Production design helps bring scenes and situations to life.
As a true-crime fan, I was excited to experience Confronting a Serial Killer at SXSW this year. I love digging into characters, motivations, and locations anytime—and I often think unraveling these basic story elements alongside crime fighters in real situations is one thing that makes true crime shows so compelling. The show, from Joe Berlinger, explores the background of convicted serial killer Sam Little and how journalist Jillian Lauren uses a relationship with him to solve several cold cases.
Whenever you're watching a crime movie or TV show, do you pause to think about how sets are dressed or locations are staged? What about all those reenactments?
That's where production design comes in! The production designer is going to define the visual storytelling of any project. It's an important element for any project you might tackle.
No Film School spoke with the production designer of Confronting a Serial Killer, Lee Clayton. He shares his experiences working on crime shows, how best to accomplish his jobs, and tips for making it in production design. Dive in!
Editor's note: the following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Can you talk about how you got into this genre and became a production designer?
Lee Clayton: I've been doing true crime for six or seven years now. The first show that I worked on was called A Crime to Remember, which was a true-crime show. That was a period true crime show. So there were crimes from history and throughout history, and I worked on props and I worked on the set dressing as well for that. I did three years of A Crime to Remember.
I don't always love the genre of true crime because sometimes they can be on the violent side. I don't mind the blood and the gore, but sometimes when they're reenacting violence, it can actually be kind of disturbing. So I tended to kind of pull away from true crime a little until a couple of years ago. I picked up a few other shows that were more along the lines of what I call "murder porn," where it really focuses on the murder, or the crime, or the violence, or whatever the crime was. What attracted me to Confronting a Serial Killer is that the focus was not on the violence or the murder or blood.
I went to school at Parsons for furniture design and design technology and had every intention of becoming a furniture designer. And I ended up working at a design firm for a couple of years called Bulthaup, which is a kitchen company, and just found myself really not enjoying the office life, nine-to-five office life.
Somebody offered me a movie to work on during that time. It was my first full-length feature film that I worked on and it was horrible. I was like, "Oh my God, why does anybody want to do this?" And it wasn't until a couple of years later, and I worked on another TV show with this very inspiring production designer, Julie Jo Fehrle, and really started to see that there is a lot of creativity in the design process, and some of it was also more hands-on, which attracted me a little as well.
NFS: What was your research process on this most recent project, Confronting a Serial Killer?
Clayton: It was a little bit limited for Confronting a Serial Killer, partly because of the quick turnaround time, but also because this was an unscripted part of the production. So it really just had a series of shots and ideas that they wanted to get, as opposed to a script where you would do a breakdown and that sort of thing.
Since we weren't focusing on specific people, there wasn't a lot of the design, the props, or set dressing that needed to be very specific. It was oftentimes more period-specific for a Southern bar, like a honky-tonk bar specific. So it didn't require as much research in terms of the crimes and looking at coroner reports or police reports or crime scene photographs.
So I really just kind of did some pretty basic Google searching of imagery of bars from the 70s and 80s. And it's actually really helpful. It just gave me a little more sense of how technology has changed and with new computer screens, none of that was around back then. So you really have to remove that from the design. It's a lot of what you have to do when you come to a location and you're working on a period piece is removing things that don't belong. Oftentimes, they're technology things.
NFS: What was the most challenging thing that you had to deal with?
Clayton: I'm pretty used to quick turnaround times. It's just how production works. Probably the most challenging part of this production besides shooting nights was that we're shooting during the pandemic. This was in August of last year, and we shot in a rural bar in New Jersey for three nights and really had to reduce the crew members. We had a lot of COVID safety protocols. We had to go through wearing masks in the 90-degree heat, 80-degree heat. It was very challenging that way.
NFS: I bet. I did read that you used that one location for several different locations. Can you talk about that?
Clayton: We used one location for the entire three-day shoot. There are several back roads and there are three or four different structures on the property, a large parking lot, a rural-looking parking lot. We did a bunch of driving scenes as well. So we really utilized a lot of the space, but in terms of interior and doing the dressing, I believe it was three or four different locations.
So a lot of times the camera turns around and you have a different time period and a different city. So that can be a little challenging, but a lot of the time, it's about just not looking like the same place since we weren't saying we're in St. Louis or, we're in Florida, we're in Arizona. A lot of the specifics don't need to be there about which place you're at.
NFS: A lot of our readers might be working with limited budgets or just trying to get their feet wet in production. What advice would you have for achieving high production value with little money?
Clayton: The truth of production value? I prefer to kind of work backwards, so to speak, and I'd rather have my hands on something that's not perfect, but have it in my possession and ready to go on shoot day, and be working on a better option and have potentially several more options for prop or dressing or whatever it might be.
I find a lot of people sometimes with quick turnaround times and high pressure, they get really fixated on just one item and one specific look. It's better to have options and start with what you can get, and work for the other thing. Because you can always, when you're on location on set, make it look a little better or position it better or reduce some of the visibility of something that's not exactly what you wanted. But never show up to set without any options. And I've seen that happen sometimes where people just get so fixated on, "It has to be the perfect this or that," and really shoot themselves in the foot.
NFS: What about advice for working with the rest of the crew? How do you foster those relationships and learn how to cooperate with everyone else?
Clayton: Teamwork makes the dream work. Come to set with that attitude and really make that your ethos. And I always personally, in the art department, I go and introduce myself to the gaffer and the key grip lighting design. Just to make [sure] that department, you know who they are—because how often does the art department need a cube tap or any other grip equipment?
Another part of that, though, and I always tell people that I work with or work under me is, you want to help other people and help out, but you need to make sure your job is done first before you offer any assistance to other departments or anyone else. And then go to town. People love to get help.
NFS: Any advice for getting into production design? What background you should have or what route you should take to get in?
Clayton: I actually just read something recently about getting into production and art production design, and I think the best advice and the best thing to keep in mind is that it just takes time, and unless you're lucky and you're one of those people that has an uncle or an aunt in the union, you just have to work your way up and just get on any project you can.
Any project, and work hard and meet as many people as you can and let them see the best side of you shine, and little by little people will see that. People will start grabbing you to start doing work and doing tasks. And all of a sudden you'll find yourself getting employed. That's a little more general to production and production assistants. But I think it's always true through every department.