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Sundance Film Festival Interview: A Chat with ‘After Yang’ Production Designer Alexandra Schaller

Premiering the Spotlight section of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival (where Joey reviewed it here), Kogonada’s After Yang is a thoughtful sci-fi film about a near future world where androids are adopted as companions and loved like family. The film’s thoughtfulness extends to its production design too, as revealed in our Awards Radar interview with production designer Alexandra Schaller. In our chat, she explained the inspirations and meaning behind the film’s meticulously designed sets.

Shane Slater: How did you get involved with this project and what were some of the first ideas you had for the film’s look?

Alexandra Schaller: Well, my agent sent me the script. And I read it right away because she said, “I think this is one you’ve got to pay attention to.” And she was right, I fell completely in love with it. I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever read. And for me, the process of choosing what project to work on comes largely from whether or not I can visualize it as I read, and in this case, I felt immediately immersed in a world I could connect with both aesthetically and emotionally.

So we set up a meeting with Kogonada and he and I really hit it off. We talked a lot about the film, but we also talked about our personal sensibilities. We talked about my background in theater design, about the concept of space, and what that is, and how that applies to set design. After that meeting, I was so inspired and really hoping that he would pick me.

In terms of the first ideas I had, I don’t really know where to start because there’s just so much that comes to mind. I think one of the first things we talked about was where we were in the future, the approximate time period and what events had taken place. I know that a lot of people are like, “well, the year is never specified.” And it’s true, but that’s kind of on purpose.

That said, the feeling of the world that K wanted was that of a post-apocalyptic world in the sense that a calamity had occurred, that humanity had lived through a significant event, and that we were living post that. And what that meant, was a world where we’re not charging headfirst towards natural disaster and the destruction of the planet anymore. That humanity had undergone some kind of reckoning and we’re now living in a world where there’s more of a symbiosis between humans and nature. That idea is what set the tone of the world. Plant life was really important, as was the way that specific things were engineered to work with nature, as opposed to against it. That overarching idea infused all of the design of the film.

SS: Kogonoda’s first feature Columbus was beloved and everyone talked about the architecture. What was the process of coming up with the look of the architectural aspect of the production design, and working with him on that?

AS: As you said, Kogonada knows a lot about architecture – he’s very knowledgeable. He’s an aesthete too, and someone who really appreciates beauty in the world. He also had a very strong sense of how he wanted to shoot the movie and how he wanted it to feel. He’s very inspired by Ozu’s movies. There’s a simplicity and cleanliness in the feeling and look of those films that we wanted to emulate. He loved the idea of playing with what’s in the foreground, what’s in the background, obfuscation, things like that, so we incorporated those possibilities into the design of the sets.

We were initially debating whether or not to build the Fleming home as a stage set, but we ultimately selected a location that we found and modified: a house where the bones were conducive to the types of compositions K was after. It had a lovely flow and a beautiful interplay of interior and exterior. We planted a tree in the central courtyard so that you could see greenery from wherever you were in the house, which was both visually and thematically important.

The house we chose is an original Eichler house from the 1960s, which is very rare on the East Coast where we were shooting, but quite common on the West Coast. They’re actually only three existing on the East Coast, and they’re all in this little area in upstate New York, right on the same street. Kogonada had found online that these houses existed, but we initially had no contact with the owners.

One day, as we were scouting other locations upstate, it was like, “well, let’s just drive past the house and take a look at it.” So we drove to the house, and after an episode of creative breaking and entering, we found to our amazement that the house was empty, which we all took as a sign that it was just meant to be. Our locations department then tracked down the owner, who miraculously agreed to our using it as a location in the film, and we started work on the house.

The thing that’s fun about this set is that the before and after pictures of the house are really crazy as we completely transformed it. It’s a house from the 60s, and it had a lot of the original 60s details, but it had all been painted over in white, it was a completely white space.

So we embarked on a process of restoring it – back to its beautiful self, but not really back, more forward. We tried to imagine what a house like this might be like in the future while still keeping most of the bones of the original design. We removed some walls to improve the sightlines and flow, and introduced new materials that would make sense for our future, but with a nod to how it was originally made in the 1960s.

A24

SS: The interiors are filled with a lot of decorative pieces. How did you approach that aspect?

AS: It’s interesting, because it’s a movie that’s set in the future and the future is a time period that doesn’t exist. And so actually, the future can be anything, it’s full of possibility. But somehow, as a population, we have a shared consciousness about “what the future is” from movies we’ve seen, like Blade Runner, and so on, but what we wanted was something that felt distinctly our own. A future that felt lived-in and homey and welcoming and kind. So in terms of the decoration, we selected items that created that feeling. We wanted a home that felt warm and cozy so we used a lot of natural materials, soft fabrics, clays – a lot of the dishes they use in the house are handmade pottery pieces. There’s plant life everywhere. We also wanted a future grounded in realism, a world that’s different enough but not too distinct from our present. The idea of creating a relatable future informed a lot of our design choices.

You know, the other thing is that given that we’re living in this post-apocalyptic period, we wanted to make sure that we used natural and renewable materials in the design to reflect what was happening in the world at the time. We only made one hard rule for the overall aesthetic, and the rule was that there was nothing that was immediately disposable and everything had to be either renewable or biodegradable, so there’s no plastic in the world. And though it’s quite subtle, I think that you can really feel it in the movie. We used a lot of natural woods. There’s also a lot of copper in the movie, because copper is an endlessly renewable resource, choices like that went into the design.

SS: One of the main themes in the film is the fact that they’re trying to embrace the daughter’s Chinese heritage. Did that play a role in the production design?

AS: Yeah, it totally did. The Chinese heritage was really important. But it was kind of also important to us to not hit the audiYeah, it totally did. Mika and Yang’s Chinese heritage was really important. But it was also important to not hit the audience over the head with it. There are lots of very small details that point to that in Yang and Mika’s rooms. We wanted the design to create an overall impression as opposed to directing focus there. What was really important to Kogonada, was that we’re in a kind of borderless and global world that’s culturally diverse. And that applies to the people that you see on screen and the creative design choices.

A lot of the design does draw a lot from Asian culture but Asia is vast, right? So it’s hard to paint it with such a broad brush. Our world has a little bit Chinese influence, it’s also a little bit Japanese, a little Scandinavian with a sprinkling of some European style. A little bit of everything is mixed in. For example, those who are paying attention might notice that on the packaging of the products used in the film, the name of the product is listed in many different languages to reinforce the idea of a global world.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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