Though Cat Person and You Hurt My Feelings both premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the two indie movies take place in vastly different worlds. Based on the notorious New Yorker short story, Cat Person bounces from a dorm and other student hangouts to a suburban dwelling, while You Hurt My Feelings unfolds in a middle-class New York City comprised of diners, cramped apartments, weed shops, and farmers’ markets.
What the two movies have in common, however, is Production Designer Sally Levi, who has been working steadily in both features (The God Committee, Yes, God Yes) and television (Netflix’s Amend: The Fight for America) since she began to transition from Set Decorator (Patti Cake$, It Comes at Night, The Rental) in 2017. Once these two Sundance movies come out, we expect her phone to be ringing even more than it already does.
Emilia Jones (CODA) and Nicholas Braun (Succession) star as college student Margot and older cinephile Robert in Cat Person, which Susanna Fogel directed from a screenplay by Michelle Ashford, who adapted Kristen Roupenian‘s short story that chronicles their brief but volatile relationship. the buzzy acquisition title caused a stir at Sundance, though it has yet to announce a distribution deal or release date.
Fortunately, you’ll be able to see You Hurt My Feelings this coming weekend. It’s the latest film from writer-director Nicole Holofcener and it stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Beth, a novelist who finds her marriage upended when she overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) giving his honest reaction to her new book. Owen Teague (Bloodline) plays their son, while Michaela Watkins and Arian Moayed co-star as Beth’s sister and brother-in-law, respectively.
Below the Line spoke to Sally Levi over the phone a few months ago in honor of her one-two punch at Sundance, and she talked about how she got her start, the sets she had to design — and burn down — and the key to making New York locations feel accurate and authentic.
Below the Line: Let’s talk about Cat Person first. How did you find your way to that project?
Sally Levi: Cat Person was a passion project for me. When I first read Michelle Ashford’s script, I was worried that it would be exploiting women. I shouldn’t have been. Michelle also worked on Masters of Sex and is really great with female characters. Then I met with Susanna Fogel on Zoom and instantaneously realized how delicately she would treat the material, and how much it was going to be female-forward, which was incredibly important to me.
BTL: When you first read the script, did the locations immediately come to you? Did you think right away of shooting on the Fairleigh Dickinson campus?
Levi: We actually shot on three different campuses to combine a brutalist look, more traditional architecture, and those eerie walkways at night. One of the campuses was actually a former Toys ‘R Us headquarters that had been abandoned. That and the FDU campus were in New Jersey, and then we shot at Lehman College in New York.
We just couldn’t find one location that encompassed everything we needed. Also, it was right after Covid, and most colleges wouldn’t even allow us into their dorms. That was an intense collaboration with Susanna and our amazing Assistant Director Derek Peterson. Out of any of my jobs, that’s the most location scouting I’ve ever had to do.
BTL: Did you have to construct many sets?
Levi: Robert’s bedroom, the basement that burnt up, and a set for Margot’s train ride.
BTL: So her dorm was an existing location?
Levi: That was at FDU. Their dorms had the concrete texture we were looking for, a kind of eerie uncomfortability.
BTL: Were things like the ceiling fan in Robert’s bedroom in the script?
Levi: Yeah. That was in the short story as well.
BTL: For Robert’s basement, was the script specific about the details you needed to provide? What kind of input did DP Manuel Billeter have?
Levi: I actually got excited because I’ve never burnt down a set before. I build lots of sets, but we never get to burn them at the end. We were very aware that nobody was going to let us go in and burn up their basement.
We shot Robert’s house in New Jersey — his living room, kitchen, and dining room. Manuel and I went down to the basement and talked about what elements worked and what didn’t. We knew the walls would be concrete blocks. Robert’s very tall, so we wanted a shorter ceiling to emphasize that.
We needed a wooden staircase, and it needed to be in the center of the room because it was going to be a real fire which necessitated hidden fire escapes throughout the space. We had an issue with smoke because the actors can only be in smoke for so many seconds before they need to leave the space. We designed the basement so a third of it could open up to let the smoke out.
I had a very thorough shot list — Susanna and Manuel gave me every single shot way in advance. I don’t think they ever veered from the shot list. So we not only knew what we needed, we were never surprised on the day we shot.
BTL: It must have been a huge shift to work with Nicole Holofcener, the writer-director of You Hurt My Feelings.
Levi: Yeah, it was completely different. I didn’t get a single shot list. Nicole is so brilliant with comedy and she works so much with her actors. [During] our first conversation once I got hired, I wanted to know everything about the characters — where are they from, what schools did they go to, when are their birthdays, how did Beth and Don meet? She was like, ‘I’ve got to cast it before I can tell you that.’ When she had the cast, the answers just flooded in. Jeffrey Waldron, the Cinematographer, has worked with Nicole a lot and understood exactly what she wanted. He would give me little hints, so I would have a cheat sheet.
BTL: Were these primarily existing locations?
Levi: We built Don’s therapy office, that was our cover set. We had to build part of the weed shop because there weren’t any to shoot yet in New York City. We took this café with bright red tiles and turned it into this gritty weed shop. New York was really busy at the time, so finding locations became a big challenge.
BTL: What’s the key to making New York locations feel accurate?
Levi: Making them feel small… like you are crammed in. For example, Beth and Don’s apartment was this huge penthouse that we had to make small. I really tried to contrast the white shabby-chic living room with their dark gray contemporary bedroom. That created an equality in the relationship, a sense of compromise. I used a lighter gray for their son Elliott [Owen Teague] to show a kind of blending of [his] Mom and Dad.
So, specific colors for the characters, and all the art or lack of art. I grew up in New York City. I was not only cramped in small spaces but cramped with all this art and culture, an incredibly full environment. I felt like these characters had a similar upbringing. I used my own interior design background and my own contacts to flesh out Sarah’s [Michaela Watkins] job as an interior designer.
BTL: You got the little details right as well, like the Farmland milk and Zabar’s Cream Cheese and the Jonathan Franzen novel on the coffee table.
Levi: That was the most fun part [of] the movie. We also got to design the book covers for Beth.
BTL: Tell me about your approach to working in an existing location like Paragon Sporting Goods.
Levi: We had to cover all the mirrors [and] put something up we could take down in two seconds. Paragon let us shoot starting at 6:00 a.m., but we had to be out when they opened at nine. That included all the gear. On top of that, it was Day 1 of shooting. [Meanwhile,] we couldn’t get clearance for every sock company, so we had to remove all the socks that couldn’t be on camera.
We shot on the street there near Union Square, [when] Beth is buying soft ice cream from a truck. A lot of tourists see that it’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and then photographers show up because word about Julia has spread. So it’s very complicated, it’s Day 1, [and] a crowd is gathering, but we finally start rolling. The shot’s going really well, and guess who walks through the set? Matthew Broderick. He walks by with a coffee or something — never even noticed that we were shooting.
BTL: Before I let you go, can you tell me about how you found your way to a career as a Production Designer?
Levi: It’s all due to Sara K. White, an amazing Production Designer. I was her Set Decorator. I was supposed to do a movie with her in Canada but I was dropped because they needed to use Canadians on the crew. She recommended me for another job, and that led to another. She also really pushed me to do Cat Person because she worked on The Flight Attendant with Susanna. So, I owe her my career.
You Hurt My Feelings will hit theaters on May 26 courtesy of A24, while a distribution deal for Cat Person has yet to be announced.