Megan McLachlan talks to FX’s Pose production designer Jamie Walker McCall about how they pulled off one of the most shocking episodes of TV.
FX’s Pose didn’t pull any punches in its second season. It took on the AIDS crisis more personally, with quotes from activists concluding each episode, and it also said goodbye to one of its memorable supporting characters with a tragically realistic demise.
In the episode “Never Had Love Like This Before,” the cast says goodbye to Candy (Angelica Ross), the sassy firecracker and sequin-encrusted thorn in everyone’s side over the course of the series. The episode starts out conventional and almost saccharine, with Ghost Candy at her own funeral talking to those left behind. But since Pose is anything but unoriginal, it eventually evolves into something more, with one of the most satisfying TV eulogies in recent memory.
I talked to Pose production designer, Jamie Walker McCall, about the making of this episode, why red was the color of the season, and the difference between Season 1’s ballroom versus Season 2’s.
Awards Daily: What was it like working on Season 1 of Pose compared to Season 2? Is there a difference between the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in terms of style?
Jamie Walker McCall: In the first season, we had the whole Trump Towers storyline. It had that classic ’80s feel to it for that whole moment in the story. Whereas in the ’90s, we got to branch out a little bit more and got little more freedom to hit the streets of New York and dive into the characters. In Season 1, we were a little pigeonholed in certain areas, but in Season 2 we were able to branch out a little more.
AD: Were you shocked when you learned Candy’s fate?
JWM: I was. We were all super sad. I knew early on [something was up], but I didn’t know exactly who it was. Early on in Season 2, we built the ballroom, and Ryan [Murphy] had mentioned to me that we needed a funeral home attached to the ballroom for Episode 4. So I was like, ohhhh. Later on, we found out who it was, which was sad because she’s such a fun character. She brings a little bit of edge to the show, and she’s just a great person to work with, so we were all very bummed.
AD: “Never Knew Love Like This Before” is probably one of my favorite episodes of television ever. And it had to be really challenging to do, since one set goes into the other. How did you do that?
JWM: Luckily, Ryan had told me before we had started building the ballroom, so I knew that I was going to have to incorporate it in. Planning-wise, we just had to account for the funeral home being right up against the front doors of the ballroom. I think one of the hardest things we had to do with that was the transition for the coffin to get from one place to another. The coffin was actually up on a step; I wanted it raised. Throughout all of the funerals—there were quite a few that season—the coffins were raised up. So we had to figure out how that transition was going to happen with the doors, and going down a ramp, and how that was seamlessly going to happen as Candy’s coming up out of the coffin. So we worked on it with special effects to make that happen, the curtain sliding open, the doors opening, and then being wheeled down the ramp. It was a well-practiced and choreographed thing we did with Candy. And it just worked. The good thing is that Ryan told me early on. We didn’t have to figure it out after the fact.
AD: So you had a different ballroom from Season 1 to Season 2?
JWM: We sort of did. So Season 1, in the Pilot, they shot at the Connelly Theater in New York. When I took over in Episode 3, we couldn’t always go there, due to New York restrictions on filming, so we went to various places in Season 1. One in Brooklyn, one in Harlem. We went all around, which they did in real life. They didn’t always have the balls at the same place. Then in Season 2, we knew we were going to be [in the ballroom] every single episode, multiple times, so it was just economic to build it. We modeled it after the Connelly Theater and some other places we were. It was easier. And if you notice, too, there’s an upstairs bar area. We developed that more because we could.
AD: The details are so on point, too, in Candy’s farewell. From the red curtains in the funeral home to the glitzy red curtains in the ballroom. Did you try to make the sets reflections of each other?
JWM: Not exactly. Ryan was very specific with that he wanted curtains for that moment, and he wanted them to open. Curtains do fit in with the theme of our show—there are curtains everywhere. In terms of stylistically, the funeral home feels kind of like the ballroom, just because of style.
AD: I feel like red is a common element in this episode. Even at the end, when everyone’s talking about Candy at the table, they’re all drinking what looks like red wine or something. What is red representative of?
JWM: I think red throughout the whole season is something we were conscious of, because of the AIDS epidemic. Red represents so many things. There’s rage in red. There are so many moments red exemplifies. Even for Elektra’s sexy basement where she works now. Red just kind of felt like the color for the season.
AD: Most of the episode takes place in the funeral home, which is why it’s such a surprise when it opens up to the ballroom. What did you do in the production design of the funeral home to add character to it?
JWM: Designing it, I went back to my childhood and took elements from every funeral home I’d ever been to. Even as an adult, I used some of the ones in New York for inspiration. I wanted it to feel kind of bleak and depressing, but also feel somewhat comforting and inviting, which is why I brought in a lot of wood tones and wood panelings. A lot of people feel that. Before each time we shot in there, I requested to bring in flowers a day or two before, to give it that smell. So when the actors would walk in, it felt like a funeral home. The actors would say, “Oh, it smells like a funeral home!”
AD: Was there anything different about the ballroom to let us as viewers know it was kind of a dream sequence, without explicitly telling us?
JWM: The only thing we really did slightly different, other than the lighting, is we changed the table cloths. But other than that, no, because it was kind of like her farewell. We didn’t want it to feel like a bizarre dream sequence. All of the characters were saying goodbye, and the cast and crew were saying goodbye, too, since [Angelica Ross] was leaving the show. All of the balls are always fantastic, so we just continued the look on that. We didn’t want to go too over-the-top for it.
AD: The energy in the ballroom was turned up even more so than usual, which really added to the scene.
JWM: It was by far my favorite episode. It was definitely one that brought tears to my eyes. She was such an awesome person and character, and we were sad to see her go.
Pose Season 1 is streaming on Netflix.