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Building [A Career] on Set: An Interview with Michael Wylie

There’s no shortage of creative types who dream of working on a Hollywood set. Many the young actors, wannabe production designer, and rising set designers often come to grips with the realization that this dream may not be so easy to achieve. Yet there are plenty of success stories within the industry – actresses who were ‘discovered’ in shopping malls; directors who rose to fame despite having directed more than a few flops; makeup artists who have been lucrative careers serving the stars when they’re not on set. Is their success merely a matter of luck? Or is something more nuanced at play?

Michael Wylie, a production designer based in Los Angeles, enjoys what any cinephile would call an enviable career. He’s designed and built movie sets for some of the country’s most popular primetime TV shows, including Legion, Californication, Nine Lives, and Mockingbird Lane. He’s won an Emmy, credited to his work during the 2009 season production of Pushing Daisies. He’s also represented by William Morris Endeavor, one of the largest and most successful talent agencies in the world. For Wylie, his success hasn’t been all right-place-at-the-right-time kismet, but rather the direct result of being persistent, hard-working, and fearless with his approach to building a career.

“I tell people, make yourself as useful as you can, to the point where you’re almost being annoying,” he says. “Show them that you’re there to be useful and you’ll get hired for the rest of life.”

Wylie didn’t go to school to become a production designer. Growing up in Northern Michigan, he recalls a summer in the late ’70s when a Hollywood film shot nearby. “I was fascinated,” he says, and would wind up moving to L.A. years later. “I bumped into a friend I went to high school with, who at the time was working on Nightmare on Elm Street and they were looking for people in the art department. So I went the next day and started working there; then I was hooked with it.”

Ironically – and in light of his success – today Wylie doesn’t spend much time on set. “I design everything you see on the set of a movie or TV show– from the locations to the cars, everything that’s visible has been designed by a production designer,” he says. “So I’m usually not on set since on a TV show I’m about two weeks ahead and working on the next episode. I’m rarely on set while they’re shooting.”

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Michael Wylie’s production design aesthetic is considerably wide-ranging. Courtesy of Michael Wylie.

Getting Your Foot in the Door

For Michael Wylie, school wasn’t much of a requirement for gaining entry into Hollywood. “I’m an artistic person, but I never took production design classes or anything in school, I sort of just gravitated toward it,” he says. But that experience is markedly different for today’s on-set hopefuls.

Take Abby Schlackman, for example: Determined to forge a career as a lighting designer, Schlackman has designed her entire course of study around lighting design. Starting as early as high school, where she attended a school that offered a theater program, to choosing a university whose singular focus was preparing students who dreamed of working on sets. As a junior in college, Schlackman’s schedule resembles that of a mid-career professional.

“I work professionally around my school schedule, so over the summer, I’m always doing at least one production. I also interned with the REV Theatre Company and designed the lighting for their recent production of Hamlet. I’ve also worked for the Arden Theatre Company as a programmer,” she says, noting that experience is everything for making it in this business.

When it came to getting started in the industry, however, their experiences were vastly similar: Wylie worked his way up the food chain by carrying out errands, while Schlackman focuses on working as a programmer rather than as a lighting designer.

“I really started at the bottom of the barrel, cleaning things up and pushing stuff around, unloading trucks, that kind of thing,” Wylie says. “I did whatever the newest person does.”

“Right now I work as an assistant a lot, so I can get to know professional designers in the industry,” says Schlackman. “That means I handle the paperwork during tech and facilitate anything the lighting designer could possibly need.”

As Wylie suggested, much of the film and theater world revolves around who you know. “A lot of it depends on who you know when you’re starting out,” says Schlackman. “I didn’t have a ton of connections so I made these connections in college with my professors. For example, I was talking to one of my professors recently and she said she never sat down for an interview.”

Wylie stresses that Hollywood is often a reputation game because it’s simply easier to work with someone whose style you already know. “I would rather hire someone I know whose faults I recognize than hire a wild card,” he says. “There’s a shorthand that comes with working with someone for a long time. You already know what they want.”

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set design
Abby Schlackman designs lighting for a production of “Hamlet” in Philadelphia.

Turning An Opportunity on Set Into a Career as a Production Designer

For Michael Wylie, starting out has often meant starting over. After a few years working in L.A., he moved to New York and landed a job as a production assistant on a pregnancy test commercial. The opportunity would set a new career path in motion. “I was sort of chumming around with upper management people and I completely lied and said I was an art director and looking to art direct commercials in New York, and someone believed me and I got a job the next week art directing a commercial in New York,” he laughs.

The experience of working on commercials cemented his training. “Doing commercials was exciting and the best training you can have as a production designer because it goes fast and you have to get stuff done cleverly and it has to look good,” he says. “I did that for years before I ended up back in L.A.”

Wylie pivoted his experience with directing commercials into his big break. “A good friend of mine was producing a film and I asked for an interview and went and met with the team,” he said. “It was all these old movie guys by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. I talked so fast and did a whole song and dance and I left with the job of designing the movie. I just had a bunch of good ideas, and I was forthright.”

Soon after, Wylie met a director working on a TV show being directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, which would become a turning point for his career as a production designer and spark a long-time collaboration with the Men in Black director.

michael wylie
Michael Wylie’s production design work has earned him several Emmy nominations and one win. Courtesy of Michael Wylie.

Landing New Set Design Work

At this stage of his career, Michael Wylie doesn’t necessarily manage the day-to-day. Business development, contract negotiation, and accounting tasks are generally handled by his agents, who find new contracts and negotiate rates on his behalf.

“It used to be that a studio would call an agent and say ‘Who do you have for this project?’ and the studio trusted whoever the agent sent. Now that everything has exploded and they don’t have that personal relationship anymore, agents track when projects are started and barrage the producers with their clients, whether they’re good for the job or not. William Morris Endeavor will send a packet with all every production designer on their roster, but its really the only way a guy like me can keep up with what’s on offer, especially in TV,” Wylie notes.

He goes on to stress that working with an agent takes a lot of the guesswork out of finding new productions and negotiating his rates. “For production design, they look almost a year before it starts shooting. So you need someone who’s on the inside track. There’s something like 500 to 600 TV shows currently in production, it’s too much for anyone to keep up with,” he says. “When you go with one of those prestige agencies, you get a little more street cred. In addition, while they do take 10 percent of your contract, they negotiate your rate higher than you could yourself, so it’s a huge wash.”

The panorama for finding and landing new work is obviously a bit different for someone like Schlackman, who doesn’t work with an agent and is still starting out her career. Production and lighting designers like Schlackman tend to turn their personal networks, using social media and networking events to find new opportunities.

“I use Instagram and Facebook which actually have a lot of groups that are secret industry groups, where you can connect with people on possible gigs. I go to opening nights a lot, I’m going to go to the Barrymore awards; really places where people in the industry can socialize,” she says.

Landing work also becomes easier, Wylie says, when you’ve got the recognition to back it up. Winning an Emmy award, for example, represented a turning point in his career.

“When I won an Emmy six years ago, my life completely changed because I didn’t have to interview for jobs anymore,” he says. “I was fast-tracked into things, and while an award doesn’t bring a great financial reward, it does make people trust you more.” Entering yourself in industry awards – not just Emmys, but other lesser recognized accolades – are a good idea if you want to gain some notoriety, Wylie says.

Marketing Yourself for Work

As a lead production designer, Wylie is in charge of hiring various set professionals to carry out his vision. Wylie provides unique insight into his approach to hiring people for his sets.

“On a big show there are 175 people under my wing,” says Wylie. “So I start with finding an art director who’s in charge of the day-to-day, and then I’ll also hire a set decorator, which is the second most important role. Those two will then branch off and hire their own people,” he explains.

While Wylie does look to a candidate’s creative portfolio or reel, he does admit that he ultimately relies heavily on word of mouth to find potential hires.

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“For an art director, I’ll just look at a resume, because it’s such an administrative job. For set decorators, I’ll definitely want to see their creative work, and oddly set decorators are the only remaining group that carries around actual portfolios,” he says. “With everyone else, I use a reel. But it’s definitely 100 percent word of mouth; when I need to hire someone I call my production design friends and ask them if they know anyone, and nine times out of 10 that’s who I hire.”

production designer
Courtesy of Michael Wylie.

While establishing industry contacts that can refer you to jobs certainly plays a crucial role, young hopefuls like Schlackman are making sure they stay consistent with refreshing their portfolios and online platforms.

Abby takes note that she’s constantly updating her personal website and Orangenius bio. “During the show before we open, there’s a photographer who comes in and takes production photos and video footage, you take the best moments and put them into your portfolio,” Schlackman says. “Then I would most likely link to my website. I also have an Instagram account where I keep my followers updated.”

For Wylie, being a diligent worker has made his career. He says he seeks the same qualities when he’s hiring.

“When you hire someone on your crew, you can tell whether they get it,” says Wylie. “You try and keep that person working. Back in the 90s, us Midwestern people had a work ethic that Hollywood really liked. So I just kept working, people kept calling me.”

While being a hard worker is certainly a major factor, many times his decision to work with someone is based on his gut. “When you work on TV and movie sets, you’re working 14-16 hour days every day and I only hire people I want to be around for that long,” Wylie says. “I weed out a lot of people and get down to those who work hard. There’s a lot to do all day, and if you have to beg someone to do their job they won’t be around for too long.”

In addition, Wylie notes that being an expert in a particular area – having a long history of designing period sets, for example, or being an expert at 1950s costumes – is not as important as being a fast learner. “You don’t need an expert, you need someone who’s an expert on learning. You don’t want someone who knows all the rules because they’re going to be the least likely to break them,” Wylie says.

Wylie admits that the journey to becoming a famous production designer has changed quite a bit since his own beginnings. “If I was starting over again I would find anyone I knew in a big city that worked in production and get a job on that production, literally any job I could get, and learn what everyone does and how it gets done,” he says.

“You have to get coffee and break down boxes, but you see the process and where you fit in and how you could make your move. The ones who get it, you can’t wait to have them back because they’re so good. There are all kinds of ways to come at this, but as long you love it, you can make it happen.”

Learn more about Michael Wylie.

 

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About the author

Nicole Martinez

Nicole is the Managing Editor of Publications at Orangenius. A veteran arts and culture journalist, her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.

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