Production Designer Terry Watson Talks War Pony

Production designer Terry Watson joins us on Close-Up Culture to discuss her work on War Pony. The follows the interlocking stories of two young Oglala Lakota men growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Hi Terry, welcome to Close up Culture. What excited you about the opportunity to work on War Pony?

When Sacha Ben Harroche (producer and long time friend of mine) reached out to me about War Pony, one of the first things he said was “it’s gonna be really hard… but rewarding.” I didn’t quite understand what he meant by that at the time, but I’m so glad I trusted him because he was right. I came into this project with a lot of the film already shot. Scott Dougan, the primary production designer, was unavailable at the time and they graciously asked me to design the additional scenes for the film.

When I read the script and saw the first cut of War Pony, hunched over my computer screen, I was captivated by it. Reading the script and seeing what they had already shot got me really excited because I connected with it on so many levels. I grew up in Arizona, which is made up of a lot of reservations. Although a totally different landscape then Pine Ridge and South Dakota, I saw a lot of similarities on how people navigate around these environments. I remember thinking how special the film was, even when it wasn’t finished, and I couldn’t wait to see the final script and get started on the project.

Can you tell us about some of the preparation and research you did for the project?

A lot of what we see in the movie was in the actual written script. Contrary to what people think when they see the film, there wasn’t a lot of improv. That just shows you how great of a script it was. It was all there. My preparation was ensuring that the audience has a grasp of when and where things are taking place and that I made sure we always knew where we were in the script.

I did that by taking a lot of the director’s notes and asking everyone who had worked on the film previously how they did it and what they needed from my department to do the best job possible. I think the only way to truly get it right in your research is to be a sponge in every setting. You never know from where or whom you will get a key element to make your design just right.

What ways did you try to bring out the setting of South Dakota and the Pine Ridge Reservation?

South Dakota and the Pine Ridge Reservation have such a captivating energy that is hard to put into words but is very much felt. There’s so much history and culture but most importantly a sense of community all around. When I first saw what had already been shot, I instantly knew that Scott Dougan had already captured it in the design and color palette. I came in really just following his formula of staying true to our surroundings.

My team and I were very lucky that the community was so willing to give us the right resources to make the look of the film possible. A lot of my job on set was working closely with the locations and ensuring the directors Gina Gammell, Riley Keough, as well as our producers Sacha Ben Harroche and Ryan Zacarias that certain locations would work for the scene and feel of the film. We pivoted a lot during filming due to covid, weather and actor’s availability, so really having flexibility and having locations at our disposal was key. South Dakota and the Pine Ridge Reservation have such a beautiful landscape wherever we turned that it wasn’t a hardship.

What was your collaboration like with directors Riley Keough and Gina Gammell?

It was so refreshing working with Riley and Gina. There’s many things I could say about how wonderful they are to collaborate with and how I was in awe at every moment watching them navigate this film, but we’d be here forever. One of the most beautiful things I saw was the delicacy on how they treated everyone they interacted with. They never wavered in making sure we all knew we came first and the film came second. Riley and Gina were always so willing to give their time and energy to anyone that needed it, no matter how long it took. That was the key to getting the best performances out of your actors but also from the department heads. It made me feel at ease when asking them to elaborate on their needs or expressing mine.

We had a lot of challenging moments on set, which could be said for every low budget independent film, but Riley and Gina have such great trust for each other and who they choose to collaborate with. As a production designer, that is one of the best qualities you search for in a director(s). I can’t wait to see what wonderful things they do next.

How did you create a space that the actors could perform best in?

Scott Dougan had done such a beautiful job of showcasing the realities of living on the reservation and not romanticizing it. A lot of my job was coming in and really listening to what the directors’ needs for the actors were, as well as ensuring that my team and myself’s work enhanced the story and not derailed it. The majority of our actors lived on the reservation themselves and I wanted to make sure they felt the authenticity the moment they stepped onto set.

We achieved that with a lot of our set dressing by using what was on location that was already at our disposal but also making sure we shopped locally with our additions by asking the residents of Pine Ridge how they were able to obtain items in their everyday life even with the restraints of living on a reservation. I think because of that, the environment was never questioned by our actors or our audience.

What will be your biggest takeaway from working on War Pony?

My biggest take away from War Pony was to always stay true to making the actors feel comfortable in the spaces they need to feel the most free and vulnerable in. If the space doesn’t feel authentic to me and our crew, why would it feel that way for our actors? Trust can be a difficult thing to earn.

However, War Pony taught me that it is not only up to the directors to create a safe environment in front and behind the camera but also the reasonability of the crew. That requires a lot of trust; one thing our directors Riley, Gina and our producers Sacha and Ryan were so purely willing to give. Another take away for me is to always work with creatives who trust you and who create a safe and giving environment for you to do your best work.

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