BY ROBERT GOLDRICH
Earlier this year, production designer Anastasia White won the Art Directors Guild’s (ADG) Excellence in Production Design Award in the One Hour Contemporary Single-Camera Television Series category for multiple episodes of Mr. Robot (USA Network). She earned the honor along with an ensemble of talent that included art director Miguel Lopez-Castillo, assistant art director Jeannette Kim, graphic designers Adam Brustein and Eric Bryant, scenic artists Catherine Greene, Daniel Rosenfeld, Nick Dyball, Renee Kildow, Nicholas Meloro, William Thompson and David Reavis, and set decorators Alyssa Winter and Kate Yatsko.
White broke into the business as an art department assistant, working in that capacity on such projects as the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce, director Jodie Foster’s feature Beaver, and Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. Then as an assistant art director, she served on series that included HBO’s Girls and ABC’s Black Box.
White then moved into production design, with credits such as multiple episodes of TV Land’s The Jim Gaffigan Show, the short film Octopus, director Justin Kelly’s feature King Cobra, and then Mr. Robot, the acclaimed drama-thriller TV series created by Sam Esmail and starring Rami Malek as Elliot Alderson, a cybersecurity engineer and hacker who suffers from social anxiety disorder and clinical depression. Alderson is recruited by an anarchist known as “Mr. Robot” (portrayed by Christian Slater) to join a group of hacktivists, setting off assorted machinations, plots and varied forms of intrigue.
Mr. Robot has gone on to attain a devoted following, critical acclaim and assorted honors. In addition to the ADG Award, plaudits include a Peabody Award, a Writers Guild Award, Golden Globes for Best Dramatic TV Series and Best Supporting Actor (Slater), Primetime Emmys for Writing, Casting, Lead Actor (Malek) and Outstanding Music Composition for a Drama Series (original dramatic score by Mac Quayle), an ASC Award (for cinematographer Tod Campbell) and an AFI Award for TV Program of the Year.
SHOOT: Provide some backstory. How did you get the opportunity to work on Mr. Robot and what drew you to the series?
White: I had art directed the pilot and was able to get to know Sam [Esmail] and the show that way. We shared a similar aesthetic, and I was thrilled that he kept me in mind when he was looking for a designer for season 2. By that time I had only designed a few low budget films and one other television show. When I got the call, I was on a movie called King Cobra, which stars Christian Slater...so it seemed pretty serendipitous. Mr. Robot is not at all a typical television series. I was very drawn to the unique story, and the fact that I already knew Sam and the producer Chad [Hamilton] was great. I was very excited about the way the story is visually told. And with Sam directing all of the episodes, it is produced and shot more like a film which is also a big plus.
SHOOT: What was (were) the biggest creative challenge(s) that Mr. Robot posed to you as a production designer?
White: The writing is fantastically rich and dense. This means that we are working with multiple story points in each script and many different sets and locations. Apartment homes and living spaces are always sort of a challenge because they are so character driven and require the art department to think about all the details that this person would have. That being said, Elliot’s mother’s townhouse was a different kind of challenge. If you know what the reveal is, we were scouting for jails at the same time we were designing this set. The layout of the space had to reflect the actual place that it was representing, while also staying true to a typical Brooklyn townhouse.
SHOOT: Provide some insight into the nature of your collaboration with series creator Sam Esmail?
White: Sam and I share a lot of reference photos during prep, as well as work together to create color schemes for the characters. While I’m location scouting, I send him photos of my favorite options. Then we narrow them down to one or two, and see them all together with the DP and producers. We try to keep the world as realistic as possible, but occasionally something odd will inspire one of us and we will try to work that into a set or story. Once in a while, a more stylized version of the world is appropriate for emphasizing an emotion. The great thing about Mr. Robot is that I can find visual inspiration in anything from a concert, to an art museum, to street art, and Sam is equally as open and excited to incorporate those elements.
SHOOT: You won an Art Directors Guild Award for your work on the show. Tell us about the contributions of—and your working relationship with—such colleagues as art director Miguel Lopez and set decorators Alyssa Winter and Kate Yatsko? Others?
White: I am so grateful to have been nominated and receive the award from the ADG. We had a great art department with everyone bringing something important to the table. Since I am a relatively new designer, I wanted to surround myself with an experienced crew that would both support my vision and contribute their own ideas and skill. I feel like we had a very open, collaborative team and everyone was on the job because they were invested in the story. Aside from set decorating and scenery, the graphics department is a huge part of the design. We have someone doing all of the print and signage, and another doing everything that shows up on the screens (televisions and computers).
SHOOT: How did you become a production designer? Share some career highlights so our readership has a better handle on you and your accomplishments.
White: I started out in the music business and then went to graduate school for architecture in Arizona. After three years of school and working in the field, I decided that it wasn’t quite right for me. I had always wanted to live in New York City, and after some research, found that set design is a perfect mix of art, architecture, and anthropology.
Mark Friedberg was the first designer that I worked with. I assisted him on a few projects: Mildred Pierce and The Beaver. Through Mark, I met many other talented people including Adam Stockhausen (whom I worked with on Moonrise Kingdom). A couple years later, I started art directing on lower budget films (The Harvest, They Came Together) and on the TV show Girls (with designer Matt Munn). Just before season 2 of Mr Robot, I designed another independent film called King Cobra with an amazing director, Justin Kelly.
Along the way, I have been lucky enough to meet so many supportive and inspiring people.