Cabot McMullen and Brandon Mendez are the production designers behind Flamin’ Hot. Directed by Eva Longoria, Flamin’ Hot tells the true story of Richard Montañez’s incredible journey from working as a janitor at a Frito Lay plant to creating the massive success of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
Cabot and Brandon worked on over 100 sets to bring this film to life. Since the movie spans four decades going from the 60s through the 90s, they had to be very strategic when conceptualizing and designing the sets to maintain period accuracy. They played with color shifts using a 60s and 70s color palette of oranges, greens, olives, and wood tones to keep that retro look. For the 80s period theme, they used the classic mauve wood color that was very popular during that time. They also had to flip some of the film’s locations up to four times due to the movie's quick pace.
PH: Can you describe a bit about your professional history and how you got into the field of production design?
Cabot McMullen: I came into the entertainment industry through a side door. I did not attend film school, but since childhood have always been involved in some form of visual storytelling. As a kid, I was a classic Monsters fan, made Super 8 films, and helped with the neighborhood Halloween haunted house, which was a theatrical jump scare experience. My first involvement with real stagecraft was at a kid's Marionette theater, and I joined theater companies at summer camp and later in high school, where I learned theatrical lighting, stage makeup, and set design techniques.
Despite these early beginnings, I chose to study architecture in college and went to New York City for a Masters's in Interior Architecture and Furniture design. My first post-graduation job was as a design assistant to architect Vladimir Kagan in Manhattan. While there, I lived with a group of actors who recruited me to design and build sets for their Off-Broadway shows, I discovered I was good at it and enjoyed it enough to eventually quit my day job and pursue it as my new career path.
Architectural design training gave me the foundational skills needed to compete in the arena, but I had to learn a whole new vocabulary to design for the stage. After working as an assistant and paying my dues for five years on Broadway shows, I was able to jump-start my own career as an independent theatrical set designer. I found my first network TV series as an art director at Saturday Night Live. From there, Michael J. Fox gave me my first big break on his show Spin City, where I met Exec Producer Steven Spielberg. I subsequently designed six television productions for Mr. Spielberg, 16 Feature Films for many talented directors, hundreds of commercials, and thousands of iconic television episodes for both comedy and drama. Most recently, the new APPLE TV+ series Shrinking starring Harrison Ford and Jason Segal for Warner Bros. TV.
Brandon Mendez: Growing up, I was a huge film, theater, animation, and television fan. I acted in drama and frequented theater in San Francisco with my grandma. As a child, my siblings and I would set up shows in our living room, our mother and father would film us, and eventually, we would all watch it back, laughing at the funny stuff we had created. I used to love watching animation every Sunday evening and would do anything for my parents to take me to the theater. I was six years old when I somehow convinced my parents to take me to see Jurassic Park. That film was a huge reason that the idea of film as a career stuck around as I went through school. While attending college in San Francisco, an opportunity fell into my lap, and I took an intern position at Bradley Bell Studios as an assistant. I packed my bags and moved to LA. It was here that I really started to explore the many options that film had to offer. I had friends working in the music video industry who offered me positions on set. I quickly fell into the art department, and soon enough, I was set decorating. From set decoration, I began production designing smaller jobs and eventually worked myself up the music video ladder, and while the projects began to get larger, I felt that I still wasn't fulfilling my needs as a filmmaker. I began to take on small narrative projects, shorts, indie films etc. I eventually landed the SpongeBob 20-year anniversary episode, which was animation mixed with live-action. From here, I continued to tackle some indie projects, such as Four Good Days, directed by Rodrigo Garcia.
PH: How do you go about selecting a project to work on? Do you have a certain criteria you follow?
Cabot McMullen: For me, it always starts with the script. As Michael Douglas once said – “If it ain’t on the page, don’t engage.” I always look to see if the script allows opportunities for me as a designer to say something about the characters with visual metaphors instead of words. Am I inspired by the story? The next equally important criteria for me are the director and producers. Do we share a common vision, will they be supportive, and does it have the potential for me to learn something new and challenge myself as a designer?
Brandon Mendez: The script is always the most important when selecting a project. From here, I would dive into character development in relation to production design. Does this script have interesting elements that spark my creativity? Do these characters have exciting characteristics allowing me to dive deep into their environments? Is there substance? I always want a project that sparks my passion for design.
PH: How did you become involved with Flamin’ Hot?
Cabot McMullen: I first met Director Eva Longoria on her pilot, The Gordita Chronicles, for HBO. It was a story about an immigrant family in the Dominican Republic who left everything they knew and loved behind to start a new life in 1980s America. There were many similarities to the challenges faced by the characters in Flamin' Hot, much of the set in the same period, so we had established a creative shorthand when Eva invited me to join what would be her first feature film as director. I loved the script and her vision for it, so she introduced me to Brandon Mendez and invited us to meet up in Albuquerque, NM, to design the Flamin' Hot production together.
Brandon Mendez: Flamin' Hot was presented to me through my agent, and it was immediately a script that I fell in love with. Not only was the script relatable to the areas where I grew up, but it was a story I wanted to tell. When interviewing for this project, there was an extensive interview process; each time, I came prepared and would put in an extreme amount of work leading into each Zoom meeting. When I met Eva, we were very much in the same mindset with production design. I would show her photos of my family that were directly relatable to this script. It just felt right, and with Eva's and Searchlights' blessing, I was offered the opportunity to be the production designer.
PH: What was your pre-production mindset when constructing the design for this project?
Cabot McMullen: First and foremost, to immerse myself in the world and periods of Richard's story to achieve total authenticity. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get the film's look, feel, and truth just right. The film spanned three decades of Richard's life, the 1960s–1980s, from rags to comparative riches. So one of our big challenges was collecting the huge amount of visual research needed to verify the details of a culture not heavily documented due to the lack of camera ownership in the Chicano community. We ended up finding a lot of what was needed via non-traditional resources – personal photo albums from crew members, Cholo holiday blogs, vintage YouTube videos, etc. Frito-Lay factory interiors were never publicly shown or documented back then due to strict protections of their proprietary process, so our Eureka moment occurred when we found a vintage home video on YouTube taken by a 6th-grade girl on a class field trip to a Frito-Lay plant in the Midwest. It showed us everything we needed to know without signing an NDA.
Brandon Mendez: I believe both Cabot and I wanted to get this right. From Richard and Judy to the Frito - Lay Factory, there were endless stories that we needed to execute. Early in the project, Richard and Judy invited us to their house, where we spent endless hours looking through old photos of their young adult life. We would often go into details in the photos and look at their background to get a good sense of texture and colors. We then rummaged through the internet on the hunt for the factory design, which was top secret due to the state-of-the-art machinery used at the time. We came across a young girl's video, which had been posted to youtube; it was a gold mine! Overall there was a lot of work to be done, but both Cabot and I were up for the task.
PH: Can you describe what it was like working with each other?
Cabot McMullen: We had never worked together before, but it felt like we had known each other forever. Brandon grew up in the culture at the heart of the story, and I brought a lot of practical experience to the art department, so we had each other’s back, and it was a mutually rewarding and enjoyable experience.
Brandon Mendez: I will start by saying both Cabot and I developed a lifelong friendship that one can only create through a project like Flamin’ Hot. We clicked and got into a workflow that benefited the project early on. Cabot brought his experience to the table every day, and he never missed a beat.
PH: What were some of the sets you specifically had to create (and how many)? Where did your inspiration come from?
Cabot McMullen: There were over 108 settings and locations to film in just over 30, so even though we conceived and designed everything together, we had to divide up the block and tackle work to accomplish the scheduling requirements needed to stay one step ahead of the camera. My main design focus was the Frito-Lay factory floor, one big unit set. My early years as a theatrical stage set designer helped us design a factory set which was basically a mechanical theatrical unit set on wheels, engineered to perform just like the Broadway stage sets I used to work on.
Brandon Mendez: There were 108 sets and multiple locations, just shy of 30. Both Cabot and I spent hours on end developing concepts and designs together. With the time frame given, we often had to split duties with our design concepts in mind. One of my favorite sets in the film was the Guasti Vineyard; creating this scene and referencing old research from the 60s was an incredible experience. While visiting Richard and Judy, their son took me to the old Guasti Vineyard, where I got to walk the closed property, really gaining an understanding of their struggles. On this same trip, I was taken to Richard and Judy's original home. I used these moments to really express who they were when living in Richard and Judy's house.
PH: Did you encounter any challenges from a design perspective?
Cabot McMullen: Once we had locked the Frito-Lay factory and Richard’s house locations, we were more confident in our ability to achieve Eva’s vision and goals with the look and design of the movie. There were a lot of good bones to work with. Due to the sheer number of sets and locations, there were many challenges besides just design in getting this to the finish line. Some situations we could control, others like the July monsoon rainy season in New Mexico, were beyond anyone’s control and disrupted many of our best-laid plans.
Brandon Mendez: Being creative was a must when having to design period-accurate sets.
PH: How do you ensure cohesiveness when switching between time periods - and how did color play a massive role in each of them?
Cabot McMullen: We developed a distinct and unique color story for each character's location and time period. Then posted all the designs, finishes, and colors for the movie up on the walls of our productive office in one long linear presentation so that Eva and the studio execs could stand in the room and see every scene in visual context next to each other at a glance, just as it would appear in sequence up on the screen. If any of our choices jumped out as inconsistent or inappropriate, then we made adjustments. We included photos and fabric samples of key pieces from set decorator David Hack and lighting choices from cinematographer Federico Cantini to ensure continuity and consistency throughout the show's look before executing the work.
Brandon Mendez: We decided early on that the best way to differentiate between eras was a thorough color story for each era. We wanted to show the fun and grittiness of the 60s in the east LA/Riverside area, and as we moved into the 70s, there was something to be said about bold patterns with vibrant colors and warm wood tones; we wanted you to see the people Richard and Judy were, what they liked, how they felt. As we moved into the 80s, we wanted to pull back on some of the early excitement, lean into some calming deeper greens, and pull back some of those patterns we saw in the 70s. While brainstorming ideas with Eva and our amazing D.P. Federico Cantini, we decided to have the factory floor play as a cooler color palette. This allowed us to move back and forth between Richard's personal life and his job life. There was warmth in the textures that we often found circulating Richard and Judy, but when Richard was at Frito-lay, you found him around metals and cooler accents.
PH: Can you also talk about flipping locations and how you handled that?
Cabot McMullen: There were several instances in the script where multiple retail stores were written into the story. At one point, our shooting schedule wouldn’t allow for any more company moves, so we were tasked with taking one store location and turning it into three locations, spanning three decades. The company would shoot during the day, and the art dept ninjas would come in at night to redress and turn the set around to deliver a completely different look the next morning. Movie Magic!
Brandon Mendez: We had to repurpose multiple locations for this film. One of the most difficult locations we encountered was the liquor store which needed to play over each era of the film and also play as a supermarket exterior during the job hunt sequence. Luckily for us, we had an amazing set decorating team led by our set decorator, David Hack, as well as construction coordinator Carl Zeller and team, who were able to have back to back to back location transformations overnight.
PH: What's a big focus for you this year (personally or professionally)?
Cabot McMullen: A big focus for me this year has been mentoring young designers and bringing new diverse voices into our guild and the industry that has given me so much. I’m currently working on a storytelling project that is designed to provide new opportunities for creators and solve some of the structural inequities at the heart of the WGA strike.
Brandon Mendez: There are some personal passion projects of mine that I am working on. I would love some of the furniture pieces I had designed to get into production. I am also designing a restaurant in the bay area, can't wait for this to open and come to life.
PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you have in the works?
Cabot McMullen: I am next looking forward to starting prep on Season 2 of Shrinking with my good friends Bill Lawrence and Randall Winston at Doozer and Warner Bros TV.
Brandon Mendez: I am currently working in commercials while we wait for the strikes to end.