Dexter Returns Sunday: Designer Jessica Kender on Season Seven, Florida Weirdness, and Creating Miami on the West Coast
Shows about Miami are notorious for misrepresenting the city's look and layout. But if ever there were a show that got Miami right, Dexter would be it. The equatorial light streams in hard through partially opened shutters. Touches of saturated color--blood reds, hot pinks--make white, otherwise boring rooms pop. Neon abounds, on the entrance to bars, strip clubs, even luxury hotels. And, of course, there's all the crazy crime that could only happen in South Florida.
Since season five of Dexter, Jessica Kender, the show's production designer, has helped turn the sound stages and sets of Los Angeles, Calif. into the streets and strip clubs of Miami. In preparation for Dexter's season seven premiere, New Times chatted with Kinder to see how she and the design staff make Southern California look like sexy, steamy South Beach.
New Times: How do you make Long Beach and southern California look like Miami?
Kender: The goal for every episode is to get water in the shot, because that's going to help us sell Miami. Water in the shot and no mountains. Because that's one thing that Long Beach has that Miami doesn't. We definitely feel like a beach community, but we just don't have those same bright colors. You guys, because you get rain, are always super green. Out here there's a lot of burnt grass, so we have a greens department to come in and make us look like you. Also, we rarely want to see a beige building. We want to give you guys your sun-burnt pastel look or the really super-saturated colors. So painters will come in and paint the building. And we want to give it a Deco feeling.
Palm trees in LA look distinctly different from Miami. How do you deal with that?
We're lucky if we have a bunch of our palm trees here, I just think it's a palm tree. They're a great graphic element. Then we'll bring in our own ones that our greens department keeps and add them to the set, so you have the tall ones and you have the short ones. You also have to look at it from a what's-cool-to-see point of view, and if I have straight line of palm trees on both sides, that's going to look great in the shot no matter what. We just did something where we looked down the street and we had all these super tall ones, and then our greens department brought in ones that were about half the size for the side of the street as well that was closer to where the main amount of filming was going to be.
What are some other set details you're watchful for?
There are some things that we can't do anything about, like you guys don't really have a lot of curbs. We have curbs, but that's just going to be the way it's going to be.
You mean, street curbs?
Yeah, like when you go out into the more suburban areas, not like downtown, but where more of the homes are, there aren't a lot of curbs. The grass just kind of goes into the street. So that I'll never be able to address, 'cause we just don't have the money to undo our curbs and put them back.
But we do try to do things like, if we do a bus stop, we're going to change the colors over to the colors of your buses. If we see major street signs we're going to try to match them to the way your streets are. Those are probably the small ones that stand out to me.
Do you incorporate your own life and memories of Miami into your set design?
The church that my best friend got married in. I actually based the church in last season off of it. I have a whole bookcase of Miami books that I look at for research. But that church is what I presented to the producers of what I thought the outside of the church should look like.
Can you talk about the upcoming season's set design?
This season, one of our big permanent sets is a strip club, and from the outside it's just a building that's here in Hollywood. And it's a nothing building, and if you saw it before we showed up to it, it's just a gray box. So we took the gray box, and we painted these two pink stripes on it to sort of liven it up, and then we have a whole bunch of neon that you would see outside of a strip club that's brightly colored, and then we threw some big palms and pots outside of it. When you walk into the strip club, it was sort of a "How do you make a strip club Miami?"
So you need a bar, but behind the bar we threw a huge fish tank. If you watch, here's a little insider thing: there are never any fish in there because to put fish in there you have to get the ASPCA involved, I think, and fish wranglers, and it's such a big expense. But I thought it was critical to have this fish tank behind the bar so we just sort of treat it like an art piece. We have bubblers going in it. So you walk past this large fish tank on this Deco set, and we treated it on the inside like it was this old Deco building that was redone. So if you look around, you see we have these saturated purples with a Deco wallpaper. Then we threw these pinks and blues in there. We put a lot of hot pink and green neon all over. To mix the old Deco and the new brightness going on. So it's not just any strip club; it's a Miami strip club.
They hired some professional strippers to come in and probably one of the best compliments was, "I worked in a strip club in Miami. This looks just like it!"
How do you make your standard apartment set a Miami apartment?
You're rarely going to see an off-white room. We're probably going to throw a little color in there because not only is it us pushing Miami, but it's also just the look of Dexter. Dexter has color wherever you look. We try to have more wood floors and tiles, than wall-to-wall carpeting.
Is that because it's easier to clean up blood?
Ha! I would say, per episode, we usually only have one or two scenes that are bloody. I'd say it's because of you guys down there. Our executive producer likes to say it's so hot and steamy down there that you don't like a lot of carpeting, period.
How is LA's light different from that in Miami?
From a lighting perspective, we do try to do a lot when we're on interiors. We try to do a lot with harsh light coming in the windows because the sun plays such a strong part when you're in Miami. So we'll try to put shutters up so you can have that really directional light in all the sets.
Florida has this reputation for being kind of a weird place. Have you been able to figure out why?
Ha! I'm not sure I've ever thought of Florida as a weird place.
Does the sun drive people mad?
I think of the Everglades and these steamy, warm, sexy places, but I don't think I've ever thought of it as weird. [Laughs]
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Miami and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.