Interview: Legendary Production Designer Eugene Lee Talks ‘Saturday Night Live’

It’s not often that you’re able to speak to a legend. However, there’s no other way to describe Mr. Eugene Lee. Eugene has one of the most storied careers of any production designer in history. He’s won 3 Tonys for his work on the stage, including the staging of “Candide,” “Sweeney Todd: The Barber of Fleet Street” and “Wicked.” He turned the success of “Candide” into one of the longest lasting jobs in television history as the production designer of “Saturday Night Live.” Eugene has been working for the show since the beginning in October of 1975.

Mr. Lee is up for an Emmy again, his 14th nomination for the series. Despite all this success, he is one of the most humble people I’ve ever spoken with. I was lucky enough to talk to Mr. Lee this week. We chatted about his time working for “SNL,” musical guests, and his upcoming pencil business with Mr. Lorne Michaels.

Awards Circuit/Alan French: How are you doing Mr. Lee? 

EL: Doing well. We just got our schedule for “Saturday Night.” Came a little late this year, but can’t complain. I’m just sitting here drafting a house that I’m building up in Maine.

AF: That sounds nice. 

EL: Yeah it’s for my friend Mr. Michaels. He has a house up there near the border with Canada. He’s got a lot of land up there, and he has fields of blueberries. I know this will sound a little crazy but a year ago I was in his office. He said, “Hey, look at this,” and he showed me pictures on his cell phone. I had no idea what I was looking at. He said he was at an auction and he bought all the machines that make pencils. I said, “Wow, that’s great.” That’s when he said, “You can run the pencil factory!” I thought, well that’s different.

So I went up. It’s very pretty up there. There aren’t many places to stay, so I thought, what if I just build a little house? I found a little piece of land and there you go. I’m told the framing will be there soon. It’s hard building a house, I’m used to the scenery. If you do bad scenery you can just throw it out. If you do a bad house you can’t do it. That’s coming up, so they say it’ll all be framed up by Labor Day, so that’s good.

AF: Well speaking of Mr. Michaels, how did you first get involved with working on SNL? 

EL: Well it’s all very simple, just the way that fate happens. He came to town looking to discuss this new show he had. I had a hit on Broadway with some friends of mine from Yale. He was looking for a designer and I had a hit show.

AF: Well, you won a Tony for that show correct? I believe it was “Candide?”

EL: I did, I did. I won a Tony. It was kind of great. Really it was great all around. The people who ran the theater, The Chelsea Theater Center, called me up and said Harold Prince is on our board and he’s doing a little show for us. It’s called “Candide” would you like to work on that? I thought sure! I’m just a hippy you know and I find myself working with Harold Prince, who’s kind of a genius.

So I was living on a boat in Rhode Island and my phone went off and it was this guy from NBC. He said he was meeting with this comedy producer to make a variety show and he’d like to meet you guys if you want it. I thought, well, I don’t know. I don’t know anything about television. What’s the harm?

He was a funny guy. Shoeless probably. He didn’t want to see any of the work, but he explained his show a bit. He was going to a comedy show that evening and asked if we wanted to go along. The next morning we walked out Sixth Avenue to NBC and went into the studio. It was all empty, like a big shoe box. At one end it had bleachers, which you pulled out. That was it, I was hired.

AF: How hands-on is Lorne? Has he given you more room to work over the years?  

EL: Probably my best contribution was the layout of the original studio, which proved to be good. It hasn’t changed much over the years. Well, over the years the show has only gotten more complicated, especially if you look at the early sketches. People want it more realistic now. If you look at our first sketch, “Wolverines” which was kind of like “Honeymooners.” There was actually a potted plant, a hanging plant, painted on the floor. Everyone thought it was only going to be on for six shows, and no one thought it would have a chance. To make it worse, it was the first live show we’d done in 16 years. NBC wasn’t too happy because it was mostly some hippies from Rhode Island.

Now the writers can show up with pictures on their cell phones. Writers produce their own pieces, which has always been good for the writers. A lot of writers have gone through “Saturday Night Live” and been successful. They have to know what they want. If they need graphics, they have to talk to the graphics department, if they need costumes, they talk to the costume department. Same thing with the scenery. They get more realistic now, that’s all. It’s more complicated, but that’s okay. We’re an easy going design department and we give them whatever they want.

AF: At what point in the week do you guys get involved? 

EL: It’s all very simple. Lately, for the last decade…I’ve been here so long, there’s only a few of us left from the original show. There’s only five or so of us left, everyone else is new. Well, I go down on Wednesday, we have the readthrough scheduled at 3 o’clock on Wednesday. Usually, it happens a few minutes later, but it’s always around 3. We have a read through, we take a break. We get some food to come in, and we come back and read the other half. After we’ve done that, the producers decide what they would like to produce. Sometimes it takes some time, sometimes it happens fast. There’s no rule. Then we meet with the director and we decide where to put everything in the studio. We have our own opinions of course.

We then talk to everyone. Our office turns into a total madhouse. We talk to the writers, and sometimes they know exactly what they want. Other times, they don’t know. We ask what kind of restaurant do they want? Is it day, is it night, you didn’t put it on the script. Then it calms down as people begin to leave and we sit down and draft it right then and there. Hopefully, we’re finished by midnight, but not always. Then a representative from the shop that builds it out in the Brooklyn Navy yard physically comes to our office late. We give it to him, and we explain everything. They start working on it right away.

On Thursday, we come in around 1 PM and we do the music. Sometimes it’s a set standing in the studio. These days, it can be a set designed by the music group. It’s a mixture of things. We do the promos after the music. After that we do some of the sketches, only we don’t have any of the scenery so we just make it up. We’ll stand some things around so the director knows how big it is, can we shoot off it. Things like that. That’s it for Thursday.

AF: When do you get the scenery in? 

EL: Friday. We have two-thirds of the scenery that has been loaded in overnight. Kind of a throw over from the old days of television. The night crew comes at night and sets it up. Friday morning we have painters because most of the scenery comes unpainted. Things continue to arrive through the day and Friday we work late. At the end of the day on Friday, Mr. Michaels likes to have a meeting. It usually happens around 11:30, 12, 1 o’clock. The purpose of that meeting is to see if we can actually do a live show. Can we physically do it?

Then Saturday, we go in at 1 PM. Some of the sets are painted, people start to get more panicky. Some writers want something different or new. Something that’s happened on the national news requires a political set of some kind. Then, like theater, we do a technical. If there’s fire, smoke. We see if they can finish the sketch without walking through a wall. Stuff like that.

Then we do a show for an audience at 8 o’clock. This is actually a good time for Mr. Michaels if he’s unhappy with things. This is when he is the most hands on. He will call the sign department and point at his screen, and ask if that’s actually what they want. At 11:30 we do it with the second audience and we do the Live show. I go home and I don’t know. I’m just kind of like, we did the best we could. I always think in my negative way that we can do it better. Maybe next week. It’s kind of an unusual show.

AF: What does a general schedule for the fall look like for you? 

EL: Well it’s usually three shows in a row these days. It used to be different, but this is how we do it now. We do three, then we get a week off. We do three because by the end of three shows, you’re hating everybody. It’s an interesting show to work on.

AF: About how many sets do you build for each show?

EL: There’s not a rule, but we do 10 to 12 sets easily, and we probably cut half of those before they get on the air. I think the thing we fight against is time. Suddenly they want a specific automobile or something crazy. We’re in New York. So much of the best production and best prop places have gone away over the years. People don’t stock everything you need. You’ll call someone up and they’ll ask well when do you need it? How about right away? We have a terrific shop, and some of those people have worked on it from the very beginning. I don’t think there’s any other shop in New York that could do what they do.

AF: So earlier you mentioned the musical guests. Who is the most interesting musical guest you’ve had and how do you help them when they change up the stage?

EL: Well I have a different feeling about it. The most interesting? I don’t know, I liked Lady Gaga. She was kind and had some funny ideas. A few years ago Prince was on, and I had seen him earlier. They were having some trouble understanding what he wanted, so of course, old Eugene says, why don’t I just go out and help out? So we called up transportation, they ordered up the plane, they ordered up the limo and I called a friend of mine who does “The Tonight Show.” I asked if he wanted to come along, “we’re going to see Mr. Prince.”

Of course, he was terrific. It’s always a little spooky there. I’d been to his place before. This time there were no cars and there was a cinderblock holding the door open as if that was the entrance. So we went in, waited forever for him, and then suddenly he just appeared. It was like magic. He had the all-girl band at the time. We talked it through and he was great. I didn’t want to get stuck in the mid-west so we were about to leave and he said to me “Do you know Natasha?” I said “Natasha? Best lighting girl on the planet. Nicest you’ll ever meet.” So we got Natasha.

AF: I heard you have an interesting collaboration with Paul Simon?

Paul Simon was the second musical guest on the show and he’s always been really nice to me. We’ve done a number of musical tours, we did Central Park for him with Art Garfunkle for him when they got back together in the Park. I designed a nice little set that connected to Grand Central, and that’s been the home base for the last few years. Some acts want to use that. For some musical guests, they want a specific look. If they want to pay for it, and what they want to do doesn’t mess up the show, we’re okay. We just have to do it live. I’m there to help if they want help. What they bring is interesting. I’m just an old guy who still uses a pencil to draw with, and I always say you can never learn less.

AF: What was the most challenging set you built this last season?

EL: You know, I’ve had the whole summer off. That’s really unusual for me. I know I can’t say there was a favorite, I don’t really have favorites. Well, it works in funny ways. If we get a set and there’s a boat in it, I’ll get the boat. I used to live on a boat, and those can be tough. So if there’s a ship to be made, I’m almost certainly the one to have done it. Well, I have to say one of my favorite sketches we did last year was The Lobster, you know, the one singing “Les Mis.” Just hysterical.

Then there was a couple years ago when they come and said the podium had to roll around. It has to go outside and roll into the street. Or it has to jump offscreen and roll into the reporters. All of that is kind of interesting. But yeah, the Lobster one was one of my favorites. It was well written.

We built a tank for the lobster out of fiberglass. None of that is hard. I’m a theater designer, and I’ve got “Wicked” running. For that show, we had tons of time to get the details. On “Saturday Night,” it’s really crazy. You can’t just call up the plastic people and say we need a tank big enough to hold a person. It needs to be put together, and it needs to dry. It needs to have air hoses built in so it bubbles, but it all worked out. That was a funny sketch, I like it.

AF: Do you often reuse sets? 

EL: We mostly toss them out. Storage is a big problem and sometimes it’s easier to toss it out and rebuild it again. You can never win because if you save it, no one ever wants to use it again. If it’s a political thing, naturally some of those sets come back sometimes. Even with that, you can’t be sure.

AF: I was going to ask about the Oval Office. 

EL: Well that’s our version of the Oval Office. You see there are movies and TV shows that make them very accurately. We’re kind of sentimental about our Oval. We save it, but we sometimes try to improve it. We’ll fix up the carpet and change it. If the current President has changed it, we try to keep it up to date. It’s a spooky show to do these days because sometimes he watches after you, you know?

AF: When are you coming back for next season, and when do you start preparing for the new season? 

EL: There’s no preparation. We just turn it back on. It’s like turning the spigot on. There’s not really anything for us to do. We have three shows in a row, and a week off, then three more shows. There’s really no preparing. I can’t wait to be back though. Sometimes I watch NBC and I think, wow, I wish we were back.

AF: What’s your favorite inside joke at SNL? 

“Saturday Night” has its little quirky things. Whenever we got backstage we have some things. I don’t know if you’ve ever noticed, but we always have a llama. Then we always have a showgirl who looks like she’s from across the street. Then Abraham Lincoln in a top hat. They’ve always been in it. When we see we’re going into the hallway, we pick up the phone and call the llama people to make sure the llama is available. I don’t know why we do it. We’ve lost track of why we do it. We just always do. 

AF: Well it’s tradition at this point. It’d be a shame if you don’t do it. So the last question, with the Emmy’s coming up, you’re nominated once again. What about “SNL” allows you to showcase your talents?

EL: I don’t know. I used to be nominated for years and years, but I don’t know. I think there’s nothing else like us. When it goes away, whenever that might be, there won’t be one like it. It’s a very fun show, and it’s fun to be involved. I just try to have a good time.

AF: Well thank you so much for your time.

EL: I’m sure I disappointed you, but thank you for your time.

AF: Not at all! Seriously this was the best. 

EL: Well, by next year, we’re going to be sending the pencils out to everyone who called us. The pencil thing is kind of fun. I’ve never had a company to run.

AF: Well I can’t wait to buy some from you. Thank you for your time! 

Can Eugene win back-to-back Emmy’s? Will “Saturday Night Live” have another big year? Let us know your picks on the Emmys in the comments below!