Production Designer Javiera Varas (AFI Class of 2006) is no stranger to using striking color palettes and meticulous set designs to draw audiences into both grounded and fantastical worlds alike. After a successful run as an Art Director on award-winning films including DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and WILD, she began working as a Production Designer, creating compelling visual narratives for independent films ROXANNE ROXANNE and MARJORIE PRIME, TV comedies FIRST WIVES CLUB and HARLEM, and most recently the psychological drama SAINT X, based on Alexis Schaitkin’s bestselling novel.
Born and raised in Chile, Javiera studied at PUC Chile’s School of Design and the Elisava Barcelona School of Design and Engineering in Spain, before receiving a scholarship from the President of the Republic of Chile to complete an MFA in Production Design at the AFI Conservatory. We spoke to her about her training at AFI, making the jump from Art Director to Production Designer, and creating the visual look of SAINT X alongside director Dee Rees while filming in the Dominican Republic.
AFI: How did being raised in South America inform your aesthetic as a Production Designer?
Javiera: Growing up in Chile, I had a really big swatch deck of textures and colors that was pretty vast and different and amazing. When I came to the U.S., everything was very new and still is new after 20 years, so I do take a special level of curiosity to the different places that I go to, that I visit, that I read about and that I design as well. Being in the United States, being an immigrant, always gives me a certain level of beginner’s eye where I’m always extra curious.
AFI: What first inspired you to want to work as a Production Designer?
Javiera: I was doing an internship in motion graphics, and one day the head of the production company told me I was going to get to art direct a commercial. I really enjoyed it and I started to look for other opportunities – getting the chance to assist a Production Designer on a local film in Chile. That’s where I got to experience what happens on a set. There was this one moment when there was this very intense, intimate scene playing out, and I could witness all the departments’ work coming together. After the director said, “cut,” the crew naturally started clapping because it was so powerful. That was when I realized that this medium is just so special and magical, and I couldn’t do anything else.
AFI: What led you to pursue Production Design at the AFI Conservatory, and what did you find was the most beneficial aspect of your training?
Javiera: I realized I needed to do some studies abroad to get a firmer foothold in the industry. I started to take a look at potential programs and AFI seemed like a very interesting place. At the time, Lawrence Paull, the Production Designer of BLADE RUNNER, was running the department and he interviewed me. The program seemed amazing – it was a dream. I applied, I got in, I got a scholarship, and so I went to AFI. I came in with a lot of great expectations and ideas and energy, but I was still truly learning everything about my craft. We had the technical aspects of the drafting classes which were really essential, and we had amazing conversations about concepts with faculty member Bob Boyle [who was the Production Designer on films like NORTH BY NORTHWEST and FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.] I think it was a very well-rounded experience where I got a little bit of everything. I learned the more technical part with the faculty, and the hands-on part with the cycle films and my classmates.
AFI: Can you talk about the difference between a Production Designer and an Art Director, and what’s the key to a strong collaboration between those two roles?
Javiera: The Production Designer oversees the whole look of the film, and you’ve got three different departments – the Set Decorating team, the Art Department, and Props, that you’re managing and showing your ideas to and collaborating with. The head of the Art Department is the Art Director, who is in charge of all the construction, the drafting and the graphics. When you have a solid relationship with the Production Designer and there is a good level of trust, that’s when the Art Director has a little bit more freedom and can have more of a creative say in things. I had an amazing relationship with the Production Designer I worked with for several years, John Paino (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and WILD), and I learned a lot from him. While I understood his style, at the same time I was able to offer creative input on the sets, as well as the construction, making and managing.
AFI: How did you make the jump from Art Director to become a Production Designer?
Javiera: At a certain point, I felt confident enough with my art directing and that I had more to learn by doing production design. I realized I needed a bit more of a challenge, and that’s when I started talking with agents, taking ultra-low budget projects and then working my way back to bigger productions. The reset was an incredible learning process. Our job as Production Designers is creative, but it also involves managing time, money, budget, resources and people. There’s a learning curve that I’m glad I got to experience as a department head working on low-budget productions.
AFI: Talk about what informed your designs for recent projects including HARLEM and SAINT X.
Javiera: The script pretty much shows me what the look of the project has to be, and it’s also informed by my conversations with either the showrunner or the director. I worked with Tracy Oliver before on THE FIRST WIVE’S CLUB and she told me that on HARLEM, she wanted the series to be inspirational. She wanted the main characters to have a really incredible space that showcased the strong, vibrant women that they are, so that came out of our conversations together and her granting me the freedom and trust to just go for it.
With SAINT X, I had the chance to work with Dee Rees who is an extremely prepared director and has a lot of focus on details. When we landed in the Dominican Republic, she felt that, as the department heads, we should go on this cultural tour of the island so that we would understand more deeply the history and life of the Caribbean. The production hired an anthropologist and an activist, and we explored these very interesting places of Afro-Caribbean culture. We met with the cofradia del congo in the DR and then visited the sugar mills that were abandoned and heard about all of the horrors and pain that happened there. It made us very aware that we were working in a space with a very long history of pain and abuse and how we have to be responsible in portraying it in a way that’s respectful and accurate. That really set an amazing tone for all of us.
In the series, we were able to incorporate important details including the hotel’s logo being an adinkra symbol that has a very specific meaning in African culture, and the furniture and artwork in the hotel all have hints toward the colonial slave owner houses. We went through so many details about what the Caribbean is and what these British colonies have gone through, which helped inform the look of the show. Even though the camera doesn’t capture everything, we were very confident in how we were revealing this world, and I always hope that can translate into how the actors feel in a space as well.
AFI: Of all the incredible sets you’ve designed, what aspects of world building do you find to be the most challenging and rewarding?
Javiera: The greatest challenge is that, as time goes by, we have shorter prep times. Productions are being compressed, so we have very little time to react and build everything. I feel like we’re always in a crunch, but every year it’s more of a crunch, and that is really challenging. I’m walking to a location, and I immediately have to be solving problems. And then the most rewarding aspect for me is when I look at the dailies and I see the action and the camera, and everything is flowing in that magical space of the scene coming to life and working really well.
AFI: Do you have any advice for aspiring Production Designers coming out of AFI?
Javiera: I think that perseverance is key. There are historically better and worse times like right now we’re going through the writers’ strike and it’s a big slowdown for all of us. With COVID, we also had a bit of a slowdown, and then production started up again. It’s important to understand that there are cycles in the industry, and there are also personal cycles. Sometimes you do a show that is a hit and then you get a lot of calls, and sometimes you do a show and it’s not a hit and you don’t get as many calls. Sometimes there are factors beyond our job as production designers and how well the sets are done. I think that perseverance and patience are both really important to understand that it’s a long ride. It’s got ups and downs, and you just have to weather the downs. Keeping an eye on the big picture is really essential. Don’t take it personally – that’s just the nature of the industry. Some projects you think are going to be a major hit and they aren’t, and then you have others like DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, which was made for $5 million – and end up being huge.