How the Production Designer of 'Reservation Dogs' Collaborates with Community to Create Indigenous Spaces
Reservation Dogs production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly talks with No Film School about his work on the show.
We're not going to spoil the series finale of the masterful Reservation Dogs here, which aired at the end of September. Sterlin Harjo's wonderful look at the life of Indigenous teens in Oklahoma has been a beacon of originality on FX since it premiered three years ago.
But we do want to give some more shine to its creative team, including Brandon Tonner-Connolly, who served as the show's production designer.
Throughout these three seasons, Tonner-Connolly's team has dressed family homes, the local medical clinic, gas stations, and more. They completely built out a horrifying boarding school for this season's flashback episode, "Deer Lady." And they've done it with the involvement and constant input of members of the community it portrays, with care and research.
We spoke with Tonner-Connolly ahead of the series finale via Zoom. Learn about the show's greatest challenges and its most important collaborations below.
First Look at Season 3: Defining the Spirit | Reservation Dogs | FXwww.youtube.com
Editor's note: this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: You worked with local artists for the show, and I would love to learn more about that.
Brandon Tonner-Connolly: One of my priorities from the beginning of the job was just making sure that we involved as many people from the community as possible, both in terms of within the actual art department and in terms of collaborating with local artists in there.
I read this really great quote from Lily Gladstone maybe a week or two ago, and she said, "The work is better when you let the world inform the work," and I think that's totally true. And that's something that I aspired to with Reservation Dogs.
When it came to actual moments where we had art pieces that could be made by people actually outside the art department, it was really important to me to involve as many local artists and as many artists from the community as we could. And I think a big place where that happened was the IHS, a set that we used ... actually the first episode or second episode of the first season. And then it became a backlot that we just went back to over and over again. And I loved it because we were able to design it and were able to do the great work that we do with all the sets.
Willie Jack Wants to Learn Real Medicine - Scene | Reservation Dogs | FXyoutu.be
Tonner-Connolly: But I also had the opportunity to collaborate with amazing artists. Like for the exterior, we had Yatika Starr Fields, who's an artist from Oklahoma. He came in and he created a mural, which satirized the idea of Western medicine being gifted to Indigenous peoples. And it's a hilarious mural, and there are so many tiny details hidden in there, and it just became such a huge statement piece. And we didn't know it at the time, but we just keep coming back to that location, to that set. So it's in every season, multiple episodes, and it became such a great piece.
We also collaborated with Ben Brown, who is a graphic designer from Oklahoma, and we created this Spirit anatomy poster again for the IHS. It's the second episode of the first season, the one where Bear gets beat up and then goes to the IHS and he sees Spirit in there. And we wanted to do a quick little beat that you could notice or not notice, but behind Spirit in the exam room, there's a Spirit anatomy poster, and it's basically a human anatomy poster, but it actually takes a glimpse inside the Spirit character, so it reveals what culturally significant objects make up his life force. So that was really nice, and tobacco and sweet grass and all these different elements. Ben Brown came in it and really nailed that.
Then, this last season on Reservation Dogs, I pitched what I thought was this absurdly unsettled idea of adding a buffalo mural to the break room space. We were honored to have Johnnie Diacon, who's an amazing artist, come in and create this astonishingly beautiful, subtle piece of original art, which is in, I believe the episode's called "Friday," this last season. Elora Danan and Leon are cleaning, and then they sit down in front of this beatific, really peaceful buffalo mural and have a nice moment there.
It was great for me as well, because Johnnie painted it on a Saturday and there was nobody else around. It was kind of deserted because it was the weekend, so it was just really me and him in there. And the experience of listening to him tell stories about his life while he was painting this amazing scene just hopefully will stay with me forever. And I felt really lucky to have been there in that moment.
So there's just a couple of the artists that we worked with. Dana Tiger also is an amazing Oklahoma artist who was a big part of the show, and we were able to incorporate her art into a lot of the sets, which was really nice. And like I said, involving the community as much as possible and letting that lead the way aesthetically. That's great.
NFS: I saw a clip recently from "Indigenous Talk," and they were laughing about how in one episode, the sheets were pinned up on the bedroom windows. They thought that was so specific and so accurate. How do you find those details and get those small things right?
Tonner-Connolly: I actually remember when we were doing that and thinking, "OK, should the curtains be ... we could do this or this." We're like, "No, it should be a bed sheet because we've seen that in all these different houses."
I'm also happy that you used the word "specific" because I feel like I'm constantly preaching that to the art department, the concept of specificity. By the end of the three years, everybody was just tired of hearing me say that. I'm just always asking, what about a set or a prop makes it specific to the world of Reservation Dogs and the community it represents? No matter what set we're making, how can we push ourselves to make sure it's something that would only exist in the world of the show?
The execution of that is dependent on having an amazing art department and set decoration team. We're always finding things from the community to incorporate into the sets. We built a 14-foot-tall owl effigy for the second season, and we're thinking about what we can get from the local shops that's going to be right for that world in terms of materials.
With set dec, it's all about taking inspiration from our surroundings and turning that into our sets. Like every house we scout, I'm constantly taking pictures and asking questions politely to find new details we can add. And our set decorators, Tafv Sampson, our set decorator in the third season, she'll actually be sourcing dressing from people in the community, renting pieces from them, coming up with new ideas when she visits her relatives in the community also.
I think a big part of it is for me, I really love to get the references from the real world whenever I can. And so when I'm out there scouting, when I'm seeing somebody's home, as I said, I'll politely ask, "Can I take a picture of this? Or can I take a picture of the family photos you have on the wall? Or can I take a picture of the Bible book you have on the refrigerator or the cereal you have on top of your fridge?"
I think it's all those little details that really help and that really help bring the show together. And even more so than that, when we were doing Mabel's house, I try to incorporate everything that I've found. But also basically beyond the references from scouting, we use family photos from people in the art department who are from the community, and we love looking at people's family photos and picking out the details that are going to make the spaces feel real.
So for Mabel's, we had many great photos from Sierra Revis who is our assistant art director, and she showed us her aunt's house in Oklahoma and just the many photos of family gatherings they had there, and that was amazing.
I remember one photo had a burn mark from an iron on a rug, and I was like, "Yes, this is exactly the type of texture and detail that we need." We did bring in an iron and heat it up and burn our carpet in Mabel's house to tell a story of a moment in which that happened 10 years ago, 15 years ago, something like that.
'Reservation Dogs'Credit: FX
NFS: I would love to hear about how you did research on "Deer Lady" since that's such a standout episode this season.
Tonner-Connolly: It was challenging because it's such an emotionally charged historically significant environment to recreate. Sterlin Harjo, the show creator and showrunner, his writing is so groundbreaking, and the show is so groundbreaking in general. These types of American boarding schools haven't really been seen on film and TV before, especially not in TV. So we felt this massive weight of responsibility to get it right and to be historically accurate and to help convey the awful and dehumanizing experience and what that was like. With the research, we just started with vast amounts of it. I got into it weeks before we even started officially prepping, and I had a couple... I was doing the research myself and I had a couple of other people helping out with researchers, photo researchers who I use on different projects.
AWe just looked at every photo we could get our hands on from every boarding school from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. Then, Tafv Sampson, the set decorator, and a few other people, took a trip out to historical archives in Anadarko, Oklahoma, to meet with some of the archivists there and gather images.
And Tafv actually contacted the author of Stringing Rosaries, which is a history of Plains boarding schools, and the author actually came on board as our consultant. And she was great because she answered our many, many questions on things like plates and spoons and bedding and desks. And I always love the research process and I feel like on this one, it was something different because even though we're talking about objects, everything is really heavy with the emotional weight of this terrible history. So, it's not like a lot of other period pieces.
We would ask our consultant about things and depicting different types of abuse or corporal punishment, and she said, "Whatever you show on screen will not be as bad as it was in real life." We had to be mindful of the emotional toll all of that took on everyone in the art department as we were working on it and working our way through it. But that was really a lot of the research.
Then, I went back and made a reference guide, selected maybe the best references specifically for a dorm, and the best references specifically for a mass hall and the best references specifically for an outdoor garden and made that into a reference guide that I could circulate with costumes and with set decoration and with everybody else, and just made sure that we're all on the same page.
I believe costumes was doing research also, and it was good to be able to work so closely with Alyssa [Blair Cawthon], the costume designer, and just make sure, OK, this is exactly the year that we want to portray. This is exactly what this would be like, and start from there. We wanted to start from a place of truth and accuracy. Then, Danis Goulet, the director, came in with these amazing visual ideas and wanted to give the episode a very seventies horror aesthetic with long lenses and this palpable sense of dread. We talked about Luca Guadagnino'sSuspiria and a few other films as color palette references. I thought establishing a color palette was important because all the research was in black and white, and we wanted to make sure we were really giving the episode its own identity.
The genre aesthetic was a nice way of making this incredibly weighty subject matter a little more digestible, so it felt a little more fantastical or like a dream than a gritty doc. It also set that episode in its own separate universe, which was nice. But like I said, it's nice to start with the truth and history of everything, but then also get to a point where it can feel more fantastical or a dream or like a memory more so than a documentary, which was what we were shooting for in the end.
The Rez Dogs Evolution From Mischief to Resilience | Reservation Dogs | FXwww.youtube.com
NFS: What have been the largest challenges on this show?
Tonner-Connolly: OK, this is a literal challenge, but when we were just about to start dressing the boarding school and getting into it—probably the day or two when we were supposed to start doing some serious construction and scenic work and then get into the set decoration—we ended up having this fire that destroyed the set dec warehouse and the construction and scenic shop.
It almost completely burned down, and much of our dressing and people's kits and tools were destroyed in this way. Things that hadn't been burned were soaked by the fire hoses when they actually put out the blaze.
We were in this spot where we were about to start charging up the hill of our biggest construction in scenic and art department endeavor in the three years of the show and this thing that we all really cared so deeply about, and then had this crazy accident happen that obviously it was great that nobody was hurt, but logistically and emotionally, it was a real setback or a real moment. And I think a lot of different crews might've accepted it as a major setback and compromised the quality of what we were doing. But it's just a testament to everybody who works in this show that nobody ever really skipped a beat. I think we had a big team meeting the next day. It was like, I was there at 11:30 at night with the lead man and the set decorator and the other people who have their space in that shop with the firetrucks and everything being like, "Wow, this is a crazy devastation. People are very emotional about it."
The next morning, we were like, "OK, well, we've got to start doing this." So we had a big team meeting and talked for a little while and then we all listened to how everyone was feeling, and we just went forward and kept charging forward and tried to do our best work without looking back. So I feel like that was a real challenge that we overcame. And the construction department and scenic department, they just set up a little satellite shop out at the location that we actually used to do it.
Because I guess to get back to what I was saying before with the references, once we actually had the references, I went through them and started to pick out all the different small elements that we wanted to incorporate into the spaces like, OK, for the dorm room, I knew that we really wanted to have a hardwood floor with the style of the period and this very high gloss. It kicked back some moonlight during the night scenes and had this mythical aesthetic. I also wanted to add wood paneling to the walls to give everything this deep, dark feeling. We wanted to incorporate these small details wherever we could, small decorative crosses on these plinth blocks that edge out the wood paneling.
So with the fire, we were just about to go and start doing all that stuff. Our director, Matt Hyland, and our construction coordinator, Aaron Maier, they were both real heroes and they were able to build and install the flooring and the paneling and a million other details that made this very large contemporary space into this similarly large or large scale period space, which was great.
And same thing for the classroom set with the boarding school, the only available space we had at the college where we shot all of this had completely raw walls down to the sheet rock. I had very specific ideas about what the room should look like based on the references. Again, the art department really crushed it by building out all the walls with a combination of paneling and chalkboards, which probably to their annoyance, I insisted, was very accurate to the references down to every detail.
Then we still have the dining hall, the outdoor garden cemetery, and a few other spaces to go. So it was really our most challenging construction scenic moment and set dec moment, art moment in general. And then we had the fire, but I think we were all able to overcome it mostly because we just knew that it was such an important subject matter that we were getting into, and we wanted to do it justice and make sure that we conveyed the intent of the creators and Sterlin and everything.
'Reservation Dogs' Credit: Shane Brown/FX
NFS: What advice do you have for people wanting to get into the art department?
Tonner-Connolly: I would say that you really have to love what you do in order to get into, especially the art department but I think any type of filmmaking in general. Because the way that I got into it is I always grew up loving movies, and I didn't know what I wanted to do in film at all. I didn't know how to get into film. Nobody in my family or in my the social group that I grew up with had ever worked in entertainment or anything. I went to school for film theory and film practice and thought that I would make sort of really esoteric documentaries or essay films that nobody would ever see or would never make any money.
Then, I got out and a friend asked if I would fill in for them on a music video one day. I said, "Sounds kind of lame, but sure, I'll get into it." I met the art director that way, and the art director explained to me what an art director was. Basically, I immediately thought, "Oh, well, this is something that really meets a lot of different passions of mine and gets into the whole idea of research, of references, but also of creating and also filmmaking and touches on all these different passions." So I stuck with them.
They hired me for the next couple of commercials and music videos, and then they said, "I'm going to design a really tiny indie feature. Do you want to prop master?" I was like, "Yes, absolutely. But can you explain to me what a prop master is exactly?"
Then, I just prop-mastered really small, indie New York movies. It was the type of things where you're the only art department person on set, so it's like prop mastering, assistant prop mastering, onset dressing, all those things at the same time. You just learn how to do all those things and how to rely on yourself and how to be efficient and how to do all that. I just thought it was so much fun and I just loved every minute of it. Then I worked my way up and realized, "Well, prop mastering is great and I love telling stories through the details of the characters' watches or the wallets or all these little things that you don't have time to really get through in the dialogue." Then I thought, "Well, it would be so much fun also if I could actually create the entire world of the film and work with the director and work with the DP and tell the whole story that way."
Then started designing small films again and again, you're doing a lot of it yourself and you're really trying to just hustle and make it happen. You end up [with] limited resources and you just have your wits and this suffocating fear of failure for company. So I just worked my way up that way.
I guess I would say in terms of advice, don't be afraid to get into it and to just start working in the department to take an opportunity as it comes up and learn about what you do like and what you don't like. Because not just in the art department, but in terms of set life in general, there are many different opportunities to work in many different fields, and some of them might click with you and some of them might not. And the sooner that you can start to identify what you do want to do and what you don't want to do, the sooner that you can start making a way in that world and getting to the place where you want to be eventually.
Again, I think it really has to be something that you love and really something that you find enjoyment in because the hours are long, it's challenging, it's a nonstop, incredibly stressful endeavor of challenges. And if you don't find a certain love for the act of creating a film with people, and if you don't find a certain enjoyment in either being on set or in getting into this world with these people, then it's a long career. So I would say just discover what makes you feel passionate and discover what elements you love and start to work toward that in that way.
I also, just as a shambles promotion, I did write an article a couple of years ago called "The Seven Arts of Working in Film," which I've been told has kind of like a, "Hey, kids, stay off my lawn," quality, which I don't deny. But it's in Filmmaker Magazine and I felt like at the time it was somewhat funny, but also just an accumulation of the things that I had learned and how to be most efficient on set and get into that.
Rita's Job Offer - Scene | Reservation Dogs | FXyoutu.be
NFS: Is there anything else you wanted to bring up I didn't ask?
Tonner-Connolly: I guess one thing that I can say about Reservation Dogs ... I feel really fortunate to be a part of it, and I feel really proud and grateful to have been a part of it. I feel like it's an incredibly special show, and just in terms of what it means to people and how groundbreaking it is in terms of centering a particular type of experience but also just the actual experience of making it was so special and unique.
I think one thing that we did ... is that when we were creating and decorating the sets, we're thinking about the people who will be watching it at home, but we're also equally, or we're equally thinking about the people who will be in the room and were shooting it. We're thinking about the crew who are from the community and the cast who are from the community and the people down the block who will stop by to watch, and we want them to feel the spaces are right and to be affected by the choices we're making. It's about that as much as what it's going to look like in the end, or what the final viewing is going to be like.
There are many examples, but just a quick one is Mabel's house from season two. A creative priority for that episode was dressing Mabel's room with objects that would resonate with the cast and crew, because everything going into the room, into Mabel's room had to be special and evoke the proper emotion. We asked the crew if there was anyone in their family who had passed that they wanted to honor. We received an original painting and artwork from Neosha Pendergraft who was in the prop department and her mother is a known artist, and so we put one of her pieces in there.
We also put photos of departed relatives from Lauren Waters' family, who's in the casting department, and Tafv Sampson, the set decorator, her father. We had photos of him in the set too. So everyone who stepped into the room had this palpable reaction to the mood it created, which was really special, and which I think made for a really unique filming atmosphere.
Another example of that is Casey Camp-[Horinek], who plays Irene. She's a longtime activist, and she let us use the shawl she wore to Wounded Knee protests in her youth for her character's home. We were just always trying to prioritize what people would feel like when they were in the actual spaces and how that would change.
I guess the last thing I'll say is it was just such an amazing experience in general. The first day of shooting season one, crew call was 9:00 a.m. and the line producer asked if the entire crew would gather in the parking lot of the location, which was the IHS. Sterlin gave a very stirring speech about how we're making a comedy, but we shouldn't forget how many years of suffering have led up to being able to joke about these things and how each Native American person on the production was there because one of their ancestors survived. And he noted that Native Americans have always been used as either props or villains, and this is the first show to let them tell their story.
Then, a local powwow group, which included Dana Tiger, performed a few songs, and an elder made a speech welcoming us all to tribal land. And he was just deeply emotional and unlike anything I've ever experienced on set.
So, I guess I just wanted to convey those points just because, just working in film or TV, I hadn't really had an experience like that before, and I'm not sure that anything else will approach that. But it was just a special show and a special time.