Spotlight Interview on Production Designer Argya Sadan – American Film Institute

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Spotlight Interview on Production Designer Argya Sadan

Originally on an architecture track in her native India, Argya Sadan pivoted to studying production design for film and television after being accepted at the AFI Conservatory. Following her graduation from AFI in 2017, Argya was selected by The Art Directors Guild for its 2017 Production Design Initiative and was a finalist for the Television Academy Internship Program the same year. Her thesis film LITTLE DARLING also received a Gold Award for Production Design at the 2018 International Independent Film Awards.

She continues to amass a diverse body of film and TV credits, including most recently working as a set designer on the acclaimed HBO Max series WINNING TIME: THE RISE OF THE LAKERS DYNASTY. Her upcoming work includes Olivia Wilde’s psychological thriller DON’T WORRY DARLING, the rock ‘n’ roll miniseries DAISY JONES AND THE SIX based on Taylor Jenkins Reid’s bestselling novel and David Fincher’s THE KILLER adapted from Alexis Nolent’s graphic novel series of the same name.

We spoke with Argya about the huge undertaking of recreating The Forum arena on a soundstage for WINNING TIME, working with cinematographer and fellow AFI Alum Todd Banhazl (AFI Class of 2009) and what she learned most about production design at the AFI Conservatory.

AFI: What inspired you to transition from architecture which you did your undergraduate degree in to production design at AFI?

Argya: Eight years ago, I was finishing up architecture school, and I was interning at a bunch of places. I worked for about a year before starting to apply to grad school in architecture itself. And when I was doing that, I just couldn’t push myself to complete those applications. I felt like it was something I couldn’t do for the rest of my life, but I knew I didn’t want to waste five years of studying, so I started looking up things to do with my degree and my skillset.

I was looking into stage design for fashion shows and film as well. Sitting in India, sitting in Bangalore, I googled a lot, just trying to find out how to get into production design. But not many schools have specific production design programs and it also had to be somewhere that I could apply to while having no film background. I came into the MFA program at AFI knowing the construction part of it, but for me, I needed the practical experience on set. I had to learn how to collaborate, how to work with a cinematographer and a director and how to figure out how those conversations are had.

The only connection my father had to the film world was he had a friend whose son, Varun Viswanath, was studying editing at the Conservatory. And that’s how I found AFI. So I looked into the program and immediately I was like, oh my god, if I’m going to do film, it has to be at this school because it was everything I was looking for in terms of all the cycle films you make as students. I didn’t need to go through more coursework. For me, it was learning the lingo, how each department is set up, what all the roles are and what the hierarchy on set is.

AFI: What did you learn at the AFI Conservatory that you still use while working in the industry?

Argya: I think my favorite classes at AFI were the ones where we had Faculty who were part of the industry who would come in after their day jobs. They just gave such great insight into how it actually is working in the industry because I had no exposure to that. They were talking to us in terms of how it would be in reality rather than in a simulated environment.

Also, the field trips that we took to go on set and see how production design worked on these big budget TV shows was great. We got to observe the BROOKLYN NINE-NINE set, and I had no idea the scale of the lots like Universal and Warner Bros. And now I don’t get intimidated by walking into a prop house to go get set dec for any project I’m on. I took the most away from the hands-on, practical learning experience I received over anything that I read in a book.

AFI: How did you prep for WINNING TIME? What kind of research did you do to be able to capture the ‘80s time period, as well as the world of professional basketball?

Argya: WINNING TIME is so specific to that time period and that energy that was there around the Lakers. To prep, I watched a lot of that ESPN documentary series 30 FOR 30. There were three episodes that focused on the battle between the Celtics versus the Lakers. We watched hours and hours of that documentary and read a lot of materials.

We usually go on location and speak to people who’ve been in that specific world. Even the production designer was from that time, so he grew up watching that rivalry and he knew how to capture that moment in time. Since I’m like a lot younger and I didn’t grow up in the U.S., I spoke with him, talked to the construction team – a lot of the crew had gone to the games – and they had first-hand stories to tell about what they had witnessed. I also went through the archives, looking at photos of how The Forum would have looked in the sixties, how it was in ’74, how it was in the eighties. And that’s all from photos because we were never allowed access to The Lakers’ official files or to go there and actually take measurements, so we had to work a lot from our imaginations.

AFI: What went into recreating The Forum Arena as a set?

Argya: The major challenge was you can never capture the scale of The Forum in a soundstage, so we spent a lot of time working with the visual effects team on WINNING TIME. We had a lot of conversations as to how we could make the set look bigger and like a stadium that could appeared to hold 70,000 people when we barely had 500 to 600 extras. The visual effects had to seamlessly blend with the actual built set. And so that took a lot of strategizing and research.

AFI: What was it like collaborating with fellow AFI Alum and cinematographer Todd Banhazl?

Argya: Since The Forum was the biggest set in the entire show, Todd really wanted to get a handle on how best to shoot it. I had made a 3-D model of the set using Rhino software and did a walk through with Todd. It was really helpful for him to get an idea of how it was going to look through the lens, how high he wanted to keep the camera, what he was able to get within the frame and how much we would need visual effects to complete a shot. There were a lot of budget conversations as well because of how large that set was.

AFI: What did you love most about working on WINNING TIME and what did you find to be the greatest hurdle while working on the project?

Argya: It was challenging, but it was very satisfying in its own way because of how massive the set was, and I also loved the way they shot it. I think what Todd did is something that not a lot of shows are doing because they were bringing in vintage cameras. I also saw a behind-the-scenes clip of the Steadicam operator on rollerblades for some of the basketball court scenes which was really fun to watch and see it all come to life.

Also, there are just so many people who are fans of these teams, so to see their reaction after watching the show has been great. There are not a lot of scripts I read when I’m doing a job where I’m like, “where’s the next script?” And this was definitely one of those series where the moment a script would hit my desk, I would be reading it. And that was exciting. I think it’s really entertaining, and I truly love the show.

AFI: Your upcoming projects are very eclectic from DON’T WORRY DARLING to DAISY JONES AND THE SIX to THE KILLING. Can you talk about how you transition from such different projects and were able to get in the right mindset?

Argya: For me, I’ve always been very careful not to get stuck in one genre. It’s like a deep fear of mine that if I do a comedy, I’ll keep getting called back for like rom coms or if I do a horror film, I’ll keep getting called back for scary movies. I’m also aware that I’m still at the beginning of my career, and I want to have a diverse portfolio. Every project is so different, but you can also learn so much more from jumping between genres. It’s not scary to me. It’s more exciting than anything because it’s like a whole other level of research. For example, going into a romcom, you might use a certain color palette. You make it peppy, fun and cheerful. Once you know the formula, you can keep applying it over and over again. But I think I’m just trying to learn the formula for each kind of genre right now which is really fun.

AFI: What advice would you share with current AFI production design Fellows who are just starting out?  

Argya: My biggest advice would be to keep in touch with people and reach out to individuals who inspire you and who you see as a role model. I definitely did a lot of cold calling when I was first starting out. It was like, ok, who do I respect? Who do I love? And who do I want to learn from? I made a list that might have seemed far-fetched but decided I’m hitting them up.

If you stay in touch with people, they know how you work, and they’re just waiting for the right moment to give you that opportunity. I do that quite a bit. I reach out once in a while to people who have really had an impact on me. And I’m always grateful for that, especially that first job and the person giving me a chance to be a part of the union and making me a set designer. I’m still in touch with that contact because I’m so grateful for that job and the chance they took on me.

Another piece of great advice someone once gave me at AFI was if someone connects you to someone and says, “hey, this is a person you should meet,” whether they can help you or not, you should ask that person to recommend two to three other people to talk to. It’s kind of like a chain reaction, so that if that initial connection doesn’t go anywhere, it’s not just a dead end. And when you ask for advice, people love to advise. Everybody’s been where you are, and there are people who want to help you out. You just have to find the right connection.

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