Melanie Jones, the talented production designer behind the critically acclaimed series Painkiller, has made a significant impact in the world of production design, transforming both stage and screen with her creative vision. With a rich background that spans theater, film, and television, Melanie brings a unique perspective on the art of crafting immersive environments that bring stories to life.

In this insightful conversation, we delve into Melanie's journey from early set designs to leading major productions, exploring the meticulous research and imaginative processes that fuel her work. Discover the inspirations behind her designs, the challenges of maintaining consistency across multiple decades and locations, and how she approaches sensitive topics with authenticity.

Join us as we uncover the secrets behind Melanie's impressive portfolio, from the intricate details of Painkiller’s sets to her aspirations for future projects. Read on to learn more about the art and passion of production design.

PAINKILLER Trailer (2023) Matthew Broderick, Uzo Aduba, Taylor

Editors note: the following interview is edited for length and clarity.

How did you first get involved in production design, and what was it about this aspect of filmmaking that captured your interest?

I have always loved world-building. As a kid, I would draw or craft towns with sheets of paper, and I loved movies and TV. I started designing sets for a theater company I was part of because there was no one available to design and paint the sets, and since I was a good artist, I got nominated. My involvement in theater began when I was 11, and set design and technical directing came in my early 20s. While working at The Golden Theater in Burbank, I also took jobs working on films, commercials, and print to make money and learn. I moved full-time into film in my early 30s and began working as a set decorator. Soon, I moved up to Production Design.

With your experience ranging from theater to film and television, how does your approach to production design differ across these mediums?

It’s all about the story for me. My design comes from that; I don’t merely drop an aesthetic in, I build it up from subtext and research. The difference between these mediums comes down to scope and visual style. The story leads, but I will approach a comedy differently than a drama or horror movie by staying in a visual range that makes sense with the genre. Comedy might have a broader, brighter color range; horror more saturated, dark, or strange. Shapes might be softer if it’s a romance, asymmetrical to create a discordant vibe for drama, and surfaces smooth or rough to add to the subtext of the mood. I work to honor the script and then guide the details to fit the genre.

Painkiller is centered around the opioid epidemic, a very sensitive and critical topic. How did you approach designing the sets to authentically represent this issue?

Research! The writers Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue dug deep into research to write the series, and we got a lot of information from them. My research contribution encompassed any visual references we could dig up from the multiple decades we covered. Every available wall space in my huge department was covered with photography and references, set drawings, and sample chips. Once I had exhausted all the visual, textural, and practical research, I used my imagination and instinct to create the design.

In creating over 200 sets and locations for Painkiller, how did you ensure consistency and continuity across multiple decades and locations?

DP Brendan Stacey and I collaborated on the full visual style of the movie by pulling images from photographers and reference sources and throwing them together to weigh against one another. We picked the top 30 we thought had a cohesive look. It was our bible that we’d use and go back to in order to control the overall palette and visual style of the film, even though the sets and locations varied widely.

Melanie Jones

What were the main inspirations behind the design of the Purdue Pharma headquarters, and what did you want it to convey to the audience?

I received some information about what the office looked like from employees. We could not find any interior pictures of Purdue. The employees didn’t get too specific but remembered the color scheme (purple carpet!) and a description of the atrium as a tall lobby with skylights. I started with that firsthand information and then pulled research for corporate offices in the late '80s and early '90s. In the '90s, I was often working on commercials and pulled from memory. I saw the inside of more than one corporate office back then. I was inside a Goldman Sachs building at one point and used that as inspiration too.

Can you share some insights into how production design contributed to the storytelling of Painkiller and the depiction of the Sackler family's narrative?

Since the Sacklers were involved with art museums and art curation, I asked my set decorator, Caroline Gee, to source tasteful high-end art and photography for the offices. I felt this was an important detail that told a story of their wealth and focus. For Richard Sackler's home, we found a location that was huge but then dressed it relatively empty of furniture. The reason for this is twofold: we wanted the cavernous, empty feel of his home to reflect a subtext of his isolation, and I also felt that his taste would be minimal and uncluttered. The architectural style of his home was traditional, but his office held a modern style decor. For the period segments with his uncle and the family, I designed the look to be period upscale and traditional—dark wood, objets d'art, elegant, powerful.

What kind of project do you see yourself tackling next? Is there a particular genre or story that you're passionate about exploring in your future work?

I like all genres. When I read a script I look for the chance to design a set I have not done before. Painkiller gave me ample opportunity to achieve that goal. I would love to do either a TV series or film next. Luckily my career has been fluid in that way. I move back and forth between the two. In terms of passion, I’ll go back to the world-building concept I have carried my whole life– I just love digging into a script and creating a place where a story can be told, an environment the cast and crew can thrive in, and in the end we view it and get lost in that world for a time. Such a wonderful process.