PH: Hi Amy! What made you get into production design? What types of jobs and experiences landed you where you are today?
Amy Wheeler: I've been an artist and storyteller since childhood, literally typing up short stories and sketching everything I saw, but it wasn't until film school that I learned about production design. I worked full-time for a design build firm in college and came from a family of draftsmen and builders. I was around construction drawings and AutoCAD my whole adolescence and acquired the skillset to make a living right out of high school, but I wasn't inspired enough to pursue architecture.
I stumbled into the film department at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco thinking I'd learn special FX animation. Then a cinematography instructor heard about my job and suggested I study production design. He set my entire future in motion. From that moment on, I was obsessed with the sets on films I already loved films like Amadeus, Seven, Bladerunner, and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Production design combined everything I loved about architecture and construction with story, and fueled my insatiable curiosity about people’s motivations and sociology.
PH: What other production designers do you look up to? Where do you find inspiration in general?
Amy Wheeler: There are so many. In college I studied and admired the work of Ben Van Os, Arthur Max, Donald Graham Burt, and Dante Ferretti. Now I really admire fellow female contemporaries like Beth Mickle and Mara LePere-Scloop.
I find inspiration everywhere. I "consume" an embarrassing amount of interior design or art magazines and books. When I travel, they're one of many things I hunt for locally. Despite an endless stream of images online, I still prefer printed resources and subscribe to magazines like Hi-Fructose, Dwell, and Juxtapose.
PH: How did you become involved with HBO's Gordita Chronicles? What drew you to the project?
Amy Wheeler: I worked with Executive Producer and Director Randall Keenan Winston on Grace & Frankie, and he recommended me to the Gordita team knowing I'm never intimidated by a challenge, especially on location. I was drawn to the immigrant coming-of-age story but also to a young girl who may not fit into society's ideal, yet she tackles the world with refreshing optimism. I wish I had a role model like Cucu when I was that age.
PH: How do you go about preparing for a project like this, especially in the midst of a pandemic? What did that look like?
Amy Wheeler: I collected tons of design books, catalogs, and vintage magazines from the eighties; watched all sorts of media like home videos; and went through personal photos of anyone willing to share. I covered my office walls with inspirational photographs from artists like Andy Sweet, who captured the Jewish community that built Hialeah up in the 60s, and pulled historical preservationist photos off Facebook from the 80s. The pastel palette I created for the series came from that collage of history.
PH: What kind of challenges did building the set on a stage in Puerto Rico present? How did you navigate those?
Amy Wheeler: The warehouse we used wasn't initially air conditioned or soundproofed so we built most of the sets in very hot, humid conditions while contractors prepared the building. There just wasn't time for us to wait for those amenities, so we set up lots of fans and tried to keep construction on earlier hours.
PH: How important is location to this story? How did you relay that?
Amy Wheeler: Miami is so important, almost a central character, so making sure we were true to the city and its style from that era was priority in every location and set. There were times when we had to skip a location that would otherwise be perfect because the geography didn't work or plan to do some post-production visual FX work to paint out mountains or contemporary structures.
PH: How did you get materials you needed on set? What materials were harder to come by?
Amy Wheeler: Well, there was no wall-to-wall carpet on the island which makes doing the eighties tricky since it was so popular. We had to order from manufacturers in Atlanta or find materials in Miami and have them sent over on a barge. Everyone has had supply chain issues and shipping delays, but we also had to get things through a customs process which took extra time. We encountered sign vendors who didn't have vinyl or common plastic materials we're used to using. There were times when we were cutting metal or wood in applications where we'd normally use inexpensive foamcore. We also had to send all of the glass for our Starboard Airlines set to Miami and back, to have it tempered because there were no ovens large enough locally.
PH: What type of schedule did you work with?
Amy Wheeler: It was an incredibly truncated prep timeline due to various weather and location issues early on. We had six weeks from the time our LA-based construction team arrived to the first day of shooting. We were able to rearrange the episode schedule to start on location, which gave us an extra week to finish the stage sets. Construction worked 14-hour days, 7 days a week to accomplish almost 19,000 square feet of scenery in 7 weeks.
PH: Let's talk about the set. What did it look like and what went into its construction?
Amy Wheeler: We built 4 permanent sets, all with either hard ceilings or acoustical drop ceilings and practical lighting for the realistic look we needed.
Miami Palms Junior High consisted of an "outdoor" (open air) cafeteria with live greens, a U-shaped, multi-level hallway of lockers, two restrooms, and two classrooms.
Starboard Airlines Headquarters has three offices, a bullpen, a conference room, break area, and an elevator.
Castelli Apartment Interior has two bedrooms, one bathroom, and a living/dining area with a kitchen while
Castelli Apartment Courtyard was a two-story stucco facade with ten apartment doors of which we used three to create little vignettes for secondary characters.
PH: How do you push your own creative boundaries and take risks for these types of set designs?
Amy Wheeler: Dimensional backdrops give unparalleled realism so designing a courtyard rather than using a backing was really important to me. Initially producers didn't think it was possible but with 3D modeling and some forced perspective, I convinced them it was a great idea that enabled scenes to take place inside and outside of the apartment easily. I only scaled the real building used in the Los Angeles-based pilot down 10% to ensure it still looked correct with actors but that was enough to save a substantial footprint cost and fit our stage.
PH: I'd love to hear more about how you utilize and work with the set designer in Los Angeles? Can you give insight into what a day of collaboration might look like?
Amy Wheeler: With a 3-hour time difference, I would already be well into my morning before the first zoom meeting with set designers. The Art Director and I would go over the drawings they finished the evening before and make any red lines or notes then discuss with shared screens in a comparable way to in-person collaboration. There might be a few text messages or another short zoom later in the day, but we always set a goal for what we hoped to finish in LA. I actually think it was an advantage to be ahead because changes to the schedule or scripts that came in the afternoon could be reflected in drawings the next morning.
PH: What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned doing your job?
Amy Wheeler: Patience and agility. Two things that don't come naturally for me. Production is in constant flux, so I'm forced to tap into Zen thinking and bend like a tree or flow like water. (Hopefully you can sense a subtle giggle and wink in this answer.)
PH: What does this upcoming year look like for you? Is there a certain type of project that you'd love to work on that maybe you haven't yet?
Amy Wheeler: I just finished designing a new Netflix series called Freeridge and I'd love to do a second season of Gordita Chronicles if HBO decides to give the green light. Beyond that, I want to design a feature, preferably something that isn't a comedy just to shift gears mentally a bit. The challenge of a period project is always enticing but I'd love to go backwards a century or so to really create an entire environment. Maybe a Western or train robbery heist with action and stunts. I loved coordinating closely with the stunt team on The Three Stooges so any project with that level of design challenge would be fun.