Michael Perry’s Promising Young Woman production design is the perfect compliment to Carey Mulligan’s magnetic performance—a world filled with technicolor sparkle and personality, but with layers of something much darker ruminating underneath. Perry has created a space that makes the audience feel warm, all while reminding us that danger is never far away.
In an interview with Awards Daily, Michael Perry discusses his production design work on the Emerald Fennell drama, and explains how he translated Cassie’s inter-turmoil into a chaotic, candy-hued treat for the eyes.
Awards Daily: What was your brief for Promising Young Woman going into the project? Take me through those early conversations with Emerald.
Michael Perry: It was an interesting conversation because it began with a phone call interview. We talked a little bit about some of my previous work and a little bit back and forth about how I saw the script and how she saw it. It’s an amazing script—you’re either immediately there, or you might struggle with it, but I saw it the same as her. The interesting twist was after the interview was over, she said, ‘Can I ask you a question? What was Sweet Valley High like?
Now that was completely unexpected since Sweet Valley High was about 24 years ago. But one of the reasons she talked to me was because of that. And that was a very poppy, colorful show. It was an early 90’s kind of look.
That’s what [Emerald and I] talked about— how to make this more colorful, more of a technicolor film, as opposed to crunching the blacks or having a milky filter. So, right from the get-go, that was our brief. Emerald sent me an Instagram group of Murder She Wrote sets; those were all printed up in my office and set all around. That’s where the colors started.
AD: I’ve heard you discuss Cassie’s parents’ home and how you’d found this house that was trapped in time.
MP: Yes. The biggest trick on this movie was casting locations because it wasn’t a huge movie, and there wasn’t a lot of time. So we did have to find the right location. That house, honestly, I don’t think anything has been touched since the early 1960’s—it’s pristine. And as soon as we saw it, we were like, ‘This is the place.’
We brought in dog paintings and things like that throughout the house. Her room was a complete redo. We wanted angel wings, and we had them throughout the movie. We found that bed—I wanted, most importantly, to have the angel wings behind her so that when she sits back, it comes across. We found a king-sized bed—I wanted it to feel uncomfortably large in that space. And that’s what I wanted [Cassie] to feel, like even when she’s home with her parents, it’s not a safe place for her. She doesn’t feel comfortable. I wanted to carry that through. And from there we built that tarot card look.
So yes, it was very important to find the right locations so that when someone stepped in, when the camera turned on, it just felt right.
AD: There are a few other touchstone locations in the film that I’d like to know more about—one is the café where Cassie works, which is very light and feminine, but then you have the club scene from the beginning, which carries darker tones. And the cabin as well. There’s always this contrast between the light and the dark.
MP: Yeah, there is. So the cafe, with the bubblegum colors; in the back of my head I was thinking of Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun. The coffee place is a place where she feels safe, where she’s not dealing with her problems, and she’s not dealing with her parents. She is there with her friend, and it’s safe. For the audience, I wanted them to see it as a fun kind of place. But, you might notice that the cups are red. We carried red throughout the movie as a warning that stuff was going to happen. The cabin was plaid on plaid, which I don’t think I’ve ever used in my life. It’s a warm, woody space where she would stick out in the white costume and her wig. Also, you’re not sure if everything’s going to be all right or not. That leads up to the wedding where it’s a river of red down the aisle; that’s the big warning sign.
AD: You’ve done quite a few projects that have horror and foreboding elements to them. What’s different about those kinds of projects as opposed to a ‘traditional’ film? I love this idea of weaving’ warning signs’ into your designs.
MP: You know, I’ve been in a lucky spot where I can pick and choose a little bit. I tend to be a bit more theatrical now than I used to be.
Throughout a movie, especially a location movie, I like to run several colors so that every location seems to fit into the film. I think that’s important. It’s also fun to give the audience visual clues. Of course, it’s not an in-your-face kind of thing. It’s more subliminal so that the audience starts to feel, ‘Oh, this is a moment where we can breathe.’ And it’s not. Or this is a moment where you think something terrible is going to happen. And it doesn’t—like the pharmacy scene. I do play with that in a lot of my projects.
I’ll tend to carry shapes through my designs. I get a lot of inspiration from paintings as opposed to photographs., I tend to play with color—It’s not something we get to do anymore. I go out on my way to use it when I can.
AD: Other than angel wings, what other visual cues did you sprinkle throughout your production design?
MP: There are angel wings; there are halos. The idea being that she’s the avenging angel. My design team loved the idea of using lots of dog pictures. I did a similar thing in It Follows , where all the pictures, or paintings, you see in that entire movie are of water.
AD: You mentioned being in a position where you can pick and choose your projects. I know you’re in post-post production on a couple of things. What are you looking forward to in the next year?
MP: I’m in Atlanta, having started on something that is completely different. It’s a very clever rom-com [titled I Want You Back] that reminded me of something from very early in my career—The Fabulous Baker Boys . I was the assistant art director on that one. I pitched them that kind of feel, a very stylized look. It’s a nice change because the last few projects I’d done have had a very high body count. [Laughs].
It was the attractiveness of the script. I’m always drawn to the script because my job is to create a world that the script could easily live in. And now that Promising Young Woman has come out, we’ll see what comes from that or where Emerald goes.
It’s funny Promising Young Woman is a big reason why I got this current job. I said, ‘Well, you know guys, my rate goes up on the 27th.’
I know that there are several horror movies on my list. I don’t actually go for designing horror movies. I designed them like a regular movie, and the horror just exists in it. I still play the same tricks. It’s all coming from a theatrical background. Scenery plays a much more critical role in the theater—I brought that over.
People ask me, ‘Well, what’s your process?’ And I don’t have one because I feel like every film has its own organic method.
AD: It’s interesting that you’ve done so much contemporary production design. I think contemporary production design is often so unappreciated— the detail that goes into it.
AD: You could probably teach an entire production design course based on your work in Promising Young Woman.
MP: During the interviews, when I was first hired, I said, ‘I’m not the guy to hire if you’re just going to go into a place and shoot it.’ I have no interest in that. I mean, it certainly did it in my younger days, but I’m on the backside of my career. I’d rather have it be fun and interesting, so I can see what I can maneuver and get away with.
With Promising Young Woman, Emerald was a very clear and decisive director. If I showed her something and she didn’t like it, she would just say no. It can be somewhat awkward, occasionally, that I’m an old white guy designing a feminist movie. I’ve surrounded myself with really great young women. They all have a strong voice. I just really appreciated the shot that Emerald gave me. I feel like we did [the movie] real justice, but we did it as a team.
Promising Young Woman is in theaters and available On Demand now. Read more interviews with the cast and crew of Promising Young Woman here.