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Industry Insights: Production Designer John Paino Tells Big Little Lies

Paula Goldberg

We spoke with evocative production designer John Paino about his style, his working relationships, and his creative influences.

PremiumBeat: Not that Big Little Lies was a surprise hit (HBO, blockbuster novel, Reese Witherspoon), but it was a standalone mini-series, with no plans for a sequel. How did you approach matching the second season’s production design aesthetic to the emotional growth of the characters?

John Paino: Many of the first season locales and sets were going to remain unchanged. The dressing and decor in those places would convey the emotional progression of those characters. For instance, Celeste’s house would be messier and cluttered, to convey her difficulty in dealing with her mixed emotions about her husband’s death and the strain of having Mary-Louise around. In the case of new locations/sets, we would tie them into the previous season with color and proximity to the ocean. Andrea Arnold, our second season director, favored shooting more in Monterey, and that was great!

Industry Interview: Production Designer John Paino Tells Big Little Lies - Reese Witherspoon

Big Little Lies (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle – 2017).

PB: You have an artistic relationship with producer and actor Reese Witherspoon, having worked on Wild, Big Little Lies, and The Morning Show together. Since your producer is also now working on camera, within the design of the production, is that an advantage for a production designer?

JP: Reese is very savvy, and like any PD, I want her to be involved and happy with the direction the look of the show is headed in. It’s great to see her on set interacting with everything. And I think the advantage would be that having worked together, she knows the door is always open for her input.

Industry Interview: Production Designer John Paino Tells Big Little Lies - Wild

Wild (photo by Anne Marie Fox – Fox Searchlight).

PB: Much of Wild takes place on the Pacific Crest Trail. What are the freedoms and design challenges of working in the wild?

JP: There is a certain freedom in embracing the beauty of nature. But on Wild, I was tasked with creating the Pacific Coast Trail as it goes from the Mojave Desert to the border between Oregon and Washington, a journey that takes one through many different ecosystems and terrains — desert, mountains, redwood rainforests — the majority of which were re-created in Oregon. That meant a lot of location scouting for the various climates and green work. Also, building trails and cabins/campsites on federal land involves lengthy permitting, not to mention we were in fairly remote locations that we had to tread lightly in, so as to make sure everything looked remote and untraveled, which the PCT was when Cheryl Strayed hiked it.

Industry Interview: Production Designer John Paino Tells Big Little Lies - The Morning Show

The Morning Show (Apple).

PB: The Morning Show is an inside look at the daily-televised news and entertainment shows that help America wake up — both literally and figuratively. Was the approach to match the look and feel of the familiar, or to create a heightened and/or unique environment?

JP: It was a little of both. I scouted The Today Show and Good Morning America studios and sets to make sure our set, and the surrounding control room, dressing rooms, etc., were authentic. But I really wanted to make sure our studio set had a wow factor — like it was Disneyland and CNN rolled into one!

Industry Interview: Production Designer John Paino Tells Big Little Lies - Sharp Objects

Sharp Objects (Fox/HBO).

PB: Sharp Objects (HBO fan favorite) tasked you with building the Preaker manor, a rustic gothic mansion in Missouri. You were also responsible for recreating an important element — an exact replica dollhouse of the manor. Can you tell us about that journey of choices in creation, in regards to source material, director’s vision, producer’s budget, and your own creative instincts?

JP: It was a long journey, with a lot of twists and turns. But in discussions with Jean-Marc, it was decided that Adora, being a woman of means, would have hired a high-class interior decorator from Atlanta or Charleston to design the interior, which meant that I could stylize the interior to reflect a more luridly colorful interior. I really wanted it to not be the typical Southern Gothic rundown antebellum place, strewn with antiques and cobwebs. I used a photograph of Countess Marie-Hélène de Rothschild peering into her boudoir that was covered in a hand-painted Chinoiserie wallpaper, as inspiration — the arsenic green and swamp-like floral being a perfect symbol for her and the story. The design of the Victorian mansion set, and its decor, was then replicated in the dollhouse, down to the tiniest details.

PB: So many of our readers are looking for gems to help them develop artistically and logistically in the business. Any general (or specific) advice you’d share with a new production designer to help on their journey?

JP: I would say get on any show that you can so that you can learn the process (and your process), but try to pick something that resonates with you, or you resonate with the people doing it. In a perfect world, you will have both — that’s when you can do your best work. Also, make friends with the DP and costume designer — collaboration is important!


Cover image via Big Little Lies (Hilary Bronwyn Gayle – HBO).

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