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Interview: ‘Schmigadoon!’ Production Designer Discusses the Show’s Moody Second Season

The first season of Apple TV+’s Schmigadoon!, had couple Josh and Melissa (Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong) on a backpacking trip designed to reinvigorate their relationship, but instead discovering a magical town living in a 1940s musical and learning that they can’t leave until they find true love. The second season finds them trying to return to Schmigadoon, only to find themselves in Schmicago, a seedy city that parodies the dark, sultry musicals of the 1960s and 1970s, that can only be left once they find a happy ending.

Schmigadoon!, which was created by Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, received three Emmy nominations for its sophomore season, including Outstanding Choreography For Scripted Programming, Outstanding Cinematography For A Series (Half-Hour), and Outstanding Production Design For A Narrative Program (Half-Hour).

We spoke with the show’s production designer, Jamie Walker McCall, about the moody tone of the series, combining esthetics of different broadway genres, and balancing the show’s color pallet.

First of all, congratulations you on your Emmy nomination. Well deserved.

Thank you very much.

Can you just talk about how you were brought on board for the second season?

Well, my agent brought me the project, and I watched the first season and then read the second season. I interviewed with Cinco and the team, and I was really excited to do it. It was really up my alley with the darker, more moody tone, because when I watched season one, I was like, “Ooh, that’s not in my wheelhouse.” But luckily, when I read season two, it had a more seedy aspect that I really like to lean into a little bit more. So, I interviewed and got the job. Bo [Welch] did the first season, and I am such a huge fan of his, so it was very intimidating to come in after him. I never thought I was actually going to get the job.

Bo’s work on season one was incredible as well, but it was pretty much a singular aesthetic that he was going for; the MGM musical, Rodgers and Hammerstein kind of vibe, whereas you were tasked with combining elements from very different shows like “Cabaret” and “Hair” and “Sweeney Todd.” Can you talk about the challenges of making Schmicago seem like a cohesive city, while still trying to balance all those different types of styles?

You know, I’m not the biggest theatre aficionado, so I really leaned into Cisco for a lot of that, and he gave me a lot of homework to do. He had specific movies that he wanted me to watch, some I’d seen and some I hadn’t. I only watched them once though. I didn’t want to get get too inside my head. I really tried to lean into the streets. So, the orphanage at the cross street was an1800s vibe, and then the T was with hotel Schmicago, which was more of the 1920s kind of vibe. And then with the whole “Hair” 70s element, that just was a completely different location, luckily, so that kind of was its own world, which was nice. I think [costume designer] Angus [Strathie] really had the the tougher job of combining all the costumes and everything with the sets.

You mentioned the “Hair”set. Was the hippie commune an actual practical location?

It was an actual location, but I believe it was old school for boys. There was a lot of fencing around it, so we went in there and and we kind of redid the whole thing. We tore down some of the fences, we brought in all the cars, we added a lot of greens, we built the amphitheater. Carol Lavallee, the set decorator did an amazing job. Her and her team just went in there and brought it to life with truckloads and truckloads of amazing dressing.

Outside of the obvious productions that you were emulating, were there other influences on your design? 

The TV show “Babylon Berlin” was definitely in the back of my mind. I watched that show thinking, “Man, I wish I was able to design something like that.” I just thought it was fantastic.

Does the choreography have any influence on how you’re designing?

You know, I didn’t see any of the choreography until a little bit later after a lot of the things had been designed. They would sneak me little  iPhone videos of them practicing and getting it all together. Luckily, I did “The Prom,” so I have a little bit of background in designing for theatrical movies and choreography. It’s kind of fun because I lean into all the possibilities that it could be, like making sure they can get on the tables and move, and that everything is just very mobile, and then try to put in little elements that they can use or not use. I usually present it to the choreographer when they get there, and then they incorporate it or they don’t incorporate it. And working with [choreographer] Chris [Gattelli] was great, because once I was a little bit farther along in the design, I’d go backtrack a little bit and add a little bit of elements that they would need. Especially in the orphanage. We had those big long tables, and they’re like, “Oh, the kids are going to be on them.” So, I needed to make sure that there’s no splintering and that they had to be really soft. We actually had them apart, and for his choreography, we needed to push them together. So, it’s just the little things like that.

Can you talk about the color palette that you worked with?

Again, we wanted it to be a little bit more moody, but Cinco made it a point that it was important to Lorne Michaels to still keep it light hearted. I knew what Angus was going to be doing, so I kind of let my my designs be the the background piece for his amazing costumes to pop off. So, I knew that I no matter how dark I went, I was okay, because Angus was picking up the slack with the beautiful color tones and [cinematographer] Jon [Joffin]’s amazing work bringing to the the Technicolor idea to it. I knew everything was gonna pop, though I wasn’t sure exactly how much it was gonna pop, and that’s always tough. We do camera tests, but the camera tests are usually only things that we have in development at that point, so you have to be a little bit flexible with it and then hope for the best.
You said that it’s intended to be moody, but you’re still working with a theatrical vibe, so I imagine that might have been a difficult balance between the two.

It is, but because it’s theatrical, sometimes staged things don’t have to be real. I’m used to working in a very real world environment, but sometimes there’s certain sets where we have time constraints or something, and I’m like, “Okay, well, that’s just gonna be a one wall set, and this staircase is going to be floating,” and there doesn’t have to be any reason behind any of it. It’s just it is what it is. That’s where it was really freeing and fun to work on a project like this. I definitely took creative licenses.
Where does one start on a project like this? What’s your process? 

My process is read the scripts, and then kind of have an idea of what I think the mood is from what I’ve read. Then I put mood boards together. I usually pitch them to at this point to make sure that I’m on the right path regarding color tones and things like that. And then if they give me  the thumbs up, I move forward, usually with the biggest set. The first set that I designed for this was the Kratt Club. That first set usually helps you get to know the person you’re designing for. So, then I do rough napkin sketches, and then I sit down with the 3D concept artists, and we go through it, and start building the world into the model. Then then I pitch it again, and then ask if they have any changes or modifications or if there’s something that I might have missed. It’s a really good way to work it all out before you go into the builds.

What would you say was the biggest challenge?

We were supposed to shoot downtown Schmicago at the end of the season, but we found out in early May that we were going to have to shoot out these two actors the first two weeks of filming in the second week of June, when we started filming. So we had to put the pedal to the metal and get that city done as much as we could. I wanted to build more for it, but we just didn’t realistically have the time. Also, the whole town was designed for night, but once the scheduling started to come together it was like, “Well, Jamie we have to shoot a lot of it during the day because we just don’t have enough night in Vancouver during the summertime.” So that was a little bit of a challenge mentally for me, and a bummer. But I’m glad we got as much night as did.

Were there any happy accidents? With the pressure of not having.enough time or scheduling or just having to cut corners for you know budgetary reasons, was there anything that you found that you were you’re happy with as a result?

I think a lot of it were sets that we ended up having to do three wall or one wall sets that were a pleasant surprise, because we saved some money and some time but we were still really happy with how it looked. Jon was great about shooting what we had and not focusing on what we didn’t have. I’m not used to one wall sets, so how they can across on camera was pleasant surprise.

Was the opposite true? Did you have any anything that you wish you could have you could have expanded on or you had more time to work on?

I wish I had more time to work on the town. I really wanted to build the exterior courthouse just to match the interior courthouse. That’s what I wish we had more time for. There were also so many little elements in the town of Schmicago that I just would have loved to have gone through and done even more. Cinco and I really worked together on little little touches that I’m not sure you quite see in the in the finished show.

Well, Jamie, I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with us. Congratulations again, and good luck.

Thank you so much!

Schmigadoon! is streaming on Apple TV+.


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Written by Jeff Heller

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