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HomeProduction DesignEmmy Nominee: Schmigadoon! Production Designer Jamie Walker McCall Creates a Familiar and...

Emmy Nominee: Schmigadoon! Production Designer Jamie Walker McCall Creates a Familiar and New World

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Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong in Schmigadoon! (Courtesy of Apple)

During her time at Pratt Institute, Jamie Walker McCall majored in Advertising Art Direction and minored in Graphic Design. Upon graduating, she felt uncertain what to do, in general and with that degree. She tried to land work at New York City ad agencies, but they proved tough at the time to crack. So, she moved back to Boston, where, one day, she saw a Lord of the Rings movie.

Let’s call it her a-ha moment. As she put it to Below the Line during a recent Zoom call, “That’s when I realized, ‘This is what I want to do. I want to work in TV and film, and I want to do graphic design for that.’” 

McCall never looked back from there. She’s served as Art Director on Banshee, Feud: Bette and Joan, Paper Towns, and American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and Production Designer on The Assassination of Gianni Versace, Pose, American Horror Story, and, most recently, season two of Schmigadoon!

She helped breathe life into Schmicago, the off-kilter town where the show’s central couple – Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) – find themselves trapped, which leads to music, romance, and laughs. For her stellar work on Schmigadoon!, McCall recent earned her second Emmy Award nomination (Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Program [Half-Hour]). She landed her first nomination for Feud: Bette and Joan, in the Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Period Program category.

During her conversation with Below the Line, she discussed Schmigadoon!, her career to date, letting go of sets when a production wraps, and more… 

Jamie Walker McCall (courtesy Apple)

Below the Line: How did Schmigadoon! come your way?   

Jamie Walker McCall: My agent actually brought me the script and told me to take a look at Season 1. I did, and loved it. Then they got me the interview. I met with [Creator and Executive Producer] Cinco Paul and the team. I gave them a pitch for how I saw the season, and the rest is history. They hired me.   

BTL: What did you see? What did you say?   

McCall: I saw something that was definitely more dark and moody, which is also the aesthetic that appeals to me a lot. I pitched them a board. I put together a mood board for how I saw the overall season. It was very moody, with a lot of dark tones, and a little bit scarier than last year. I wasn’t sure how they’d accept it. I guess I nailed it, because I got the job.   

BTL: You can see a little Chicago in there, but it’s its own world. What did you have in your head for Schmicago when you got this script?

McCall: It’s definitely its own world. Part of my job is what I see and then also what I’m going to get. We went up and shot in Vancouver, and I inherited a half-built backlot. When I got there, I had to reconfigure how I imagined Schmicago to see what I could do with some of the existing structures and some structures that I knew we had to build to create this whole world of Schmicago.

I had a lot of inspiration behind it. I was a huge fan already of Babylon Berlin and the whole look of that show. When I first read the scripts I thought, “Ooh, this is my chance to do my take on that genre.” It just fit into the world of Schmicago and all the other genres of the show.   

BTL: How much does merely saying the word “Schmicago” make you laugh? 

McCall: There are so many things in the scripts — especially first reading it — then meeting Cinco, and how funny everything is. It was such a great, lighthearted show to work on. One of my favorite lines is, “I was a teenager in Buffalo.” 

Ariana DeBoes in Schmigadoon! (Courtesy of Apple)

BTL: Important chunks of the show take place at the theater, The Crack Club. It’s a confined, tight space, and borderline claustrophobic. What you were aiming for with that space?

McCall: We wanted this little speakeasy kind of space, but I also had to plan for major performances throughout. Early on, the crash of the chandelier was not going to happen there. Once it did happen there, I was like, “How are we doing this big crash in this little space?” The approach I took is, I definitely wanted it to feel subterranean, no windows, and I wanted it to be moody. I just needed the space to open up. A lot of it wagons out – the booths on the side and the bar — because I knew if you’re going to build a confined space, you have to at least go, “Okay, think about the shooting crew and open it up,” so that we can get cranes in there and certain things like that. The ceiling, in certain parts, lowered and then opened up.

We also have this amazing face that we had above the stage. You don’t see it throughout the entire show until the chandelier falls, but it’s there. The stage has the lips and then the face goes up, so we had to accommodate for the height of that face. That was a little Easter egg that can call back to the Tunnel of Love from Season 1. That was our first build. That was the first set I pitched to Cinco. A lot of thought went into it, especially the performances on stage. I’ve built some stages a few times for choreography, so the pillars and everything on that moved. I just wanted to make it as mobile and as easy to shoot as possible, and still look great.   

BTL: What other sets were either a challenge or fun, or both?   

McCall: I loved designing all of them. From day one, this has been my dream job to design, so all of them were exciting. The most challenging part was downtown Schmicago was not supposed to film until the end of the season, so I was going to have all this time to work on it. Then, because of scheduling conflicts, it was going to be shot within the first two weeks of filming. We found that out late. There was a lot more that I was planning on building for Schmicago that we just… When you get that message, you’re like, “Okay. Well, what can I do in this timeframe?” You have to truncate it all into what is doable with the crew. That was challenging, for sure. 

BTL: No one does your job alone. Talk to me a little about your team.   

McCall: Oh, the team was amazing. I sought out Carol Lavallee, who was the Set Decorator on Season 1. She and her team were amazing. She wasn’t sure at first if she was going to do it. I was like, “Please do it,” and she did. It was fantastic. I was so lucky to get her and her team. They did an amazing job. Every design or crazy thing that I thought of, I reached out to them and said, “You think we can get this done in time? Do you think we can get this lampshade from London?” They nailed it every single time.

Then, the Construction team. I’ve never worked in Vancouver, so these were all new teams to me. From day one, it was that Canadian, laid back, “Sure, no problem.” Even finding out that we had to build this entire town by Week 2 of filming, they just took it in stride and nailed it. They were so talented and they brought so much to the table.

The Scenic team — Sean Wynia and his wife Krista — were amazing. I’d give them references for the paint textures and stuff on the wall — a lot of it you see in Jenny’s (Dove Cameron) loft — and they’d come back with the samples. Every time they nailed it with enthusiasm and minimal tweaks. That’s all you can really ask for from a team is enthusiasm. Everybody was behind the project and it showed in the final product. 

Aaron Tveit in Schmigadoon! (Courtesy of Apple)

BTL: I’m sure exciting to see the actors perform on what you’ve created, but how particularly cool was it in this case, where we’re dealing with music and comedy playing out on these sets?

McCall: It’s amazing. The first day that we were filming in The Crack Club, and just seeing the performances… I had heard the music and I heard Cinco’s versions of the songs, but I hadn’t heard the actual music until they got there and they were performing. It gives you chills and you’re like, “Wow, it’s all coming together and this is so stunning to watch.” They’re the cherries on top of already exciting sets that you’re so proud of. When they populate it, it’s unreal to watch.   

BTL: How about the bit with Jane Krakowski on the swing?

McCall: I remember thinking, “Is this really going to happen? Is she going to do this?” I designed the set. It originally was going to open on camera, but then, once I talked about it with Jon Joffin and how they were actually going to shoot it, they were never going to see the ceiling. The ceiling is actually very beautiful and has all these beautiful stencils in it, but you don’t really see it. Then she’s just lowered into frame, which was stunning. Making that set, I needed to accommodate — and I’d never done this before — for a giant swing in the room. It has to at least be such and such wide to accommodate for this massive choreographed piece. We worked with the stunt team and Jane’s teacher at the trapeze, and it all came together.   

BTL: How satisfying is it to get another Emmy nomination and what would it mean to you to win?   

McCall: So satisfying, because I feel like people actually looked at it. Sometimes, things are passed over that are beautiful, not just my stuff, everybody’s stuff. I feel recognized, and with the team’s tremendous hard work that we all put into it day in and day out in such a short time, it’s so satisfying to be recognized by your peers. It would mean the world to me. I can’t even put into words what it would mean to me. It’s unfathomable for me to even comprehend that.   

BTL: Now, let’s work backwards. You were in Boston when you realized you wanted to work on movies. What happened from there?

McCall: I drove cross country and moved to L.A. Luckily, my boyfriend at the time got a job at a bakery on La Brea and that person — it’s such a crazy story — had her bakery designed by Bill Brzeski, who did Stuart Little. He’s amazing. He finally agreed to an interview with me one day, and he hired me for a pilot, to graphic design for it.

I did the pilot with him, and then, Set Decorator Danielle Berman recommended me for House, MD, to graphic design for that. I went over there and sat there for seven years, which was amazing. I learned so much. I sat in the bullpen and learned all aspects of the job. I worked with Construction all the time, and worked my way up to Assistant Art Director, Art Director, and Production Designer. 

BTL: Can you go back and forth between Art Director and Production Designer, or do you kind of graduate from the former to the latter?

McCall: The natural progression is to graduate. I know a lot of people that go back and forth and do both. I just think it depends on if it’s an interesting project that you might not be production designing, but you really want to work on it, so you’re willing to art direct.

Keegan-Michael Key, Cecily Strong in Schmigadoon! (Courtesy of Apple)   

BTL: What’s next? Or what was next? Did you complete anything before the strikes?   

McCall: I got back together with Ryan [Murphy] and was in the middle of American Horror Story Season 12. We made it to Episode 6 and a half.

BTL: Out of?   

McCall: Nine. I’m actually sitting in my office right now and all my boxes are packed up to be shipped back to L.A.   

BTL: How will you kill your day in the meantime during strikes?

McCall: I’m trying to feel it out right now. I still have my housing for another couple weeks here in New York, so I’m trying to figure out if I am going to donate my time volunteering places. That’s a question that I was just talking about right before this, trying to utilize it in the best way; go to my parents’ house, maybe help them with some stuff around the house, try to remodel some things. It’s a great question, and I have to figure that out in the next two weeks.   

BTL: I’ve spoken to production designers who can easily let go of their sets, and I’ve chatted with others who say watching sets dismantled pains them deeply. Where do you fall in that discussion?

McCall: Oh, it’s heartbreaking. We start with an empty stage and we end with an empty stage. I’m usually — thank God — gone by then. I’m shipped back to wherever I need to go on my last days, but usually Construction Coordinators always send me a picture of it all in the trash or folded up and ready to be shipped and stored. It’s heartbreaking, but luckily the DPs always do us justice. My Instagram now is more all about Schmigadoon! and trying to show everybody the things that you didn’t get to see — the behind the scenes stuff — so I’m trying to keep it alive as long as I can.   

Schmigadoon! Season 2 is streaming now on AppleTV+.

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