Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity, first took place in London. Then John Cusack moved it to his hometown of Chicago for the film version. A Broadway musical followed, this time moving the locale to Brooklyn. The 4th iteration of Hornby’s book, the Hulu production starring Zoe Kravitz as “Rob,” a beleaguered record store owner who can’t get her romantic life together, also takes place in NYC.
Production designer Almitra Corey was charged with creating the look of the televised series. She took an approach that pays some homage to the film, but also serves as a love letter to the gritty NYC neighborhoods where the show is set.
In our conversation, Almitra explains her approach, her effort to keep the vibe of the city alive in every episode, and of course, how one builds a proper record store for the modern age.
Awards Daily: Were you a person who frequented record stores before you worked on the show?
AC: In the ’90s, as a teenager, I spent a lot of time at record stores. There was this really special one in Richmond, Virginia, where I grew up that I went to pretty much every week. Then when I moved to New York in my early twenties, there was one record store in particular, kind of near SoHo, that was my regular shop. It doesn’t exist anymore, but it was around for a long time. It was called Rocks In Your Head. It was kind of the impetus for the design of our store in High Fidelity. It was subterranean.
AD: As a person who ran a record store in the ’90s, I appreciated that High Fidelity‘s record store looked like a real record store. Too often you see stores in movies that have too much space in them. Almost every store I’ve ever been in is jam-packed with product. On the show, you can almost feel and smell the dust in the air.
AC: We really tried to hit exactly those marks that you that brought up. I was lucky that everybody on my team wanted the same thing, knew exactly what we were talking about, went to record stores in real life–it wasn’t just a job for any of us. My number one goal that I repeated every single day to my team was to make sure everything looked as real as possible. That’s usually my goal, because those are the types of shows I work on and the type of people I collaborate with. I haven’t done anything that was supposed to have like any kind of artificial layer to it.
I was really happy that we were able to achieve that level of authenticity on this. There’s always room to go further, for sure. I see little spots here and there that I think, well, next season, I need like a few more posters. In our early stages of designing there were a lot of people giving input. It was a little bit bigger at first, and it didn’t seem logical as the story evolved, and as we got more details about what Rob’s backstory was, and we decided on the neighborhood, we kind of kept shrinking it a little bit. We did the same thing with her apartment as well. We’re not making a classic TV show. It doesn’t need to be cute, It needs to be real. That was definitely something that we all talked about a lot and got to a place where everybody was happy.
AD: You mentioned the posters on the show. In Rob’s office there is an amazing Prince poster. As a huge Prince fan myself, I have to ask where you got it from and why you chose it for her office.
AC: One thing Zoe specifically requested was this classic, sexy poster of Prince that came as an insert in one of his records. He’s in the shower, and he is very, very sexy. It might be the Dirty Mind album, or maybe it was Controversy–I have it in my record collection. Our legal clearance team reached out to the estate and they said that that particular image was not the image that they wanted us to use, but they provided some alternatives that they would be okay with. That’s where this one came from. It’s really special. That one and the Biggie photo by the register. I came across that one in a book. I think it’s called Contact (High). It’s a book of hip-hop photography, but it included contact sheets from the photo shoots and that photo was from the last photo shoot that I believe Biggie did before he passed away. It’s that that iconic photo where he’s got the crown on his head and he’s kind of grimacing, but this take is slightly blurry, and he’s smiling–he looks so joyful.
I just really thought it was super special. I showed it to Zoe and to the showrunners, and everybody really liked it. So, again, our clearance people reached out to the estate and to the photographer, and they made it happen. It took a little bit because everybody wants to use an image of Biggie in their show, in their movie, and for this one the photographer was familiar with the story, and with Zoe, and so is the estate, so they approved it. They don’t approve everything just because of money. They also want to maintain the integrity of his legacy. We were lucky. That was one thing in particular that I personally really wanted to include on the set. I was so happy that it worked out.
AD: Another thing that’s unique to the show, is you will sometimes see other shows located in NYC with middle-class people in these extravagant apartments that they couldn’t possibly afford. You didn’t do that here. Rob’s apartment is tight and somewhat cramped. I’m thinking of Friends…
AC: Exactly! That’s the example I used a lot when we were talking about the size Rob’s apartment should be. We weren’t going for Friends. (Laughs). There’s a sort of unscripted backstory of how she ended up with this place. It never came up in the show, but we all came up with the backstory to justify how she has this place. I have a lot of friends who still live in Crown Heights, and I knew that in real life the apartment wasn’t too big, but we still had the backstory that she inherited the apartment from her brother when he kind of quote unquote grew up and moved to his fancy apartment and got married, and that even he before that had sort of inherited it from like a family friend or an older co-worker.
He had lived there for a long time, and then the woman who lived there before him had lived there for a long time. So, it’s just sort of grandfathered in, which is very similar to my current situation. I have a great deal on my apartment in L.A. because I was grandfathered into it from her friend who was grandfathered into it from her friend. Every decision like that was very much discussed and purposeful. There were some people who wanted to bigger just so that it was more acceptable for the logistics of shooting, and we made it a little bit bigger. Then when everybody got inside, we all thought, this is too big, so we cut out a room.
AD: At the other end of the spectrum is Parker Posey’s place. That was a very different style of design compared to the rest of the show.
AC: It was exciting to be able to do something so different, and not because she’s a a rich lady uptown–she’s also an artist. She has the luxury of the time and the resources to dabble in different styles of art. I’ve been out of college for nearly twenty years now, but I did go to school for sculpture and extended media, so as I was reading the script, and they were describing all of these very specific sculptures, I was like “Oh my gosh, I can finally use my degree!” (Laughs). My incredible scenic department created all of the sculptures that you see in that episode including the giant dog that people think is a horse.
We worked with our special effects team to design the car. We bought a full car and cut it in half and brought it into that location. Parker Posey was just exactly as cool, and interesting, and excited about the project as I hoped she would be. She wanted to know about the backstory of her character and got involved with the costumes and with my department about what the apartment was going to look like. She provided a couple of personal pieces as well. She had a couple of photos of her and her dog–these beautiful portraits. It’s not super-featured in the way that the episode ended up being cut, but there was this gorgeous collage portrait of her that an artist had made out of items from her junk drawer. It was gigantic, and it was really beautiful. It’s fleeting in our episode, but it was a very special piece that added to the set for sure.
AD: I loved the room with the records in it from her apartment. It was almost like the records were an art installation in and of themselves.
AC: It’s probably a combination of our director and Zoe because that was the episode that Zoe wrote. They had an idea her husband, “Ponytail,” had gone. He had moved out and all of his stuff was gone except for these few items and all of his records, and she’s going to make it into potentially the greatest art piece of her career. We wanted it to be visually striking and also, the rest of the house has kind a maximalist vibe, and this was his room–like an upscale man caves that we wanted to be really spartan, and not have too much character, because this guy is clearly lame and we needed to get that across.
AD: Most of the spaces you shot in are either pretty small, or tightly packed. Whether they are small apartments, or full clubs, can you talk about the challenge of designing those types of spaces?
AC: That challenge came up quite a bit, because our schedule was packed with multiple locations in every episode, and on certain shoot days we would try to double and/or triple up on one location. That was probably the biggest challenge. We had a few different nightclub scenes and performance scenes that we shot at the same location and we just augmented, redressed, or brought in a small set piece to make it look like a completely different location. Hitting our schedule and making things still look visually interesting and exciting was the biggest challenge. Because once we started shooting, time was not on our side. During prep–I had the most prep time I’ve ever had. It was a true luxury and really wonderful to be set up to succeed in that way.
AD: There’s a certain amount of hipster-ism that goes on around record people, and the show also has a bit of a bohemian vibe, but also this gritty NYC thing where you never let things get too pretty–can you talk about how you formed your aesthetic?
AC: All of that is true. It also just helped to create a stark difference when we did have a set that was supposed to be a little bit of artificial, or be really perfect and aspirational–like the loft for the dinner party that her ex, Kat has that was unbelievably curated, and just the opposite of Rob’s world. Then on top of that, we had the difference between Rob’s world when she was with Mac and Rob’s world as she’s going through the spiral of figuring out her life where everything is just a lot messier. In general, it just goes back to wanting to be as real as possible. Myself and the people on my team all kind of knew that world because we have all either lived in New York for a long time or still live there. It helped that Zoe was into the same color palette that I was feeling for her.
Once we figured out those broad strokes and knew we were on the same page, I could trust my instincts going forward from there. The aesthetic of Rob is kind of in line with my personal aesthetic. I don’t know if we got to see all of the details on the actual final episode, but I think we saw a good amount of it, was Peachy and Shane’s sort of punk squat recording studio space. That one was really fun to do. But it’s been easily 15 years since I’ve been in that world of DIY punk artist spaces. I had to check in with people and ask, “Is it still like this?” (Laughs). How much has changed? Would it still look like this? I think it’s different because of technology. Millennials and Gen Z, they’re just smarter, and cooler, and better in a lot of ways. Look at everything they’re doing right now. They’re spearheading all of the change. I think that’s happening because they’re smart and they’re organized, and they grew up with technology. I didn’t have a computer until I was 15, and even then, it was a gigantic thing that we played like one game on. I didn’t have the real Internet until college.
AD: Maybe it was deceptively simple to set, but I loved the emotional scene outside of Rob’s apartment with her and Mac near the end of the season in front of her long walk-up. I don’t know if that was a challenge to put together, but it looks so perfect and adds so much to the scene.
AC: All we did was replace the trash cans with our own. (Laughs). But that’s where they really lived–I mean that location was one that we picked early on and kind of designed around that. We picked the exterior first, and then I built the interior based on that. One thing that was unique about the show is that it was important to the showrunners that logistically, in real life, that the actual locations were geographically close to each other. Typically, that’s not the case. Most of the time we find a location that we like and we make it work through camera and editing. But on the show, the exterior of the record store is across the street from the bodega that they go to, and it’s half a block from the exterior of the bar, and next door to that is the laundromat that they frequent. Everything is in the same half a block radius, and Rob’s apartment is a block and a half walk from the record store, and then the hipster coffee shop is one block over from there. It was geographically possible to walk and talk and see and see the real neighborhood because it is a real neighborhood. That was important to me.
Everybody in New York knows Crown Heights –it’s not a secret neighborhood or anything. It has gone through a lot of changes like all neighborhoods in the last ten years, but it’s one that I haven’t seen a lot of on popular contemporary TV shows. I was really glad that we were able to shoot there and it worked out well with all of the neighbors, and we showed it for what it is. We didn’t change anything about it. As we first started scouting, there was no super-hip, over-the-top brand new beautiful coffee shop–there were a couple cool ones down the block. And then during our prep as we were scouting that new one popped up and that’s the one we ended up shooting at. All I did was add a little bit to it to make it a little more over the top to make it feel a little more out of place. We added some neon and some wallpaper, but that’s about it .Real life was imitating what our story line was there.
AD: I have to admit, as a huge fan of both the book and the movie, I wasn’t sure there needed to be another iteration. My wife and I went to a special screening last year of the film in which John Cusack held a Q&A after. The movie held up so well, but I have to say, both my wife and I thought the series was even better. Which is not a sentence I ever thought would come out of my mouth. (Laughs).
AC: I think a lot of people are pleasantly surprised. There was a lot personally for me to keep in mind every day as I was making it, I saw that movie in the theater twenty years ago when I was studying abroad, and Stephen Frears did a Q&A afterwards. I didn’t really know what I was seeing. I just wanted to go see an American movie and it was playing in Glasgow. Stephen Frears was a wild man back then. He was such a curmudgeon. He always stuck in my head because he was a character. But that movie made an impact on me because of the time and the place when I saw it.
Years later, one of the first movies I worked on in the art department, I worked for the production designer Therese DePrez, and she was the first woman designer I ever worked for, and he was just this magical being–so incredibly talented and just a wonderful person who sadly passed away a little over a year ago. But every day we were making the show I thought about her and how I couldn’t let her down. There is no way I could ever begin to try to fill her shoes, but I was very aware of her set, and how to be really mindful about not accidentally trying to copy them, but at the same time trying to pay some sort of homage. There were a handful of little things that I did in the record store, and there were a couple of little things we did in the apartment. I wanted to stay unique to what our iteration is with still paying homage to the original visual representation of the story. I did the same thing with the book. I read the book much later in life, but it still holds up. I love the book and there were a couple of little things that are in the book that aren’t in the movie that made it into the show.
AD: I recall an interview with Nick Hornby when the movie was about to come out and he was asked about the significance of the location change. He said something to the effect of, the street signs will be different. (Laughs). Which to me meant this is a pretty universal story.
AC: I think he feels similarly about our show, from what I understand. He was involved and he was at our premiere. Which also feels like twenty years ago, but it was literally just three and a half-four months ago.
AD: With everything sort of frozen in place production-wise due to COVID-19, I know there hasn’t been an official renewal yet. I imagine you have yogurt fingers crossed though. It feels like there is so much more story to tell.
AC: Oh, definitely. As we were making the show, I definitely heard little bits and pieces of “let’s save that for season two.” So, I know there’s a lot more story to tell. Especially with our other characters. I love Simon and Cherise so much and we barely got to scratch the surface with them. I feel like in my heart and in my mind and just from working on the show I know so much about who they are and I can’t wait to build Cherise’s apartment and spend more time with Simon. I love Simon’s episode when we see his perspective and learn about his background and his heartbreak, and I love, love, love that Cherise had such a huge impact on the final episode. That was a special moment on set when she sings that Stevie Wonder song with her guitar in the shop. It was such a beautiful way to finish the show, and I and I think it opened up an idea that we’ll start with next season. We’ll learn a lot more about her and she’s going to learn more about herself as a character and grow. I can’t imagine we won’t have a second season.