We recently spoke with Renee Read, the production designer behind the upcoming FX series, Under the Banner of Heaven, starring Andrew Garfield. The original limited series, inspired by the true-crime bestseller by Jon Krakauer follows the events that led to the 1984 murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her baby daughter in a suburb in the Salt Lake Valley, Utah.
Historical accuracy was of the utmost importance to Renee and her team, and they meticulously designed sets to seamlessly articulate this dark story. There were 25 to 35 locations per episode that range from constructed interiors and exteriors of 19th-century buildings, an LDS compound, and a sprawling Las Vegas casino built from the ground up.
Renee also served as the production designer on the popular Netflix series Maid.
PH: Hi Renee! What made you get into production design? What types of jobs and experiences landed you where you are today?
Renee Read: I think I was doing this as a little kid way before I understood that it could be a viable career. Around 7, I began setting up vignettes in my parent’s living room depicting random scenes from ‘exotic’ far away countries I’d seen in films. Even then, I was obsessive-compulsive with details. If it were a Brazilian “scene,” I’d insist on coconuts and pineapple props, unable to accept the deeply prosaic apples and oranges on hand in our kitchen. I suppose my incredibly generous dad was my first real film school because he firmly believes that where the’s a will, there’s a way.
Bless his stubborn spirit - we would venture out into a -40’ freezing snowstorm in our small home city to find us some damn pineapples. In grade 6, our elementary school canceled the annual musical theater production. I was so dejected that I decided to mount a production of CATS with my 12-year-old friends - devoid of adult interference - simply because I wanted to design a set full of garbage piles like the Broadway stage design I’d seen in NYC a year earlier with mom. She took me to a ton of theater growing up and is a natural designer herself. If she had been born a generation later with more opportunities at her disposal, she would most definitely be a very successful designer in her own right.
I went on to study art & photography at the University of Victoria and then a degree from Concordia in film production in Montreal.
PH: What other production designers do you look up to? Where do you find inspiration in general?
Renee Read: I’m a long-time fan of Jade Healey. Her work is consistently elegant & elevated yet accessible. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a piece I’m always drawn back to for inspiration when things become too aesthetically complicated. Killing of a Sacred deer and I, Tonya, I mean, c’mon - these are visual masterpieces. Perhaps I’m drawn to how she reveals beauty and darkness in the mundanity of everyday life. There’s a relentless sincerity there. It’s painstakingly intimate.
I look for inspiration in contemporary photography, art, and other filmmakers, but even more so from the history of these canons. So it feels pretty critical to understand what’s already been made and more significantly, why.
I’m particularly drawn to the photo (surrealist) works of Todd Hido, Greg Girard & Crewdson for a start. I’m moved by the way they capture our contemporary sense of ennui and the insidious plight that is often modern existence. Dark but delicious.
PH: How did you become involved with Under the Banner of Heaven? What drew you to the project?
Renee Read: Everything. It’s True, Harsh, Fascinating, and, most importantly, shockingly relevant. It’s an incredibly important story to unearth, and with Lance holding the reigns and Andrew and Daisy already attached, I knew it would keep its teeth and direction right to the very end. His writing is exquisite. He navigates the depths and contradictions through brutal honesty, empathy, the intimacy of storytelling, and historical accuracy. It was an honor to bring it to life.
It’s an eternal tale rich with the paradox of the human condition. The story feels ancient, but it’s horrifically present; look at us - we’ve got Roe vs. Wade back on the table again! Patriarchal control over the female body and experience is alive and well.
PH: What kind of research was involved? How important was historical accuracy?
Renee Read: With extraordinary amounts of research, Lance had lived with and researched this project for ten long years prior to our first day of prep. He conducted a great number of in-person interviews with the main players, visited Colorado City, Provo, Salt Lake City, and American Fork, and cataloged hundreds of personal photographs from the families affected. Sifting through his materials that covered 1 of our three timelines was just the beginning. We began prep with a full-time team of non-Mormon researchers and 2 LDS consultants who had been raised in the Church. We needed to educate ourselves from the ground up on this faith. There are approx 6.5 Million Mormons in the US, but we knew very little about the essential inner workings of the faith going in and quickly came to discover that people within and the institutions run by the Church were not interested in sharing information with us once they realized we were bringing John Krauker’s non-fiction book to life. It’s an incredibly complex religion, and it was imperative that we get every detail, modern & historical, factually accurate so that the project could remain unassailable on that front. This show reveals many disturbing things that have transpired in this religion over the past 160 years, as well as extremely problematic customs that continue to happen right now as you read this. The veracity of what Banner exposes is wholly dependent on its accuracy.
PH: Can you share some of your thought processes for designing dark sets. How did this articulate the story?
Renee Read: Like the storytelling, I was striving for a severe and discriminating authenticity. I tried to be super vigilant not to allow the period materials to become loud and heavy-handed. Period pieces can easily stumble into hyperbole. Our overriding goal was to ensure the aesthetics of the world we built didn’t upstage the storytelling.
One example of this is the way we approached the recreation of the Circus Circus Casino builds - a world ripe for hyperbole!
We did an enormous amount of research into the original icons in both Reno & Vegas. There’s actual footage of it in the Bond film Diamonds Are Forever, and the film Fear & Loathing did their own LDS-laced partial recreation. The real gaming floor in 1984 had been renovated in the 60s but was actually kind of a dark multi-level abyss inside a massive circus tent. For our build, we combined all the iconic staples of the original with other design inspiration from casinos of that era and built it from the ground up in just over 7.5 weeks.
It’s an excellent example of our approach to designing dark sets in a way that serves the story because it’s a herculean version of what we did across the board: The set was lit practically with thousands upon thousands of tungsten bulbs. Craig Wrobleski and I collaborated for weeks to create a comprehensive world for the actors to play in that felt REAL because it was.
It was a massive playground that allowed for all the cat and mouse work - people running in and out of natural shadows and hidden spaces. In short, excruciating detail on an enormous scale lit naturally.
PH: True crime is a really popular genre right now. How did you put your own spin on the genre to differentiate it a bit from other stories out there?
Renee Read: The sheer scope of the project separates it from the more common tropes of the genre.
Not only does it span 160 years, but it also unfolds in countless American cities and towns from the northeast coast right across to the southwest.
Because there are three distinct timelines woven together, two from Krakauer's book and the third created by Lance as our entry point to the first 2 - our challenge was to discover an organic way to braid the aesthetics of these storylines together that was historically correct but not visually jarring. We used every tool we could think of - color, scale, landscape lust, lighting design, and shooting style. For example, I love the film The True History of the Kelly Gang. It's a period piece but shot in a way that feels immediate and contemporary. We hoped to achieve a similarly urgent style with our period work.
Lance's writing is intoxicating. The landscape of Utah and Southern Alberta is equally intoxicating. The Mormon migrants battled their way across the raw land in the same way our crew and actors had to endure it (albeit with modern gear) - I hope that it feels the same for viewers - that it transports them there and they become swept up in the perilous land lust, danger, and beauty of it all.
PH: How many locations were used for each episode?
Renee Read: We executed 25-35 sets per episode.
PH: You also worked on Maid. What did your design process look like on that series? What challenges did you encounter?
Renee Read: The design for MAID had to be fiercely sincere & utterly convincing. We were mining tragedy for levity & beauty; to succeed in that requires precision, restraint, and obsessive attention to detail.
Alex’s journey is often Dark & overwhelming, though ultimately, hers is a story of hope. It’s also an unflinching look at systemic American inequity and contrast; Privilege vs. poverty, Veneer & vulnerability, public vs. private, and the instinct to give up and say fuck it - vs. the deep human longing for something better.
The way Molly’s writing mines the depth of these paradoxes is successful because she does it through a lens of empathy and humor (and mastery of the craft). I tried to honor her honesty of stye by keeping it real. As accurate as possible. No poverty porn. John was really helpful on that front as he’s got a keen eye for the thin red line and would catch it right away.
PH: How do you push your own creative boundaries and take risks for these types of set designs?
Renee Read: I tried to let myself be consumed by the colors and textures of the pacific northwest. Sounds trite and predictable, but we sincerely wanted to build a world that left the audience feeling as though they were slowly drowning alongside Alex as the series progressed. She is being consumed and suffocated by her physical environment and situation. By Q's episode (108), she is devoured by both the forest (that we built) and then by her couch.
Collaborating with Q in both her roles as DP and Director was a dream - she's an idea factory, remarkably creative. All the photographic knowledge a seasoned DP can bring to the table combined with a director's focus on performance. For example - in the script, it said that Alex was "swallowed" by the couch. We both knew precisely what Molly meant ( I think many of us have been there), but I desperately wanted to avoid the possibility of unintentional comedy. Like a giant anthropomorphized couch-mouth gobbling her up! We considered so many different solutions but felt that it was key to build it 100% practical - no VFX.
PH: I'd love to hear more about how you utilize and work with your team of showrunners, directors, producers, etc. to make these intricate designs come to life. What's that like? Can you give insight into what a day of collaboration might look like?
Renee Read: When I first heard about the project, the possibility of working with John and Molly lit a fire in me that I hadn’t felt for a while. Collaborating with them was everything I hoped it would be and much more.
Molly built a world for us that is delicately personal yet nevertheless feels universal. She’s a word-ninja genius storyteller. She’s also a good human and easy to laugh at. In one of our early concept meetings during pre-prod, I asked her to expand on some aesthetic detail, and she paused for a minute and replied, “Do what you think is most true. What’s true?”.
I wrote it on a post-it note, and it’s still stuck in the top right corner of my laptop.
John is the classiest man I know in this business. He’s masterful at his crafts in every way. Still, I was most impressed by his natural & focused leadership & listening skills - he looks every person in the eye and listens deeply to what they are sharing. We’d be scouting home after home, and he was invariably deeply entrenched with what some would consider being the small and prosaic details of the lives of the homeowners. I think I learned that his ability to truly see and hear people informed the staggering level of his craft. It was an honor to create alongside them both.
PH: What's one of the biggest lessons you've learned doing your job?
Renee Read: If you allow it to, it will take everything from you. Our industry has dangerous expectations of what humans can do day in and day out for months and months on end. If you don’t reach for your oxygen mask first, you won’t be able to help your crew put theirs on when the time comes. We need to take better care of ourselves and each other.
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?
Renee Read: I would love the opportunity to explore some world-building that is completely foreign to me. I adore the research, learning every day, and problem-solving seemingly impossible quandaries. New puzzles, please.