Interview: Production Designer Steve Saklad Talks Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. (Exclusive)

For over fifty years, author Judy Blume’s classic and groundbreaking novel ‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ has impacted generations with its timeless coming of age story, insightful humor and candid exploration of life’s biggest questions. The book’s iconic, relatable story is now playing out on the big screen, as Lionsgate is releasing its movie adaptation of the beloved literary project in theaters this weekend.

The film stars Rachel McAdams, Benny Safdie, Kathy Bates and ‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ actress Abby Ryder Fortson in the titular role. The comedy-drama was written and directed by ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ scribe-helmer Kelly Fremon Craig. The writer-director and Blume also served as producers on the screen adaptation, on which Steve Saklad served as the set/production designer.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ follows the 11-year-old eponymous protagonist as she’s uprooted from her life in New York City as her family moves to the suburbs of New Jersey. As a result, she must go through the messy and tumultuous throes of puberty with new friends in a new school.

As she tries to adjust to their new town, Margaret relies on her mother, Barbara (McAdams), who’s also struggling to adjust to life outside the big city, for guidance. The pre-teen’s adoring grandmother, Sylvia (Bates), also isn’t happy her family moved away, and likes to remind them every chance she gets.

Saklad generously took the time recently to talk about serving as the movie’s set/production designer during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how Craig, as well as several of the project’s producers, enjoyed his previous work so much they immediately extended him the opportunity to take on the job while they were prepping the project on location in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also mentioned that he created word summaries and mood boards for the female characters in the movie to help create locations that best suit their personalities and lives throughout the story.

Film Factual (FF): You served as the set/production designer on the new coming-of-age dramedy, ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ What was it about the script of the screen adaptation of the classic 1970 novel by writer Judy Blume that convinced you to take on the job? How did you become involved in designing the sets for the film?

Steve Saklad (SS): I received a call while they were already in prep for the movie. I had already worked with the producer, Jonathan McCoy, on ‘Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar’ a couple of years before. We had a great time and synergy between production and design, and we’re super proud of ‘Barb and Star,’ which is another Lionsgate movie.

Out of the blue, Jonathan called me and asked if I could drop the other movie I was working on at the time in about a week and go bail him out. They were sort of in trouble with the design department and were changing gears.

So I spoke with Kelly Fremon Craig, the writer-director of ‘Margaret,’ and James Brooks, the super famous producer. They said yes to me, and I said yes back.

I had read the script and had great affinity for the characters and the story the film was telling. I hadn’t read the original Judy Blume book before I started working on the film, and still haven’t read it yet, actually.

But the script that Kelly wrote is a little different than the book. The script looks a little bit more at the parents and grandparents of these girls. So the movie has this bigger generational story than the book did.

I love the characters, and felt very attached to the film’s time and place. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and I turned 14 in 1970, which is when the film is set. So I’m just a little bit older than Margaret and her friends are in the film. My family would drive into New York City all the time, and I have so many memories of that time.

So when I read the script, and you see Greenwich Village, morning, as a slugline in a scene, I immediately saw what I remember when I was 14. The suburbia they describe is very similar to my suburban experience. I’m Jewish, so I had two Jewish grandmas, and seeing the scenes at Sylvia’s apartment on the Upper West Side allowed me to immediately fill in the blanks.

When I agreed to work on the film, I immediately flew to Charlotte, North Carlina, which is where we shot the whole movie. I sat with Kelly, at length, and also sat with our decorator, Selina van den Brink, who was my support team. She was the other half of the art department.

Between Selina and Kelly, we talked through each of the four girls and the main moms and their worlds until we were on the same wavelength. I figured this is a story that’s based entirely on the experiences of women and girls, so I figured I better listen very closely to the women around me. So I connected with them in a personal way over each of these ladies and girls, and as a result, I thought we could create a wonderful world for them.

FF: Further speaking about working with Kelly, what was your collaboration with her like throughout the dramedy’s production, particularly in setting up the look for the locations that are featured in the feature?

SS: We hit the ground running the minute I got to Charlotte. We had four weeks of prep left before we were about to start day one of the shoot. So there was a three-prong process; I first wrote a blurb that I thought summarized the lives, the loves and the insecurities of these women and girls. Kelly loved them and shared them with the actors.

I felt good that if we were on the same wavelength on the word summaries, then we could move onto mood boards. The mood boards showed images of color and textural palettes. Mrs. Wheeler, Nancy’s mom, was all ice and prickly surfaces, while Barb is Earth tones and is part of creative juices. She’s a bit more connected to mother nature and the world around her. Sylvia has lived in that apartment and has made a life for herself for 60 years. So finding the images for the people of that time and colors that I loved helped me pick out the décor that emphasized the vibe of these folks.

That extended to the girls, as well. We did mood boards for each of the four main girl characters. Kelly would give us feedback, as did Selina, and we’d go back and forth.

Arriving at approval with them meant sketching. I’m theater-trained, so I would roll out onion-skin paper, and would draw in ink and paint with markers to arrive at my image of the bedroom for Margaret or the exterior of the New Jersey house for the Simons. Each of these locations first found their way onto sketch paper, which is my way in to find the design.

I would then share the design with Kelly and James Brooks, our producer. Then those two had to bless the work, and then it became gospel with the decorating team, the construction and paint team, and my wonderful art director, Angela Stauffer. Each of these people had their own job to do once the sketch told them which way we were going.

We also discussed what kind of wall paper was going on the wall, and what kind of paint and age we were giving to the homes. We decided that the New Jersey home hadn’t been renovated, and the previous owners’ effect was still on the walls. So we put up an amber grass cloth across the living room and foyer, which you see a lot of throughout the film. We also left shadows of the previous owners’ art, where the sun had discolored parts of the wall.

That way there was the sense that it wasn’t pristine, decorated or designed. It was a found space, and it would take the whole movie for Barb to find her way and fill that space.

That was one of the wonderful things in Kelly’s script; we got to see the house with all the boxes and a bit of New York furniture when the family just moves in. Then the furniture goes away and we’re left with this empty space for much of the movie.

Then Barb finally has the brainstorm to put in the Ethan Allen furniture suite that she sees in a window. Then finally, at the very end, she brings in her own art and the plants, and the overall life that she knew back in New York into the house in New Jersey. There’s a completed design that’s been waiting to come out throughout the whole movie.

FF: Like you mentioned, ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ is set in several locations and settings, including the titular character’s suburban family home in New Jersey, and her Grandma Sylvia’s apartment in New York City. How did you approach creating the diverse looks of the different locations in the movie?

SS: That was the most fun thing to do because I know New Jersey and really know New York; I lived in Manhattan for 13 years when I first got out of school, which was about 10 years later than when the film’s story happens.

But I have very strong memories of New York in 1970, so to create that space, as well as New Jersey, was pretty easy. We choose Charlotte, North Carolina specifically because the suburban ranches, split levels and colonial houses there now really matched the New Jersey vibe we were looking to recreate. So creating 1970 New Jersey in present day Charlotte wasn’t so difficult.

We would subtly change the exteriors to move them back to 1970. We introduced the period cars, and obviously the characters’ wardrobes were also created to reflect the time period.

But creating New York City took a lot of work. We found a neutral apartment to serve as the Simons’ New York City apartment, much like the apartment I lived in for 13 years.

It had a specific kind of casing, and the color scheme was mostly black and white. We put self-stick tiles down on the kitchen floor, which were also black and white. We also put the grills on the windows because everyone knows in New York you don’t have open glass without metal protection behind it. We also filled it with the life of the Simon family, including the paintings and supplies, as well as the mess, chaos and exuberance of their lives.

We also had to create the outside street. We finally found a series of facades in Monroe, North Carolina, which is about half-an-hour outside of Charlotte. It gave us just enough of a feel of the scale of New York City sidewalks, including stores, restaurants and pizza parlors.

We created the identity of each of those facades. We created a bakery, barber shop and pizzeria. We came in and installed awnings and giant signs. Selina, our decorator, filled two five-ton trucks full of set dressings that completely transformed that run of the street that matched my memories of a Greenwich Village street in 1970.

You know there were phone booths on every block in Manhattan back then. So we added some phone booths, and papered them over with fliers of the music world in 1970, including the folk singers at the Blue Note Jazz Club in Greenwich Village. So we went in very deep with the juice of New York City because we wanted to contrast it with the dryness and conventionalness of New Jersey when the family first moves there.

We also got to recreate the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which I don’t have fond memories of, but really remember. We created this bus shelter that the buses pull into in the parking lot underneath a mall in Charlotte.

We created a mural of the Circle Line tour that went around Manhattan, circa 1970. Anyone who went to New York back then knows the Circle Line tour was the big ad campaign at Port Authority. We then covered it with graffiti because at that point in the movie, the idea is that New York City should be a slightly scary place for Margaret because she’s traveling by herself on the bus. So we wanted to underline the dirt of Port Authority for that scene.

We also got to recreate the Delacorte Theater that’s in Central Park in an empty parking lot in downtown Charlotte. We built the half-round stage, and put instrumentalists on the stage because the Delacorte Theater doesn’t have an orchestra pit. We made a pie piece of the audience, and then visual effects multiped that pie piece of the whole half-round of the audience at the Delacorte. The visual effects also created the rest of Central Park in the background. So we were able to create all those iconic locations from New York City in Charlotte.

FF: Like you also mentioned earlier, one of the main plot points in ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.’ is that the titular protagonist’s mom, Barbara, is a talented artist. How did you decide which of the character’s art pieces would be showcased in the film, as she debates which paintings she wants to display in the Simon family’s new home?

SS: We hired one artist in particular who Kelly had seen, and thought reflected Barb’s view of the world. Her art was hyper-colored and very representational. Many of the images that Kelly really responded to from this artist represented women in both crisis and joy. Some of the paintings also had girls in them, which also represented our story because Barb certainly would have included Margaret in her art journey.

But it was really about the color and the way of the brush that this artist used that really captured the images we wanted. We got hi-res images and reproduced them on canvases.

We probably produced about 30 pieces that became Barb’s work. For some of them, we asked the artist to do incomplete versions of them, so that we would have different stages of her work. Those are all seen on the easels that are leaning against the walls in the family’s New York apartment. Then, when they get to New Jersey, two or three paintings are left in the living room, and the rest are banished to the basement.

It was great fun to create those paintings. It was also great teach Rachel McAdams to imitate the brush stroke work needed for the close-up shots because it was all her doing them while we filmed, which was terrific.

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