Wynonna Earp Production Designer Trevor Smith on Bringing The Garden to Life

Photo courtesy of Trevor Smith

There is so much work that goes into making a TV show. It starts with the writers creating the story, actors bringing the characters to life, down to the directors and crew who turn words into a visual story being told on screen. Every episode of TV truly is a team effort, and it’s an even bigger effort that’s required when you’re talking about a show like Wynonna Earp. What Wynonna lacks in budget, it makes up for in attention to detail, free-flowing creativity, and imagination. 

One of the biggest obstacles for Season 4 on screen would be figuring out what the Garden, where Waverly (Dominique Provost-Chalkley) and Doc (Tim Rozon) were trapped, would look like. Showrunner Emily Andras worked closely with director Paolo Barzman and production designer Trevor Smith to construct a brutally cold version of the Garden that was filmed on a frozen Alberta lake in the dead of winter. With Wynonna since Season 1, Smith was named production designer for Season 4 and has worked on shows such as Heartland and Fargo. He spoke to The TV Junkies in depth about the decision to portray the Garden in this manner. 

In his role as production designer, Smith is responsible for selecting locations to film and then building out these locations to match what’s needed for visually telling the story. In addition to detailing the decisions behind the Garden, Smith also shared what it was like to work with Melanie Scrofano on other sets such as The Glory Hole, and what set piece he’s most proud of during his time on the show. 

The TV Junkies: You seem to have worked in a lot of different areas of production. Can you first share a little of your background with us? Did you always want to work in TV?

Trevor Smith: I’ve been a cinephile for the bulk of my adult life. I found an interest in peculiar and challenging movies in my late teens and went straight into the film studies program at the University of Alberta. I wound up getting a part-time job at a video store that specialized in alternative titles and ended up eventually buying the store with a friend of mine. I had this 30,000 title video collection through the 90s and early 2000s that stuck in my brain and fueled my desire to work in film and TV. I did come down to Calgary to study film from a technical standpoint, met my wife, and began to get employed in the industry. I’ve never looked back and Calgary has been a working home for me since 1997. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to be mentored by a number of great people in the art department. I’ve always loved the creative process from all sides. The fact that I really am a filmmaker as well makes me a good designer. I’m always applying the movie-making perspective to everything I do and thinking of where the camera might go, or how we can best dramatically tell visual stories when we make our sets or steer visual locations. The fact that I look at the show from a storytelling standpoint, and the visual world we’re trying to build, makes me a really good asset. I have so much fun working with Emily and all the directors as we spit-ball this together. 

TV moves really fast and furious, and it’s always a series of really difficult, fast-moving choices at a breakneck speed. At a certain point, you just trust your instincts once you know the story and visually what’s important. Then you make sure the bones are in place because a lot of the fat always gets cut off. It’s like a boot camp really and just great. 

TTVJ: You’ve been with the show since Season 1, but in Season 4 you became the Production Designer for Wynonna Earp. Can you share a little bit about what your responsibilities are in that role?

TS: To put it simply, they develop and build the world of the show that’s the visual landscape the characters interact with. We are responsible for all the things you see, short of hair, makeup, and wardrobe. The designer overlooks the selection of location, the augmentation of those locations, and all the sets that have to be built from scratch to bolt into those locations. That could be an interior to match an exterior location or a stand-alone set we build in the studio. We’re responsible and oversee all the decision-making regarding construction, paint, set decor, props, and have a heavy hand with the practical special effects that happen in post-production. We’re really hands-on with the director and cinematographer, as well as the creative executive like Emily, for making this world and all these little locations and sets that are specific to each episode.

TTVJ: A huge part of the show in early Season 4 was the Garden. How was that going to look when we finally saw our characters there? How did you, Emily, and Paolo go about deciding that it was going to be a giant frozen lake?

TS: We knew early on that the Garden wasn’t going to be this lush, tropical, and botanical image that we all have in our heads from a Biblical standpoint. The simple logistics of shooting in Alberta in the dead of winter means we just don’t have the resources to create a green, alive, jungle environment. Knowing that was a big parameter meant we talked about all sorts of crazy ideas like loopy alternate realities in strange warehouses. However, I really felt compelled to recognize the fact that it had this Biblical history and connectivity to it, as well as the tentacle, snake component with this door at the top of the stairs that led us to somewhere. 

I decided to get everybody on board with this idea that the Garden was in a form of hibernation. We wanted to embrace this flat, austere, nothingness of Alberta east of the Rockies and go with the idea of nothingness and infinite space. There’s an occasional monolith or obelisk, but it’s a Soviet brutalist architecture that’s timeless and seems built by the Gods. Everything was large scale but had a nothingness to it, almost without color. The combination of cement, snow, and open space, and all those red doors on the Garden side were an echo to the red doors Ingrid [Jurek, Production Designer Season 3] put at the top of the stairs, but in the Garden were more industrial and brutal. 

That was the idea, but there was so much action that meant we needed a lot of space. Paolo, without moving the camera a lot, could then reconfigure the doors, move some elements around, fly in the throne for Waverly, and you’d have a dislocated feeling. It meant you never quite knew where you were because there were no distance markers to help you locate yourself. It was this big, magical, ever-changing, nothingness. I think that really helped to allow our production team hustle because it was brutally cold those few days. 

TTVJ: It looked brutally cold! Thank goodness you also had the interior Garden sets as well. 

TS: The nudity with Nicole and Eve immediately demanded some controlled interior space. I think it was Gavin [Smith, cinematographer] that came up with the idea of missile silos that are giant openings dropped into the earth. We don’t really explain how Doc gets from above ground to below ground, but there was this honeycomb of superstructures below the surface. They were all cement and brutalist and simple without a lot of decoration and detail. 

For some reason, I was really obsessed with water last season so we did this moat that surrounded these pentagonal slabs that turned out to be really handy. Once we got that idea going with the cherry blossom tree and lilies that popped up in the water, it provided a really neat, strange, other-worldly quality that helps allude to darkness and a time when those things were in blossom and healthy. Emily and I came up with the term “God’s Chernobyl”. He turned his back on this industrial mess, which was really humankind to an extent, and that all those tentacles, roots, flowers, and trees are still there under the frozen surface, but had just gone into a long hibernation. I hope it was an unexpected result for the fans to come through those doors and see that. 

TTVJ: Emily has given you a lot of credit when it comes to the Garden for the ideas you brought forth, as you just detailed. What is it about the environment she creates, and how Emily is as a showrunner, that makes you feel so free to bring all these crazy ideas to the table?

TS: I’ve never had a more two-way dialogue and openness to exploration with a showrunner as I have with this show. What makes Wynonna Earp fun, from a design standpoint, is that it’s reality-bent and there’s a fantastic quality implicit in the storytelling. That gives us a ton of liberty to come up with the zaniest ideas. What makes my relationship with Emily so fun, and I think easy, is that all ideas are welcome. It really is collaborative and that includes the directors.

Sometimes we get cornered with the storytelling ideology, but we always find our way out. We don’t lose our handle on what’s dramatically important, and from a visual standpoint, what’s the core message. What are the things that do matter, and how can we squeeze and add muscle to those so that the audience gets it and appreciates it? 

It’s super collaborative, and I love the fact that Emily isn’t overly precious with the ideas and work so we can sculpt these things together. They come from a writers’ room in Toronto and are done months prior to us shooting, so there has to be an openness and malleability to change. What that does is empower us all. I feel supported and like I can bring a pile of crazy ideas into a meeting and have them at least considered and reflected upon. It’s amazing how much of what you see on screen is a hybrid of many brains working together. 

TTVJ: In sticking with the Garden, there was a pretty amazing piece that you created in Episode 402 that revealed to Doc that Nicole was actually Eve. Where did you get the idea for that sculpture?

TS: That one took a lot of time to conceptualize and execute. My art department really shone in that moment. Paolo and I really struggled with how to tell that story. We didn’t want it to be a map or board game that would reveal something, so we asked ourselves how to create a visual puzzle for Doc so he can discover a duplicity or masks that Eve is wearing. We didn’t want to do it in a linear way with masks or figures. I didn’t want the Garden to feel small by doing some sort of Dungeons and Dragons table-top puzzle. That felt too literal for me. I wanted it to be enigmatic and kind of artful and strange. 

I proposed to Paolo that there are a lot of artists working in three-dimensional space now. A lot of the art is experiential and it’s all about where you stand in the room. So if you look at something one way, and how it’s suspended in space, it can almost become invisible. But as you clock around and physically change your perspective, the same physical items can stack back up again and become something new. It’s all about point of view. I wanted to explore that and my art director at the time, Bill Ives, was just simply fearless. We took these obiliesks and monoliths that were above ground, those large cement shapes in space, and made a miniature version. We thought about how we could project Nicole on them, and then, as one moves around in space and changes their perspective, begin to see that all is not as it seems. They’d see that Nicole is in fact a monster with a bit of a skin or mask on top. 

I credit a lot to my art director Bill Ives, Marion [Spencer], and Marie [Massolin] in the art department with altogether fabricating this thing. We worked long and hard, and it took them many examples to get the scale right. They had to play with it in space and we noodled right up until the last minute to get it to work. There were a lot of cardboard and styrofoam examples in the office to get it just right. Once we did, it was really cool that we could do it in-camera and there was no reliance on visual effects or projection. It was a real thing that Tim himself could perceive as he went around the room. It was a lot of fun, but it was not easy!

Photo courtesy of Trevor Smith

TTVJ: I know you work closely with the director for each episode. Can you give us a bit of a walkthrough of what that’s like, and maybe as an example, working with Melanie Scrofano to create the set for The Glory Hole?

TS: The Glory Hole in particular was really fun. We did a lot of huge sets this year: Magpie Ranch, The Garden, the BBD holding facility, and The Glory Hole. This was a demon bar and we wanted it to be countered to Shorty’s. We wanted something really different, and I was luckily enough to work with Melanie to conceive this. She and Ron Murphy, the other director on that block, got to reveal The Glory Hole in its first few expressions. 

Mel had a whole bunch of ideas early on, and I had this idea that it was a secret, weird gentleman’s club in a warehouse. These guys are all criminals and it was this underground, large space that they repurposed to do a bunch of debauchery. It could be many things, and not just a club. It would be a changing space that could have like auto-theft going on in the background, and there’s a chop-shop in the corner. The whole place was industrial and had an androgynous quality to it so that it was almost sexy in a different way, paired with the wardrobe and neon as a throwback to the 80s. It was temporary lighting too so it was sexy, but dangerous and dark. So that was the idea behind the place. 

Melanie also had a ton of ideas and images about how Mercedes would reveal herself with this sort of sexy, slightly S&M dominatrix quality as well. We mixed all these ideas together and the best ideas won. I think it was Mel’s idea to literally have this vaginal stage and go full woman. We didn’t want to hold back and just go for it — legs spread, own the vagina idea. Of course, I was terrified just from a sexual politics standpoint, nevermind a rules and regulation standpoint. We didn’t know what was possible with the network. So there were all these hilarious conversations about “how much vagina?” I think I have a sticky note on my computer where I got a note back from some executive saying, “25% less vagina.” 

We had done this push and pull with the concept, and I credit so many people with putting it all together. Our assistant art director Marion [Spencer] was really tasked with the layout. She started modeling the layout of this crotch stage that had a vagina curtain. At first it was going to be a projection that Mercedes might come out of, but it became much more practical than that with a design right on the curtain. Like any idea, you work your way out from it. So we started designing this notion of underwear with fishnet stockings on the side. It’s one of those things that took a lot of people sometimes 30-60 seconds to compute what it was they were looking at, and I think that was good. I love that in one way it’s dangerously explicit, but in another way it’s actually rather subdued. You can appreciate it from an architectural and color standpoint. For those that are looking, or pausing their PVRs, you can start to put together the scope and scale of what’s going on.

It was super fun, dangerous, and made me sweat from a sexual politics standpoint. “Oh my god, are we really doing this?” Knowing that I had Emily and Mel’s buy-in made me feel really empowered to keep going, and there were a lot of laughs and intelligent conversation around it. We weren’t doing it recklessly. We really were doing it carefully and thinking it through. We knew that in the overall scheme of The Glory Hole it played into this playful, dirty, sexy, dark, demon concept where all things are acceptable and there’s an absence of taboo. It was wild and really fun. I think it took the show in a really different direction. 

TTVJ: Do you have a favorite set-piece from your time on the show that you created?

TS: There’s so many! For me, the Clanton’s Magpie Ranch was really satisfying. It was almost built from scratch. I hope it feels realistic, junky, melted into the earth, and real. It was a hard one, though because all the scripts aren’t written when we begin. You just know there’s these villains that will carry through, but you don’t really know how all the pieces will resolve themselves. So the Clanton’s ranch was tricky for me. 

I wanted it to be sloppy and Purgatorian, and so I came up with this idea that it was a salvage yard. They were kind of hillbillies, down on their luck, and had this hoarding quality. But I wanted to have as much inside/outside relationship as possible so those interiors were actually on location. You could look out the windows and have all these viewports out into the yard. I didn’t know, but I was expecting some of the OK Corral to come just because it was the Earps and the Clantons. That was the expectation, that we’d have some sort of a showdown and there’d be a nod to the western genre. I really wanted to create this ranch with all these interesting shapes and forms, and ups and downs, where you could have a shoot-out and have all these places for the camera. It was very sculptural for me.

We took this crappy old barn at one of the locations that was really down on its luck, but then brought everything else in. We recycled a bunch of old sheds and buildings, and we bought a few used mobile homes. We brought them over, placed them on stilts, and put them into the places where you see them in the show. We put in power poles and ran all the electrical. It has a real built from ground-zero quality to it and that’s probably why I’m attracted to it. It really was mine, if you will, as opposed to the Homestead. I love that, but it’s Ingrid’s design and she built the bones of it. That’s called an Ingrid statement, and for me, in Season 4 Magpie Ranch felt like my counter statement. These are the hillbilly version of the Earps who have their own curse and shame about what happened all those years ago. 

It was so fun and just really big set design. We moved trailers with cranes and put that whole landscape together. It was very rewarding for me. Of course we do it in the dead of winter and I know it’s really hard on the crew, but they are so resilient and hard-working. I can’t say enough about how tough they are, and how open they are to making this fun, creative stuff together.

Photo courtesy of Trevor Smith

TTVJ: That’s amazing to hear because when you’re watching it I totally thought you were just shooting at a junkyard. I can’t believe it’s built from scratch. You made it so homey that even the deer came. [laughs]

TS: That’s right! They were almost a daily occurrence, but that was the idea. We found this funky landscape that had some roads and points of entry, but everything else came out from there. It radiated out and made this world. We brought in all the junk too. Amber [Humphries], our set decorator, brought in loads and loads of trashed cars. They dressed with dereliction. It was junk everywhere and a really trashy aesthetic that was so fun. From there, we just let nature take over with the snow and everything. 

TTVJ: We all know that Earpers are very special. They are known for dissecting trailers and scenes frame by frame to notice every little detail. Is that something you and your department keep in mind, and how does that affect the way you design locations or sets?

TS: We do and are cognizant of what’s on screen, the props, and the detail matter. We know fans are looking for Easter eggs, additional clues, or layers of attention that they can apply their own meaning to. I can’t take credit for every little thing, and neither can Amber, but sometimes they create additional meaning nobody thought of. Sometimes the fans will focus in on an area of the set, or the significance visually of a prop or color scheme, and begin to apply some of their own ideas. I think it’s great dialogue between us and the fans. Sometimes we are hyper-aware of the things we’re doing, and we’re trying to sneak in thematic clues or ideas that the audience would appreciate if they are looking. Other times, the audience is with us in terms of informing the frame and looking for things that didn’t necessarily exist. I think their desire to have them there is really interesting, and I think it’s a sign of good creative that you’ve allowed the possibility of those happening. 

We’re always cognizant of the fact that detail matters. Every little note, item on a murder board or wall, all the detail that Jennifer [Haffenden, costume designer] puts into the wardrobe, the little brands like the chili cook-off, and all the designs are so lovingly thought through from the writers all the way down to us. We have so much fun with it and there were a lot of laughs this year. There’s a lot of irreverent, laugh out loud, who cares stuff.

TTVJ: I mean you’ve got to work pretty hard to beat that chili cook-off logo…

TS: Again, all the credit to Melanie on that. She was leading the charge in terms of this sexual irreverence and doing whatever the hell she thought was funny. She scribbled for me this, I’ll just say, cock and balls concept with the beans and chilies. I thought, ‘Oh my god, can we do this? I’m going to get fired this week for sure.’ With her and Emily’s encouragement we just kept going and went for it. I think everyone was really respectful of how audacious and goofy it all was. We did a good job as a team of having a good laugh about it without anyone feeling awkward or transgressive. It was like that all season. We just kept pushing the envelope, going a little bit further, and seeing what we could do that was absolutely zany — and maybe a little bit tasteless at times — but we had so much fun doing it. Much like Wynonna, the whole cast and crew had this don’t-give-a-shit quality that we all learned to embrace. I thought that if I had the showrunner and Wynonna Earp’s blessing I couldn’t feel more supported. Let’s just do this! It was hilarious.

TTVJ: Is there anything else you wanted to mention that I missed?

TS: There was a lot of expectation on this season, given how hard this show is, in terms of mounting itself and getting finances in place to do it, and there’s always a sense of trepidation, mixed with courage and confidence. Season 4, more than ever, had this pressure that we put on ourselves to take the show in new places, make it more fantastic, make the scope bigger, and give it more flavors, but also to complicate it and resolve some of the long-standing character arcs. We really wanted to strengthen and heighten everything. 

That was a big part of my goal this year from a design standpoint. I wanted to take the creative on the page and blow the lid off. I wanted to take Wynonna Earp as we’ve known and understood it, with its western frontier baseline, and take it to new places. Let’s be a bit bored with it. Let’s be a bit anxious and restless and do new and fun things. I think that went right from the writing and storytelling down through everybody — design, cast, the direction. 

Season 4 is a wild ride and I think the fans are really going to love it because we feel this responsibility. On one hand, we feel reverent about the content and respectful knowing the Earpers are there with us, but on the other hand, as creatives ourselves, we also feel a bit restless. We want to blow it up and not rest on our laurels and get lazy. That’s what makes Season 4 so tense, exciting, and dynamic because it’s got those two things happening at the same time. 


TTVJ: Other than working on Wynonna Earp, do you have any other projects coming up?

TS: I worked and designed on the Kevin Costner and Diane Lane movie Let Him Go that came out in November. I was really excited to share that with everybody and it’s been a great point of pride. I also did a movie with Robin Wright last year called Land that’s out now. Last year was a really busy year for me and really prolific. Those two films, in addition to Wynonna Earp Season 4, were all part of a really great year for me creatively. I’m super excited to share them and for everyone to see.

Wynonna Earp Season 4B premieres Friday, March 5 at 10 p.m. ET on SYFY and CTV Sci-Fi