Master of None made its return to Netflix last month a full four years after last premiering new episodes. Taking center stage in its five-episode third season, subtitled Moments in Love, is a previously supporting character, Denise, played by Lena Waithe. Along with that new focus comes a new setting, which gave production designer Amy Williams the opportunity to start from scratch with the look and feel of the show.
Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Williams about the excitement of creating Denise and Alicia’s cottage, the challenge of collaborating remotely, and the reward of involved creatives with a vision.
Q: This season of Master of None was very different than the first two in terms of its setting and its focus. How did that inform your work?
A: It was hugely different, this time around and the first two seasons. It was basically the same collaborators: Aziz, Lena, Alan, myself. Aziz really is into foreign cinema and he just absorbs the Criterion Collection, so we all talked about how we wanted to change the look, mature, evolve the show, and when Aziz told me that he wanted to shoot everything static, he wanted to change the aspect ratio, go to more square Academy ratio, he wanted to shoot on 16mm, it was so exciting. It doesn’t get boring doing the same thing, but it’s nice to challenge yourself, it really informs the design in the different way when you changed the film medium, and even the frames. That’s kind of where it started. Then it also started with the script, where we finally got to take a deep dive into Lena Waithe’s character, Denise, which is something I had always thought about in the first two seasons and always anticipated designing and decorating her space. And then Aziz just gave me the gift of moving her upstate into a completely different environment and also writing in that her wife was into interior design. That was the best phone call ever when he called and said, hey, I’m thinking of making her wife an interior designer, and I was like, great, I get to play with fun stuff.
Q: Let’s talk about that cottage, where a lot of the action is set. How much of that is one place? Tell me all about it.
A: The interior of the cottage was a complete build. We built it in a convention center in East London called the ExCel Center, which happened to be shut down because of COVID. It was the only space that was available for filming at the time, so we had to turn it into a soundstage. We knew we wanted to shoot the exteriors at a real location, so we spent quite a bit of time scouting months prior for the right look. It was really challenging because it was supposed to be in upstate New York, and everything in England looks like the British countryside, and the architecture is just different. So that was a real challenge, and eventually I turned to Airbnb and started hunting for homes just to show my location manager an example of, this is what an American country home looks like this. This is how far it is from the driveway, and the other details that I think people pick up. We saw this house and it was perfect. It was actually three different houses that we used. For the front of the house, one house that was on this farm property in Dorking, England. The back of the house was a different house. So we pieced it all together and then went back to the drawing board with the interior of the set, and adapted it to fit the exteriors with the same size windows, similar doors, the right colors, the right textures.
Q: Was that an exciting challenge? Would you have preferred to do this all in New York, where it might have been easier to figure stuff out, or is this this something you were very happy to do even though it’s a lot of work?
A: I was excited to go to London. I like the challenge of an away job. It would have been much easier if we had stuck to New York. At the time when we resumed filming, the environment was really iffy and it wasn’t as safe as it as it seemed to be in London. And while we were there, that kind of flip-flopped and the COVID situation got really bad in London. It was a different experience this time around just because of COVID and because of the proximity to one another as collaborators. Zoom just doesn’t cut it when you’re trying to formulate a look and a design. It took a lot of extra patience. But I really do like the challenge of trying to put together a puzzle of all those bits. I think that’s really fun and really exciting. I’m glad we ended up in the UK.
Q: This season especially is one where we really get to look at the sets. And there are scenes where it’s almost as if your TV has paused and it’s just staying focused on things. It feels like an extra showcase of everything, especially the hooks and the rooms and the bedspread. Was there anything that you wanted to be very intentional about because you knew that, unlike a set or a backdrop in another show, the audience is really going to see a lot of this for an extended period of time?
A: The scripts were written in 2019, so prior to the pandemic. It just so happened that Aziz and Lena and Alan wrote the perfect scripts for pandemic shooting. There’s no extras. It’s all one location. It’s very contained. So that was really fortunate. And one of the reasons I think that the networks gave us the green light to move ahead. We talked a lot about how this is one location and how do you deal with character points and narratives and hope the audience doesn’t get tired of it because they’re in there for a long time. We do really linger on shots, which is a production designer’s dream, when they show off your set. There were moments where Aziz would make fun of me and he would say, Amy, enough ceiling already! It was fun to play with every element, it was fun to pull things from the Denise character, who we considered as the more casual and modern, and then there’s the character of Alicia, who has a British background, she’s of West Indian descent, and she’s into antiques and science. We had all those personalities to pull from for the details.
Q: What about any of the other settings for the season?
A: Some of the other settings are bit of a spoiler, as far as Alicia’s apartment. But that was a really fun one for me to put together because I live in Brooklyn. And we wanted to anchor her home in Brooklyn. So there are a lot of moments where I was calling my partner back in New York and asking, hey, can you send me photos of our flooring? Can you send me photos of the molding or the doors because everything’s different in the UK, even the colors and sizes and doorways and elements are different. So I really wanted to make sure it felt like a real Bed-Stuy brownstone converted into an apartment.
Q: There are so many places that I think of when I think of this show and its previous seasons, especially when things were in Italy. What were some of your favorite places to shoot or sets to create?
A: Italy was amazing. It’s a show that normally, and we didn’t get to do it this season, but normally we have a lot of meetings over the dinner table and there’s a lot of drinking and dining and really immersive experiences. For the other seasons, Dev’s apartment was a really special one because that was the first one we all did together. I loved doing Arnold’s loft because he’s such a weirdo and so unique and has all these kirks, so that was kind of a fantasy to create. But getting to travel for the show has been amazing.
Q: Do you think this is similar to any project that you worked on in the past?
A: No, this is unique. It’s probably one of the more immersive experiences. At this point, we’ll all known each other since 2014 when we started the first Master of None. We’ve all gone through a bunch of experiences. I was pregnant on the first season and this season, I brought my five-year-old with me to London. We’ve all had our experiences and matured, and we’re all friends. Even the music supervisor and I are close. He would call me after reading the scripts and say, maybe you should use this wallpaper pattern and I would call him and ask him for a playlist of music so I could listen to it while we were designing and scouting things. And I just think that’s really rare, to be so close to so many creatives. It makes it really special, and I think it’s really great that Aziz as a director was open to a different look this season because it felt really great to do something that I hadn’t seen before. And it was a challenge, and I think we pulled it off.
Q: I think you did. It gives off that unique feel.
A: One thing that’s important to mention is that our two actors, our two leads this season, were also very involved and really accessible. Lena suggested a ton of artists that she wanted on the walls, and we curated this beautiful show of diverse, queer, female artists. Naomi really helped with the background and bringing in the elements of her character, and even the Goldie Williams photo was something that was her idea. We just worked it in. To have actors that know their characters so well and want to bring those pieces into the design was great. Amazing.
Q: You mentioned that you’re working on some things that you’re excited about right now. Can you tell me about that and any other projects you have coming up?
A: I’m working on an Apple series. It’s very top secret but I think it’s pretty public in the trades, about the rise and fall of a company. So I can’t mention it but it’s very easy to look up. That’s a limited series. It’s completely different than Master of None, so I get to flex some different muscles in that capacity and that’s really great. I have a film called We Need to Do Something that I also made over the pandemic. It’s something I designed completely remotely, it’s a tiny indie film that premieres at Tribeca in June. It’s very similar, it takes place in one location. I got to build this crazy Stanley Kubrick pink bathroom for these characters to live and suffer in. It’s a horror film. That was another interesting thing that happened in 2020. That’s coming out soon. I did the first season of The Wilds on Amazon, and that came out this year. That was a great experience, to work in New Zealand and to be outside so much. This season, I couldn’t join them because of conflicts, but I was able to design some of the sets and act as a visual consultant for the upcoming season.
Q: It’s great to hear that you’re working on so many interesting and different projects.
A: It keeps things interesting. Doesn’t give you much sleep, but it’s awesome.
Q: Thanks for speaking with me today.
A: Thank you so much for your support of the show!
Stream all three seasons of Master of None exclusively on Netflix.