mostly designed by Brian and the VFX team before I came on, and the interior Spaceship was an added scene that came up during reshoots when I had, as is usual, moved on to another project. So, I didn’t contribute much to those. 

It was, though, important to make sure that the design of the sets all worked carefully to make the most of the alien design. The existing location backyard was carefully re-designed to build a garden set that showed not only how Brynn managed to produce a lot of food for herself (minimizing the need for interaction with townsfolk), but to create elements that allowed the giant “Daddy-Long-Legs” alien to both hide behind and then dramatically chase her through, destroying another element of the world Brynn had carefully crafted for herself. We had to work with both the scale of that alien and how it moved to come up with the appropriate set pieces - an arbor for it to crash through, twink lights that it gets tangled in, and a clothesline drying fabrics Brynn has dyed herself to escape behind. The work of our set designers was key to this, one fantastic set designer, Gordon Stotz, worked with me to create the interior sets of the house, and then another, Jaime Salazaar, worked with the gaming program Unreal Engine to match the exterior location in a model, add our changes to it (like adding the garden, the bedroom dormer windows, and the chimneys), and integrate Gordon’s interior. VFX, Brian, and Aaron could look through the entire setup and even play with lighting.

PH: With the absence of dialogue, how did you ensure that the sets would communicate the necessary emotional and narrative beats to the audience?

Ramsey Avery: A lot of that was achieved by being very intentional with all of the design choices we made, as described above. Then I worked with Brian and our great DOP, Aaron Morton, to make sure we could work through how the camera work and lighting would emphasize the visual story elements. From subtle things like getting a family photo in the right place in a camera frame to the broader elements of how color affected the scenes. All of the interior house was painted in layers of glazes that allowed the colors to shift in different lighting. For example, the wood glaze in the parlor and living room had a slight green tone with a warm overglaze. So, in sunlight or incandescent light, it glowed a warm and comforting color. But when the lights go off, and it is hit only by moonlight or light from the aliens, it gleams a cold, steely, and foreboding tone. The same is true of the blue-green in Brynn’s Bedroom - it is a very pretty layering of glazes in normal lighting, but in the climactic red lighting, those greens go very ugly, and the blue undergirds the red with a weird purple pulse. 

There were other subtle details that I wanted to seed in. While all the materials and finishes in the house are warm, I designed them all to feel like a cage that Brynn was trapped in. All of the wood paneling is in vertical lines, creating a sense of jail bars. The windows are similarly treated with wood slat blinds that create another layer of bars. Even the wallpaper in the kitchen is actually a chain link fence detail, just rendered in vines.

We wanted to make the end of the movie, when Brynn finds her way into the society of the town, really distinct. One way I did that was by removing all flowers from the movie other than where they specifically relate to Brynn - her home and the two gravesites that mean something to her. This meant we removed or covered flowers in yards or storefronts in all of our locations. (It was a little creepy doing that in the two graveyards…) This paid off by letting us shower the final village scene in Brynn’s flowers, emphasizing her integration into and taking over the town

PH: Can you describe your process for collaborating with the director and other departments to achieve the film's unique visual style?

Ramsey Avery: Coming from a theater background, design is all about collaboration. It starts with reviewing reference photos with Brian, the DP, and production to get an overall feel for the project. Then, I move on to illustrations or models, where we can all sit and work through both thematic and practical details of the sets and locations. We get everyone together to review the models, either digital or practical, from carpenters to decorators to set dressers to grips to locations to stunt people and SFX. I always feel it is the Art Dept’s main responsibility to join all of those people working together under the Director’s vision (and within Production’s budget and schedule restrictions.)

I also worked with the costume designer, Natalie O’Brien, to tease out resonating colors and textures and how flowers would play a part in Brynn’s look. Once the design is in place, it is critical in a movie like this to stay in constant contact with VFX. This is to discuss set extensions where needed and how to get the blend between practical and digital best resolved and also needs like painting out things we don’t want from a location (like all of the telephone lines and power cables in the actual town that made the setting a bit more gritty than we wanted). In this case, the most important thing was to work out how we would move the aliens through the sets - what could be done with actors in a green bodysuit or what had to be rigged by SFX to create the effects in the real world that would appear to be executed by an alien added later in post. We also had to work with Stunts to figure out how to do alien telekinesis, like the lights blowing, or the table flipping, or Brynn fighting with the miniature alien.

As we build the sets or adjust a location, I strive to keep the director, the DP, and everyone else involved. I show them tape-outs of sets before we build them, walk them through sets at critical points in the process, send photos of the dressing, and ask for meetings, and sometimes more meetings. I have only one little, tiny brain - it’s so much better to engage the hive mind to ensure our movie is the best it can be!

Our Art Director, Kristin Lekki, was key in making sure all of this moved along as smoothly as it could, given the time and financial restrictions. She kept the dots always connected.

PH: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during the production of No One Will Save You, and how did you overcome them?

Ramsey Avery: The key collaboration was with Aaron, the DP. One particularly tricky element of this production was that a ton of it happens indoors at night and after the power has been shut off. On the second night, Brynn also specifically covers the windows, blocking the main source of light into the set, the moonlight (or alien light) from outside. So how in the heck do you light the actor?

Working with Aaron we looked at all sorts of answers to that. When we built the interior sets, we made them all a bit larger than the actual exterior location, and we made the windows a bit bigger, all to allow more light into the sets through the windows when we could and to allow more room in the sets for the camera (and also to have space to hide lights sources off camera). We also came up with window coverings of various textures and transparencies. I already mentioned that instead of heavy fabric drapes, we chose to use bamboo slat blinds, which added a level of period feel, a sense of craftiness in the combination of threads and wood, and, most importantly, allowed horizontal shafts of light into the spaces. When using fabrics to cover windows, we worked with Aaron to make sure they were translucent enough to let light through. Then we talked about different types of light Brynn could bring, from battery-powered lanterns and candles to using the fireplaces and the stove to add other flame sources. We worked out how these could change the emotional tone of a scene where needed by using different lighting color temperatures.

The other major challenge was that there was no dialogue to convey backstory or direct information. I’ve already mentioned some of the ways we handled that, but it also affected the way the sets were designed: we had to be very aware of how sound would work. Brian wrote a lot of sound effects into the script, so we had to find ways to allow those sounds to be made in the sets. We needed hardwood floors in specific places for the alien to thwapthwapthwap along, and then carpets where that sound suddenly stops. There was the landing where floorboards had to  … c  r  e  a  k  …  The secret room had to have lots of soft fabrics in it to create a quiet space where Brynn could hide. Other rooms had to be live and loud, like the kitchen, so the noises the aliens made would echo. It had lots of glass, solid wood, and exposed walls. We then had to figure out how to design and dress that kitchen in a way that allowed for lots of banging noise - so we hung lots of cooking tools and created a ton of cabinet doors to slam around. Almost every design choice had an effect on sound. Since we started before the sound team, a lot of that was worked out with Brian, but the sound folk were very happy with the choices and complimented us on how much work we had already done for them!

PH: Were there any particular scenes or sequences that required especially intricate or innovative design solutions?

Ramsey Avery: The scene where the alien comes into the house and then plays a game of cat and mouse with Brynn needed intricate planning. I had to work out a basic plan that allowed each beat Brian wrote to work with specific visual clarity. This ranged from figuring out how Brynn got to and from the front door,- and how she saw it from upstairs - to finding the right layout of doors, windows, dressing, and cabinets to set up the sequence where Brynn can see the phone, tries to get to it, and then gets trapped by the fridge, where she can see the alien in distorted reflections in the cabinet doors. That was all made a bit trickier in that the stage we were building the interiors on wasn’t tall enough to build the two stories together, so it took a bunch of work with Aaron and Bryan, and VFX to figure out how to separate the top floor from the main floor, and then how to shoot it so the audience would never know they weren’t the same set, and that we were on a stage 40 miles away from the exterior location! We did this by reviewing and adjusting digital and then practical models. 

In a similar way, we had originally planned to build the basement set on stage. But production needed us to have a set to go to at the house location in case it rained and we couldn’t shoot outside. So they asked us, after we had already started building the stage set, to build the basement in the existing garage at the house. Due to the location agreement, we had less time to build the set there than we would have had on stage, and the garage wasn’t really big enough to fit all the parts we had designed for the needed action. But we all rallied, especially the Construction Coordinator, Randy Coe, and his teams, figuring out how to use some of the existing walls in the garage as they were, tucking in stairs heading up into the rafters, adjusting the existing windows, and opening up the exterior cellar stairs through a side wall of the garage, all of which we later restored (and improved).

Side note: one of my favorite details in the whole design is the fireplace wall in that set. Always looking for ways to tell Brynn’s story, we made it look like she had decoupaged the bricks of that set piece with old tracing paper dress patterns and 50s period dress designs.

PH: Having worked on large-scale productions like The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, how did your experience on No One Will Save You differ, particularly in terms of scale and storytelling approach? 

Ramsey Avery: On smaller projects like this, you have a lot less time, a lot less crew, and a LOT less money. But, the funny thing is: it doesn’t really make a difference - you NEVER have enough time, enough crew, or enough money. Bigger-scale productions just have bigger appetites… 

So, in reality, the basic approach doesn’t really change from show to show: I always start from the story and figure out how the visuals can best support that story. Then I collaborate with all of the key folk to figure out how we can best create those visuals - what can be built and how, what has to be VFX, and how we do the handoff between the two. We decide on the right lighting for a scene, and then we work out the opportunities for the DP to get that light and how they move a camera through to film it. 

One thing about smaller-scale projects is that each choice often has to be made more quickly than on larger projects, and it often has more weight, as there are usually fewer environments in the story. So I always try to get the producers and the key creatives to agree on the key story points we all want to get on to the screen. If we can agree on that, then it makes it easier (not easy, just easier) to quickly make critical choices about story, schedule, or budget as they come up. In this case, that key thing was Brynn’s backstory and how the house had to support both that and still do all of the logistical things the setting had to do.

PH: What lessons or techniques from your previous projects did you bring into the production of No One Will Save You?

Ramsey Avery: From 10 Cloverfield Lane, I brought the knowledge that if we were going to spend most of a film in one place, we had to make sure that the audience was never bored to be stuck in there with us, we had to keep the design visually involving. It was also important to make sure the audience never gets lost in the house and that they always know exactly where they are (particularly where the lights are off a lot). The individual rooms have to have enough unique characters in shape, color, and dressing that it is easy for the audience to keep up.

That was actually a similar issue in Lord of the Rings - we had to work out very clear design rules for each culture so an audience always knew exactly where they were when we cut from one part of the story to another. But a practical thing I brought from that project was the value of using Unreal Engine to work out sets and locations, and how to blend them together, and then how to use that to work with the VFX pipeline.

PH: Both Stephen King and Guillermo del Toro praised No One Will Save You for its visual storytelling. How does it feel to receive such acclaim from these industry giants, and what do you think resonated with them about your work?

Ramsey Avery: Wow, just wow!!! Both of those talents have very strong influences on my work. I grew up reading Stephen King. The way he uses specific descriptions to create his worlds, from his creepy pet cemetery to the contrast of the hopeful new world around Boulder and the decay of Las Vegas in The Stand to the wild world-building in The Dark Tower, all created images that are burned into my brain. The early movies of his work, especially Carrie and The Shining, are amazing examples of how visuals support a story. I always strive to create that same kind of strong connection between story and design.

Del Toro’s work is much the same - he is always making sure that the designs of his world wrap and support the story. The contrast between the hard surfaces of the lab in The Shape of Water and the textured, lived-in surfaces of Elisa’s apartment are exactly the type of visual storytelling I try to achieve.

I can only guess that they responded to the same intent in No One Will Save You: that the world-building and the environments are always worked specifically to serve a compelling story.

PH: What do you hope audiences take away from the visual experience of No One Will Save You?

Ramsey Avery: First and foremost, it’s a rollicking good time - it’s a good movie and a great ride. In reality, I hope they aren’t necessarily taking away anything about the specific visuals: if I am doing my job right and working with everyone around me as best as possible, then the audience doesn’t really see my work in a project like this. I mean, in Lord of the Rings, part of the glory of a show like that is its epic design; it’s important there to build a world in which people want to live. In No One Will Save You, instead, the audience should never know that the exterior house, the basement, the first floor, and the second floor are all in different places. Nor that the last three are built on a stage. They shouldn’t realize things like the movie doesn’t have flowers unless they are around Brynn. I just want them to feel like they are in Brynn’s world and that they can emotionally feel the stakes for her there: why she has to fight and why she, in the end, needs to learn to let go.

While this is a popcorn movie, in the very best sense (and I wish everyone could see it in a theater - with a GREAT audio system), that lesson she learns is actually pretty powerful, one we can all use sometimes. I love it when a genre picture has that core of emotional truth. My design should always work to let the audience into that.

PH: Looking forward, are there any specific genres or types of projects you are particularly excited to explore in your career as a production designer?

Ramsey Avery: Having grown up in Wyoming, my fondest dream is to do a western. I deeply value my roots in the High Plains, and I love the epic storytelling that Westerns create in very rugged settings and through very intimate human interaction.

With my deep theater background, I’m also looking forward to something like The King’s Speech, a period piece that has a broad historical sweep but is actually intimate in its storytelling, and where the production design is a critical part of all of that.

PH: How do you see the role of production design evolving in the film and television industry, especially in projects that heavily rely on visual storytelling?

Ramsey Avery: Well, that’s a gazillion-dollar question, especially these days!!! I’ve worked in theme park design as well as film/TV, and I have associates who do games and architecture. As all of those areas blend more and more together through the use of technologies - practical, AR, and VR - the key thing that is always going to hold true is that the projects that work will be the ones that tell a compelling story, a story that people can either identify with and/or where they want to live. That story has to happen in a specific world that supports it. Production design is key to that. The tools are going to shift - and AI is going to have an impact on both the process and the output - but the key will remain that the best stories work best when they are in the visual environment that best supports and enhances them.

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