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Interview: Jerry Fleming FX’s ‘Kindred’ Production Designer

FX’s newest series “Kindred” debuted all 8 episodes on Hulu on December 13, 2022.  The show is based on Octavia E. Butler’s highly influential science fiction novel which was first published in 1979.

As Dana, a young Black woman and aspiring writer, begins to settle in her new home, she finds herself being pulled back and forth in time, emerging at a nineteenth-century plantation and confronting secrets she never knew ran through her blood.

“Kindred’s” cast includes Mallori Johnson as “Dana James,” Micah Stock as “Kevin Franklin,” Ryan Kwanten as “Thomas Weylin,” Gayle Rankin as “Margaret Weylin,” Austin Smith as “Luke,” David Alexander Kaplan as “Rufus Weylin,” Sophina Brown as “Sarah” and Sheria Irving as “Olivia.”

Disney Plus informer recently had the opportunity to interview Jerry Fleming who is the production designer for the series and shared some insight on how he and his team created a historically authentic and accurate setting for the series.

Read on for the full interview with Jerry below:

You are the production designer for FX’s new series “Kindred” which is currently streaming on Hulu. I’m a little bit behind. I watched the first two episodes and I love it so far. But the show is based on Octavia E. Butler’s sci-fi novel, which was first published in 1979. Can you first describe the series for us and tell us what it’s about?

Well, our showrunner Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, he adapted Octavia Butler’s novel into a series format and in so doing, he made a few changes to the main characters in the novel that was written in 1977. The main characters are husband and wife and in our series, instead of being married, they’ve just met. So, it kind of makes the challenge of them going back and forth in time…It’s a much more tenuous link of why he would go to such efforts to stay with her. And that’s just an interesting dynamic that wasn’t in the novel, but it really does pick up the spirit of the novel really well.

Can you also tell us a little bit about what your job entails as a production designer”

As a production designer, I first met with Branden and I got the concept of what he wanted to do and then my job was to take that concept and the script and put all of the sets and the locations into that story. Unlike a lot of projects, the main house typically would be found on location, but the idea from the beginning was we would build, not just the set on stage, but also we would build the entire plantation on location. And that was outside of Atlanta, about 40 minutes southwest of Atlanta and it’s where a lot of films shoot there. But basically we took raw land and the site that we chose was next to a lake. And for me it was important that it be near water because in Maryland at that time… this is a tobacco plantation. Plantations whenever possible would be adjoining water because they needed that water source, like George Washington’s Mount Vernon was on the Potomac. And basically I used a lot of those influences of the Georgian architecture of Maryland at that time in the early 1800’s and that was Mt. Vernon and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s house. I used those and there were several other mansions in the state’s plantations that were historically preserved. So, they were great references. And then for the land, I found some actual great diagrams of plantations and kind of adapted our site plan to what some of those site plans were from actual plantations. The U shaped drive where we put the house, it sits between the drive and the lake, and then the cookhouse is to the right towards the enslaved cabins which are up the hill and away. Typically, in a real location, they would be out of sight, out of mind from the main house, the big house. Basically for the outbuildings, the cabins, the cookhouse, the tobacco barn, I used a really great reference book that I’ve used for years called Back of the Big House and it has illustrations of all of those outbuildings.

As you said, you collaborated heavily with showrunner Branden Jenkins who adapted the book for the series.  I read that he went through tons of Butler’s scratch papers with ideas on them to really try to understand the story she was trying to tell. What research did you do in advance to prepare for the project to create a historically authentic and accurate setting?

Well, I kind of got into it at the very point where we were starting construction. I had just one week from getting the job and getting to Atlanta and meanwhile I was moving from Joshua Tree to North Carolina outside of Asheville. Actually, when I drove across the country, I listened to the audiobook and that was my first undertaking of the research of the book. And then I read it when I got to my location and then we had extensive research from the production designer for the pilot. They had a lot of research and we based off that and then we expanded and added. We have over 6,000 images references that we collected that our entire art department and costume supervisor had access to that research.  And then Branden in the writer’s room… They also had research and it was good to see what he had in his mind.. So very quickly, we only had three months to put it together from the design to the construction of both the stage on set and the plantation on location. So it was just doing everything simultaneously. There was not a luxury of having time for research before design. I was doing both simultaneously.

You designed the interior and exterior of the plantation by hand including building these cabins by scratch. How much detail did you go into to create these sets?

Well, I have to thank a small army because it wasn’t just me. So, we were not only designing the plantation, and the exterior, we were also designing the house. So, all of that was happening simultaneously. And Conrad, our construction coordinator, at one time had up to 200 construction prop makers. And the greens with a huge project because we had to take the landscape and essentially mold it and then after all the construction it had to be rebuilt.

You took inspirations from George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s homes. What specific inspirations did you use for the project?

There was a house in Virginia, Montpelier. I used that one probably heavily the most and there was a really great book that I found that I didn’t have and it’s called Uncommon Vernacular.  It was actually houses all from Jefferson county in Virginia and it had detailed drawings of all of the elements…And Chad Frey, our lead set designer…. he and I went through those books and several others. We looked at all the details of the molding because everything had to be authentic. We were having to pick wallpaper, drapery finishes, paint, molding everything simultaneously.

I read that this was emotionally challenging for you. Could you share more about what the most difficult aspect for you was in the process?

Well, one thing when you’re in production design, you’re dealing with telling the story and sometimes you step back from the story and you’re just focusing on everything in front of you. It’s a tremendous amount of work. But when it all started coming together and I saw it, one day it just brought tears to my eyes because it was a terrible thing that we’ve created and we were trying to make it as authentic and believable as possible. And one of my first jobs as an art director that I got, it was with Robert Altman, and he gave me my first chance to be an art director. One of the things I learned from him was to make the sets as real as possible. Whether it ends up on film isn’t as important as getting the actors moved.  And if the director and the writer and the actors arrive at this location that feels like a plantation, it’s gonna help their performances, whether they’re enslaved or whether they are the owner of the plantation and all the people that come to visit. The more realistic it is, definitely I think helps the performances hopefully.

Is there something that stands out to you that you’re the proudest of what you created?

One of the smallest sets was Olivia’s cabin and I found a really great site set in the woods. And so we built that interior and exterior and was shot all as one. And it was kind of the most personal to me because I’ve always dreamed of building a cabin in the woods and we actually got to do it.  And the tobacco barn was really fun because that was based on actual historical architectural drawings from the time.

Is there something that you hope the viewers take away with them after they watch the series?

Well, it’s a really emotional challenging series. And I think what the brilliance of what Octavia did is she put modern day people in this historically terrible time and you go back and forth and you realize how far we’ve come from that. And then in some aspects, how far we haven’t come. And I think that’s one of the things that’s really troubling.  And emotionally, I think the audience has to grapple with that, dealing with the past and the present and the ghost of what we’ve done and who took part on which side.

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Watchmen) serves as showrunner and writer on the television adaptation of this classic work and executive produces along with Courtney Lee-Mitchell (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Darren Aronofsky (mother!), and Ari Handel (One Strange Rock) of Protozoa Pictures, Joe Weisberg (The Americans), Joel Fields (Fosse/Verdon), Ernestine Walker and Merrilee Heifetz.

The pilot of “Kindred” was directed and executive produced by Janicza Bravo, director and co-writer of the critically-acclaimed feature Zola.

The first season of “Kindred” consists of eight episodes and is produced by FX Productions.

You can also watch a teaser trailer below:

All 8 episodes of “Kindred” are available to stream now on Hulu in the United States.  A Disney+ release date for other countries has not been announced yet.


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