Download: ‘WeCrashed:’ How Amy Williams Used Production Design to Help Show the Rise and Fall of an Empire
Emmy-Winning production designer Amy Williams joins Awards Daily‘s Shadan Larki to discuss building a multi-story, city-block-sized set to tell the story of a billion-dollar scandal.
In my work for Awards Daily, I occasionally get the opportunity to interview talent more than once. This Q&A with production designer Amy Williams marks our third conversation.
It’s always fascinating to learn about Williams’ research and her approach to each project. But also, on a macro-level, Williams’ eye for detail and knowledge gives you a greater understanding and appreciation for the art of production design itself. It’s a delight to watch WeCrashed, engage with Williams, and then go back and re-watch the series, to truly absorb the magnitude of what she and her team have created—a construction that is massive in size, but also rich in nuance and texture. Each and every space has been meticulously accounted for, coordinated and crafted in a way that enhances our understanding of who Adam and Rebekah Neumann (Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway) are as individuals and as a unit.
WeCrashed is bewitching. Watch closely, because there is so much to discover around every corner.
Awards Daily: I had the opportunity to speak with Jared Leto and we discussed how much he immersed himself in the role of Adam Neumann. He was in character as Adam for the duration of the shoot. Does that influence your production design process? What’s it like on set?
Amy Williams: It was interesting because these two heavy-hitters, Oscar-winning actors, have two very different approaches. I was surprised when the directors told me that Annie wanted to touch base with me about some elements of her character. And it was actually a really interesting approach to it all. She was very accessible. She was so on top of her game with the research of this real-life person. [Hathaway was also a producer on all 8 episodes of WeCrashed].
She sort of helped me mold the character and mold the environments. And that was a really rewarding collaboration. We had a text chain going, I would send her ideas and she would send me ideas, right down to the color of the floral arrangements for the wedding. On the same text chain, she would send words of encouragement, like, “Oh my gosh, you nailed this set!” So, that was really beautiful.
With Jared, it was totally the opposite; we only got to know Adam. And Adam was a very outgoing, larger-than-life character. And so that’s kind of the person I met. So we’d be having meetings whenever new directors come on, and [Jared] would always come by and go, “Yeah, go team!” You know? And it was as if we were working in a WeWork, whenever you were around Adam.
AD: You know how much I always love to ask about your research process! And as you mentioned, these were real-life people. How did you approach that aspect? Did you try to stay faithful to their world in your designs? Or did you use the materials you collected as inspiration?
AW: We did a bit of both. I mean, we got very heavy into the research, which is sometimes the most fun part of designing. And especially when this is based on recent events, recent history.
I had my own knowledge of being in a production office, which informed my idea of what those spaces would look like based on my experience. And I had maybe only been in one WeWork. So, I went into their design choices, the types of furniture they would use, the brand partnerships they had informed the spaces, and the color palettes. And one thing that really stuck out—hearing stories about Adam Neumann—was he was always asking for more color, and more color, to make the spaces brighter, brighter. So, we really leaned into that, and I think it helps to go with those poppy, primary colors, and neons because it adds life and chaos to the story. And this story has a lot of humor, so we wanted to incorporate that energy.
But, we took some liberties when it came to their more personal side, like what their penthouse looked like, for example. We wanted to convey that they spent a lot of money on it, and it’s hard to do that with real Manhattan spaces because they tend to be smaller.
We wanted to find something that shows that these characters have money and spent money, but maybe they don’t have the best taste [laughs]. And we also wanted to give them a warm, cozy, womb-like atmosphere because they were family people— they have five kids. We wanted to give them contrast to the bright, colorful WeWork spaces.
We had access to what their real homes look like, but, I think, for cinema’s sake, taking some liberties helped.
AD: In dealing with the modern start-up culture and that sort of design aesthetic—which to me, seems like not your thing at all, because you’re very detail-oriented and there’s a lot of warmth and character-driven design in the work that you do.
How did you approach having a space that was bright and colorful but also cold in a way?
AW: I think that was part of the attraction, because I do a lot of narrative, character-driven, intimate spaces, and they tend to be very organic and naturalistic. What I liked about this project is that it challenged me because it’s not what I normally do.
It was really exciting to be able to—from the ground up—create this larger-than-life, three-story massive set. I hadn’t had that opportunity before. And, you know, in some ways, doing period pieces and doing smaller, intimate spaces, like Master of None, are easier for me than doing contemporary, modern stuff. Because it’s so hard to make contemporary things look good. And look harmonious. Whereas, with period stuff, you have so much to play with; cool wallpaper patterns, vintage furniture, and all these things that people find very aesthetically pleasing. So, I actually really enjoyed the challenge. I’ve learned a lot, and it’s kind of fun to flip the switch.
AD: WeCrashed starts with this idea, and we see it grow into an empire, and all come apart. How did you approach having to show that progression visually? So much of that comes through in their environments—your production design is pivotal.
AW: We pulled from the research of knowing what these real spaces look like.
We had different directors, and different DPs, and to kind of keep everyone on the same page and to help the showrunners and the writer, I created this linear, colored timeline. And it started in the early 2000s and ended in current day.
We wanted to make this linear color story, and it started with very earthy, urban tones – no greens and blues – a lot of rusts and browns. And that’s what we wanted to show—the early days.
We assigned different sorts of titles to the growth of the company—so we had the early days and then we had the climb. And then we had a high point, which was very bright and colorful, and that’s when things are amping up. And then we sort of end on a somber note, which is the harsh reality of facing their responsibilities and the monster that they created. And we took that to a very serious pallet of slates, blues and corporate colors; silvers and grays.
And throughout the timeline, we added in elements like the first WeWork or the IPO status and…but then we also added in pop culture moments, like the Harlem Shake [laughter] and Trump’s election; all those different things that also affect, you know, the greater world.
AD: And what were some of those lessons that you learned or things that you might be taking on to a different project?
AW: I respect whatever design element I’m leaning in towards with a project. I will say that I think [WeCrashed] has given me a big appreciation for the variety in what I get to do, and design in my world.
You know, now I really want to do a period piece because I took a break from that. [Laughs]. I always want to challenge myself and have learned a lot about co-working culture and the high-end real estate market.
Another challenge for me was that there were a lot of office spaces—beyond just the WeWork sets, and those just aren’t interesting. I don’t even work in an office environment, but, I think we figured out a way to make them interesting, at least add some variety.
Just going back on how many sets we had to build—the main WeWork headquarters set took up an entire stage that was a city-block long.
AD: Oh wow.
AW: We could barely fit the set into the stage space that the studio rented for us. We took like every inch of that stage space. And then we had another side stage, we used that for Adam and Rebecca’s penthouse. And then we had a small little space where we could have a few little swing sets here or there, we did some of the driving on the stage. We did some side offices. I actually had one set that we used for three different offices. We would tear down the wallpaper and the paint and add different architectural touches. So, one week it would be the HR office. The next week, we threw up a bunch of wood paneling and turned it into the private school headmaster’s office. So, that was fun—just trying to make all the puzzle pieces fit within the restrictions of how much space you get when you film in New York City.
AD: And finding variation. Having an office space, but trying to design 10 different ways [laughs].
AW: Yeah! That’s really fun. Especially when you look at the photos side by side, the change of worlds is really interesting. We had a lot of progression sets, as you mentioned, where you see a completely gutted office space that magically transforms into, you know, a working WeWork office. So, that was really fun. We did a few of those, and we would take over office buildings; we would take over various floors and we would do the different stages on different floors so that we could shoot it all within one day. So, you would have a complete construction site on one floor and the dilapidated space on another floor; and then we’d have the finished product. So, a lot of interesting timing went into that, to make that schedule work. That was really fun.
WeCrashed is streaming on Apple TV+.