Terry Watson is one of the production designers behind the highly acclaimed War Pony, which premiered July 28 after a successful festival run over the past year that included winning the Camera D’Or in Cannes 2022.
War Pony follows the interlocking stories of two young Oglala Lakota men growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The film marks both Riley Keough’s and Gina Gammell’s feature directorial debut. As an additional production designer on the film, Terry was responsible for identifying a design style for the sets, locations, graphics, and props while working closely with the directors, director of photography, and producers. In her designs, she prioritized the rustic color palette of South Dakota, where the film takes place, utilizing the colors Native Americans used in blankets and other items while also highlighting the scenic landscapes of the reservations and farms the film was shot on.
PH: Can you describe a bit about your professional history and how you got into the field of production design?
Terry Watson: When I was in fifth grade, one of our assignments was how to structure an interview email to a person in the career path we wanted to pursue. I immediately said interior designer/architect. I've always been fascinated with how every piece of furniture and choice in wall color in our surroundings made us feel. Simultaneously, at home I was feeling the same when I watched films. Later down my school years, I learned that designing for film was a career I could pursue. Combining my love of film and design was a no brainer, but moving in that direction was more challenging. I moved to Los Angeles from Arizona and found like minded individuals making short films and my network grew from there. I've been fortunate enough to work under some amazing and super talented production designers, art directors and set decorators like Jan Pascale, Mark Ricker, Chloe Arbiture and David Scott, just to name a few. Through those experiences I've been able to grow and shape my own style as a production designer.
PH: How do you go about selecting a project to work on? Do you have a certain criteria you follow?
Terry Watson: If someone had asked me this question very early on in my career, I would have said I only wanted to do period films. I loved history as a kid, because it was learning about someone/thing outside my own environment and experiences. It was fascinating to know that the world was moving and had been for centuries before I even existed. But the more I grew as a production designer, the more I didn't want to limit myself and quickly realized it was all about the script and the filmmakers involved. It really starts with the script. If I’m organically envisioning these environments the characters live in, as I'm reading it, it's a good sign. Just as important as the script are the filmmakers involved. If the director(s) and producers share the same enthusiasm for the script, and we have a mutual understanding of the vision or at least a willingness to explore it together, then I'm all in! Film, after all, is a collaborative art.
PH: How did you become involved with War Pony? What drew you to this project?
Terry Watson: I was working on a commercial when my good friend and producer Sacha Ben Harroche called to ask if I was interested and available to talk further about War Pony. I immediately said yes, being that I love the work Sacha chooses to take on and it's often aligned with the projects that interest me too. He mentioned I would be brought on as the additional production designer and would be designing the film from what production designer Scott Dougun had already done. I love and admire Scott’s work, so it was a natural yes to want to chat further and see if it was a right fit. The script was so beautiful and organic. The directors Gina Gammell & Riley Keough, as well as the producers Sacha and Ryan Zacarias, were so lovely and equally invested in the film. My gut said yes.
PH: Can you talk me through your pre-production mindset when constructing the design?
Terry Watson: From the very beginning, I wanted to make sure that the additional sets we were creating felt cohesive to what Scott Dougan had already designed. I was lucky enough to bring an amazing team; Patricia Gonzalez, Brandon Allen, and Angel De La Rosa, whom I had the pleasure of working with on several projects prior to War Pony. It was important to myself and the producers that we brought on a team that was willing to jump into this ambitious project with an openness to pivot in different directions if needed. Making sure the art team was fluid at any moments when directors had to shoot scenes not previously scheduled for that day or when we had to cut scenes due to weather or actors availability. Having that mindset was essential to the design process of the film.
PH: How important was it to utilize the rustic color palette of South Dakota and utilize the colors Native Americans used in blankets and other items while also highlighting the scenic landscapes of the reservations and farms the film was shot on?
Terry Watson: I never wanted to derail from the beautifully written script. It was important for me to not insert my own preconceived notions of what I thought these characters' environments looked like. The first time I went to Pine Ridge reservation, I noticed the beautiful color palette of the land but also the harshness it brings and how the community embraces it. I went in really just absorbing the environment, and I noticed that a lot of the homes I scouted in the community had blankets on the windows to keep the houses warm during brutal winters. I wanted to make sure that the camera captured that because it showed the beauty of the Native American blankets but also the strength and adaptiveness of the community.
PH: Can you share what collaborating closely with the directors, director of photography, and producers was like?
Terry Watson: I found working with these collaborators very similar to playing double dutch. Being that the team had already filmed and lived together in South Dakota prior to me joining, they had a rhythm and style down, that's allied to moving jump ropes simultaneously. They elegantly moved as a unit. Once I jumped in, I caught the rhythm quickly and that was greatly thanks to Gina and Riley. They never questioned my ability or wavered when I presented ideas. The same could be said with the producers and director of photography David Galleo. I know how rare and truly special collaborating closely with Gina, Riley, David, Ryan and Sacha was.
PH: Can you dive deep into some of the interior and exterior sets you specifically had to create? Where did your inspiration come from?
Terry Watson: I always find that photography has a great influence on my work and that was especially the case in War Pony. Prior to arriving at Pine Ridge, I looked at a lot of landscape, building and architectural photography of South Dakota. Quickly I noticed the beautiful colors of the idyllic land and the style of the homes and buildings. Mobile and prefabricated houses were brought to fruition through technological advancements, such as the assembly line and ever evolving machinery, developed during the Industrial Revolution. I could definitely see the history and great impact it had on the look and feel of Pine Ridge. When working on the exteriors of Matho and Bill's scenes, my team and I made sure that we cleared anything obstructing the homes and buildings, so we could catch that look flawlessly.
PH: What's a big focus for you this year (personally or professionally)?
Terry Watson: Definitely finding an equilibrium between the demands of my professional and personal life and remembering that one can't excel without the other. This industry at times makes me feel that if I’m not creating everyday, I’m falling behind. But I've learned that my best ideas come when I'm not thinking about work at all. For instance, sitting at a coffee shop alone, with family, friends or traveling with no agenda and letting myself melt into the environment better helps me make
sense of how myself and others are moving, feeling and interacting in that space. I find that when I do go back to work, I come in more inspired and with a new approach on how to better design a space that is authentic to the director and characters needs. Work life balance requires making a conscious effort to stay present whether that's at work or when I just need to be.