Production designer Jessica Kender gives a peek behind the screen of Hulu’s ‘Little Fires Everywhere’

Production designer Jessica Kender gives a peek behind the screen of Hulu’s ‘Little Fires Everywhere’

If you’re in the market for something new to watch, Hulu has released the first three episodes of “Little Fires Everywhere.” Based on the New York Times bestseller by Celeste Ng, the mini-series stars Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon (who chose the novel for her book club upon its 2017 release), and takes place in Shaker Heights — a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where Ng grew up.

Little Fires Everywhere” follows two warring mothers with vastly different pasts, privileges and perspectives. Elena Richardson (Witherspoon) believes that because she always followed a plan, she has landed a comfortable, near-perfect life as a local news journalist in Shaker Heights, where she lives with her husband and four children. But when the mysterious, nomadic artist Mia Warren (Washington) and her daughter move into the Richardsons’ second property, Type A Elena is forced to face an unimaginable reality where control is not an option. The show is a thrilling tale on how class, race and privilege deeply affect the already-complex world of motherhood.

Ahead of the show’s release, ALL ARTS spoke with production designer Jessica Kender on how she and her team brought the book to life.

Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon in "Little Fires Everywhere." Photo: Hulu.
Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon in “Little Fires Everywhere.” Photo: Hulu.

For those who may not have a lot of insight into the world of production design, how would you describe your job? What are the day-to-day tasks?

So, I would describe my job as hand-in-hand with the director of photography. We create the look of a show. That more specifically means that I am in charge of a whole different set of departments.

My own department, the art department, starts with a reference at the research-end of all the sets. We hand off our drawings to the construction department that then builds the sets. There’s the set [decoration] department that then fills the sets with everything. There’s the props department, which is anything anyone touches … And sort of all within that is also, you know, if there are picture cards that go on the screen or if there are visual effects … It’s my job to make sure that all of those come out with a cohesive vision.

If you’re doing your production design right, you should be able to turn the show on, and before anyone even talks, you should have an idea — if not what show you’re watching — what style of show you’re about to get into. If I’m doing a good job, you should feel like you’re immersed in whatever world we set. So with “Little Fires [Everywhere],” you should feel like you are in the 90s. You have a guess of what area of the country you’re in. You know, if I’ve done it right, it’s going to take you there.

How much did the real Shaker Heights come into your research and design? Did you visit the town?

Yeah. What’s funny is that my dad was actually born in Cleveland and even had a paper route in Shaker Heights. And so every Christmas, I have been in Cleveland. My entire life had been spent there. And before we started prep, we went for a weekend visit where we got taken all over Shaker Heights … And I just took my camera and shot as many shots as I possibly could. We got toured around the high school, and they were very, very welcoming.

How involved was Celeste?

She came and did a whole walkthrough of each set to see what she thought about it, how she felt like we hit the notes that she had hit in her book. And I believe at the very beginning, she was always updated as to what we were doing. But the walkthrough was the big thing when she came by.

How was the walkthrough? Were you nervous, and did she seem to like it?

A little nervous because, you know, it started with her mind, and the book was based off of her life growing up in Shaker Heights. You’re really hoping she’ll walk through and say, “You got it.” And what was great is, when she walked in, she was like, “I’ve been in this house.”

One of the things I love is that she told me that people would come up to her in Shaker Heights and be like, “I know that person you wrote about.” And that’s what I felt when she walked in the house. Like, “I know this house.”

Reese and Kerry are also executive producers. How involved were they in the creative process?

They were 100% involved. The women were very respectful of each other’s characters on the show … so they would step back in terms of whose character it was.

Reese was very involved with [Elena’s] house. Like, I would send her mood boards and paint swatches … She did her own walkthrough of the set, where not only was she checking it out, but what I loved is that she was walking around being like, “OK, when I get groceries, what door do I come in?”

Kerry did the same thing. Kerry was interesting, because [Mia] moves in at the beginning of the season, and then months pass. So her space continued to develop, because as [Mia and her daughter Pearl] live there longer and the months pass, [they] move in more. So every time we shot a new block of episodes, Kerry would come in and walk the set. And then, because she was playing an artist, she took photography lessons. She took them a month before we started filming to learn how to hold a camera. So, she wasn’t just acting with a camera, she was actually using it … I watched her on set one day when they were getting ready for a scene [with Mia’s art], and she was like, “Wouldn’t I have more stuff underneath my fingernails?”

For "Little Fires Everywhere," Washington took photography lessons, lending another layer of reality to the production. Photo: Hulu.
For “Little Fires Everywhere,” Washington took photography lessons, lending another layer of reality to the production. Photo: Hulu.

I’m so excited for the show to premiere. I just finished the book then watched the screeners, and it’s amazing to see everything come to life. There are things in the show where I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s exactly how I pictured it,’ and new details that fit in so perfectly. I’m thinking specifically of Elena’s calendar that Celeste posted on Twitter. Was that detail straight from the book, or did it just seem to fit?

Well, what was kind of fantastic is that we have a set designer, whose name is Rhea [Rebbe], who … has similar qualities to Elena. We were trying to figure out how we were going to build this [calendar], and we knew there was a part where post-its would have to be pulled off. So we started thinking about like, OK, we definitely want to color-code for each of the kids. Then I’m like, “Rhea, I would love you to run with this, see what you come up with.”

And once Rhea started going, she started tracking, in the script, events [the characters] talk about … And what I love is that she had written stuff she remembers from the 90s, so she wrote up, “Pick up more SlimFast.” And the next thing you know, [showrunner] Liz [Tigelaar] is like, “I love that. Let’s get some SlimFast in the fridge!”

What is your favorite part of the whole design? Is there a particular set that stands out to you?

They’re all my babies. What I’m going to say is probably not what you’re expecting. But the Chinese restaurant was based off the Chinese restaurant I grew up [with] in New Jersey right across the bridge from Manhattan. And we would go to this Chinese restaurant only once a month. But Lucky Palace is based off that. So … it makes me think of my parents. It makes me think of my three brothers. We would go out to eat every Friday, and we would get to choose where we ate, and I would always choose this place. So, that might be my favorite, only in that I have an emotional attachment to it. I walked my parents through it, and was like, “Look familiar?”

I think most people respond the strongest to Izzy [Elena’s youngest daughter]’s room. But I love Izzy’s room as much as I love Lexie [Elena’s oldest daughter]’s room … Look really closely to the way that we did it, [and you’ll see that] Lexie’s room is the pink version, and Izzy’s room is the purple version. And you see more of Lexie’s room because she’s more of her mom’s daughter, or you know, she’s trying to be, whereas Izzy is trying to cover it up.

On the flip side, what was the most challenging part to recreate or reimagine?

I think the most challenging part was that the 90s are not a loved era right now. I’m working on a 70s piece and it is very easy to get furniture, because people think the 70s are cool. No one looks at the 90s right now and says, “That is the design I want to emulate.”

With Elena’s [house], I wanted to hit a note of, if you look at it, it’s not a house you would walk through now. You wouldn’t see those colors in the TV room, you know? It’s yellow and blue. People don’t play with those colors anymore. But I wanted to make sure that it still felt expensive and tasteful, and hitting that expensive and tasteful note in an era of design that people don’t love was challenging.

Production designer Jessica Kender noted that she strived to make the 1990s home of Witherspoon's character appear expensive and tasteful. Photo: Hulu.
Production designer Jessica Kender noted that she strived to make the 1990s home of Witherspoon’s character appear expensive and tasteful. Photo: Hulu.

We start the show, just as the book starts, with a fire. How was that done? Was it a part of your design or was that created post-production with CGI?

Well, it was a bunch of different things together. Like, we had a burn stage where the burns of the interior took place. So we rebuilt our sets on that stage up to the standards you need to be able to burn stuff … We used flame bars on our typical sets on stage … And then for the exterior of the house, we shot that entirely without fire at all. But on our burn stage, we basically built the house of metal at a third the scale, so that we could have fire burn the same way it would around the house. And then we, visual effects, got that footage and put it into images of the house itself, so it was like live fire painted on top of the effects work.

So how did you get into working on the show?

I have to say, I had a little midlife crisis where, for the first time in my life, I started turning down shows. I have kids, so I try and stay in L.A. And I was like, I’m going to wait for the right project … And this one came around [a few months later], and I was like, this is it. And I love it. I’m so hoping that people feel the same way.

Was it a job you had heard about, or did it come to you and you were like, ‘Oh, this fits’?

What happened was, the line producer of the show, we had worked together before, and she had called me up and said, “I’m gonna get you in to meet with these women.” She was getting me in to meet with [Executive Producers] Liz, and Pilar [Savone], and Lauren [Levy Neustadter].

They sent me the first script, and I usually spend, probably, a good twelve hours prepping for an interview before. [For ‘Little Fires Everywhere’], I spent a week. I was like, I have to have this show. I have never worked so hard on a presentation … You’re supposed to go in and say, ‘This is my vision for your show.’ I was like, ‘This is my vision for your show. This is my vision of each character.’ And what was great is that, when I sat with the women, they were like, ‘No, this is right.’ So, when we started prep, I already had a solid base to go off.

That’s amazing. How much of the show was pulled from your presentation? How much of that stayed the same through the process?

You know, I would say we did not vary a ton. In fact, one of the best things that happened is that I had read an early version of the first script [for my presentation]. In the next version of the script, once I had the job, Liz had written in something from my presentation into the script.

I even had a moment where, the first time I met with the costume designer … I had sort of seen Elena’s colors as being … beige and blue and very, like, [what you think of] when you think Ralph Lauren. But her accent color, I said I wanted it to be red to the costume designer. And she was like, “I love the idea of Elena’s accent color being red.” And I was like, this is all working.

Wow. What was the thing that got pulled from your presentation into the script?

So, when I was trying to think about the characters of Mia and Pearl, and their house, and how would you decorate if you were constantly moving around? I was pulling reference [from the book] on that. And then I found this reference where someone had taken, for their headboard, a bunch of paint swatches — the ones you can get when you’re trying to buy paint from a store — and they had put an ombre of paint swatches above their bed. I put that reference in my presentation [and] Liz wrote in a scene where you see Pearl pulling paint swatches to put it up in her room.

Still from "Little Fires Everywhere." Photo: Hulu.
Still from “Little Fires Everywhere.” Photo: Hulu.

Overall, what was your favorite part of working on the show?

I would say there were two things. One is: I feel like this show is hitting on a lot of social issues … You know, I feel like it’s very timely with where our country is. And even though it is a relationship drama, it talks about class, it talks about race. It talks about abortion. You know, it talks about all these things that I think people should be hearing in a way that’s going to reach a broad audience. And it’s so well-written that you don’t even realize. You’re so into the story that it’s not like it’s someone screaming at you about social justice.

But the other thing … This is the first show that I have ever worked on — and I’ve been out here in the industry since ’99 — where it was almost all female producers. I mean, I’ve been on Shondaland, and it’s also so unlike the industry; it’s a lot of women, it’s a lot of minorities. But here, you look at one of the first shots we took on the first day, and it’s just all women. And that’s exciting, to be in an environment where you can see there’s this shift happening in Hollywood and there are people who have realized this is important. And these women were very smart and very collaborative.

Would you say that collaboration is the biggest difference from, say, a set that has more male producers?

You know, it’s funny because I don’t have much experience with women working together. But it’s certainly my experience on this show that it was an incredibly respectful environment. Nobody was vying for power. Everybody was very aware of, like, this is my job. Like, you knew who the producers were, but they were open to your ideas … [And] I feel like it hasn’t been very common for very many years to have women writing for women either.

I would say that most of the women, not all of them, but most of them had children, which was also another great thing because they were incredibly respectful of everyone’s time. Like I have a kid’s doctor’s appointment. Nobody judged you. They were like, “Go do it.” If you said you had to leave early because I have a teacher-parent conference, they were like, “Got it. Done.” They would even shift schedules around. I’ve never had a job like that.

The first three episodes of “Little Fires Everywhere” will be available to stream with a Hulu subscription beginning March 18. New episodes will be available weekly after the premiere.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Top Image: "Little Fires Everywhere." Photo: Hulu.