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Building “The New Girl” – Part Two: Continuing The Series

Production designer Jeff Sage established the primary set used on “New Girl.”  Once the series was picked up, production designer Michael Whetstone stepped in to take over where Sage left off, and continue defining the look of the series as the episodes and characters evolved.  Continuing our discussions of production design for “New Girl” that 411 Publishing started in November ( ) 411 recently spoke with Whetstone to learn what it takes to pick up the reigns.

411:  What was it like jumping onto the show after the pilot already shot and the apartment was already in place?

Michael Whetstone:  When I watched the pilot, what I felt was missing was the sense of who these people really were apart.  The first thing we did in going to series was realize each character was going to need their own space.  On the pilot we saw Jess’s bedroom, but you didn’t see where the guys lived.

411:  Jeff (Sage, the pilot’s production designer) was telling me about the “dead points” or “dead areas” and he suggested some changes he thought you might like to consider, or the design points he thought were a little weak.  Have you had the opportunity to go in and work out some of those areas?

MW:  The first thing I did when I got the job was call him up just to find out what he was thinking when he designed the main set, and talk through some areas I thought needed work.  Before I could even bring them up, he had a lot of different ideas on things to change.  For example, outside the front door they put a flat in the pilot, which is what you do when you don’t have a scene to go to.  We really wanted to utilize that space.  When we went to series we built an elevator and a ground floor lobby where the elevator goes so you can really get a sense of where they live.

411: Back to the lack of personality in the loft.  I know a lot of the casting was finalized after the building of the set.  What are some of the ways you’ve been able to go in and add the personality of the people that live there?

MW:  Um, that’s a really good question.  Basically, on a pilot you are dressing everything and you are in a rush to determine who these characters are, and, in doing so in a way you are establishing who these characters are.  We had a studio on one hand that loved to look at the pilot and didn’t want to have anything changed, and a producer on the other hand that understood that you can’t rent stuff for eight months, you have to buy everything.  A lot of the things we brought in where colorful but maybe not so expensive.  A lot of the furniture we brought in was from thrift stores; flee markets, antique stores trying to give it a little rougher edge.  We wanted it to look a little more realistic, and definitely messy.  You are finding the fact that these people live in this immensely huge, beautiful loft that you are not quite sure if they can afford.

411:  In thinking about how the lighting design is in the apartment, it tends to be bright and quite airy with a neutral background so the characters pop.  Do you try to maintain that same sort of style with all the other types of environments that they are placed in?

MW:  You can certainly consider color palettes when you are out on location but you can’t control the way things are lit.  I could give you a four page story just on how much time and energy we put into the backdrops that are out the window.   When you go on a location you have no control over things like that.  This show is shot with medium to long lenses, so we are always looking for locations that are perhaps a bit bigger than you would normally be in because our lensing of the show is going to make them look smaller.

411:  Right now would everything be shot on location except for the loft and lobby?

MW:  I would say each episode we probably do two or three either flashback sets or small sets: girlfriend characters that come and go, things like that.  The rest is on the studio lot.  Schmidt’s office is actually our production office.

411:  That made it a little bit easier!

MW:  Yes!  Part of that is because Fox doesn’t like you to be out on location five days a week if we can avoid it.

411:  How much time to you get to prep locations?

MW:  We’ll usually have four days to prep an episode, and a lot of times we are still prepping it while they are shooting.

411:  You must have a team of location scouts that are out there looking for places?

MW:  Our location manager is Jesse Cole and he and I have worked on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” which is 90% location work, so he and I have a really good shorthand when it comes to talking about locations and what to look for.

411:  Would you say he’s the first person you speak to after you read the script, or do you speak with the director and then speak with him?

MW:  We all sit down in a concept meeting, and that’s where things are hashed out.  I’d say that Jesse, the director, and all our executive producers weigh in.  The writers usually have a clear concept in their mind.  Liz Meriwether, the show’s creator, is usually the one we will go to if we can’t figure something out.  A lot of the things in the script have come from her life.

411:  Like the neighborhood bar.

MW: Yeah, yeah.

411: Something Jeff mentioned that I wanted to talk to you about is the bathroom: the keeping the urinals and former factory bathroom intact. At the point when he left, there was still some deliberation about what to actually do with that space.  Have there been changes to that area?

MW:  No, and that’s funny, we shoot in that bathroom all the time!  We’ve had quarter episodes take place in the bathroom.  We’ve changed things outside of the bathroom: we had some lockers outside the bathroom and we had to change the lockers so it didn’t feel so school-like. We put a supply shelf out there.  I love the fact that the bathroom is a little bit confusing.   A lot of people would ask me “What on earth is going on with that bathroom?”  I like the fact that people couldn’t quite put their finger on it; it’s not your typical bathroom.   I wanted to put one of those hand washers in the middle of it, to make it even more obviously a factory bathroom.  We did not touch that bathroom at all.  It is exactly the way Jeff designed it.

411:  Is there anything in particular that you hope to get your hands into and really modify and change as the show continues to grow and the characters’ relationships continue to expand?

MW:  We started three months ago trying to get clearance from Burning Man to put a couple of posters in the loft, and we just got clearance for that. Two of our guys are from Chicago, so we are working on getting Chicago sports teams or elements like that.  I’d say in general anything that lends truth to who the characters are.