Emmy-nominated GLOW production designer Todd Fjelsted talks to Awards Daily about the challenges of revealing characters’ backstories, filming at the legendary Pink Motel, and which Paul Thomas Anderson movie influenced the show’s look.
GLOW production designer Todd Fjelsted initially had reservations about filming what would become the Emmy-nominated Season 1 episode “The Dusty Spur.”
“I had already shot [at the Pink Motel] a couple of times for other projects and absolutely loved that place, but it’s also such a classic,” says Fjelsted. “I was very hesitant, but that location provided a lot of opportunities we didn’t have elsewhere.”
The motel, which has served as a filming location for a variety of projects, including Showtime’s Dexter and even Cee-Lo Green’s “Fuck You” video, is iconic and used to accommodating TV and film sets, so the GLOW crew was able to do a lot with the location. The team graphic designer redid the Pink Motel sign to establish the Dusty Spur branding, and the crew even tore down a fence so they could include a period junkyard in the background.
“When you get that much production value from a junkyard, how do you say no?” he laughs.
Biggest Production Design Challenge: Characters
“The Dusty Spur” is nominated for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Program (Half Hour or Less), going up against series like Atlanta, Barry, and Grace and Frankie. But unlike these shows, GLOW features almost 20 lead characters, which proved to be difficult.
“Creating worlds that each of them could inhabit, that told a little of their backstory—that was the biggest challenge. I did a show for HBO called Looking where we did 8 to 10 characters that we saw regularly, and that was a lot, a lot of characters to create worlds for. But this is more like 20 and set in the ‘80s. That was definitely the challenge to come up with ways to differentiate each of those characters’ worlds enough so that we could glean something from their personalities, even just from a moment where they’re packing a bag in a montage and we see their bedroom for the first time. We have to know a little something more about them in that moment, and that became the challenge: the number of characters and how to show individually who they were with a little bit of backstory.”
Fjelsted also had to think about costumes versus background, and how to stay decade-appropriate without standing out too much.
“Your palette becomes extremely important because that’s a lot costumes. Our costume designer is such a genius, I didn’t want to get in her way on those scenes and force her hand on anything clashing too much or being too over the top. I stayed neutral, so that whatever was happening with the performances or characters is up front, and everything else falls back a bit.”
Fans will notice that gray and blue palettes color the gymnasium where the girls train; this was done so the characters and their costumes can pop. Meanwhile, at the Dusty Spur hotel, Fjelsted made the wallpaper a bit “busier” while maintaining a more organic look. However, all of these elements would change according to where the characters were out in the world.
“With the aerobicize class, we went with tacky colors from the ‘80s, purple and teal, to make it kind of goofy. But typically we stayed neutral just to ensure that when we were dealing with who the girls were outside of the ring and how they were interacting with one another, that those stories showed up more than sets. We wanted to stay a little invisible. There are a lot of complicated storylines and I didn’t want to overdo it at any point, so that it became a distraction.”
That ’80s Look Without Being Over the Top
Plenty of shows have taken place in the ’80s, and for Fjelsted and the GLOW team, it was important to portray the decade in the proper light.
“There were a lot of initial conversations with Liz [Flahive] and Carly [Mensch] [showrunners] about how they wanted the show to look. I pitched them some stuff early on that was just very vague and broad strokes, and we whittled it down to what they were seeing, what the writing was leading toward, and what we were able to find location-wise. Basically the main ingredient of what we had to come up with was a subtle way to show the ‘80s without being too over-the-top or caricature, or look like a music video. That led to watching films from the ‘80s and period films that did a good job with the ‘80s. Mainly I would say our influence was Boogie Nights. That’s the one that really did it. Boogie Nights really drove it home. It was San Fernando Valley, it was very seedy, and that really became a beacon for us—if we can get it to look as good as Boogie Nights or even close, we gotta get it close. That was our primary influence.”
For Season 2, filming the first episode’s mall scene was a production design challenge in order to figure out which came first: Glamour Shots or Sears portraits?
“I created an entire interior display in Glamour Shots, and I was convinced that Glamour Shots had started in ‘84 or ‘85 and as we got through the process, we found out it started in ‘88. And we’re such purists—you’ll never see anything on GLOW that is not period correct—we’re very careful, and by we I mean writers down to set dressers. So we changed it to Sears Portrait Studio, which was ‘85, so just different cameras and a different logo.”
GLOW Season 3
When asked about a third season of the Netflix series, Fjelsted stays mum, although he’s been asked to keep his schedule clear. “I have a good feeling about it.”
Just as he had a good feeling when shooting the pilot, even if that came with some intimidation.
“Really good writing, really good performances, really good cinematography and direction will make a great show, but if it looks bad, you’re going to lose a little bit of audience for that. A lot of pressure, but boy was it fun. And that was the day I met the whole cast and thought, boy is this show going to be hilarious and awesome.”
Seasons 1 and 2 of GLOW are streaming on Netflix.