In just a few short years, production designer Anastasia White has built a strong portfolio of highly respected projects. She started in the art department on films like “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Kill Your Darlings,” before moving on to television with “Girls.” White went on to work on the acclaimed series “Mr. Robot,” where she met director Sam Esmail.
Esmail took White and many from his “Mr. Robot” team to a new project for Amazon, “Homecoming.”
The series follows Heidi Bergman (Julia Roberts), a psychologist who worked on a project helping war veterans work through their PTSD. But four years later, Heidi doesn’t remember her time at the facility or working with her client, Walter Cruz (Stephan James). When a Department of Defense official (Shea Whigham) starts asking questions, Heidi begins to figure out there was much more happening at Homecoming than she ever knew.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Anastasia White about her work in crafting the world of “Homecoming,” a series that is limited to very few crucial locations. Please enjoy this conversation.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: I’m really excited about “Homecoming.” It’s such an interesting show. How did you first get involved?
Anastasia White: I had been working with Sam Esmail on “Mr. Robot” for two seasons at that point. He had told me about [“Homecoming”] while we were shooting season three of “Mr Robot” and sort of asked me to do it while we were in the middle of that. I love working with him and I love his take on stories and everything that he does, so it was pretty obvious that I wanted to work with him.
And then he also asked our DP Todd Campbell and our Costume Designer from “Mr. Robot” as well. So it was good to be with the same creative team.
KP: I’m sure it makes things easier in same ways, to keep everyone together.
AW: Yeah. We all have a great shorthand.
KP: Besides working with Sam again, what were some things about “Homecoming” in particular that you were really excited about?
AW: I was excited about the aspect of it coming from a podcast, because that was something that was unique to me. So I had both the script and the podcast to draw ideas from. It also helped with the tone of everything. The fact that it was in Los Angeles was neat because I’m based in New York, so that was kind of a challenge for me in the beginning because I didn’t have a crew there, and it was all new locations I wasn’t familiar with. But it ended up being a really great experience that way.
And also just the fact that the story was so unique. Eli [Horowitz] and Micah [Bloomberg], the writers, had this interesting idea. I listened to the podcast ahead of time. A few times, actually. I just loved the tone of it because I had no idea where it was going the entire time. It was mysterious.
KP: You would start thinking maybe it’s going this way, but then it wouldn’t. It was very intriguing, the way it all came together.
AW: Yeah, before I knew anything about the story, I thought it sort of had a sci-fi feel to it. I had no idea if there was some type of paranormal element. Which I later found out, obviously, that it didn’t. But I just didn’t know what was happening. But the podcast more so than the script really.
KP: What were some of the challenges you had as you were crafting the look of this world, this space, all these different locations?
AW: One of the biggest practical challenges was finding Tampa in Los Angeles, especially rural Florida. Because it’s so dense and populated and there’s mountains everywhere. Finding locations was pretty hard for the exteriors. But the biggest set we built was the interior of the facility and it was a really fun challenge. We had to make a space that could serve every department’s needs as well as all of the aspects of the story. Because there were so many things that took place and so many parts of everybody’s story that come together in that set, and we had to build it ahead of time. It was the first thing we built. Just figuring all of that out during prep was a lot, but we had good resources and we had a really great stage to work out of.
Tying everything together and making sure the writers and Sam, who had sometimes different ideas. We ended up getting everybody on the same page with everything during the creation of it all. It’s just a lot of elements had to come together to make that space work and the bulk of our resources went into that build. So it was important to get it right for everybody.
KP: So much of the show takes place in just that space, it makes sense.
AW: Finding that exterior location was a huge deal. Ideally, you find an exterior so you can sort of match the interior to the exterior, but since it took such a long time for us to find the right space for the exterior, we had to go ahead and start making and finding the stage and then retrofitting and building out the location we ultimately found to match what we built on the stage. So it’s all sort of backwards.
KP: I have to say, when I found out this was filmed in LA, I was so surprised. Where did you find these places?
AW: Surprisingly, the biggest two exterior elements we had were the facility and the diner that Heidi works at. The facility was in Torrance at a big automobile complex that had just recently been abandoned. And we were so lucky to find that because everything was so specific about the layout of the space and the fact that it was sort of isolated and it was all centered around this courtyard was perfect. And we were so lucky we found that because we probably looked for three months.
The place where we shot her diner was called the Chowder Barge, and that’s in Wilmington in this industrial area. It’s not at all what Sam was picturing, but we looked at some other more typical diners, and nothing really seemed right. We wanted something that felt like there was enough of a contrast between that life and the facility life. So the fact that it was in this industrial, dark part of town helped. It’s on the water, but it’s not at all like her house where she lived in the past. We were looking for a lot of contrast and juxtaposition in the two worlds.
KP: It is interesting to look at, because when you see her at the diner you wonder how she ended up here. I think you nailed that.
AW: We tried to make it a little bit comical with the manatee mascot. We try to hide a lot of Easter eggs because Sam is very into that, as a lot of “Mr. Robot” fans know. But the name of the bar, Fat Morgan’s comes from Fata Morgana, which comes from sea apparitions, these illusions sailors would see out on the water. They would visualize upside down ships when they’d been out at sea for a really long time. So it was kind of the idea of a mirage, playing into the whole “things aren’t always what they seem.” We turned that term into Fat Morgan’s and made Morgan a fat manatee.
KP: I love details like that! Going back to the main building of the facility, what were some of your inspirations for the design of that space?
AW: We knew that the space itself had to be part of a bigger, dated complex that the Geist Group would have owned and then they decided to convert into this facility for the soldiers. So it couldn’t feel brand new because they had to have been sitting on it for years. We were kind of thinking it would be 80s, 90s. Did a lot of research on architecture in Florida and it’s sort of not specially unique to Florida. I feel like the architecture could be found almost anywhere. But I wanted to make sure that we stayed true to what could actually be there.
And then I went through a couple versions of the layout of the space. Knowing that the cafeteria itself is where the meat of the story is, and that’s how the soldiers are being changed and medicated through their food and being observed mostly in that space, we wanted to put that in the center of the set so it would emphasize the fishbowl idea and surveillance and everything is looking inward.
From that idea we kind of spiraled out. So the clients’ rooms, where they live, are on the perimeter of the building and their windows are smaller and higher up. Not to feel like they’re in a prison, but more to focus life looking inward so that they’re encouraged to participate in the Geist activities and their meal plans and everything like that, which is really what the story is all about. It’s their conversion.
It mostly came from that. And there’s the whole theme of octagons in the space, which is sort of a circular idea with renewal and starting over again or starting a new circle. And we took the circle and fragmented it. So it’s close to a circle, but there are angles, eight sides, and expanded on that and made it sort of oblique and a little bit eerie. When we did that architecture in the space, it allowed for us to create some strange, angular hallways. That helped with the tone of everything.
KP: It definitely does. As I was watching “Homecoming,” I would get confused about exactly where things were, but it wasn’t that it didn’t line up because you’re piecing together sound stages or anything. It added to the mysterious aspects of it. There was a lot of “Where exactly am I right now?”
AW: Pretty much everything until she comes out to the lobby – that was on location, but everything else was a two-story set on the stage. We did actually build her office twice. We have it upstairs in the main set, and then we built it again on a different stage just because there were so many pages of dialogue in there. We wanted to give the shooting crew more flexibility so they could more easily pull all the walls and the ceiling and everything. Whenever we had long scenes in Heidi’s office, we always went to the other stage where it didn’t have to be connected to the big set.
KP: About Heidi’s office, there are no pictures, it isn’t personalized at all. Did you go through different iterations where you thought about making it more personalized to her?
AW: The writers actually had in the script a couple of little things, but it was never about her personal life. They kind of wanted to keep that a mystery. You can tell she’s sort of removed and not super connected to her boyfriend and you don’t really hear about her mother or her family until you see her in the present day, which seems like the future. Yeah, it was always going to be that way where it was more about creating a more comfortable space for the clients in contrast to the rest of the facility. It’s not an extremely warm room, but compared to the concrete and the asphalt of the rest of the space, we just wanted to keep it.
The whole idea behind the facility is it’s sort of a banal space and we try to juxtapose the client rooms and Heidi’s office a little bit more. You can see the drop ceilings still from the offices they were converted from, but they tried to add this layer of fabric. And not a hotel vibe, but we were trying to get it more domestic. Soft goods and plants, but they were obviously falling flat when they did that. So I think in everything in that building, there was an effort to make it feel homey but it never really worked out.
KP: It feels like they’re trying to give the appearance of this welcoming space, but they’re not really welcoming so they don’t quite know how to do it.
AW: Right. And it’s supposed to be a little sad. But they don’t realize that.
KP: What is something you learned from working on “Homecoming?”
AW: I would say, I think because our build was such a large scale, I had to work a lot more closely with other departments and I found that was actually really helpful to get in and get input from every department. Not just the art department and camera, but everybody. Because getting everybody’s input ahead of time and also taking into consideration their needs for builds and location work is just beneficial to everybody. It’s the idea that everybody’s working together and we’re all on the same project and not, I don’t want to say not working against each other because that sounds negative, but I feel like sometimes that can happen. I think getting all departments involved in collaborating early on was probably the best experience I had on this.
Awards Circuit would like to thank Anastasia White for taking time to speak about her work.
“Homecoming” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime.