Alexandra Schaller is the production designer for A24’s After Yang. Starring Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, and Haley Lu Richardson and written/directed by Kogonada, the film touches on new ideas about life and loss. Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Schaller discusses how the sets show us an undetermined future without pushing the visuals of it. She also reveals how the film’s sets let us subtly take in these characters who just happen to live in the future. Finally, she discusses how the delicate balance works in many different settings and how it imbues After Yang’s characters with emotion.
Awards Daily: When you were creating the futuristic look of this world it seemed very subtle. It still felt like our world with just a little bit of progress. What was it like trying to find that balance and working with the other departments to create that look?
Alexandra Schaller: It was a very specific balance you know because one of the first questions that I asked Kogonada when I first met him was when did this take place? And he purposefully wanted to keep it vague because it’s not really about the future. We wanted to keep it mostly about the characters. The main thing he wanted to achieve was to make it feel very relatable and very human. That was the guiding principle. We always wanted to come back to this very, very, soft subtle change from today, but it could be today. Working with the other department heads on that, it was one of those movies where we were all working in concert. I’m very proud of the way the movie looks and I think it’s owing to the fact that we all work so closely together.
Awards Daily: The house the family lives in is almost a character in itself. So much is unveiled. It was interesting that almost every time at night it’s always kind of lit, not quite lit all the way like they’re keeping it in the dark. What was the thought in creating the house itself?
Alexandra Schaller: Oh my gosh, how long do you have? [Laughs] The house as a character was written into the script by Kogonada. In the script it says shots of the house, and I know one of the reasons for that. By seeing the house we see the architecture and that’s our way into what this future is. Because of the way it’s designed. Plus through the wide shots of the empty house we are feeling the absence of Yang when it’s devoid of all of the characters. That was one of the things we really wanted to feel. The idea of absence, emptiness and longing.
Awards Daily: Two other spaces spoke to me and I might be reading too much into this. The tea shop is seemingly dark and sparsely placed and there’s a lot of cement. Then there is the coffee shop, which is much brighter and has an almost, for lack of a better word, hippie look to it that makes it seem like it could easily be around today. Was there a purposeful difference between those two places?
Alexandra Schaller: Definitely! Instead of presenting a singular vision of what the future is we wanted to present this idea of a wide, broad, diverse full future. So we tried to design each of the sets to be distinct and yet feel part of the whole. Nature and natural materials factor into the story and the subtexts and also the design of the materials that were chosen. So we’re using a lot of natural material in all of the environments. In each one we picked different ones but in all of them, maybe with the exception of the tea shop actually, where the tea takes the place of the plant life everywhere else, we are using lots of plants, greenery and living things.
Awards Daily: I thought this was a beautifully done thing. The self-driving car is very subtle in how you slowly realize nobody is holding the wheel, that he just talks to the car. What was the thought in creating that?
Alexandra Schaller: At first like with the house we weren’t sure if we wanted to use a location or build something. It was the same with the car. It is a smaller budget movie, so we thought okay, maybe we will find a car that would work. But then it was ‘Okay, what’s the most analogous car,’ which was a Tesla probably, but it is so specific and it is so today. So we knew we wanted to create our own car. And a lot of the scenes in the car are very quiet and contemplative. So I wanted to design a space that would allow for that. Kogonada had a very specific idea about how he wanted to shoot it. He wanted a lot of the environment the car passes through to play as reflection on the car. So we knew that we needed to design the glass roof to allow that to happen and to get the shots. We also designed the underground environments that were projected onto the window. So a lot of thought went into the car. What you may or may not notice, and I think that the beauty of Kogonada’s cinema is that the devil is in the details, but the car is powered by plants. It is also very green in the car; we use natural wood grain. There is an engraved plant motif in there. So everything is very subtle to create the feeling of the whole.
Awards Daily: A more general question: what got you into production design to begin with?
Alexandra Schaller: I think I have always loved storytelling and I’ve always loved spaces. So this is a way that kind of blends those two things. You’re storytelling through the environment. I’ve always loved art and I love paintings and I love the way a painter can tell such a vivid story in just one frame. And I feel like what we are doing is creating moving, living, breathing paintings.
Awards Daily: I went to your website and saw your immersive work there. I really liked the Roberto Cavalli one. What goes into creating that kind of production design work, and is it very different from your movies or TV work?
Alexandra Schaller: I think that the way I approach any design project, whether it’s a film project or an immersive project for a brand, is– how do we want the audience to feel? What is the story we’re trying to tell, and whether that’s through selling an item of clothing, which is what Roberto Cavalli does, or whether it’s through telling a poetic story, how do we want the audience to feel? For me, regardless of the kind of project, what we want to say and how we want people to feel is what determines how the environment should look. So everything starts from that central place.
Awards Daily: Any final thoughts?
Alexandra Schaller: Oh my gosh, I could talk so much about After Yang. There is so much to talk about. I could talk for hours about it.