Production Designer Jerry Fleming On Bringing Kindred To Life

Production designer Jerry Fleming joins us on Close-Up Culture to chat about his incredible work on the FX series, Kindred.

Kindred follows Dana, a young aspiring writer, as she uncovers new secrets about her family’s past and gets sucked back in time to a 19th-century plantation. The series stars Mallori Johnson, Micah Stock and Ryan Kwanten. 

What excited you about this challenge to work on Kindred?

The most exciting challenge of bringing Kindred to life was the huge following and the need to keep it so historically accurate. Hopefully, everyone in the audience will think that it is a believable world. A world of detail and the horrors hiding within. Octavia Butler was so descriptive in her 1977 novel, so bringing those details to life has been so important.

What research did you have to undertake to authentically and accurately capture the setting? 

Taking on a project like Kindred demands a tremendous amount of research. Initially, there was research collected from the pilot and the writers, and our art department collected thousands of photos and prints from both books and online sources. We were also fortunate to have access to great historical advisors. We met with historians Michael Twitty and Leslie King Hammond, and they were a great source of details that we tried to incorporate into the sets and dressing.

Details about the pride that the enslaved had in their work and often protested in plain sight by either sewing symbols in the clothing or quilts and building materials particular to the Maryland area as opposed to the deep south that we so often see. The use of brick, and cement using seashells as the aggregate, known as “tabby,” and how they often took care to whitewash their structures in order to maintain appearances. We tried to use these elements in the Cookhouse, which by Olivia Butler’s vivid descriptions, was behind the Weylin home.

It was in this structure we created where news, gossip and vital information was shared between the enslaved on the plantation. And this would be the first place where Tom Weylin might enter, usually for no good to the others.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced creating the setting?

By far, the biggest challenge of Kindred was that, unlike most projects, there would often be an existing structure or home to base the exteriors on and then build the interiors on stage.  However, the intriguing thing for me was the idea that we would both design and build the exterior of the plantation on a farm forty minutes outside Atlanta while also designing and building the interior of the main house on stage.  

When scouting for the location, it was important to have a setting with mature trees and water nearby. The site we chose gave us both of those; however, there were some existing nearby metal barns that we had to hide. While siting the plan, I placed the carriage house and another barn façade up the hill to block those from the view of the main house.

We also had to build a massive three-story brick home on a very tight schedule on location where there were real-world conditions like soil tests and rain that had to be dealt with. The location was pretty much untouched, but after all the construction trucks and cranes, we needed to completely replant all the grass and lay down the u-shaped drive and footpaths. Our outstanding greens department, led by Lyle Curry, was working non-stop to make the sight both visually correct, but also able to carry the weight of the cranes that filmmaking relies on so much.

In addition to the existing trees, we planted many 16 to 20-foot trees to help mask and fill in some of the areas between the main house and the outbuilding of the plantation. On a real plantation, the enslaved cabins and working tobacco barn would be out of sight. In our compressed world, we strove to give enough separation while still keeping everything accessible for the actors and crew.

Are there any specific details keen-eyed fans should look out for?

In telling the story of Tom Weylin and his second wife, there needed to be a visual difference between Tom’s first wife, who loved the library and the rest of the house, which was recently “redecorated” by Margaret. Margaret was supposed to be more garish, so we made the library more of the old world, with wood-stained walls and bookcases filled with jewel-toned books, while the dining room and parlor were brighter pastels with much wallpaper that to most audiences today might not be so attractive.

The details of the drapery were very important. Betty Berberian, my longtime set decorator for years, worked from LA, selecting fabrics and working on the multiple historical pleats and swags, using our research.

It must be emotionally draining working on a show about such a dark period in history. How did you deal with that?

After the emotional buzz of getting all the sets completed on time, there was a day when all the actors and extras were on the set we built, that I welled up with the emotions of having worked so hard to design and create such a horrible setting of injustice, oppression and brutality.

But the first director that gave me the opportunity to work as a director was Robert Altman, and one of the things that he taught me was that there was no detail to leave out, even if the audience would never see the bottom of a drawer, he wanted the actors to be able to make their spaces real, and be free to discover things for their character. We’re not always able to do that, but creating a world where the writers, director and cast can believe in has always been important in my work.  

What was your experience like collaborating with showrunner Branden Jenkins?

Working with Branden Jenkins, our showrunner, was both inspiring and challenging. He had been so passionate about this project for so many years and had spent months going through Octavia Butler’s archives in Pasadena, that he knew every nuance of what to do and not to do. Striving to give him as much of that world as possible was very rewarding. 

Can you tell us about your background and what led you to production design?

After graduating from The University of Texas, Austin, with a degree in Radio, Television and Film, my first move was to NYC. Having worked as an intern during college for a PBS American Playhouse project outside of Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country, it was ironic that connection got my first job out of college back in Texas for another PBS American Playhouse film for Horton Foote.

Then I worked on a series they did in South Carolina outside Charleston of The Lost Colony of Roanoke. Working on those shows convinced me that my true love was the art department – which had not been taught in my college at the time. But I also wanted to be an architect, and so that enabled me to learn to design structures to be built. 

What type of projects would you love to work on in the future?

So far, over the years, I’ve been lucky to work on so many really great projects. My hope for the future is to seek out meaningful stories with interesting sets to design.

What are your plans and ambitions for the coming years?

Meanwhile, I’ve just recently moved from the high desert Joshua Tree area in California to the mountains of the Asheville area in North Carolina. And that is one of the best areas in the world for designing and making furniture, which has always been a side passion of mine. So as time goes by, I see myself building smaller works that actually survive longer than a set on a TV show or film.

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