Awards Radar rcently got the opportunity to chat with Jordan Ninkovich, the production designer responsible for designing the sets for the new Lifetime movie Hoax: The Kidnapping of Sherri Papini. Ninkovich built custom hospital rooms, hospital hallways, an interactive interrogation room, and her home from scratch.
Hoax: The Kidnapping of Sherri Papini follows the life of Sherri, a mother of two who disappeared after going on a run and reappeared three weeks later, claiming that she was kidnapped and abused by two Hispanic women. The movie stars Jamie King as Sherri Papini.
In this interview, Jordan breaks down how he curated the spaces to match the director’s vision, his favorite sets to design, and his research.
How did you get involved in the movie?
Jordan: How I got involved in Hoax: The Kidnapping of Sherri Papini is a great question. I was finishing up a Hallmark Christmas movie with the Tim Johnson group at Novus Productions in Vancouver when I was offered to be the production designer for the Sherri Papini movie with Lifetime. Having designed lots of great movies with Lifetime, I was thrilled to have the chance to capture this story, especially after I got to read the script. Knowing the story from the news, I had wild visions and ideas for this movie in a new and fun light for the design elements, which got me very excited.
With this story having a huge media impact, how did you start your research?
Jordan: With this story having a huge media impact, that is where I decided to start. I took the time to watch everything I could get my hands on, from police and news footage to all the interviews with everyone involved in the story. I then took the time to research Redding, California, and its architecture, style, and things that were trending and happening during that year. Lots of this was for personal use, which developed my design steps and elements. As we all know, when scripts like these get written, many things either can’t be said or something changed due to many specific reasons. But that being said, the more you know and understand this world allows my design process to blossom and develop, bringing to life the script at hand. I studied every little detail in each video or picture I got, from big items to tiny ones. Documenting everything, how it looks, feels(visually), and is placed within a space. I wanted to have all the knowledge possible of what the world saw and felt from all the news footage and be able to bring those elements into the world I was designing for the film.
What was your favorite set to design?
Jordan: My favorite set to design is a great question and a hard one. However, I loved every aspect of this movie and the environments I created and worked in. I enjoyed Sherri’s home, both interior and exterior, as I got to create a beautiful environment for the home that allowed me to play with specific color palettes and had them change throughout the film ever so subtly. With the Kid’s birthday and anniversary party, we had lots of fun capturing Sherri’s character as a super mom and perfectionist, planning and having a near-perfect party for her kids. We provided custom cakes and desserts/ candy carts for the kids to bring the party to life on a fun and accurate scale to support the child actors and background.
You depicted Sherri’s feelings through the color palette of her house. What were some of the colors that you chose to display those feelings?
Jordan: When it came to Sherri’s home, I worked closely with Director Marta Borowski. Her vision and interpolation of how she wanted to capture Sherri and this movie spoke very deeply to me, and our collaboration was seamless and fed off each other’s creative minds. Color played a considerable part in the overall look, tone, and feel of Sherri’s home. So I decided to go with an “analogous color palette.” With a range of teals and warm tones, some pink accents throughout the house, and subtle yellow features. I made sure to have fresh-cut flowers and other greens to bounce off of the natural tones of the home while allowing them to Wilt and age through the progression of the movie, to symbolize Keith being unhinged by Sherri not being at home and how she took care of everything.
The movie starts with things bright and fresh and well put together highlighting these palettes, then slowly progressing darker, and the underlying tone changes when getting to the end of the movie. The teals and blues throughout the home symbolize balance, faith, trust, openness, and calm feelings displayed as a perfect home, a perfect family, and a super mom in which her friends and neighbors thought of the Papini. While the subtle tones of yellow showcased confidence, warmth, free expression, and happiness which were supposed to have been there but deep down desired by Sherri. As the film progresses, the underlying tone becomes darker, showing the downfall of Sherri and her battle with mental health and the actions she caused. I also placed bird motifs and birds in cage motifs throughout the film symbolizing freedom and the feeling of being trapped. I had fun with these subtle Easter eggs throughout the film, Marta wanted to see this, and we had some fun placing these subtle signs throughout the film.
Can you expand on your collaboration with director Marta Borowski?
Jordan: My collaboration with Marta Borowski was a fantastic experience. It is part of my job to work closely with each director to capture their vision and complement it with the needs of the network. As I read the scripts, I transform them into a visual masterpiece creating and developing the world we are about to film. These are the exciting steps for me as a production designer, taking minimal description and detail, working with that, and designing the worlds the audience gets to see. Marta had such a beautiful vision and approach to this movie, which really inspired me. Funnily we speak the same design language, which made collaborating with her a memorable and fun experience. In my professional opinion, she is a powerhouse of a director and such a great person. I would work and design for her any day of the week. I knew Lifetime films very well, having the pleasure of designing many films for Lifetime. I was very impressed with the new style and cinematic approach Marta wanted to give to Sherri. Marta also wanted to show Sherri in many different lights and points of view. These were either never shown before or captured in the media. As we do these films, as I mentioned, we have to adjust real-life places, people, and things for many reasons, but I feel this movie was shot beautifully and got to capture detailed sets/environments I was able to design and provide.
You built custom hospital rooms, hospital hallways, an interactive interrogation room, and her home from scratch – how long does this process take, and what does it entail?
Jordan: As production designers, we are given many challenges that can be stressful but always exciting. If I am not stressed and working around the clock, I am not doing my job right; I love what I do and the team I have developed over the years. We are often tasked to design and build fun and challenging sets. With my background as an interior designer and builder outside of film production, I thrive and love designing sets from scratch. Some critical elements of my approach to production design are my education as a registered interior designer, experience on many levels and mediums, and all the other art and programs studied and practiced daily. Suppose I am not filming; I’m learning and advancing my design knowledge and the programs needed for future growth and development. When it came to Sherri’s sets, I was tasked with building her hospital room and hallways from scratch to capture all the different perspectives. Even if not needed for camera angles, I will always provide the shooting crew and the director 360 environments to shoot in these spaces, which also support the cast giving realism to their scenes for their work to flow easier. I would start by getting the space we can work within, square footage, and measurements of the space and start sketching out ideas and spatial awareness for the cast and crew. I would sometimes do bubble diagrams and other design elements to break down the needs and adjacencies needed for the space.
I then would take these early design elements and start doing a floor plan. I love hand drafting, but if I do not have time, I will CADD these designs. Then with corresponding sketches and all FF&Es (finish, fixtures, and equipment) needed for the space with necessary schedules. Once at this stage, I would get things approved by the director and producers, then proceed with my team to build these spaces. We usually have very little turnaround time to design and develop these spaces, so time management and execution are key. While building materials are being sourced and provided, I oversee my buyers and lead the decorator to hand-pick out items that complement the space and stay within my design palettes. The police station set is an excellent example of understanding design elements, rules, and spatial planning. This space was used as something completely different, and I had to transform this space into a full-blown operating police station. Sometimes we build them from scratch, and other times I need to be creative to work around challenges and roadblocks within physical spaces. I knew very little of the start, but being able to make them work for production. These are steps needed to design spaces, and I love every second of them. Usually, it is more than one space but many, which makes it exciting.
What was the biggest challenge?
Jordan: The biggest challenge we face is time. Time is the biggest challenge; we have only a few weeks to make this beautiful movie, and from start to finish, lots of amazing people with lots of moving parts are involved. For us, specifically with what I mentioned above, imagine designing the whole movie, specialized builds and sets, sourcing each item from big to small in a brief time, and presenting this newly designed world to production. Wild, and I love it! I am very grateful to have such a strong team. We are a family; we come together with lots of love and respect, trust in my design and approach, and execute it together. As an example of time, we had 10 hours to unload, build, paint, dress, and finish the entire hospital set before production was ready to shoot, and at the end of that shooting day, we had to take it all down and repack it. We have long days, but we love what we do and are proud of it.
Are you working on anything exciting that you’d like to share?
Jordan: Yes, I am working on a few exciting films! I finished designing and filming Pride: A Seven Deadly Sins Story with the talented Troy Scott, T.D. Jakes and Derrick Williams. I just finished shooting some additional scenes for Spread with the talented Harvey Keitel and Elizabeth Gillies, directed by Ellie Kenner for Cartel HQ and TUBI. I am just about to start prepping an entertaining film for Hallmark which I can’t share much of right now, but it will be great!