Production designer Joshua Petersen takes his first big TV gig with the comedy-drama starring Amy Schumer Life and Beth.
After a sudden incident, Beth (Schumer) reconsiders her past and who she wants to become. The series cleverly blends past and present, allowing Petersen to delve into ’90s nostalgia and modern design, while also using his production design to help tell a season-long story arc.
Here in the latest episode of our ‘Five Questions’ series, Peterson details his close collaboration with Schumer and some of his favorite sets from the show, now on Hulu.
Awards Daily: Joshua, I’d like to know a bit more about your background and how you got involved in Life and Beth.
Joshua Petersen: This is my first year in television, big television as a production designer. This project has just been born thanks to my agent; I was kind of waiting for a big project to come along that really spoke to me. I was turning down a lot of things, and this came to me and I read it and fell in love with the script right away. I mean, it’s really emotionally charged and different from what I expected.
I have always loved Amy. We talked for about an hour on the phone and we got on well. And I flew to New York and started working two days later. There was a fast and very intense period of preparation to get the show off the ground and start filming.
We shot for 65 days in a row and I had a blast. It was very tough and very fun. Everyone was really motivated. I think the deeper aspects of the material fueled everyone emotionally.
AD: What allowed you in this story to stretch your muscles and express yourself as a production designer?
JP: Working with vintage pieces is always something you want the opportunity to do. It’s really fun to do something that you have vivid memories of, depicting the 90s and a childhood that was very similar to mine and around the same time as mine. And using that to highlight things like the trauma and the healing that can come from it, like revisiting your past, I think that’s something we’ve all done during the pandemic. The desirability of this show was something that was clear to everyone. It was fresh in everyone’s mind. It was like a pretty healing for me in particular and something that really hit me.
I loved it Life and Beth also had contemporary elements to explore. There are a lot of settings in the script. The most fun part was building, I love building and this script had a lot of that. Building the MRI set, for example, wasn’t something I was asked to do yet. I absolutely loved this set in particular. And then also some of the collaborations I had with the cinematographer [Jonathan Furmanski] and having the opportunity to design plans and execute more complex maneuvers is always a great challenge.
AD: Do you have a scene in particular that you would like to highlight?
JP: There was a couple. In episode four, the hoarder [played by Jonathan Groff] apartment—with this set “How do you design a hoarding set that a camera can still move around in?” So we built everything to scale. It was really hard to get around. We had the ability to push walls apart, so entire areas of clutter could move at once. And the camera could move on a techno crane with a remote head, almost like a steady camera working through the columns of stuff.
In episode 106 we have a shot that pops out of Michael Cera’s cabin window then pushes through a window in Brooklyn and into Beth’s sister’s apartment and pushes through the window and the cranes to show Ann (Susannah Flood) in the tub with her new pet fish. And it’s a very beautiful scene. I mean, I watched it like 40 times in the final cut. It’s just such a fun shot. I mean, you get sucked into it at the time, but build a set with like, you know, those movable walls that can move when the camera goes through the window. This is what we live for!
AD: As you mentioned Life and Beth play with memory a bit. How did you design the sets to change and morph based on Beth’s experiences?
JP: Absolutely. I mean, the, the house itself is littered with details from my own childhood home. We built everything from memory. The carpet on the floor is the same as my childhood home, the doors, the closet hardware and the closet doors and all of that is actually from a factory in Oregon where I grew up. There’s a ton of stuff in there.
Amy was really open with her childhood photos. Her diaries were props in the film – her real diaries that she read. She’s just very generous with her time. And we shared a lot of memories, little details that we could constantly add. There were many times when it was two in the morning and one of us was texting the other with a last minute edit and we’d just have a laugh and then try to get it on the show, you know?
AD: What can you tell me about the color palettes and tones you worked with for Life & Beth?
JP: You know, when I’m designing a palette for a show, it’s really important to tie everything into a story arc. And on TV, sometimes you can’t explore that as a guideline. It’s more of a movie thing; I have a strong background in independent cinema where we can do that. But the duration of our show is three times the duration of a movie.
And being able to explore a story arc through production design over 10 episodes is always something I’ve wanted to explore in television, with the possibilities that lie in the fact that you can be a little more subtle with that, c is how I like to work. Having the cluttered aesthetic of the 90s is the color theory of the show.
We’ve been seeing versions of the same palette all along. And through Beth’s memories, we sort of find out where she enters this trail in terms of color history. When we finally come to the end of the show, we see those elements in play as well, but in an earthy, vibrant way and very much in the moment in nature.
We didn’t do anything linearly, so it was a bit of a challenge, but I think it really paid off. I really worked a lot with my team to make sure there was a guideline throughout.
In production design, you have the ability to telegraph information in subtle ways in which we hear the story visually. And many times those things came up, and I’m very proud of what we’ve created.
Life & Beth is streaming now on Hulu.