Tue. Sep 22nd, 2020

Interview: Emmy-winning legend Eugene Lee, production designer for ‘Saturday Night Live’

AW: That’s a great title.

EL: So that’s what it’s called. And it’ll be back on Amazon soon, which will be good.

Lee hard at work in the studio (photo by Ted Lee)

AW: I’d love to chat a little bit about SNL.

EL: What do you wanna know?

AW: Well, first I wanted to congratulate you on your, on your 14th Emmy nomination. That’s fantastic.

EL: All those unions, they ignored us Saturday Night [Live] for years. I mean it was like a club out in LA and they just, we never won anything. And then suddenly, we won everything. I don’t know what brought that about.

AW: It’s funny looking at the trajectory of that, there was some early recognition when the show first started and then it just kind of blew up again in the 2000s and especially 2010s.

EL: I remember after the first year when we won, I remember Chevy coming by in my office and that was the year that everybody wanted. It was the first time that one knew it was a hit and he said like, to his surprise, ‘You mean you guys didn’t win?’ ‘No, no, they never. They never give us anything. We don’t care.’

AW: Yeah, they did some rule changing and category moving and that opened up the door for SNL and for variety shows.

EL: I never have gone out there [to LA], unfortunately. I go out if I’m doing something, I’m not much for going to events, you know.

AW: How did you get started with SNL in the first place? What were you, what were you doing before that?

EL: Well, it’s very simple. And it’s a little complicated. It’s just that certain things just, it’s like a lot of things, certain things fall into place by chance. You have no idea why but part of the chance there was Lorne Michaels, a Canadian who was a writer who had written a lot of like, specials for people like Lily Tomlin, others, you know, and he lived in LA and he was coming to New York to do a comedy, a variety comedy show. Okay. And he was, he was looking for a designer, he and he and he couldn’t find anyone and presumably, I learned a lot of this after the fact, you know. They did a History of Saturday Night, and the producer of that asked the exact same question you just asked. I said, ‘Well, don’t talk to me, go talk to Lorne Michaels. I didn’t know anything.’ So anyway, I had gone to Yale for a year, and they gave me my degree anyway, eventually took a little bit. All my schools gave me degrees, was nice. Good. Your parents like that, you know. Anyway, some friends of mine at Yale had started a theater out in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Harold Prince was one of the people on their board, famous director. He was offered to a direct Candide (1973). It had played on Broadway, but it was a failure, but he said because he was on the board, he would do that. So anyway, I got a call from them saying, oh, ‘Would you work with Harold Prince? He’s doing a musical for us.’ And so suddenly I find myself working for one of the most famous directors, producers in show business. It was pretty crazy, and then it moved to Broadway and I won a Tony [in 1974] and, and Lorne saw it. This is the first thing he saw of mine. I was living at the time, and working at the theater here in Providence [Rhode Island], and I was living at a 50 foot boat, you know, which we occasionally would sail down south with. And it was, it was a good time, man. You know, I won the Tony, I’m living on the boat, you know, I’m working here in Providence with a director who I liked.

So then I get a call from some guy at NBC and he says this producer Lorne Michaels is doing a show and he would like to meet you guys (Eugene and then wife Franne), you just have to call up and he’s at the Plaza. And so, you know, we thought, ‘What’s the harm?’ You know, I don’t know anything about television. Never been in a television studio, never, never even thought about television. He was very nice, nice young guy. No white hair, not like now, and no shoes. Okay, casual. He doesn’t want to see any work says, ‘I’m going out to a comedy club later. You can come along.’ So, I hadn’t planned on coming along since I live here (in Rhode Island). So I checked into the plaza and then the next day got up and walked down Sixth Avenue to NBC, which was owned by RCA, you know. They show me Studio Eight H (where Saturday Night Live still shoots today) and it’s this huge empty, big empty room. At one end, has some pull out bleachers you’ll find in school sometimes at one end and that was fun. And we looked around for office space. We even looked in Radio City [Music Hall], there was a space and then it became apparent that you know, whatever the deal, the money deals were that we could only have so much space, not very much, you know.

Lorne’s been very good to me. I guess that’s why I’m doing a pencil factory. It’s the pencil thing does came up accidentally. You know, it’s like I’m in his office and he said a year or two years ago, whatever, it’s been longer than I think. He has a picture on his phone. He says, Gene, look at this, you’re gonna love this, you’ll understand this.’ So I look at it, and I don’t know what it is. I said, ‘What is it, machinery,’ you know? And he said, ‘I was just at this auction and he was selling all the machines that make pencils. And I bought all the machines.’ I said, ‘Wow, that’s great.’ I mean the guy is a genius at taking up things, making them work. I am, I’m always amazed, frankly. I mean he can take stuff that and kind of finesse it, you know? Anyways, so anyway, so then we were at dinner later with a few people and he said suddenly, ‘You know, Eugene’s working on my pencil factory.’ So I went up and looked over at the site, you know. And um, that’s not a place to stay up there. It’s in Whiting, Maine. Whiting, Maine is next step, Canada. And if you’re driving you can’t believe how far it is. Toss a stone and you hit a Canadian. So, I’m building a little house up there, which will be done this year.

AW: Saturday Night Live has been around now for 43 years. What are some of the biggest changes and differences over the years?

EL: The thing that has changed, of course, like any, it reminds me of Wicked, you know, long running shows that never go away. It’s a, there’s no other show like. We do a lot of other television things (Lee also heads up the production design for The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon), some little projects and you know, Saturday Night has always been. The writers produce their own pieces. That was that way from the beginning, which is bit different. I guess I kind of enjoyed doing it, you know. People say to Lorne, because there’s hardly any of us left from the beginning. I mean, on the show. There’s only Leo and me and Lorne and Speedy, who’s a hippie, still a hippie, guy who moves the band equipment around. That’s about it. Maybe one other technician maybe.

AW: That’s pretty impressive.

EL: Well, I mean, we have so many people now. We have the film unit, we have lots and lots of people, but of course things change if you look at the history of what things looked like on Saturday Night. Initially, The Wolverines, the first ever sketch that painted wallpaper and there was a picture of actually painted on the wall and it had a kind of Honeymooners is look to it, you know, it was really simple, you know?

Wolverines, designed by Eugene Lee, the first sketch on the very first episode of Saturday Night Live (note the hand painted picture)

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AW: Absolutely. That would be a definitely a big change.

EL: I mean now, of course, affected by movies and realism and stuff, writers and we have a lot of writers, and we have a lot of changing writers, a lot of new people over the last few years, which has been good. I think the show has been strong because of that.

AW: It’s bigger now than ever.

EL: Yeah. But they like it more realistic now. They will bring in their notebooks and open up to a picture, research pictures, of some restaurant, or something. We would have never, in the old days, put up with that shit. Now we just give them whatever, we try to do whatever they want, no matter what it costs, no matter what it is, you know, we try to get it right and then we don’t get it right then we tried to change it. We try to please, it’s an unusual show.

AW: What are some of your favorite skits and sets that you’ve designed?

EL: Well, I don’t know, you’ll get a copy of my book.

AW: I’m looking forward to it!

EL: Like if there’s a boat sketch, a ship, it’s bound to be me, you know, because you know the design department has developed; certain people do certain things, you know, we say like, you know, ‘Game show, ah Keith, I guess Keith wants to do the game show. Things don’t get picked because they’re good looking, they get picked because they have to be presumably be funny and if they’re not funny they get cut. Okay. No matter how much effort or how much, whatever they want, you know, I mean sometimes they, they asked for like crazy stuff, you know, that’s because for Saturday Night it’s all about time. We have two days. That’s the timeline for this. It makes you crazy and staying up as you get older, like me, the thing I hate the worst is it, these are all late night people too. I think Lorne doesn’t actually start thinking until 5:00 PM, which is fine. I don’t really mean that but, you know, time is hard.

AW: Do you end up getting to recycle any set pieces?

EL: We save things but we don’t save too much because it’s more expensive. Storage is expensive, especially over the summer, so sometimes it’s cheaper to actually just build it again. If it’s some political thing that you know we’ll end up using later we try to keep them.

AW: I imagine with a show like SNL something that exists on a weekly zeitgeist, something could make perfect sense this week and in a couple of days be nonexistent.

EL: Oh yeah. Especially if gets cut. But it’s uh, but one thing we’ve done, of course things are changing. I mean, Leo drafts with a pencil, I draft with a pencil, one my own, but the new kids, they have computers and they, I don’t think they know what a pencil is in the film unit.

AW: Hopefully Lorne can get them some from his new pencil factory.

EL: Well, the pencil thing has been going on a long time with him. If you look in his office, the pencils are always sitting on his desk and there’s always the points are pointing up. So that’s because if they are the other way, you don’t know if it’s the point’s ok. So if you pull the pencil out and, ‘Oh wait, call an intern!’

AW: How does your relationship and collaboration with musical guests work?

EL: Well, it’s changed. I mean Paul Simon was I think on the second show and we designed him a special set and I became friendly with him right away. I liked him. Years later we did Simon and Garfunkle in Central Park. If you look at the early years, we often did all different sets and we did the sets.

Prince was great. We knew he was going to be on We couldn’t make any sense of what he wanted. I told the music department I’ll just go out and talk to him. We went up to Minneapolis, to Paisley Park. That’s the great thing about working for a big corporation; they get you the tickets, they order you the limo to get you and there we go. We get there and go to what looks like a little warehouse, with cinder blocks. We waited in this big soundstage. And waited. And waited. Then all of a sudden he appeared, like magic. He sat and played the songs, you know, he was going to play on the show. We talked about how to translate the songs into the production design. He was, he was very easy to work with.

Prince performs on Saturday Night Live in 2006

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Occasionally, you know, management people would ask, I remember The Rolling Stones being on once a long time ago and some manager came up and they had a poster for the, kind of asked if we’d put it on the set somehow. I think we’d nicely said no (laughs). Rolling Stones or no, that’s not how we do things. But as time, you know, I don’t know when it began, I mean because it’s been so many years, that some management, we won’t name any of them, but they all involve video and led screens and they want their client to have the same kind of look because they have kind of branded for them, you know. And so the way it’s ended up in the last, oh, I don’t know, five years, 10 years, who knows? But in the last years, you know, we say you can do whatever you want, you know what I mean. If they will pay for it, if it doesn’t affect the show in some bad way we let them do it now. I have mixed feelings because I prefer to do the music sets, but I’ve also learned a lot of things I would not know.

Here’s a fun story. It’s the last show (of the season) I was leaving my usual time and I got into the elevator with, there was one other person and we chatted on the way down. Okay. And he said, ‘How long have you been on this show?’ ‘I’ve been on the show since SHOW ONE,’ I said. And the person said ‘You should write a book!’

AW: I’m sure people ask you how long you’ll keep doing the show. It’s not waning, it’s thriving.

EL: As long as I can, whatever that means exactly.

AW: It probably helps that show isn’t waning, it’s thriving.

EL: So it is, it is. And it’s fun when it’s that way. Actually it is a spooky when you can do sketches that you know, the president is watching.

AW: Oh yes, and you know you’re going to hear about it at 5:30 in the morning on Sunday. Eugene, I am so honored and happy to have been able to chat with you. And I really look forward to the book.

EL: I enjoyed it. Listen, my pleasure. Well, you know, as long as you’re having fun. This is what my father always said. He drafted huge paper making machines. They were like, as long as you know, 50 feet, you know, huge machines. And he worked with a lot of people that he said that didn’t like that job. I don’t know if he ever understood what I did, but he was like if you like doing it, then it’s not a job, you know? That’s how I feel about Saturday Night Live. The day that it becomes not really fun to do, then it’s time to not do it.

AW: Those are words to live by.

The 44th season of Saturday Night Live will return to NBC this September.

The Emmy voting period ends August 27th at 10pm PST.

The Creative Arts Emmys will be a two-night affair on Saturday, September 8th (where Lee’s category, Outstanding Production Design for Variety, Nonfiction, Reality or Reality-Competition Programming, is slotted) and Sunday, September 9th.

The 70th Primetime Emmy Awards will be Monday, September 17th.

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