by Shadan Larki, Awards Daily TV
Corey Kaplan’s work as a set decorator and production designer spans 30 years and over 50-plus credits (and two Primetime Emmy Award nominations for her work as a set decorator on The X-Files and Cold Case).
Her latest work can be seen as a production designer for Apple TV+’s Truth Be Told, which stars Octavia Spencer as a podcaster investigating an old murder, and whether the wrong man (Aaron Paul) has been imprisoned.
Kaplan spoke candidly about her work on some of TV’s biggest shows, being a leading female production designer in an ever-changing industry, and shared anecdotes and words of advice from her incredible career.
Read our conversation below. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Awards Daily: First, I just wanted to ask you how you got involved with Truth Be Told?
Corey Kaplan: Well, I think that the work that I did with Shondaland [Shonda Rhimes’ production company] was very inspiring to them. It’s a lot about strong women, women who take over a situation and pull it together. And I think that in this business, this is a tough situation for us [as women] to manage to still have a life and still do an amazing job. So I think that my reputation of doing that, and continuing to do that, raise a family and be a grandma, is what they took a chance on with me.
We [women] work especially hard to keep it together and communicate well. [Truth Be Told] is more of a woman’s language. It’s a woman writer [Nichelle Tramble Spellman], a female lead actress [Octavia Spencer], who is really forging her way, and a woman production designer [Kaplan]. I think that had a lot to do with it.
AD: You mentioned your work on Scandal. I did notice watching Truth Be Told, there was a similar color palette. There was a crispness, lots of whites and neutrals in Octavia’s home environment. Was that intentional?
CK: It’s more of what is modern right now, and clean and fashionable and open-handed. And also, we wanted to build contrast: when she goes into her church closet, the flow of colors; when she goes into her office, the office was an old barn that was converted, it had color and tone and texture. Octavia’s character (Poppy Parnell) is a woman that reinvented herself, and her husband is a lawyer, and they now have money. We know who her parents are, and what happened there and her background in Oakland. There is once again a contrast. She went from a multi-diverse, colorful background to an organized, stately background.
It is similar to Scandal. If you look at Olivia [Pope, played by Kerry Washington]’s office, she’s in an old laboratory; it’s concrete, it’s gray and black. But she will dress in her whites, and everything is pressed, and big, and fine, and refined for Washington. So she can present herself and be accepted.
AD: Another big set piece on the show is her father’s (Ron Cephas Jones) bar. There’s such a vibrancy, and once again contrast with Poppy’s environment. Can you talk about creating that?
CK: Her father’s bar was about the nostalgia and the joy that he has representing the bikers, and the history of the bikers in Oakland, and how the African American bikers really made a name for themselves. And it was a sort of gang, but it wasn’t violent; it was about riding and about life. So much of the ’60s and ’70s were about that, and really important for everybody to come together whether white or black.
That was a colorful, free-flowing situation, so there was color and the freedom in that bar, for me as a designer. The nostalgia really allowed me to weave my creative hand.
I went to architectural salvage places, pulled pieces of architectural bridges and fences, and dragged them in and helped build this bar out of beautiful found pieces. A lot of the bar was like that. We felt it was like an old Five and Dime Store and you can see where the floor was broken up, where there might have been different isles and we decided to keep that. The fact that it was polished and looked nice was a nice way to address the past, and make it come into the future and be respected, and still quite okay. And that is what I think her father represented as well.
Similar to how Poppy is somebody who is representing the law, she takes historical attitudes and perspectives and decontextualizes them. That’s similar to what we did in the bar, but in her own way, in the style of what is now a podcast. Which is truly a new art form to me. The ability for a single person to gather information and bring it together and create an almost judicial story. There’s an argument that some of [Poppy’s work] is not relevant because she’s not a lawyer, but let’s face it, when you do something like [a podcast] you have a jury listening, and they are you and me, so we are the people.
CK: Not to get away from the creative end of it, but I love being a production designer because I like to see past a story and into the story, and what I can enter into the writer’s life [or] how can I visually represent how they got there and where they are going?
I try to put my case aside. What my house is like or where I like to shop doesn’t matter. My taste isn’t important. I really love to imbue myself in where the writer wanted to go. I want to be as excited as that person and feel the research. Research is one of my most important departments when I start a show. Research is everything.
AD: And what does that research involve, exactly? Is it just looking at pictures? Reading?
CK: It’s pictures. It’s a lot of pictures. And reading books, news articles. I love to put together a book. In this day and age, everything is on the computer. I work in Adobe Illustrator, SketchUp, and PowerPoint. I can put together a book in no time and send it out to everybody—the writers—, take their story visually, and get them to say yes or no.
The beauty of this show is that our writer [Tramble Spellman] already knew what she wanted. She really had a great visual attachment to the character, and what she saw in her, and felt the honor of respecting that and going along with that. And I think Octavia related to how she was visually portrayed. Something I used to do, kind of in secret, when I was a set decorator many years ago, I would try to find pieces that would inspire the actress and put it in their rooms, in their personal spaces, to help them build their characters out. Whether the cameras are there or not doesn’t matter; it helps them feel where they are in their space.
AD: That’s fascinating! Is there an anecdote of that you would be comfortable sharing with me?
CK: Not on this project. I know I did that a long time ago with Kathleen York who was acting on a movie [1989’s Cold Feet]. It was an all-star cast. She had to live in Montana, and they were stealing diamonds and hiding them in dead horses! Oh my god. (Laughs)
But you know, she really needed to feel who she was; she had to figure out what her husband was doing and whether he was crazy or sane. I spoke to her and said, “What can I do? What can I give you?” And we found some sage-like possessions that she would carry with her and have in her dressing room. It became a prop, it became like set dressing. Her and I are still good friends because of that. This was absolutely years ago. But it really helped her relate to who she was trying to be.
AD: How did your production design change as you moved through the series? Did you make any changes?
CK: You know, the interviews in the jail became very pointed, from a racist alienation to. . .I can’t tell you where it goes because I don’t want to spoil the rest. (Laughs)
AD: Fair enough! (Laughs)
CK: There was a point where I had to build their visitation area so that they are sitting on the same side of the table instead of opposite sides. . .you felt the walls crumble in a very cold, hard jail.
AD: I see. I wanted to ask you about the jail because that was another one of the major set pieces of what I’ve seen so far. Can you talk about constructing that environment?
CK: A good part of it was Sybil Brand Institute, which is an actual jail. It was a women’s jail, such a perfect, perfect place to shoot this. You had depth, you can see what’s around you, it’s like you’re in a fishbowl. When you’re in an interview room there, you can see out of all the windows. All around you, there are the layers of what’s unknown, or threatening, or listening, or a lack of privacy. It’s all very, very interesting. The hallways going up and down. . .the fact that anybody could be hiding anywhere.
It is truly fantastic, and jails aren’t really like that anymore. Not that many of us would know that. This was perfect for storytelling purposes. The fright factor was at an all-time high. Most jails are open and family-like now, not like these long narrow corridors where people are put in like sardines.
Dates don’t really tell you the importance of how much time has passed.
But, when you step out of our world, and into this dark jail. . .you begin to understand it, you feel it. That’s the importance of production design. You feel the contrast.
AD: And as the production designer, if you’re shooting at a prison or jail that already exists or a set that already exists, what does your work involve? How much access are you given to change things?
CK: Oh plenty! They gave us plenty of access. They were really very good with us. There’s a dog visitation area where [the inmates] are working with animals. We created that area. So that was my leniency as to how I wanted to create an area where [Aaron Paul’s character] could work with pets. I’ve done some research on the psychology of working with animals and how that helps bring some humanity back into a [inmate’s] life. And that was important to study, to try to show what it’s like to get him to feel again, and how to be okay. That was an important part of what I had to do in that jail. But Aaron Paul can hold his own! He’s an amazing actor and a good person.
AD: I was riveted by his performance. Are there any other set pieces on Truth Be Told that you worked on that stood out to you?
CK: Well, there was the Aryan bar. . .to show the racism. We did that in Lincoln Heights, which is a place I lived in when I went to art school. It’s a pretty brutal place to try to make that work and tough for the whole crew to shoot there, too. That was very interesting.
The exterior of her father’s bar we talked about earlier, that was in a pretty bad area. I think we truly tried not to shoot there for fear of what would happen. But you know, when you touch the areas of where these characters came from, it’s important. There are parts of Los Angeles that are still pretty marginal, and tough to bring a film crew and say “Now you shoot here from sun up to sun down.” That becomes an interesting saga.
I worked for Michael Mann doing a TV show, [2002’s] Robbery Homicide Division, and he also embraced sending us into areas where crazy things would happen. That’s why we’re doing a show called Robbery Homicide Division, and you hope we get out of here alive! (Laughs). But you learn a lot about the world that we live in. It helps me as a storyteller to actually go to the place, to see what it’s like to be there, and then try to reflect it if I have to build something like that on a stage.
The rest of the sets were really just storytelling pieces. The church that Octavia goes to with her family is a pretty amazing place. The girls’ house, Lizzy Caplan’s house, that was a build. And though it doesn’t look like it that was a big build. Tt’s an exterior up in Pasadena.
AD: The whole set was built from scratch? That’s incredible.
CK: There was an exterior, but the entire interior was built. That was a labor of love. To create this historic old house and show how it changes through the years, and where the crime is hidden. That had to be considered, how her father was murdered in there. That was all my design, truly.
CK: And you know, that I live near there. I live in a historic craftsman house myself. So this was right up my alley. I can do it in my sleep. (Laughs)
AD: Can you tell me anything about the time constraints that you were working with? What was your biggest practical challenge with this project?
CK: You know, I don’t ever have much time in production design. I wake up and I design one set as I’m in the shower scrubbing my hair. I design another set in traffic on my way to work.
CK: Seriously. (Laughs)
So often, your first impulse is the right one and you go with it and make it work.
I design on my computer so I’m able to send ideas to the director and get feedback quickly. They got amazing actors. They nailed the casting and had the right directors. The design came naturally.
AD: You’ve had such an incredible career. I’d love to ask you some questions about your previous work.
CK: Let’s do it!
AD: Truth Be Told is a true crime project. Scandal was this adult, soapy drama. X-Files was science fiction. Does the genre you’re working in affect your view of the production design? And how so?
CK: Yeah, it does. It does because you want, of course, to tell the story the right way. And being a storyteller is dependent on how they want to portray the story. Of course, there’s the network, then there’s the director. I have a lot bosses. (Laughs)
Chris Carter was amazing on The X-Files. He hired me because he thought I had the creative sensibility to come up with the ideas, and the leadership skills to pull it together. We worked seven days a week. We did. And we had whatever amount of money it took to make it happen. Because it was the biggest TV show, top ratings all the way.
You have to think fast. You know, I had 60 people in construction, three illustrators. You have a large team, they come up with ideas, and you go yes or no, and it happens. And that was sci-fi where you can really open your imagination
A show like Cold Case, every decade was a different cold case—the ’30s, ’40s, etc. The pilot was done in the ’70s; in the ’60s they were building subways in New York, so you had to study each decade and get the year right, get the music right, get the wardrobe right, get the colors right, the wallpaper right. That was fantastic for me!
I did it for seven years. I could have done it for another seven. You never get bored. You’re always learning something new, and to be able to answer the period of the times correctly was a lot, a lot of fun.
AD: That’s amazing.
CK: I’ll tell you the best thing about Scandal, it wasn’t my design, I hate to say. (Laughs) It was reading Shonda’s scripts! She would have me laughing. It was not a comedy, but boy, is she a writer! Boy, is she a writer! The scripts would come in at 10:30 at night and I would lay in bed laughing out loud. She was terribly brutal, but in a funny way, always funny, always loving.
How she twisted and developed the story made me really love what I was doing. Her genius was so evident, so evident in how she could take one page, and take everything and turn it on a dime. That was really, really the brilliance of Scandal.
And that’s what happens when you are a production designer and you are working on a team, everyone is so, so connected, that the joy of what you’re doing comes with how you communicate with people.
AD: Again, you’ve just had this incredible career. It’s hard for me to even pick out specific moments to discuss. Is there a moment that stands out to you? Where you go,”I can’t believe I accomplished that” or just something that you’re really proud of?
CK: I think it would be The X-Files. Every episode, they would have a big concept meeting. Every episode was so over-the-top. These meetings would start with me asking the questions because the show was all about how it was created, how it was going to look. And I felt it had to start with me. You know, how does the Brady Bunch house get built upside down? How does the cow fly through the roof of their hotel room? Mulder [David Duchovny] looks out the window and says, “that cow is calling my name.” And he looks out the window, and the cow lifts up into the air, and flies through the roof, and onto his bed. Every episode was like that. Vince Gilligan is an amazing writer.
Vince had such a crazy imagination. Just writing about a guy who lived out in the desert trading drugs as a teacher [AMC’s Breaking Bad]. Can you imagine him on sci-fi? (Laughs)
AD: Is there a type of project that you haven’t done yet that you want to tackle?
CK: There is. I’ve been noticing lots of wonderful TV shows. But, I would like to do a show where I’m tackling the past and creating a makeshift reality. There are so many wonderful creative shows I would like to do. I would really like to go back, and to tackle the imagination to create new realities. I would love to find something like that.
AD: As you were saying, being a woman in your industry is incredibly difficult. There has been a call for gender equity. Obviously, there’s so much work to do. Being in this industry for so long, have you noticed a difference in workplace culture?
CK: I’ve only noticed how people have responded to me over the years. I’ve gone from this single 30-something starting out, to a grandmother with a lot of experience. I’m noticing a lot of support in what I’m saying, whereas if I had these ideas 30 years ago, I would have to really prove myself. Now, people understand what I’m getting at and what I’m trying to say. People trust me. People want to trust women a little more. I feel a comfort in that, so that helps. I think having age and experience helps.
I can’t even tell you what it would be like if the world hadn’t changed in the past 30 years. I feel that we as women have become appreciated at what we do, and have proven ourselves. And are being respected more and more. It’s a beautiful era.
AD: A couple of more questions. I was looking through your IMDb page and I noticed that you only have one acting credit in 1988. Have you ever been tempted to make a cameo in any of your projects?
CK: Oh, I gladly would. I was a dancer and I went to art school at Cal Arts and I double majored. I was a performing artist. I would gladly do it.
I’m terrified to talk to groups of people. I even directed a film once; it was my master’s project. I said, “I don’t ever want to have to talk to a lot of people and tell them what to do again.” That’s why I’m happy to be a production designer and not a director or in any other field. If I could act, and if I could remember lines, I would. (Laughs) I would love to perform. It would feel amazing.
AD: And of the movies that you’ve seen recently, is there a production design that stands out to you? Where you go, “Oh man, I wish I was involved in that”? What’s inspired you lately?
CK: I was also a photographer so I really appreciated Joker and the way it was shot.
And how it wasn’t afraid to be as dramatic as it was in the way it was shot. Despite how anybody feels about the story, [Joaquin Phoenix’s] acting was amazing. It was shot beautifully and creatively. I saw Motherless Brooklyn, it was shot beautifully. Dolemite [Is My Name] was amazing. A lot of really good movies are coming out. Really well done.
AD: And a lot of vibrancy this year. I’ve noticed a lot of color and really atmospheric films.
CK: Yeah. A lot of atmosphere. At first, not using film to shoot looked bad and fake, and I think we’re past that now. I think a lot of actual high-definition is looking really, really good. Whenever we have to do visual effects, it’s looking real natural. We are mastering computer-aided abilities, and they are really becoming a positive for our art form. A beautiful visual component, that’s what I find most interesting about all the well-told films right now
I did a TV movie called Coma (2012), a remake of the movie. It had people dangling from strings and recycling their bodies, taking their hearts and brains. Just disgusting, and I go, “How do I do this?” The original was a feature, but on a TV budget and time frame, my visual effects guy was my biggest asset.
I found a building in Atlanta that was going to be the place where they kept the people out in the middle of nowhere. The building was right in the middle of Atlanta, right in the middle of it, and he goes, “Oh, I just erased the background!” I was like, “I love you! Thank you!” He made it happen, he made these things happen. So I got to really utilize my imagination and VFX took care of the rest. That was really fun and really liberating.
AD: And I’m curious because Truth Be Told is centered on a podcast. Do you have any podcasts you really love? I’m always looking for recommendations, so allow me to pick your brain.
CK: Oh yeah! I’ve been listening to so many audiobooks lately. That’s been the real fun part.
AD: Anything good?
CK: Malcolm Gladwell has been pretty amazing for me, and also Brené Brown.
AD: Oh, yes, my fellow Texan, I love her.
CK: Yeah, Brené Brown is really important because as we’ve been trained as women production designers, women in a business, how you treat people is important. How we treat our family is really important. How we treat ourselves is important. I’ve gone through all of Brené’s books this year and Malcolm, too. Just listening to statistics and cultural concerns has been interesting to me.
AD: Before I let you go, because you’ve been so generous with your time, is there anything else that you wanted to mention or final thoughts that you had?
CK: One thing I always told people when I taught production design, I taught at UCLA. I always tell people looking to get a job and going to job interviews:
Be sure to interview the person that’s interviewing you. Make sure it’s the job you want. Because you could be dying to get a job, and end up in a bad place, not a good place. Be sure you end up in a place you want to be. That’s my final word of advice. Be sure. Sometimes it’s better to walk away.
Brené hasn’t said this, it’s always been my philosophy. (Laughs)
CK: Sometimes you’re better off not getting a job, or not being around certain aspects that you thought you would be.
AD: I’ll remember that. This has been so enlightening. I wish I could talk to you forever. I so appreciate how generous you’ve been with your time. Thank you so much!
CK: You’ve been amazing! I’ve so enjoyed talking to you and our time together.
Truth Be Told is available now on Apple TV+