In conversation with Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki, Emmy-winning production designer Amy Williams reveals her tricks for creating a lived-in, authentic space. She also shares some visual cues she planted throughout the Netflix series.
Watching an Amy Williams-designed project is like going on an artful easter egg hunt. The magic lies in the details. Every object has a meaning— the shapes, the colors, the art on the walls, the books on the shelves, the objects pinned to the fridge. In the third season of Master of None, titled Moments in Love, Williams’ production design brings to life a marriage– her work so integral that she’s a producer on the project alongside her longtime collaborators Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari [who directs the season].
In chronicling Denise [Emmy-winner Lena Waithe] and Alicia (Naomi Ackie)’s relationship, their fertility struggle, and their ultimate separation, Williams recreated New York in London, building the apartment where much of the series takes place, from scratch. The five-episode season is a slow build, which allows the eye more time to appreciate the meticulous work that went into what can only be described as a dream home— filled with mementos and hand-picked pieces that mirror and enhance the story.
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Williams explains many of those personal touches and visual cues that you might have missed. (You’ll probably want to do a Moments in Love rewatch after reading this). She takes us inside her sets and shares some of her tricks for making her designs so authentic. I can only hope that our conversation offers some insight into, and appreciation for, the art of production design. And for Williams’ place as one of the best working today.
Awards Daily: You’ve done the production design on all of Master of None, and you worked with Alan and Aziz on many of their projects. You’ve all formed such a strong bond. How were your initial conversations about this season different from your previous meetings?
Amy Williams: Well, four years lapsed between seasons, and in between that time, we worked together on other projects. Alan and I did a series for Amazon; we also did a film together. Also, during that period, I helped both Aziz and Alan, separately, renovate their new homes in New York. Even when we weren’t working together, we were working together. We were always in the vicinity, whether some of us were on other jobs or not. It was great to have that communication.
You know, I would hear little ideas that they would have here and there about what might happen in the third season, but it was all very theoretical at the time. All creative banter. It wasn’t until I finished the project on Aziz’s house that he said, ‘I’m actively writing. I think this season is going to be focused on Lena’s character. I’ve got all these ideas, but I don’t know if it’s going to work, but you should check out [1974’s] Scenes from a Marriage. I am going to focus on this relationship between Denise and her wife.’
Then it ramped up very quickly, and we started producing the show. They decided the show would go to London and started prepping it in February 2020, and then we were shut down a month later, very quickly [Laughs]. We had a lot of time to share references, share ideas, and really flush out the characters and how we would shoot this. I don’t think we ever had that amount of time and the luxury to really get into a project like that. We have known each other for many years, so the shorthand and trust were there. You don’t always get with every project.
AD: This season was shot on film. Does that affect your aesthetic as a production designer—the colors you choose, the textures, things like that?
AW: Yeah, in a way, it made it really exciting. I was really happy. My very first film, Keep the Lights On (2012) with Ira Sachs was on 16mm, and there is something about the grain and the richness that I knew that we could really push the limit with bright pops of colors, the color palette, the ability to use certain patterns. It was only good news to find out we were shooting on 16 mm.
AD: So much of the season takes place in their apartment. Something we’ve discussed before is that your homes always look so lived-in, so authentic. You’ve done it again here. What was your approach?
AW: Thank you, that’s really nice. I think that is one of the best compliments you can get as a production designer is when people don’t even know its production design because it looks so real. That is what I always strive for, especially with builds. I have a few tricks up my sleeve that I use. One is to stay true to the real proportions of things. Often with sets, we build sets bigger and taller than a regular house to accommodate the lights, sounds, and elements that go into production. My collaborators were open to low ceilings, using real wood floors that might creak, hard tiles that might be a little noisier, and that aren’t production-friendly, but they really catch the eye. It definitely helped that one of the characters was an interior designer, so we had an excuse to get cool stuff. It helped that the character of Denise had just sold a book, so she had some money to put into a beautiful new sofa. Then to pull that off, you have to really work on making things imperfect, giving them flaws, giving them layers that might not be harmonious and might not be the right color or the right angle.
Luckily, I had a team of construction builders who were happy to build a crooked ceiling and use real beams off-center. I think that kind of helps. You look at parts of the set and you think no one would ever build that intentionally in that way [Laughs]. Those are some of the tricks we used in this show. I think having the time with the actors and Aziz to really talk about the characters and give their input on the house’s objects helped quite a bit. Lena contributed and came up with many ideas about the artwork on the walls and the artists she liked. Naomi, she plays Alicia, recommended books, and gave me a good layer of her British History and her family history. We talked a lot about religions and daily rituals. Lena even sent me a picture of her nightstand and said, ‘I always have Advil on my nightstand; I also have this on my nightstand.’ It is kind of those little details when everyone collaborates where the magic happens.
AD: One thing that many people might not know is that you actually researched New England-style houses and then went and did the build in the UK. What was that building process like?
AW: I think people are really shocked. Like, ‘Wait, you normally shoot in New York. Why aren’t you in New York? Why are you in London, and why are you cheating this as upstate New York?’ There are several reasons behind it, but it was kind of like a puzzle to piece together. Some things are really hard. You know, things like light switches, outlets, some appliances across the pond that differ, so a lot of those things we had to fabricate or ship over. Our set decorators had to scour for washers and dryers because everything is so different. My set designer and I made sure everything was measured in inches and feet instead of going with the metric system, so the proportions stay true.
It was loads of research, looking at real homes. I used Airbnb, I used Zillow, I used friends’ houses that I know. You kind of pick and choose elements from these different locations and try to work them in.
AD: What’s unique about this season is that not only is it very self-contained, but the actors are moving so freely in the space. It was different from previous seasons. How did you incorporate that camera movement and fluidity into the production design?
AW: Knowing that the camera was going to be still and static the entire time and that some of the frames you would see, the actors would use the whole space, but because the frame was limited, they would be off-camera for moments. There is a scene where they are signing the divorce papers and Denise sits there, you see her the entire time, she is in the frame. Alicia is in and out of the frame, and there is all this movement. We knew that many of these scenes would take place in the house, that most of the season would be there, and we didn’t want the eye to get bored. I tried to build a lot of frames within frames. There would be beams on the ceiling to draw the eye, things to shoot around, interesting colors, brilliant artwork on the wall, little things to keep the audience engaged and have them become more curious about who these people were through their objects.
AD: I read that you have easter eggs planted throughout the production design. Can you tell me about a few?
AW: We do. When you have this much time to think about it, motifs surface and become part of the design. The set director and I worked a lot of breast-shaped objects into the set. Circles within circles. Some are really obvious, like we had these great little planters that had different types of breasts, all different colors and sizes. The stained-glass window was very clearly a vagina with ovaries if you turn it sideways. If you really look for it, you will see these things.
I also wanted to put in personal photos of the actors. We had pictures of Lena when she was a child. We had pictures of Naomi as a child and their family members. I snuck in a couple of photos of Arnold (Eric Wareheim) in there because I had a feeling that people would miss him. I just wanted to surround the space with some things that made us connected to previous seasons.
One thing I really liked that I haven’t told anyone in interviews is that we made movie tickets and put them on the refrigerator, and the movie tickets were all films that inspired us from the great masters, Ingmar Bergman. We also included a ticket stub for the movie “The Sickening,” a fake movie we had in the first season.
I can’t believe we made this really crooked staircase. I think there are many details in the graphics that we included that maybe people won’t pick up on. The books on the shelves, the specific titles have a purpose, so if you go back, you notice those little things. There is a photo of Aziz, Eric, Lena, and Alan, all of the family members that we put in the kitchen; I think that is a cute thing to look out for.
AD: What can you tell me about areas you designed outside the house?
AW: We did an IVF hospital, which was hands-on. We had an IVF specialist that we worked with, and we really wanted to make sure that was accurate; it wasn’t something that we had seen portrayed before very often. I went to a few IVF clinics, met some doctors, and just learned some interesting details that we worked with.
We also have Alicia’s apartment at the end of the season, and that we wanted to really root her in Brooklyn. I modeled some elements after my home, my friends’ homes, and other parts of the city. We had some exteriors that were kind of tricky because it was really the UK; we had to cheat a New York City street. We created some signage and changing the lines on the road, and driving on the right side, those sorts of things.
AD: Wow! What are you most proud of in terms of this project?
AW: I am really proud and flattered that they made me a producer this season. It’s a rare thing for a production designer. We all worked so closely together. I think it is a great compliment. I think it’s great that I have been able to work with these supportive, collaborative, and inspiring people like Aziz and Alan. It was great to introduce a new character. It was really special, for me, that this was such a female-focused season. The last seasons were focused on Dev (Ansari), a man in his thirties. This was a moment where we kind of shift those gears. It felt right for the moment, and that was rewarding.
I think the important thing about this season is seeing the love between these characters and these women in a slower pace. It takes more patience, but I think that the rewards are there, if you have the patience. I think it is what some of us are craving right now, slowing down, staying attentive, and staying in the moment. For some people, they think it’s the most boring thing in the world. For the rest of us, it is sort of meditative. I am proud that so many people have been able to relate to this and have been able to notice the details and have been able to see themselves in these characters, even though they don’t look like them or are in the same financial bracket. I think this is a pretty universal feeling in the story.
AD: Are you hoping to produce more in the future?
AW: I am not sure. I am so obsessed with my job and production designing; it really is what suits my personality best. I wish that production designers had a bit more respect and were paid at the same level as other people in the industry. For me, maybe doing both is a way to get to that level and to get recognition for what my craft does in the filmmaking world. It is not just a big set that everyone else enters into and makes the magic happen, that we are actually involved in the filmmaking process and the moviemaking action. If I am able to do both, cool. If I work with the right kind of people, that’s great. If I production design for the rest of my life, I would be super psyched.
AD: If you had a tagline for your work as a production designer, what would it be?
AW: Oh, that’s a good question! I would say that it’s authentic. I try to make my production design specific to the project. I design for the project and not just for myself. It’s about supporting the scripts and working with the directors. I would say that I try to bring out the beauty in the every day, in the normal. I embrace the faults and the accidents. I try to take risks. When I look at production design, I get inspired by other’s work, but I want to make something I’ve never seen before. That is my approach.
Master of None Presents: Moments in Love streams exclusively on Netflix. Follow Amy Willimas on Instagram to see additional photos and learn more about Master of None’s production design.