Behind the Jet-Setting Designs for HBO Max’s ‘The Flight Attendant’

HBO Max show The Flight Attendant follows a flight attendant, played by Kaley Cuoco, who wakes up in the wrong hotel, in the wrong bed, with a dead man – and no idea what happened. The dark comedic thriller is based on the novel of the same name by New York Times bestselling author Chris Bohjalian.

Sara K White, the production designer on the series, brought several sets from script to screen from a grand hotel suite and first class plane cabin, to a hospital waiting room. Some of her proudest work takes place in a later episode of the series during a dream chase sequence where she got to play around with maze elements and come up with some unique designs.

Although production was halted by COVID-19 back in March, the cast and crew were able to come back and finish shooting in late August with many precautions in place, and safety as their top priority. 

Sara talked to ProductionHUB about her creative process for the sets she designed, as well as her experience coming back to work on the show after a five month lockdown with new precautions in place.

ProductionHUB: Talk to me a little about your background and interest in production design. When did that begin?  

Sara K. White: Production Design was a surprise career change, but it feels inevitable now.  I had a paper route as a kid, and I spent hours daydreaming about the people in each home – some mansions, some little tract houses.  Relationships between people, story and place entranced me. I went into interior design hoping to merge them, but few people can afford that service so it ended up feeling hollow and less inventive than I’d hoped.  

It wasn’t until some friends asked for help making a music video that I found Production Design.  It was for a mermaid-themed sea shanty and we wanted to use forced-perspective miniature sets to reign in the budget and create a unique look.  What a thrill after years optimizing office floor plates!  The work was endlessly imaginative and I could be story-driven in my design choices the way I’d dreamed.  I made the leap during the recession, which was not an easy time, but definitely worth it. 

PH: How have you worked your way into the industry? What is something you’re constantly learning? 

Sara K. White: I came to the career after training as an interior designer, so my formal education with regard to construction documents, structure and building terminology was strong, which helped me early on.  I started with any job I could find – PA, truck driver, assistant props, but given my previous experience I was quickly Art Directing.  It required me to think about the sets with an eye to timeline, budget and constructability, an important and difficult job, but not one I ultimately felt drawn toward.

As I started designing, I opened myself back up to all the ways people create artistry with space.  I continue that exploration on every show.  I aim to choose projects that open the world to an audience in new ways, supporting stories with a balance of authenticity and imagination.  It’s exhilarating to be on the edge of those two impulses.  I love working with directors and showrunners in deciding to dazzle an audience one moment and whisper in their ear the next.

PH: How did you get involved with The Flight Attendant? What drew you to the project? 

Sara K. White: I was happy to get a call from Susanna Fogel, a director I worked with before (on the pilot for “The Wilds” due out soon on Amazon) about The Flight Attendant.  I knew if she was working on a project, it ticked the boxes for the kind of show I liked.  Smart, witty, with characters that challenged our notions of who we see, how we see them and why their stories can be told.  When I met with the creator of the show, Steve Yockey, and showrunners Meredith Lavender and Marcie Ulin, they also clearly wanted to push those boundaries.

From the start, I loved that the lead character, Cassie Bowden, was someone society often dismisses – but shouldn’t.  A perky, blond girl with a penchant for drinking?  Dime a dozen.  If you want someone serious it’s a dark and brooding man who’s soused!  But the writer of the book this is based on, Chris Bohjalian, and Kaley Cuoco, who found herself in it and built this entire project, turned those expectations upside down.

Designing our hero set was also a big draw.  A sleek Bangkok hotel that catered to the 1% had to become both a place refuge and nightmare as our lead character’s buried memories grappled with her conscious mind.  The themes were rich with opportunity to weave into physical construction.  It was something I was able to bring to every main set, and I was supported every step of the way by my team all the way to our studio reps Sarah Schechter and Erika Kennair.  I felt able to truly play during the design process.

PH: What was your approach from a visual perspective?

Sara K. White: The theme that spoke most to me was Cassie’s relationship to her subconscious.  I focused on designing sets and seeking locations that reflected that.  And in all the darkness of the mystery, Cassie was a relatable and fun person, so it we also wanted to invite in comedy!  There are a few places where we use design to wink at the audience and provide the levity that keeps us going. Merging all of that into a consistent tone took a lot of consideration.

Because we spent so much time in our hero sets, making them endlessly exciting for the writers, directors, DPs, and thereby the audience, was necessary.  The suite and main sets had to offer new ways to be explored and shot depending on the emotional direction of each scene.  

PH: Can you describe your creative process? 

Sara K. White: The process always starts with the script.  It’s the raw material I use to create every set, so the richer with ideas the better.  After I’m on, I work closely with the creators to suss out emotional arcs in each scene to design spaces that support them.  Once the broad goals are clear, working with the director and DP to make sure sets are full of opportunity for actors and the lens is critical.  If a set looks cool in person but constrains a character or the camera, it’s not going to be captured and the purpose is lost.  

Building the sets, finding the locations, and working with the Costume Designer to make sure we are constantly complimenting each other is then the everyday design work that brings it finally to life.

PH: What were some of your favorite scenes you designed? 

Sara K. White: The most heart-pounding moment in the first episode is when Cassie discovers Alex was murdered.  Susanna Fogel and I had a lot of discussions about how to support it with design.  The moment she finds blood on her hand her reality is shattered – every other time she has too much fun and too many drinks the carnage of those moments is ephemeral.  Her impulse this time, to clean up the shards, to turn it back into something she knows and understands, is very familiar if extremely misguided.  

To that end, I worked heavily with broken symmetries, reflection, refraction and obfuscation to convey the theme of that moment.  She’s trying to see – and not see – what happened.  She had to feel pressed from all sides while exposed and alone.  Supporting that and making sure our future directors and DPs could use the space as Cassie’s reality further fractured was an exciting challenge.

I have another favorite in episode 6, but you’ll just have to watch it to find out how the world goes upside down in that one!

PH: Were there any challenges with getting the design right? How did you remedy those? 

Sara K. White: A huge challenge was that we shot on three continents.  I was scouting and shooting in Bangkok while we were still finalizing designs in the US, so I had teams working 24 hours a day!  It was the same when we were in Rome.  Luckily each team was full of incredible talent and support. They would accept shots of actual napkin sketches sent mid-flight, and drawings would be uploaded to me the next day.  Collaborating with and learning from strong and creative crews the world over was an experience I now treasure.

PH: Obviously in the midst of a pandemic, safety for everyone involved in the project is extremely important. What were the precautions and protocols on set? 

Sara K. White: During the shutdown I spoke with my team and with production as often as possible about strategies to make the return safe.  Our producers worked hard to make sure that we had all the PPE, hand sanitizer, and testing we could before production started up.  We were often tested many times a week, and were also subject to a lot of zoom calls, which were nearly as painful.  I love working closely with my team, talking about fixtures or touching the knap of a fabric, but we all had to take steps back, which was hard.  On set, we used the zone method, which places special emphasis on the cast who have to be completely unprotected when they are working on their scenes. 

PH: What was it like coming back after lockdown? 

Sara K. White: The art department had special challenges – given the limitations on practical locations, we built more sets than normal and kept Covid in mind on each.  Maximizing airflow, touchless entry points, and room for people to appropriately distance was critical.  Art is a also difficult department to contain, we had some people working at home, some out running to pick up props and dressing, some working in construction shops, and a web of people between making this happen.  Managing everyone in a way that optimizes safety for each person is not easy, but we did everything we could and I think the team appreciated it.

I also missed the casual collaboration with our creatives.  Sauntering onto set to discuss a future build with the showrunners was out of the question, as was driving around with my locations manager to scout for unique locations.  I look forward to the end of those creative constraints.

There was a lot of concern coming back, but there was joy, too.  We were lucky that our whole cast and crew made it through the first wave, so seeing and working with everyone again was truly awesome.  I’d missed this production family! 

PH: How do you think it’s changed the industry? 

Sara K. White: Many people in the industry are taking the time to reflect on what’s deeply important.  I’ve been a part of a lot of discussions with various professionals who talk about making production more open to working families, to underrepresented communities, to people with disabilities and for those who can’t just fall on their sword for every possible project – giving up friends, holidays, caretaking.  

Changing the impulse to “do everything for that shot” on every shot is hard.  Many thought more would change after the tragic loss of Sarah Jones, but production shifts are slow and require adjustments in values from all sides.  There are a lot more people taking about changing things now, and I hope that it will continue and gain real traction in the coming months and years.

PH: Do you have any other upcoming projects or things you’re excited about in the new year? (that you can talk about)

Sara K. White: I’m excited to say that I’ll be collaborating again with Susanna Fogel on her next project, but I’m not at liberty to discuss.  Until then, I’m happy to be working with my colleagues to develop initiatives that increase representation in the art department community.

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