Production designer Virginia Mesiti discusses her work on the television series Diary of an Uber Driver.
As the production designer of ‘Diary of an Uber Driver’, how did you find your way into the world of the series?
Diary of an Uber Driver is a selection of human stories, Ben is the vehicle that navigates the world of the series and his story guides us. It’s a very post-modern framework – in that it is quite self-referential, which was different to anything I’d read before and not a traditional hero’s journey narrative. I could tell from my first reading of the synopsis that this would be one of those projects where successful production design would go unnoticed and unseen. This wasn’t a comedy with loud caricatures and stylised colour palettes but a much more subtle real life world.
My first conversations with the Producers (Lauren Edwards and Martha Coleman) and Director Matt Moore were about the tone of the series. I was familiar with the writing style of Tomas Ward from his previous series Please Like Me. We referenced a whole bunch of television shows that we thought highly of and committed to making something that we would enjoy watching ourselves. I think we could all tell from our first meeting that our aesthetics were aligned, so they knew they could trust my decisions and choices.
When you receive the script what is the process you go through to get to the first day of filming?
Always starts with research; even for a contemporary authentic dramedy. Researching the characters and building the visual story world through references; photography, paintings, other films. I like to make a series Bible this usually contains tonal references, colour palette, textures palette, signage style guide, character references or whatever is appropriate to the particular project.
The Costume Designer, Louise Wakefield, and I sat down with Matt Moore and had a preliminary discussion about the characters. Louise is a great communicator and collaborator. We exchanged images and discussed palettes and this process evolved throughout pre-production as the cast and locations were locked in.
As the series was to be entirely filmed on location, we did lots of scouting with Phillip Roope our Location Manager who found some brilliant options that were perfectly on brief. Especially for Ken’s house (played by John Belle), this was the real deal. The house sat stubbornly on the pacific highway shadowed by a 10 storey apartment block. There was work to do of course in marrying the back garage to the courtyard entry of a pub, but it had great framework to work with.
Throughout pre-production builds are drafted, props made and sourced, references for graphics collated, dressing plans for locations are drawn.
Lastly came camera tests in the last week of pre, which confirmed the paint colour selection for Beck’s House. Her interior was the one location we had the most control over and had the most screen time. Ben struggles with Beck’s capability of having the baby on her own and this feeds into his insecurities as he searches for the answers of what Fatherhood is going to look like for him. We wanted Beck’s world to be surrounded by plants, a metaphor for her ability to cultivate and nuture. It was important that Beck was a strong female character with warmth, depth and of course contradiction and flaws.
Who made up your team on “Diary of an Uber Driver” and how did you work with them?
We were a very small Art Department. The concept of the show was largely set in the vehicle and driving. Hence a greater proportion of the budget was allocated to facilitate that. The very first thing I was briefed on was that we were not going to shoot in studio or do any sim-trav. Consequentially we had a small tight team to show the story world outside of the car and paint the characters interiors. Apart from our main cast, most characters were met fleetingly and each story was told within an episode so it was crucial to visually convey their world and quickly.
The first person I employed was Anthea Hodge as Art Director, she was an integral part of the team, we didn’t have a coordinator so her background strongly supported both roles and she lead the team of a Buyer/Dresser (Rachel Hudson), a Runner (Kylee Burgess) and an Intern (Bianca Tomchin).
I worked closely with our Set Decorator (Shane Melder) and Props Master (Andrew Playford). We also had Brian Carlin doing our Graphics.
There was no buffer, so everyone really had to get in and get it done.
We had a lot of night shoots in the schedule because of the nature of filming on location and not in studio. We were blessed to have the very experienced Standby Props, James Cox and his Assistant was Doran McGuire.
What were the biggest challenges on this project?
To begin with the decision on the Hero vehicle was most pressing. In discussion with Cinematographer Stephen Windon we settled on a small SUV. As we were intending to shoot frequently on the low loader and we didn’t want the vehicle to seem too high in traffic through the windows. Ultimately we removed the tyres to lower the vehicle so that our shoot off would be at the correct height.
Instinctively we knew we would need two vehicles, one would be permanently rigged to the low loader and the other would be free to wrangle. As the vehicle on the low loader would never have to drive we purchased a cheap shell of a car we could easily match through an auction house, it had some body damage but only on a panel that we would not see in the coverage because of where the cameras would be rigged. We stripped the engine out to reduce the weight and make room for the Grips department to rig the camera to the front of the vehicle.
Other deciding factors were about windscreen size and obscurities for our cast. Contemporary cars have windscreen sensors attached permanently and often with a mesh surround that is baked into the glass.
It sounds like the decision was based more on logistics than aesthetics, but we did take everything into account. It felt like Ben should have been driving an older more beaten up vehicle with more character but as we were being true to the story, Uber have restrictions on how old a vehicle can be. Our backstory was that Ben took out a loan for the vehicle as it was part of his business and probably his only asset. As we know, Ben is house sitting, so we never got to explore his personal space, he lived out of the car, but the car was also his livelihood, so we intentionally kept it bare of character dressing, supporting the idea that Ben is still figuring out who he is and what part he is going to play as a Father.
How do you communicate your ideas throughout the process, from concept through to as you are filming?
A quick sketch is always so useful. I’ve started drawing digitally on my iPad as I find it a great tool to quickly share an idea, bypassing scanning or photographing. I use SketchUp to draft construction elements as well as doing furniture layouts and floor plans. Photoshop is an old friend and I can always mash a few things together, even in basic collage form to either communicate to my team internally or present ideas to the Network.
From an environmental point of view I love being digital and having everything in soft copy but being caught out with a flat battery on a location recce is my worst nightmare so I’ve always got a clipboard and rotary pencil just in case.
What does your Art Department space look like during the project?
We had very close working quarters on this job, which on a small show has lots of benefits. The entire Production was bunkered down in the same space, we were opposite Costume so it was easy to chat to Louise and check-in.
We covered the walls with images on a timeline that was in script order. Sometimes I have images up on walls in character or location order but I wanted to see the show from start to end. It was helpful to see how the narrative flowed visually and map the colour journey.