With NBC’s late-night fixture Saturday Night Live since its very first season in 1975, suffice it to say that production designer Eugene Lee has seen it all, going round and round that lofty Emmys carousel. Splitting his time between SNL and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Lee earned his 13th nomination this year for the former series.
Election years at SNL are always lively and fun—Lee has worked through 11 of them—but as can be expected, the production designer had a rather different experience this time around. As former outside candidate Donald Trump rose through the Republican ranks to win the presidency, Saturday Night Live became more pointedly political than ever, driving Trump to lash out at the show.
Lee’s nomination is one of 14 for the series, which this year hit the highest ratings it’s seen since the era of Mike Myers and Chris Farley. Currently hard at work on Weekend Update Summer Edition, Lee details his experience with SNL‘s wild year, giving a glimpse into his artistic process.
A lot has changed in the world since we spoke last year. What has been your experience of the explosive 42nd season of Saturday Night Live?
There were 22 Emmy nominations, I think, which reminded me of year number two. Year number two was like that—there were endless nominations. It was then thought of as an actual show; the first year, it was discovering what it might be.
It’s been an exciting year. It’s nice when we do the political stuff—we love it. It’s hard for us to do sometimes, because the studio is unlike California, where studios are very large, or can be. 8H, we’re kind of limited.
In the beginning of the season when they had so many Republicans running, we had trouble fitting them all in. The podiums were practically touching. [laughs] We tried, of course, to get as close as we can to the look. Part of the joke is that it looks a little bit like CNN.
Sometimes it’s tricky to do, but doing it was fun. We’re doing three shows [this summer]—I just finished laying it out, Weekend Update. Spicer just resigned, so it’s constantly changing. You can’t plan on anything because it changes daily. It’s cuckoo, which is actually kind of exciting. It’s very odd to be doing a show where you know [President Trump] listens.
I decided I would try to add some more seats for these three shows in August, because of what’s going on. They promised me there would be no sketches per se, but I’ve done the show long enough not to believe any writer. Hopefully, it will be simple, but we’re prepared to do whatever they want to do.
The nice thing for me in Saturday Night, as a designer, is that no one ever tells me exactly what to do. I just thought, Well, I think there should be some more seats. Maybe 100 seats, on the floor. I just do it, hoping that that will all make sense.
We don’t have big, important meetings about what it should be—we just do it. I have a new girl from Yale, so I’m going to work on these three shows with her, kind of a little teaching moment. It seems like a good thing to do because Lorne, Mr. Michaels, said to me a year ago, “I think you should have some younger people on your department.” He said, “I ran into this girl from Yale. You should talk to her,” so I hired her on the spot. “Probably will ruin your whole life,” but she seems very nice, she’s very organized.
What went into designing Spicer’s Segway podium? Do you design the piece, and bring in engineers to handle the technical logistics?
The way it happens is that we have a tremendously good prop department. We’ve always had good prop people. They are given the problem, not me. They found a company—I think it was in Florida, but I’m not sure anymore. I didn’t get deeply involved in it.
We have a guy, Bob Flanagan, who is our special prop guy. He does particularly great puppets. You want to build a little puppet spaceship and hang it on a little string, that’s Bob.
All I know is I took a ride in it, and it was funny—I can’t take credit for it. I would like to credit the writers for it, but just like any other prop, there are special effects people. If they’re breaking through walls or they’re flying people over the “Update” set, this is why our staff is so big.
Sometimes, it falls on us—we did a little underwater hotel. There was a lot of discussion in the design department. Lorne will also one day decide what they’re doing—sometimes he will call in and say, “Can you do that? Can you make that happen?” We usually say, “Yes, we’re going to try.” In that case, we played around with it. It ended up in front of a little video screen, which is helpful.
Would that be similar to your limousine sketch, or your David S. Pumpkins sketch from this season? Like Spicer’s sketches, these required moving parts.
The thing with the elevator has gotten a lot of attention. I didn’t draw that, but we’ve done a lot of elevators before. We did an elevator, but actually, it wasn’t clear for some reason. There was a mix-up in communication about what it really was. Of course, what it really was, was a parody of a ride.
That seems obvious now, but at the time, that was not made clear. It ended up being very well liked, and very funny. Maybe that means scenery is not so important—I don’t know.
This season saw parodies or recreations of contemporary shows, including Mr. Robot, and cultural staples like The Music Man. What’s the process of recreating the tone and atmosphere of these properties?
“The Music Man,” they always pushed something like that onto me, because it’s a musical. I tend to do anything that is a boat, because they know I like boats, so they push it over to me, which I’m happy to do. “The Music Man” was fun. There were a lot of things we hadn’t tried before, because the backdrop to “Music Man” was a street.
We actually used an existing computer graphic for the street, but it’s possible, through a different program—when you print it—to make it look painted. It makes it more graphic, and that worked out very well. Then, I was out at the shop, and made the little wagon that came in, which was deemed to be like a little Model T.
What is really crazy on Saturday Night is the amount of time we don’t have to do these things. The Model T was kind of funny: Model T’s are hard to build. We have a computer router in the shop that can cut very accurate circles, so we made concentric circles and built it up until we made a wheel.
One really has no time. Basically, there’s two days in the shop, Thursday and Friday.
On a typical show, we probably have six or seven sets, easily. These days, it’s changing so fast—we can do whole things, and then it’s cut in a second. It has nothing to do with how good we make it look, or how complex it is; if Lorne isn’t happy with it, it just gets cut.
Do you design sets for musical artists appearing on the show, or do they bring their own materials?
I did a little set for Lady Gaga when she was on. Music, it’s very hard. The thing is, remember how long we’ve been doing the show—a long time. When we started off, Paul Simon was the second musical guest.
For a long time, the concept was that people came and played on our set. That was kind of nice: When The Rolling Stones came and played, it wasn’t like we’re doing their video. You’re seeing them within the context of our set, which I of course liked. Philosophically, I liked that. You got to see performers playing in our set that was lit differently and simpler—in that case, much simpler—and it wasn’t just a copy of their video.
That went on for a long time—for years, that was true. Then, the home base set kind of changed around. We had the subway set at one time; we had a ballroom set, a lot of different sets, and then we settled on Grand Central. I see it from my window at the Yale Club where I stay in New York, so that may be psychologically why I like it, but it had been restored, and it seemed that that’s the way New York was going.
Things change. I don’t know where it changed, but some important performer wanted to bring their own look, and it’s like letting the cat out of the bag. It’s hard, once you say yes to this person, to say no to the next person.
The concept, the way it developed over years, is that if a performer wants to play on Saturday Night and bring their own look, we’re happy to have it, but they also have to help pay for it, they also have to be sure that it doesn’t cause problems for the show.
So people who really want to bring something, they can bring it. If they want to take or modify the set that’s there, they’ve done that.
For my sake, I think it’s kind of great, because sometimes some of the lighting or some of the ideas proposed for the look for music performers is good for me. I kind of like it. I always say, “You can never learn less,” which is one of my mottos. They bring along sometimes really interesting new technology, which I like. It’s taken us years before we’ve started using digital screens and stuff, which we never would have done in the past.
I think in the overall arc of the entire show, the change most noted is they want it more realistic, more like a movie, where in early years, they asked for a living room, and you said, “Yeah, we’ve got a couple living rooms. How about the one with the stairway? That’ll be good.”
Now, we’re more likely to actually build something more realistic, and that has affected other things in the show. The performers performed on little stages—because I’m a theater guy—and in front of those little stages used to be people. Now that we’re doing more scenery, if you look at earlier shows, the scenery is simpler.
Things have changed, that’s all. This is all good news. I always think my biggest contribution was the way the studio was originally laid out, because that has affected the show ever since. I was advised in the beginning, because I’d never done a television show, that there should just be three areas. Then, there’s an audience area in front, on bleachers, and an actual backstage. I didn’t do that—I thought, No, the cameras have wheels. We’ll have little stages, the cameras move around, which is exciting.
That original layout of the seating, I think, was my really important contribution, because I was told it would never work. When they finally hired a director and I explained what I was doing, he said, “This is the way it has to be,” and I said, “Actually, it’s not going to be that way. It’s going to be my way.”
People generally agree—even on a show that’s not perfect, the actual workings of the stage crew and the booms…You know, we still use the damn booms. [laughs] I think Lorne is just sentimental about that, and even the crane. It’s amazing how crowded the floor is.
I’m trying a little experiment this year: The stages to stage left of home base, I’m going to lower them down to a foot high, and this is done for the camera department. They think it would be helpful for them not to have such a high stage. If they want to spend the money, we’ll try it, and maybe they’ll like it. That kind of stuff goes on.