Alexandra Schaller knows that production design has always been for her since school. Along the way, the pair have made their presence known across various mediums—stage, commercial, television and film. It is in the latter that one finds the New York-based creative’s latest work, the serene cup of soul After Yang from director, writer and editor Kogonada (whom Kevin L. Lee interviewed here).
Aside from the Dance Dance Revolution-esque intro and, post-release, an appearance on Barack Obama’s Favorite Films of 2022 list, Schaller’s production design is how the A24 film creates a lasting impression. In our own’s Adam Solomons’ review of the low-key futuristic drama about a family (Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith and Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) navigating the passing of his A.I. member (Justin H. Min), based on the short story from Alexander Weinstein, he says that Schaller and Kogonada “seem to have had plenty of fun designing the aesthetics of a very specific world-to-come.”
I’ve also expressed my love for the film’s “thematically apt biophilic designs” in a tweet that caught Schaller’s attention back in March 2022. Today, I’m fortunate enough to catch up with her—and her cat—for a deeper look into the film’s nature-minded creations, Ozuian touches and design’s potential to be transcendental.
Nguyên Lê: We have to talk more about the car set! When I noticed that all your drives in After Yang’s world are so relaxing—the vehicle drives itself, and there you are resting your head on a mound of grass—I immediately wished that could have been reality. How did we come up with this concept?
Alexandra Schaller: Gosh, you know, the whole movie was a big design, but the car was an element that, when I first read the script, first stood out to me as something important to get a jump on soon. In my first meeting with Kogonada, I’m pretty sure that we talked about the car and what he imagined. We knew less about the car, but we knew that the design of the whole [film world] should be very natural and organic, so it would make sense for that to extend to the car. We also talked a lot about that, and the kinds of filmic compositions that Kogonada wanted. And he knew he wanted a lot of the scenes in the car to play in reflection. We knew that we needed to design a car that was predominantly glass to allow for that. And we wanted to incorporate plant life because the idea is that the plants are powering the car.
NL: My gosh!
AS: Because the design philosophy is that we’re living in a time where humanity has realized that they need to work in concert with nature. So as much as possible, there is a kind of symbiosis between humans and nature, and the planet and the greenery. Where we see people, we see greenery.
NL: I guess reality should speed it up and follow that process!
AS: You know, After Yang was a relatively small budget movie, and we weren’t really sure about how to make this “self-driving car.” At first we thought, “OK, we’ll get a Tesla and we’ll figure it out.” But then a Tesla is so specific and it’s not really our movie. A lot of the scenes in the car are really quiet, really contemplative. I wanted to design a space that allowed Kogonada and the camera to capture.
Nguyen Le: I think I recognize the car, too… a Toyota Sera? It’s a tiny car, but with butterfly doors.
AS: Wow, good job! So there’s a very funny story behind that: We built a car from scratch, and then, to not to go too much into it, something happened and the car went away. There was one weekend where we were like, “We’re coming towards the end of the shoot, we have to shoot the car.” Kogonada and I went online and we found a dealer in New Jersey that imports Japanese cars. We went to take a look at it because originally we were like, “We could use a Japanese minivan, or something, and retrofit it.” We got there, looking at the vans, and then Kogonada saw the Sera. There was a very limited run of that particular car, so I’m very impressed that you know about it.
The car has a lot of glass and we thought, “OK, let’s try to take the design that we wanted for the car, and kind of work with the Sera as a sort of ‘found object’ and can customize it for our future” … We completely gutted it; the guys had a lot of fun doing that. Remodeled the interior. And we skin-fitted it with copper because we use a lot of it in the movie, stuff like that.
NL: I’m sure that working with Kogonada was a blast because, especially after his debut film Columbus, he had a firmer grasp on architecture than most?
AS: It was really wonderful. I’ve been so fortunate to work with many directors I adore, but I would say that with Kogonada, there really was a symbiosis. You know, he knows so much about aesthetics, conceptual and architecture. He’s a director that you can have really abstract conversations with about concepts and about, you know, the idea of space and what that is. That was really, really fulfilling and exciting. He’s also a very sensitive person, someone very aware of the world. We worked really well together. I think we clicked on our first meeting, it was one of those moments where I’d come to the meeting, having read the script and loving it, then I met him, and it all made sense.
NL: In relation to the narrative, from working on this, what are your impressions on the thought that design can be spiritual and existential?
AS: Sure. Yes! I have spoken to a few people about the movie at this point, and no one has said that and I think it’s really interesting! I feel like that really nails my approach to designing this movie, because I feel like, “OK, we have a movie that’s set in the future. And we have this idea that we have a shared consciousness, or as a society, about what the future looks like.” Of course, as a production designer, I’m responsible for the visuals, but the design really came from many conversations with Kogonada about how we wanted it to feel … We talked a lot about the idea of emptiness, and how the walls are just a way by which you can define emptiness. That’s a very abstract idea, but it worked for the movie because when we see the home without Yang in it, we feel the loss and longing. I feel like longing is kind of an abstract concept.
NL: I notice, too, that when Yang is “out” of the picture, the house doesn’t feel so warm anymore. It doesn’t feel so cozy anymore. There’s still all the light, and all the greenery is visible, but it all just feels wintry… somehow.
AS: I was really struck by this because as a designer, but one of the producers, Caroline Kaplan, who’s wonderful, first came into the house, I think she teared up. I think she felt emotional stepping into the space. That’s the greatest compliment that I could get.
NL: I noticed that in the “before and after” photos you’ve provided, did we dress up the house to make it warmer while we’re filming in colder weather?
AS: It’s actually two different seasons, you kn–Sorry, my cat is throwing water all over the table…
NL: No worries.
AS: For a small independent movie, I had a pretty long prep period. Originally, we thought we were going to build the house, but then various things happened and we thought, “Why don’t we use a location?” We started scouting for the house, I think it was in February of that year—we didn’t shoot in until May-ish. It was snowing when we were scouting.
As a designer, I feel like I come on projects so early I have to imagine entire spaces and landscapes differently. Or how I was working in Canada, and everything’s covered in snow, but I know we’re going to shoot in spring, so I had to imagine how it’s going to look—leaves are full on the trees, all this stuff. All of the movie took place, kind of, from spring into summer, but we were working on it since winter. We did a lot of work to the house. We did major construction to the house—took down walls, redid the windows, roof and ceiling. When we found the house, it was entirely painted over in white. It was really sterile. We wanted to, kind of, restore the house to how it was originally designed, which would have been a lot of wood paneling, et cetera, in the ’60s, but also forwards to fit our future world.
NL: And speaking of this future, plus based on the car story, this proximity to nature that prompted your designs to go biophilic, is it already in the script?
AS: Was it? Honestly, I can’t remember if it was in the script, but it was definitely a key part of Kogonada’s entire philosophy for the film… He knew he wanted a green and natural component. And, there were so many different ideas, but an idea was, “What is nature? What is one’s nature? What makes you human?”
NL: What would be an aspect of nature that you deemed must be visible in the film?
AS: Well, there were many. But I would say that, going back to the overall philosophy, nature is our guide. It’s really important to incorporate that. Nothing—no props, no furniture, no materials, or construction materials—were immediately disposable. There’s no plastic in the movie at all, because we didn’t want it—we just didn’t want to be living in that world anymore. All of the woods that we use, for example, are ethically sourced woods on the construction side. On the storytelling side, you can see all of the woodgrains, it’s all sort of live edge, untreated, natural materials. And that goes to the fabrics, a milk carton made of recyclable cardboard, or whatever it is. And Kogonada greenery in every space, with the exception of the tea shop, where the tea stands in for the greenery and the natural component.
NL: I feel like your work in the film also provides a very subtle layer of storytelling, or even a stealthy dose of drama. There are patterns and placements that evoke evolution, shifts. But the family, or at the very least Jake, is feeling frozen, or they really need pauses to think about what happened, about Yang. Would that be a valid observation?
AS: Yes. Yes! It’s a very astute observation. You know, Kogonada was very influenced by many filmmakers—Ozu in particular. Compositionally, I think he was inspired by Ozu. I sort of knew that going in, and I tried to reshuffle the compositions in each of the environments to serve the camera in that way.
NL: It’s all very reflective of real life, I feel. The environment keeps on directing us, guiding us somewhere when we need to slow down, to stop.
AS: I would say Kogonada is a filmmaker who could really see. He’s a person, too—there’s a difference between looking and seeing, and I feel like he could really see. I felt like he could really see into the souls of the characters the way he made this movie. And I wanted the sets to allow that, too.
NL: Is there anything you can tell me about your upcoming movie, House of Spoils [starring Ariana DeBose and Barbie Ferreira]? From my understanding, this will be your first time designing for a horror or horror-adjacent production.
AS: I was gonna say, “Yes, it’s my first time!” but I just remembered that the first movie I ever designed—it was an “art department of one” situation, a tiny movie—was horror. We shot it all at night.
AS: Anyway, House of Spoils is directed by two really kick-ass directors, Danielle Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole. I read the script, and it was one of those that came right off the page at me and I could imagine the world! It’s not a traditional horror, I would say, but it’s more of a psychological thriller. It’s kind of similar to After Yang in the sense that it centers around one main location we kind of went all-in on designing … We created several garden spaces, and there’s lots of greenery in that movie, too.
NL: Thank you so much, Alexandra.
AS: Thank you!
After Yang is available to stream on Showtime and Hulu and for purchase on physical media.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and length and clarity.