Building The “New Girl” – Part One: The Pilot

Cannes Film Festival

20th Century Fox Television

Jeff Sage wasn’t able to commit to a full season of “New Girl” due to scheduling conflicts, however he was happy to take on the challenge of designing the pilot.   411 Publishing recently spoke with Jeff to discover how he came up with the look that would remain the template as the pilot transitioned into a series. 

411 Publishing:  What was it that inspired you to get involved in that project?

Jeff Sage:  I was brought into the project by Jake Kasdan who was going to direct the pilot and be involved.  He was one of the principal directors on “Freaks and Geeks,” a show I was a production designer on.   Since then we’ve worked on different pilots as well as several of his features over the last ten years.

411:  What goes into developing the establishment of the home base the four main characters inhabit, and coming up with the defining look of the show?

JS:  I think that’s one of the choice jobs in a TV production, being the guy who gets to do the pilot.  What’s difficult about a pilot is you typically don’t have all the time in the world.  The script is still in flux, and a lot of people are trying to pin their pieces down.  We thought the pilot was something we would do on location, but ultimately, we moved to the idea of building the set onstage.  It was an early sort of conceptual choice to say “you know, let’s not push the button in the unusual roommate comedy where the girl comes into the guy place and the guys live like slobs and it’s a disaster.” We wanted to keep it contemporary; we thought the guys had a bit of style.  They’ve got some money, maybe they collect some interesting odd things.  It led us to more of a 1930s-40s concrete and brick former factory.  My idea was to make it feel much more like the factory, maybe there was some machinery left and that felt just too decrepit. We ended up with big windows around the side, big skylights over head, raw beams.  We started with polished concrete floors but we ultimately went with a polished wood floor to bring it up.  The whole thing seemed to start pretty low and grungy, and we kept improving upon it until we felt pretty comfortable. 

I like to do a big presentation with everybody in the room because typically on a TV show you have a lot of people who are interested in what it’s going to be.  You’ve got your team, the director and the immediate writers and the show creator, but then the studio and the network want to know what’s going on.  I get loads of pictures up on the wall and get everybody to look at certain aspects.  You get a reaction pretty quickly if things are what they like or not.  We started there, and then we moved into a couple of scale models to present ideas of furniture layout and the different areas that would be in the loft space.

411:  It’s interesting to think about initially shooting on location; that adds challenges and constraints for the camera, DP, crew, and actors. Was that also part of what brought it back to the studio?

JS:  Shooting on stage is a dream as opposed to shooting on most locations.  In this case, I was arguing that the apartment was up three or four floors, rather than the first floor where you don’t have the sense of air or light.  Let’s say your want to be on the third or fourth floor of an actual location.  All of a suddenly everything has to go up three or four flights, all the lighting has to be done from enormous booms from outside, all those things become very impractical.  I think at a certain point the studio was very keen on the pilot; they liked the writing, they liked the sense of it, and they were willing to take a chance on building a whole set.  They are often reluctant because maybe the pilot doesn’t get a pick it up and all of a sudden they have a big set that they spent money on and no way to recover those costs. 

411:  In watching the show the sense of light and airiness is very obvious.  For the pilot, did you work on developing different colors and tones that modulate the lighting throughout the course of the episode with the DP?

JS:  Tim Surstedt, the DP, was available and spent a lot of time with us, and we were able to go through research and find looks that we liked for certain scenes.  We would look at windows where he could put lights through, and set backdrops that could be manipulated for different times of the day.  What was very helpful was that we built a fairly detailed model and take lights and beam them in through the windows in certain ways.  Late in the day has more color, more contrast coming in from outside, so we monkeyed around with the model.  I actually took my iPhone and I dropped it into the model form different places and I’d snap pictures, and we were able to take these pictures and put them into the computer and build an actual presentation of lighting effects.  It was actually quite successful and people got excited to see.  Meanwhile, we also had to scout and prep the rest of the pilot.  It wasn’t a big set list, but there were a number of other sets and some of them were cut from the final version that you saw. 

411:  When you do have such a strong feeling of light and space and materials in their home environment, how do you keep that same sensibility flowing through each set used in the show?

JS:   I guess the answer is ultimately that you develop a sensibility of what the show feels like, and you look for architecture that fits that.  Sometimes the show wants to be straight forward lines, you tend to not go for the quirky noticeable, it doesn’t become too demanding visually, the style of the show is to really focus on the characters.  Other shows play with the camera more, they have a stronger sense of visuals purely for that.  Maybe you are looking for the laundromat that you know you can come into and enhance a little bit by putting brighter colors in contrast to the seedy colors.  I’m finding it kind of hard to answer your question, actually.  You kind of go on gut instinct a lot.

411: Do you also have an equal amount of pre-production discussion with the other department heads as you do with the director?

JS:  I find that I have more detailed discussions with the DPs because ultimately what I provide them will have so much more to do with how they can do their job. With the DP you get down to windows: what type of window, and what type of glass should be in the windows – you really get specific because it’s going to directly impact what they are going to do with their light. I met with the costume designer and we discussed tones. In this case I thought about the tones of concrete and brick and rusty old elements and things like that.  Then I began to think, “OK, where can I tuck some interesting color in here?" and you’ll notice that the kitchen has a bright, intense space of blue in the floor and in the wall to give that corner of the room more distinction.  Once I could say that to the costume designer they knew they are going to be safe using certain colors in the clothes. 

I think in terms of  “How can this set be successful for an entire season?”  That led to some of the choices to have warm, neutral colors in the background.  You want to leave a little room as the show develops to move in a certain direction.  That’s a little bit of a defensive thing that I learned as a production designer on the "Bernie Mac" show.  From the get go it was much more colorful.  Bernie had a very big personality so I felt comfortable making such big choices.  We were picked up and by the second episode I thought, “Oh my God, now that choice makes all these other choices necessary.  Crap, I wasn’t ready to go there!”  Somehow Bernie still stood out, and part of it was that he was such a commanding presence.  It was great to have that latitude, that doesn’t work all the time.  It’s hard for me to think about how I could do that all again without someone like Bernie Mac. 

411:  I wanted to ask something about that.  Once the actors are all nailed down do you take into consideration their personalities?

JS:  It certainly is logical to think that way.  The answer would be yes, you would love to work that way, but I couldn’t.   I knew Zooey (Deschanel, the lead character), and her work and personality, but the other guys weren’t cast until late in the process.   Zooey’s character was moving into their apartment, so it was more a discussion of where things were going to go after she moved in.  She has to go out and reinvent herself, so hence the title of the show, “New Girl.”  We intentionally put things in the first set of the old boyfriend’s house that we could take to the bedroom of the new apartment.  But we always felt at certain point -you know what?  She doesn’t go for those soft big fluffy pillows anymore; those colors are out, she’s going for something new, she’s seeking to become something else and the guys are part of that too.  In a pilot you are never quite sure where it is going to go, you are reaching out into the dark quite a bit.

Coming up next month:  Part Two: Continuing the Series with Michael Winterborne