Production Designer of the Sundance Award-Winning Film AFTER YANG

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In our latest interview, Production Designer Alexandra Schaller discussed her work on A24’s After Yang starring Colin Farrell. The film follows the story of a family that reckons with questions of love, connection, and loss after their A.I. helper unexpectedly breaks down.

In addition to After Yang, Alexandra is currently working on the upcoming Amazon Studios film House of Spoils starring Barbie Ferreira; and her previous credits include FX’s Y: The Last Man; Hulu’s 3x Emmy-nominated series Ramy; and Netflix’s The After Party and The Get Down directed by Baz Luhrmann (Elvis, The Great Gatsby). 

PH: Hi Alexandra! Can you describe a bit about your professional history and how you got into the field of production design?

Alexandra Schaller: Hi! It’s so nice to chat with you. I was born in NYC but raised in the UK - in London - and I went to art school there. I started out burning the midnight oil making light-based sculptures in a studio on my own, but I realized that I needed a little more structure in my life and might enjoy a more collaborative art form. I loved the work, but it was hard not to have a brief. A tutor suggested that I transfer to Design for Performance from Fine Art, where I started working in immersive theater and experience projects, and it really felt like I had found my place. I focused mostly on immersive environment design but I also did some film and photo work after I graduated. 

A company I had worked for in London was opening a show in NYC called SLEEP NO MORE and they asked if I wanted to travel to NY and work on the team. The designers of that show are really incredible. Their work is extremely detailed, and it’s a real delight to bring those worlds to life because there’s so much storytelling in the spaces. We opened the show, and it turned out to be really successful. 

I loved the energy of NYC so I decided to stay rather than head back to London. The success of the show allowed me to start working on immersive events for brands, which led to commercials and short-form work, then to feature films. There was a really vibrant indie film scene in NY when I arrived, so I started working on little indie movies, eventually working my way to bigger projects and meeting lots of instrumental people along the way. 

PH: What are some of the things you look for in a project before signing on board?

Alexandra Schaller: First and foremost, do I connect to the story? Do the words jump off the page and fill my mind with ideas and images? That’s definitely step one for me and how I know if I’m going to be able to immerse myself in the world of the project for many months. 

Next, do I connect with the director or showrunner? What is their vision for the world and do our ideas align? Are they open to my ideas? 

I’m typically hired first, but I always ask about who the cinematographer will be because that collaboration is also really important to me. 

PH: How did you become involved with After Yang?

Alexandra Schaller: I was sent the script, and it was one of those projects I mentioned that jumped immediately off the page when I read it. The second I read it, I knew that it was my next project. I felt a deep connection to the story, visually, emotionally and existentially, so I wanted to take it on.

We set up a meeting with Kogonada, and he and I really hit it off. We talked a lot about the film, and about our personal sensibilities. We talked about my background in theater design, about the concept of space and what that is, and how that applies to physical set design. After that, I met with the producers, and they offered me the job!

PH: Can you talk me through your pre-production mindset when constructing the design for this project? How was it driven by nature and how did that translate with the materials you used to tell the story?

Alexandra Schaller: The movie is intentionally set in an unspecified time and place, but the backdrop of the world is a post-apocalyptic period. As we discussed in our early conversations, Kogonada and I wanted to indicate that a great natural calamity has occurred, humanity has undergone some kind of reckoning, and we’re now living in a world where we’ve been forced to recognize the value of the natural environment, creating more of a symbiosis between humans and nature. 

One of the film’s central themes is the idea of connection. Connection to others, to the world around us, to something greater than ourselves. This is quite an interior film, both existentially and spatially, so we sought every opportunity to bring the outside world in and reinforce that idea of interconnection through the design. 

We wanted to incorporate plant life into all the environments and show how elements of daily life had been engineered to work with nature. That overarching idea drove the entire design of the film: we created a self-driving car powered by plants, illuminated trees in the Museum of Technology, depicted Kira working in a botanical lab, and made the center of the family home a beautiful tree that can be seen from anywhere in the house. A small detail you might not catch at first is that all the floor planks in the house are designed in a pattern that appears to be magnetized toward the central courtyard and toward the tree. 

A movie set in the future is essentially a “period film” for a time period that doesn’t yet exist, so we were able to create a version of a future world that we wanted to see!

PH: You also created a self-driving car for the film in order to capture the futuristic feel of the film. What was that experience like?

Alexandra Schaller: The self-driving car—or autocar as we refer to it internally—is one of the first elements I started designing because I knew that it would require a lot of lead time and consideration.

The autocar scenes are quiet and contemplative, so I wanted the design to have a serene quality to support that. We wanted a car that was powered by nature to reflect some of the overall themes of the film, so it features a lot of plant life and natural wood that is engraved with organic patterns. 

K really wanted to play with the poetry of reflections in the car scenes, so the top of the car is entirely made of glass to allow for that. With the help of our wonderful VFX supervisor Ilia Mokhtarizadeh, we spent a long time designing the underground tunnels the car drives through, which would ultimately play as reflections on the glass. 

Though the tunnels are underground, we wanted to make sure we had enough shafts of light and the suggestion of different above-ground environments to create the feeling of travel. In order to make sense of it, the art department created a map of the world to figure out how the car might pass beneath a river or a busy part of the city.

The walls of the underground tunnels feature lots of greenery, inspired by the concept of underground parks, which is something we hope to see in our real future!

PH: Did you encounter any challenges from a design perspective? Especially considering you were developing a futuristic feel.

Alexandra Schaller: I’d say that shooting in NYC was a big challenge because the city is so particular, and for our world, which was distinctly unlike contemporary New York, it was vital for us to remove the specificity of the place.

The other great challenge was creating a world-building futuristic sci-fi film on an independent film budget. A film of this size usually utilizes many existing locations as they are, with tweaks to set decoration, but we needed to control and rebuild the look of every one of our sets to fit our world. 

That said, I’m really fortunate to have had a really wonderful team on this movie, and they were all extremely resourceful and creative with their ideas and solutions. To be honest, they were the best people for the job, and they’re all NY-based. We have some really wonderful craftspeople here, so the choice to shoot in NYC definitely ended up being a positive in the end! 

PH: Can you share your internal “rules of the world” to guide the design process and how you were able to bring the creative departments together in order to have a creatively harmonious film?

Alexandra Schaller: I only made one hard rule for the overall aesthetic of the film, which was that there could be no props or scenery that were immediately disposable. Everything had to be either renewable or biodegradable—for example, there’s no plastic in the world. Though subtle, I think the effect can be felt in the overall design of the movie. That concept was also incorporated in Arjun Bhasin’s wonderful costume design, as well as many of the props and set dressing that we created for the film. 

We used a lot of natural and untreated woods for the sets and used copper for the metal details since it has an infinite recyclable life. The decoration of the home also includes a lot of organic elements like natural fiber fabrics and clay ceramics, which I think contributes to the overall feeling of texture and warmth. 

PH: What does collaboration typically look like in your role? How are you able to relay and infuse your creative perspective throughout other film choices?

Alexandra Schaller: Filmmaking is such a collaborative art form. Of course, the director or showrunner is my guide, and my main goal is to help them realize their vision for the environment. I also like to collaborate very closely and have an open dialogue with the cinematographer because there needs to be a real symbiosis between our two positions for the world to feel cohesive. 

In terms of design, the umbrella of “production design” encapsulates so many different departments: the art department, construction, set decoration, props, picture cars, special effects and visual effects. My job is to unify and clearly communicate the vision for the world of the project to others. Production designers are the shepherds of the look and it’s important for the wellbeing of a project for there to be constant information flowing from the art department to others. 

I’m personally very detail-oriented. I think it’s because of my background in immersive theater. I really believe that all of the small details mesh to create the final image and overall impression and feeling. I’m very hands-on with my team and I make very extensive moodboards for each of the sets so that everyone is on the same page about the look we’re going for.

On AFTER YANG, I had wonderful creative collaborators to help bring my ideas to life. A common saying in our business is that the art director builds the house and the set decorator makes it a home. That was really true on this project —for the Fleming house and for the other environments that we created. 

My art director Max Wixom, set decorator JoAnne Ling and graphic designer Matt Vidalis (among many others) played a crucial role in translating the details I imagined for this world onto the screen. They all put a bit of themselves into it and brought their own ideas to the table, and I think the movie really benefits from their involvement. 

I always try to be guided by the story and by the essence of what we’re trying to say, so whenever there’s a conversation or debate about something, I always just come back to that. 

PH: Can you share some other important design elements, including the importance of the Fleming home and how it acted as a central character throughout the film?

Alexandra Schaller: One of the many things that drew me to design this story was the Fleming home really being the heart of the family. Much of the movie takes place inside the house, and through its design, we reveal to the audience the kind of future the characters inhabit. 

There’s also an overarching feeling of absence in the movie once Yang is no longer part of the family unit. Kogonada wanted to establish this feeling through empty shots of the house, allowing the viewer to experience the home as its own character with its own presence on screen. 

We were initially debating whether or not to build the Fleming home as a stage set, but we ultimately settled on a location, which we found and modified. It was a house where the bones were conducive to the types of visual compositions K was looking for to reinforce the themes of the story. 

The house was an original Eichler house from the 1960s, of which there are only three in New York State—most of the others were built in California. Much of its original 1960s character was still intact when we found it, but everything had been painted over in white, and some parts were in disrepair. I was excited to take on the challenge of making this iconic period house work for our future world and giving it a new life. 

We started restoring it back to its beautiful, original self—it was both a restoration and a re-imagining. We imagined what this kind of house might look like in the future while also trying to stay true to the original design. 

The Eichler had a lovely flow with a beautiful interplay between the interior and exterior. We planted a tree in the central courtyard so that you could see greenery from wherever you were in the house, which was both visually and thematically important.

Wanting the design of our future to be easy, practical, comfortable and cozy with spaces designed for living, we removed some walls to create a more open and functional space. We also incorporated new materials to bring back the texture and added color to re-introduce warmth. 

Much of the furniture in the home—like the huge living room sofa for example—is modular, meaning it could easily be tucked away or stacked if the family needed the living room for other activities, like the weekly dance competition. 

I tried to make design choices that gave the home its own unique character specific to our world in a way that would create a lasting impression for the audience.

Kogonada also felt it was really important to create the feeling of a borderless, culturally diverse world, and that applied to the people that you see on screen as well as to the creative design choices. For example, those paying close attention might notice that the packaging of the products used in the film includes many different languages to reinforce this idea of a global world. 

PH: What type of research do you have to conduct in order to perfect those  between-the-lines moments and the feeling of the set in order to impact the viewer and the actors?

Alexandra Schaller: Research is a key part of every project, and the type of research is different every time, but it often starts with reference films. What’s funny about the future is that even though it’s a time period that doesn’t exist, I feel that as a society, we have such a shared understanding of “how the future looks” from movies like Blade Runner, 2001, AI, etc. 

For this reason, I didn’t watch any future movies in preparation for this film because I didn’t want to be influenced by another fictional world. Instead, we talked theoretically about space and the types of composition and framing we could use to capture the story and how we wanted the world to feel. My personal starting point was looking at art and paintings that communicated those feelings. Also, since we were dealing with a grounded sci-fi world, I wanted all the design choices to be motivated by the characters and their circumstances, so I spent a lot of time researching lifestyles and green initiatives in different countries, and really getting into the world of tea!

PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you have in the works?

Alexandra Schaller: I just wrapped production on a movie that we’ve been shooting in Hungary called HOUSE OF SPOILS that I absolutely love. It’s a culinary thriller set in a rural estate haunted by the spirit of the woman who used to live there. The world of that film is lush and delicious and I worked with lots of plants again, as the hero set is a rural estate with a strange and mysterious garden. It’s written and directed by directing duo Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole, and produced by Blumhouse for Amazon. It stars Ariana DeBose, Barbie Ferreira and Arian Moayed. It’s got witchy vibes and definitely something to watch for next year!

Main image source: The Film Stage

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