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Interview: ‘Flamin Hot’ Production Designers Cabot McMullen & Brandon Mendez

Searchlight Pictures’ “Flamin’ Hot” is streaming now on both Hulu and Disney+ in the United States and is also available on Star+ in Latin America and Disney+ internationally.

The movie is the inspiring true story of Richard Montañez, the Frito Lay janitor who channeled his Mexican American heritage and upbringing to turn the iconic Flamin’ Hot Cheetos into a snack that disrupted the food industry and became a global pop culture phenomenon.

Cast includes Jesse Garcia, Annie Gonzalez, Dennis Haysbert, Emilio Rivera, Tony Shalhoub, Matt Walsh, Pepe Serna, Bobby Soto, Jimmy Gonzales, Brice Gonzalez, Vanessa Martinez, Fabian Alomar, Mario Ponce, and Hunter Jones.

“Flamin’ Hot” is award-winning actor/director/producer Eva Longoria’s feature directorial debut and is produced by DeVon Franklin (“Miracles From Heaven,” “Breakthrough”). The film is a Franklin Entertainment Production written by Lewis Colick (“October Sky,” “Charlie St. Cloud”) and Linda Yvette Chávez (creator/writer of “Genetified”).

Disney Plus Informer recently had the opportunity to chat with the film’s production designers Cabot McMullen and Brandon Mendez.  Cabot and Brandon worked tirelessly to bring this film to life. Since the movie spans four decades going from the 60s through the 90s, they had to be very strategic when conceptualizing and designing the sets to maintain period accuracy. They played with color shifts using a 60s and 70s color palette of oranges, greens, olives, and wood tones to keep that retro look. For the 80s period theme, they used the classic mauve wood color that was very popular during that time. They also had to flip some of the film’s locations up to four times due to the movie’s quick pace.

Read on for the full interview below:

Could you first start by providing a brief background for each of you and what projects you have worked on in the past?

Cabot:  Hi, I’m Cabot. I’m a Production Designer based in Los Angeles.  I originally started in New York City doing theatrical work, part of that I was trained in architecture. I found my way into film and television.  It’s just kind of an organic process. I ended up coming out to Los Angeles to do the TV series Scrubs which introduced me to a whole new generation of young writers and directors in television who are now kind of running the industry right now.  One of those was Bill Lawrence, who brought me back recently to do the series, Shrinking for Apple+. Prior to that, I’ve done 1 hour drama, half hour single cam, multi-cam, music videos, commercials, pretty much running the whole gambit.    Some of the highlights recently might have been Smash for Steven Spielberg. Extant and then, of course, Flamin’ Hot, for Eva Longoria where I met Brandon and we had a great time.

Brandon:  Yeah, we had a blast. My name is Brandon Mendez.  I’ve been in Los Angeles for 14 years now. I started in commercials and music videos and within the last 6 years started to get into narrative or that being some pilots feature work like, Four Good Days with Rodrigo Garcia.  I stepped into shows like Spongebob Square Pants.  I did a live action version of that for the 20-year anniversary. I majored in product development and more technical drawing side of products and stuff like that so smaller scale of  bringing imagery of product to life and that kind of stuff.  I just kind of stumbled into this. I had some friends who were doing commercials and music videos and they’re like, hey, I think you’d do really well based on your background and worked my way up the last 12-13 years and as of recently did Searchlight’s Flamin’ Hot with Eva Longoria and yeah, it’s been a pretty good road and I hope to continue it.

For anyone that’s not familiar, what does a Production Designer’s job entail?

Cabot: I think the shortest answer is probably we tell you something about the character that the script can’t say with words.  So we are the visual designers of the world that the character inhabits.

Brandon:  Yeah, I agree with that. I think we tend to be the visual storytellers. Often when we’re reading a script, I’m often going back multiple times. Maybe each time I go back, it’s reviewing a different character and trying to see the relation between who they are with the story and how we can get that on camera and be able to visually tell who they are. So when you see something that’s related to that character, it’s easy to associate.

This movie spans 4 decades from the 60s to the 90s. How did you create those different eras in time?

Brandon:  One thing Cabot and I worked very closely together on was distinguishing color palettes per era.  Obviously you’re gonna have your textures in your furniture and those kind of elements but I think as we worked our way through the script, we were very adamant on which era had a certain color. And because of the pacing of this movie, we were often going back and forth, back and forth…and with that, we were able to kind of tell a story with the color of storytelling.

Cabot: Yeah, it was based on authentic research or research of the authenticity of the period.  As Brandon said,  because we were fast-forwarding and going back in time in quick cuts, we always wanted to know where you were visually. So whether that was done through color temperatures of the lighting or the color palettes that were chosen sometimes textures and patterns… It was specific to the period.  You wanted to just kind of mark the moment with something visually.

I think I read that you created a hundred sets or something like that.  Is that true?

Brandon:   Yeah, I think it was 108. Yeah, We would do moments, if you watched the film, you know the job beat sequence we were working together with locations to find like 6 job hunt scenes in a day and everything’s period so everything had to be touched.  Each scene was in a different neighborhood so we had to have a little twist on it based on where he was interviewing.

Cabot:  Yeah, everyone thinks the job of production designer is to come up with really interesting visuals and pictures, but a big part of what we do is management.  We oversaw or managed probably about 50-plus people as part of our crew in this. But the other part was trying to figure out the Rubik’s Cube of scheduling for the producers.  So for example, on the page, there were 3 different grocery stores in the story. But to shoot them and to make them fit into our schedule we had to collapse them all into one location.  So that location became almost like a theatrical set where you look in that direction it’s 1960, you look over there and it’s 1970, and we had to figure all that stuff out with Eva, of course, but it sort of fell on us to work out the practicalities of it all.

I want to talk to you about the color palette that you mentioned earlier. How did you go about choosing the color palette for each era?

Brandon:  Yeah, we did a really thorough deep dive on research into homes from those eras.  Everything from finding stuff online, from photographers who would scour East L.A. to as far as Whittier, where Richard was from. We met with Richard. We would look over his actual photos.  We were looking at pictures of house parties he was at with him and his friends and you’re looking in the background.  You’re seeing who they are and you see what they’re wearing, but you’re like, what’s in the background?  What does this look like? We were kind of doing that, and through that kind of research, we started to see textures that were prevalent in the 60s or something that would play into Chicana culture. And then we would go into the 70s or the 60s  and we had a little merger and then when we get into the 80s we started to like bring it more to life. But the way we went about that was just heavy research.

Cabot:  Yeah, the factory was a bit of a different animal because those methods and machinery don’t really exist anymore because it was essentially a period piece.  And Frito Lay was very protective of their process. So a lot of this stuff was not available to even talk about. We engaged a few engineering experts who had helped put some of these factories together and even they had signed NDA’s with Frito Lay so they couldn’t really talk about it. So through our research, we found a YouTube video that was posted by a sixth grader on a class trip to Frito Lay and because she was just an innocent little kid, they let her shoot everything with a camera and that really became the most authentic piece that we had to reproduce the factory from is the sixth graders class trip video.  It’s hilarious.

How closely did you work with the director, Eva Longoria to bring her vision of the film to life but also have your own creative freedom.

Cabot:  It was all Eva. I mean she had such a vision for this movie and was so inspiring to all of us.  Brandon and I were with her every day, sometimes into the night. We’d all have meals together and we were all in Albuquerque together…just 24/7, eating and breathing this movie.

The movie broke the record as the most streamed premiere for Searchlight Pictures which is quite an achievement. So congratulations. How did that feel?

Brandon:   That felt great. I grew up watching Searchlight movies and it was just an honor to be able to do one for them.  It also feels good when you know how much effort Eva, for instance, put into this and every department.  It was a labor of love. We were constantly figuring out creative solutions to what we can and can’t do, but making it work within the script would.  Also finding what Eva wants, working with Federico Cantini, who is our Cinematographer… Like Cabot said, there were nights when we were still scouting locations while we were in the midst of shooting or prepping and we’d get back and we’d all go out to dinner and we would relax for a couple of minutes but then dive in and talk about what else is happening.  So knowing the hard work that was put in from everyone. Yes, it’s an honor.  It feels good.

Cabot: Yeah, I could tell from the premiere that they had here in Los Angeles that this movie was gonna blow up.  There was just an energy about that night even Bob Iger was there.  It was pretty cool. I mean, this is an inspirational story and a story that needs to be told. And for a community that doesn’t often get their stories told. So I was just very proud to be part of it.

Brandon:  Yeah, I come from a predominantly Latin and a lot of Pacific Islanders where I’m from in the Bay Area and I had people texting me, blowing me up on Facebook and a lot on social media. People that I haven’t talked to since high school are reaching out to me going, hey, I watched this with my kids.  It was so inspirational. I’m really glad we were able to tell this story. It was so relatable to me.  I think that it does a lot for communities that are kind of in an underdog role.  So I think it was able to kind of show everyone that you can do it and it showed that people want feel good stories.  I think this is a movie you can sit down with your kids or you can sit down with some friends and have a laugh and feel good.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

You can watch the trailer for the film below:

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