Emmy Award-winning production designer Amy Williams joins Daily RewardsShadan Larki to discuss building a multi-story, city block-sized set to tell the story of a billion-dollar scandal.
In my work for Daily Rewards, I sometimes have the opportunity to interview talents more than once. This Q&A with production designer Amy Williams marks our third conversation.
It’s always fascinating to learn more about Williams’ research and his approach to each project. But also, at the macro level, Williams’ attention to detail and knowledge allows you to better understand and appreciate the art of production design itself. It’s a delight to watch We crashed, engage with Williams, then go back and watch the series again, to really absorb the magnitude of what she and her team have created – a construct of massive size, but also rich in nuance and texture. Each space has been meticulously considered, coordinated, and designed in a way that enhances our understanding of who Adam and Rebekah Neumann (Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway) are as individuals and as a unit.
WeCrashed is mesmerizing. Look carefully, because there is so much to discover around every corner.
Awards Daily: I had the opportunity to speak with Jared Leto and we discussed how deeply he immersed himself in the role of Adam Neumann. He was in character as Adam for the duration of filming. Does it influence your production design process? How’s it going on set?
Amy Williams: It was interesting because these two heavyweight, Oscar-winning actors have two very different approaches. I was surprised when the directors told me that Annie wanted to talk to me about certain elements of her character. And that was actually a really interesting take on it all. She was very accessible. She was so on top of her game with finding that real person. [Hathaway was also a producer on all 8 episodes of WeCrashed].
She kind of helped me shape the character and shape the environments. And it was a really rewarding collaboration. We had an ongoing text channel, I was sending her ideas and she was sending me ideas, right down to the color of the flower arrangements for the wedding. On the same text channel, she was sending words of encouragement, like, “Oh my God, you nailed this set!” So it was really beautiful.
With Jared, it was totally the opposite; we only knew Adam. And Adam was a very outgoing character, larger than life. And so that’s the kind of person I met. So we would have meetings whenever new directors come in, and [Jared] always came and came back, “Yeah, come on team!” You know? And it felt like we were working at a WeWork, whenever you were around Adam.
AD: You know how much I always love to ask questions about your research process! And as you mentioned, these were real people. How did you approach this aspect? Have you tried to remain faithful to their universe in your creations? Or did you use the materials you collected as inspiration?
AW: We did a bit of both. I mean, we put a lot of effort into research, which is sometimes the most fun part of design. And especially when it’s based on recent events, recent history.
I had my own knowledge of being in a production office, which informed my idea of what these spaces would look like based on my experience. And I may have only been to one WeWork. So I went into their design choices, the types of furniture they would use, the brand partnerships they had informed the spaces, and the color palettes. And one thing that really stood out – hearing stories about Adam Neumann – was that he was always asking for more color, and more color, to make spaces brighter, brighter. So we really leaned into that, and I think it helps to go with those poppies and primary colors and neon because it adds life and chaos to the story. And this story has a lot of humor, so we wanted to incorporate that energy.
But, we took some liberties with their more personal side, like what their penthouse looked like, for example. We wanted to convey that they spent a lot of money on this, and it’s hard to do this with real Manhattan spaces because they tend to be smaller.
We wanted to find something that shows these characters have money and spent money, but maybe they don’t taste the best [laughs]. And we also wanted to give them a warm, comfortable, womb-like atmosphere because they were family people – they have five children. We wanted to give them a contrast to the bright and colorful spaces of WeWork.
We had access to what their real homes looked like, but, I think, for filmmaking, taking a few liberties helped.
AD: In terms of modern start-up culture and that kind of design aesthetic – which to me doesn’t seem to be your thing at all, because you’re very detail oriented and there’s a lot of warmth and character-driven design in the work you do.
How did you approach having a bright and colorful space but also cold somehow?
AW: I think that was part of the attraction, because I do a lot of narrative, character-driven, intimate spaces, and they tend to be very organic and naturalistic. What I liked about this project is that it challenged me because it’s not what I usually do.
It was really exciting to be able to – from scratch – create this massive, larger-than-life three-story set. I had not had this opportunity before. And, you know, in some ways, doing period pieces and creating smaller, intimate spaces, like master of nothingare easier for me than doing contemporary and modern things. Because it’s so hard to make contemporary things look good. And look harmonious. Whereas, with period stuff, you have so much to play with; cool wallpaper patterns, vintage furniture and all those things that people find very aesthetically pleasing. So, I really enjoyed the challenge. I learned a lot, and it’s quite fun to flip the switch.
AD: We crashed starts with this idea, and we see it grow into an empire, and everything falls apart. How did you approach showing this progression visually? Much of this shines through in their environments – your production design is key.
AW: We pulled from research to know what these real spaces look like.
We had different directors and different DPs, and to keep everyone on the same page and to help the showrunners and the writer, I created this linear, colorful timeline. And it started in the early 2000s and ended today.
We wanted to create this linear color story, and it started with very earthy urban tones – no greens and blues – lots of rusts and browns. And that’s what we wanted to show, the first few days.
We gave different sorts of titles to the growth of the company – so we had the early days, and then we had the ascension. And then we had a climax, which was very bright and colorful, and that’s when things sped up. And then we sort of end on a dark note, which is the harsh reality of facing their responsibilities and the monster they’ve created. And we’ve taken that in a very serious palette of slates, blues and corporate colors; silver and gray.
And throughout the timeline, we’ve added things like the first WeWork or the IPO status and… but we’ve also added pop culture moments, like the Harlem Shake [laughter] and the election of Trump; all these different things that also affect, you know, the larger world.
AD: And what are some of those lessons that you’ve learned or things that you could incorporate into another project?
AW: I respect any design element that I lean towards with a project. I will say that I think [WeCrashed] gave me a great appreciation for the variety of what I can do and design in my world.
You know, now I really want to do a period piece because I took a break. [Laughs]. I always want to challenge myself and I learned a lot about the co-working culture and the high-end real estate market.
Another challenge for me was that there were a lot of office spaces, beyond just the WeWork sets, and those just aren’t interesting. I don’t even work in an office environment, but I think we found a way to make them interesting, at least to add some variety.
Going back to the number of sets we had to build, the main set at WeWork headquarters took up an entire stage of a city block.
AD: Oh yeah.
AW: We could barely fit the set into the stage space that the studio had rented to us. We took like every inch of this scenic space. And then we had another secondary scene, we used it for Adam and Rebecca’s penthouse. And then we had a little little space where we could have a few little swings here and there, we did some of the stage driving. We have made some additional offices. I actually had a set that we used for three different offices. We were destroying wallpaper and paint and adding different architectural touches. So one week would be the HR office. The next week we threw up a bunch of wood panels and turned it into the private school principal’s office. So that was fun – just trying to fit all the pieces of the puzzle into account the space restrictions you get when filming in New York.
AD: And find variations. Have an office space, but try to design 10 different ways [laughs].
AW: Yeah! It’s really fun. Especially when you look at the photos side by side, the change of worlds is really interesting. We’ve had a lot of progression sets, like you mentioned, where you see a completely gutted office space that magically transforms into, you know, a working WeWork office. So, this was really fun. We did a few, and we were taking possession of office buildings; we occupied different floors and we did the different scenes on different floors so that we could shoot everything in one day. So you would have a full construction site on one floor and the rundown space on another floor; and then we would have the finished product. So a lot of interesting timing was put in place to make this schedule work. It was really fun.
WeCrashed is streaming on Apple TV+.