For Season 2 of FX’s What We Do in the Shadows, production designer Kate Bunch expanded the world, and the Staten Island residence of a trio of vampire roommates, doing so for both logistical and creative reasons.
As she set out on the comedy’s new season, Bunch knew what she’d have to deal with first—the exterior of the vampire mansion established in Season 1. “Season 2, we lost our exterior location. They sold the property and it’s becoming a woman’s shelter, so we couldn’t go back there,” she explains. “So, a lot of the beginning of Season 2 was us trying to figure out how we were going to find a new location.”
Ultimately, rather than scouting a new practical exterior for the mansion, the designer decided to build three sides of this key set in a parking lot, right outside of the stages used for the majority of production. This decision, of course, would come with its set of challenges. “Literally the mansion, or parts of it, were just on the street. We did have to dig into the concrete to build a [new koi] pond, and there was a lot of stuff to figure out,” she says, “because there were sewer lines, and all these other things under the parking lot that made that a whole ’nother challenge.”
Challenging as this transition may have been, though, Bunch finds in retrospect that it was “kind of a blessing in disguise, because we were able to add on a lot of the backside of the house and create it from scratch, where we weren’t tied into what the real location was.”
During the Season 2 shoot, the production designer also had the chance to expand the interiors of the vampires’ Gothic dwelling, adding new visual elements, and reconfiguring certain areas, to allow for new narrative possibilities. “For Season 2, we were able to connect Nadja and Laszlo’s room to a really cool new hallway that has a double level. We put the bathroom on there, and then we always leave open-ended doors or hallways, [because] we always want to be able to expand onto our mansion whenever we want. But also, we just want it to feel like a huge mansion,” she says. “So, we also built a really awesome new music room. I don’t think it plays out in the show exactly, but we connected that to an upstairs kind of parlor room. All of that is basically almost a second floor, so that was great.”
Outside of the vampire residence, Bunch was tasked with introducing a variety of new environments, including a necromancer’s workspace, a vampire hunting club and the lair of a coven of witches. The guiding aesthetic principle, Bunch says, in approaching each new bit of Shadows’ world, is that each set must be “creepy,” in its own unique way. “That’s fairly simple,” she admits, “but that’s kind of our guiding word.”
In production on Season 2, as on Season 1, one of the principal challenges for the production designer had to do with the aging of sets. Given the fact that the mockumentary centers on a world of ancient, otherworldly creatures, this process has naturally been one of the utmost importance. “Our painters are awesome, and they’ve actually had to go out and get extra permits, for them to be able to use different chemicals and processes that maybe on Season 1, we didn’t have,” Bunch says. “But now, we have them, which gives us a lot more texture, which is exciting for me.”
A second challenge, for Bunch, is the curation of gothic art, which plays a major role in transporting viewers into the series’ world. “The portraits hanging up in the house [have] always been very time-consuming, and they’re all done differently. Sometimes they’re just Photoshopped; sometimes we’re doing photo shoots with [the cast]. Sometimes we are painting them from scratch, and obviously those take a while,” the production designer says. “But it’s great because we get to have people from all over the world [contribute art], and it gives us a variety of styles, too, within the house, to have all those different people doing it.”
From Bunch’s perspective, the biggest challenge of Season 2, in comparison to Season 1, was that it felt “a little bigger” in every capacity. “Maybe the writing was a little bit ‘bigger,’ but we were basically within the same time constraints as the previous season. So, that was really rough,” she says. “Luckily, we have an awesome crew that gets it, and we all get each other. So, there’s an underlying understanding that helps with everything.”
Earlier this summer, What We Do in the Shadows was renewed for a third season, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the production team to figure out how to move forward in unprecedented times. Per Bunch, the group has already entered into discussions, as far as strategies for safely shooting Season 3.
“There’s definitely things that we might need to do, like restructuring the way we work. We’re having a lot of people work remotely, which becomes very difficult. Things move so fast that when you’re not in the same space, where you can just yell across the room to someone, but you actually have to sit, write an email, make a phone call, it just adds so much time,” she says. “So, that’ll be interesting, as well as trying to create more space, when we are so packed in our stages, just trying to figure that out.”
According to the production designer, one of the strategies being considered going forward is to separate crewmembers into pods, the idea being to allow for social distancing on set, as well as an efficient workflow. “We haven’t really hashed it all out quite yet, and I know there’s rules that will be set forth for us to follow. But within those rules, as the art department, [we’re] trying to figure out the best way to get this all done. So, maybe we have a hybrid [set], where we have set dressers, construction and a painter all working in a pod,” Bunch explains. “Or the construction guys come in, the painters come in. Then, the set deck crew comes in and puts in lights and electrical sockets, and all these things, and makes holes in the walls. But then the paint department has to come back in, and grips and lighting need to come in…
“We don’t normally work that way,” the production designer adds, “but I feel like it’s something we might try, and hopefully we can learn a little bit from any productions that have started working already.”
Ultimately, for Bunch, 2020 has been quite a strange year, indeed. And while the Season 3 shoot will undoubtedly be a challenge, she can at least take solace at the moment, in the fact that her work, and the work of her colleagues, is being recognized. Earning just two Emmy nominations last year, for cinematography and sound editing, What We Do in the Shadows broke through in a major way this season, with eight nominations, including for Outstanding Comedy Series. Bunch, meanwhile, was met with her first nomination, earning the kind of recognition she’s always desired. “Sometimes, I still feel like I’m still learning, because every project is different. So, every time I start a project, there’s this anxiety like, ‘Am I going to be able to do that? How are we going to do that?’ And then you just go through the motions, and you figure it out,” the production designer says. “So, it’s kind of a strange feeling because you’ve put together a really great project that you get a lot of recognition for, and I still have feelings of, ‘Oh my God, how are we going to do this?’ I would assume that other people wouldn’t assume that I have those feelings, so it’s kind of crazy. But I’ve always dreamed of this.”
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