An Interview with Oana Bogdan Miller: The Art Director for the TV horror series Castle Rock
Oana Bogdan Miller is an accomplished art director, set, and production designer best known for working on the comedy series Silicon Valley, the science fiction film Stargate, the US series 24, and most recently Stephen King's horror series Castle Rock. Oana talks about her journey within the creative departments here at Mandy News.
Oana, tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the film industry?
I’m Oana Bogdan Miller and I’ve been art directing for about 20 plus years.
I initially studied interior design because my parents were engineers and they would have loved me to go through into a mechanical career. But, of course, I was a rebel and said “no, I love art and want to do art instead”.
Interior design was a way to combine being creative, with also maybe having a lucrative occupation. That’s why I went to Syracuse University and did a four-year programme in interior design. After school, I moved to Philadelphia for a couple of years but really I was drawn to the west coast – mainly because of the sunshine. I moved to Los Angeles in 1992 and, a few months later, met an assistant editor who happened to be my neighbour in my apartment building and she introduced me to an art director. This industry is all about connections and connecting with other people.
That art director interviewed me to work on the feature film Stargate, which Roland Emmerich was directing. He didn’t hire me, but he introduced me to the guy who was doing the creatures, Patrick Tatopoulos. I ended up working with him in creature effects, creating and fabricating all those beautiful costumes that were worn by horses, dogs and humans.
Patrick’s a very talented designer and was also designing environments and sets. He would go back and forth between production design and creature design. I ended up working with him over the next 18 years, on and off, on various feature films and then TV series. We didn’t work on every single project together, because I had made other contacts in the industry and so I worked with other designers as well.
Because I had learned how to draft – architectural drawing etc – it was really an easier, more natural path for me to go into the art department - set design and art direction.
Also, because CGI was becoming more and more prevalent, the actual practical building of creature effects had tapered off, so I naturally went where there were more work opportunities. Obviously, there are still people doing creature effects the old-fashioned way, but a lot of it is now in computer.
I have pretty much worked in every position within the art department – starting with the coordinator and set designer. I’ve done graphics, decorated, assistant art direction, art direction and I’ve production designed a few projects as well.
How did the Castle Rock project come about for you?
I’d say it was connections again. I got contacted by Steve Arnold, who’s the production designer on Castle Rock. He got my name from another production designer, who I had done Season 3 of Silicon Valley with – Richard Toyon.
The two designers knew each other from way back; Richard recommended me to Steve and I happened to be available. I said “yes, I’ll go to Massachusetts for seven months to work with you on Castle Rock”.
It seemed like a really cool project – mystical, Stephen King, a little creepy. I thought it would be a great opportunity and plus I had heard great things about working with Steve Arnold. He’s done House of Cards, which was a beautiful show, so I knew that the quality would be good.
What was the process of working on the show like?
At the beginning, we had a couple of scripts in advance. Everything starts with the script. That’s where the words on the paper let us ask ourselves what is our guideline? What is our template? What is the world we’re trying to create?
We had about eight weeks before we started principal photography, to come up with the look of the show; to start designing and building the sets that were going to be our permanent environments in every episode. That’s a pretty tight timetable for the amount of things that we set up and established in the first episode.
We ended up in Devens, Massachusetts, which is about an hour west of Boston. We had this beautiful facility which had four sound stages where we could build things. It was only three years old and it had been sitting there, kind of empty. They hadn’t really had a project in there. Beyond that, we had multiple locations – some were even an hour drive away from Devens – that we had to set up.
For example, we went to a town called Orange and that was the exterior of our Castle Rock. We had lots and lots of store fronts and houses and things that we had to modify and make really creepy. It already had a really good starting point, because it was a town that had few residents there and empty storefronts. But we really wanted to give it that Stephen King flavour, where things were boarded up and looked really depressing.
We actually had a pretty big team of people – I believe we had four set designers at one point, who were doing the drafting for the sets, two assistant art directors and another art director at the beginning when we were getting all of these sets started and established.
So it was eight weeks to get that first episode going and then, once we started shooting, each episode was about 10 or 13 days of filming. By that point we were getting the scripts at the beginning of the prep – so, the day we started shooting one episode, we’d get the script for the next episode.
Other than the logistics of working on a number of locations so far away, what other challenges were there?
Maybe it’s also logistical but one of the challenges we had was that the writers and creators of the project were based in Los Angeles and we were making the project in Massachusetts. So we were dealing with time zone differences and getting approvals from people who are busy trying to write the next episode and trying to map out the entire 10 episodes.
We didn’t have all the scripts when we started. They were still developing where the story was going. JJ Abrams was also involved, with these two young writers who were given the opportunity to come up with Castle Rock as a series. One of the challenges was making sure that they were satisfied with the designs that we were creating for their storytelling.
Sometimes, we didn’t know where the story was going to end, but they did. That was a challenge because we were trying to have a schedule and if they’re still thinking about it and not quite sure, it does create a pressure.
Stephen King has a habit of popping up in shows that are adapted from his books. Is he in Castle Rock at all and did you get a chance to meet him?
Sadly, no. He really wasn’t very involved, as far as I know. Maybe on the Los Angeles front with the creatives and the writers.
What are the differences for you working on a long version film, as opposed to working on something episodic like this?
Mostly, it’s the timeframe. When we’re coming up with designs, we always know that we have this limited amount of time. If we have three months, that’s still a limited amount of time to come up with a concept and execute it. It’s just a variable scale.
On Total Recall, it’s such a huge film that my small piece of the pie was getting these hovercars done. We built five hovercars from scratch, designed in the computer, and then moulds were made, and painted. We built them in Los Angeles and then had to ship them to Toronto. That alone had a four-month schedule, just for those five cars. Meanwhile, there was a whole art department team – art directors, set designers – in Toronto, focused on designing and building sets in the locations that are out there.
You have to figure out how you are going to divide and conquer. Something on that scale, you know you’re going to need more support. I kind of refer to the film industry like a military operation – you have to be very organised.
When we go to a location, we throw everything into a truck, go there, set it up, do our filming and put it back in the truck – it’s like a travelling roadshow,
What have you been working on since Castle Rock and what do you have planned for the future?
I was working with Steve Arnold and early on – around September/October – he got word that they would be doing Season 2 of Mindhunter. So, I already knew in October that I was going to be doing that with him.
We are currently in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, working on that. We have just finished two episodes that were directed by David Fincher; there are eight episodes total in the season, so now we’re getting ready to shoot with the next director. We’re six months in, because we started immediately, in January.
David started directing at the beginning of June. He’s been directing for two and half months and now the next guy is doing a month of filming, then it’ll be the next guy and the next guy. We’ve got eight episodes total and we will be done with this one in December.
What advice do you have for people wanting to become art directors, like yourself, or become involved in the art department?
Firstly, I’d say don’t say no to work. Be very versatile and become indispensable - whatever is being asked of you, be accommodating.
Be a part of a team and be as helpful as you can – it takes a lot of people to make this happen.
I refer to the art director as the gap filler – if there’s a chink in the armour of something, you’re the person that has to be versatile enough to see it, fix it and to keep the flow going so it gets done.