For fans of true crime, the story of Samuel Little is as infamous as it is disturbing. Little is thought to be one of the most prolific killers in United States history, with 93 victims confirmed by the FBI between 1970 and 2005. In the new docuseries Confronting a Serial Killer on Starz, those victims are given the spotlight as writer Jillian Lauren uses her connection to Little to get him to admit to more murders on the record and give families of those he killed closure.
Part of the series involves recreations of the eras Little’s various crimes took place in, and production designer Lee Clayton’s work is essential to creating the atmosphere of Confronting a Serial Killer. Clayton is no stranger to the true crime genre, with credits like A Crime to Remember and Diabolical. Nerds and Beyond talked with Clayton about his inspirations when designing the look of the series, the process of working on Confronting a Serial Killer, and how he got his start in the industry.
Nerds and Beyond: How did you first become involved with Confronting a Serial Killer, and what was it that drew you to the series?
Lee Clayton: I got involved with CASK through Matt Lipke, who was a producer on Diabolical, another true crime show that I worked on in 2020. This is very typical way to get onto a job, having worked with someone on another gig.
Nerds and Beyond: The show covers many different time periods, which must create challenges for a production designer. What is the research process like for designing these scenes? Is there a particular era that you enjoy researching the most?
Lee Clayton: I really have fun working on period pieces. There’s always lots of cool props and dressing to source and work with. One of the challenges of working in various periods is that for the most part, there can be no last-minute changes. You can’t run to the store and pick up an 80s lamp or wall phone, so you really need to dot your Is and cross your Ts before you get to set. It’s always a good idea to have a few extra prop or dressing options as back up.
To get a sense of an era I usually start by searching for images online, like on Pinterest. If there are 70s cop cars in the script, I’ll try to track down some images of 70s cop cars. Another thing I’ll often do for research on different periods is got a vintage store and shop around. Secondhand shopping is not the most efficient way to buy props and dressing, but it can be a great place for inspiration.
Usually, my favorite part of working on period pieces is the cool technology you get to play with. Like old reel to reel machines or old record players. Technology is a really great way to quickly let the viewers know what year they are watching. Nothing like an iconic green 80s wall phone with the long dangle cord to let you know that this is an 80s show.
Nerds and Beyond: Several of your credits involve crime stories, from this series to A Crime to Remember. Is there something in particular that draws you to this genre?
Lee Clayton: I think what attracts me to recreation work is the kind of sculptural quality for building each scene. Everyone on set is working together, adding their ideas and creativity with often modest budgets and quick turnaround times to make amazing footage. I’m not always a fan of the true crime genre per se, or what I like to call “murder porn,” but I do enjoy the work and find it creatively fulfilling.
Nerds and Beyond: Recreation scenes are widespread across true crime series to bring the viewer into the crime and get them invested emotionally. Having worked on many of these shows, what are some of the key elements to making those scenes work?
Lee Clayton: I find true crime recreations often rely heavily on gags like haze, lens distortions, and silhouettes. The reason for that is there is limited time and budget to do full set builds, so gags are necessary to create evocative moody creepy scenes. For me as the designer, I think it’s important to keep in mind the overall big picture and focus on getting as much production value as possible from all your design decisions. Go big and go bold.
Nerds and Beyond: With shows covering the crimes of serial killers, there is often a fine line between covering the details of a crime effectively and glorifying the killer. Confronting a Serial Killer takes the approach of centering the victims’ perspectives instead. How did this carry over to your design process?
Lee Clayton: For CASK, we did not work off a script. Instead, we were working off a shot list that the show runner and producer created. These shots were imagined to be evocative, moody, and abstract but not specific to any one place or time. So in terms of design, I could be less literal and rely more on my own interpretation. The producer might ask for something like a Southern honky tonk bar in the 80s and early 90s, but beyond that, much of the design was left to my own interpretation. On other crime shows I’ve worked on where the recreation is specific to a crime, the dressing and props need to be much more specific by referencing police reports, crime scene photographs, autopsy reports, and news clippings.
Nerds and Beyond: Much of this series was shot as COVID-19 protocols were changing how sets operated. Did this create any unique challenges for you as the production designer?
Lee Clayton: We shot for three hot nights in August 2020 during the COVID pandemic. For COVID safety reasons, the producers decided not to have any dialogue onset to limit the talent’s exposure to the virus. With only a few talent on screen at a time and very limited interaction, the focus was much more on the production design and my work. I enjoyed the challenge and feel that my team really rose to the occasion.
Nerds and Beyond: How did you first get started as a production designer? What sparked your interest in production design as a career?
Lee Clayton: The first production I worked on was a feature film called And Then Came Love, starring Vanessa Williams and Eartha Kit. We were shooting a banquet scene and my job was to wash all the dishes after at the end of the day. Here I was just finishing at Parsons School of Design and I was back working banquets. Oh no!
It was not until years later that I worked with a production designer named Julie Jo Fehrle, who inspired me and showed me that there is a lot of creativity involved in production. There is a lot of satisfaction in seeing your ideas come to life onscreen, and I’ve found the collaborative nature of video production to be a constant source of inspiration. It’s also something you can make a pretty good living at.
Nerds and Beyond: Many of our readers are fans who may not be aware of all that a production designer does on set. Would you be able to give a brief overview of the many ways a production designer contributes to the look of a TV show or film?
Lee Clayton: The production designer oversees the overall look of a production, including sets, props, dressing, and all scenic backgrounds. Depending on the kind of show you’re working on, that can include anything from drawing, story boarding, sourcing, researching, meeting, corresponding, and presenting. It also requires a fair amount of selling your ideas.
Nerds and Beyond: For anyone who may be interested in a career in production design, what advice would you give to them?
Lee Clayton: To become a production designer, you need to have design education either specifically in video/film production or another design field. There are many other roles within the art department that don’t require a design education and can be learned onset, like decorating and fabrication. If you don’t want to buy an expensive education, those would be excellent directions to look into. To enter the union for production design, you will need to be able to draw plans, elevations, and model in 3D, so be sure that you work on those skills regardless of your design background because without them, your options will be limited.
Beyond an expensive education, in New York City the most daunting part of pursuing a career in production design is that it just takes time. It’s difficult to make contacts and it takes time to build a strong enough reputation as a production designer to get hired. So be prepared to be able to support yourself in other ways before you will be able to as a production designer. Luckily all those other art department roles are great ways to learn skills and meet line producers.
That being said, I love working as a production designer. At the end of the day, it’s incredibly satisfying to see my designs and ideas on monitor, and that all my hard work prepping has paid off. When you hear the words, “That’s a wrap,” at the end of the day and everyone claps, there is a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. Not a bad way to finish the day!
Our thanks to Lee Clayton for speaking with us! You can find more of his work on his website. Confronting a Serial Killer premiered its first episode on April 18 on Starz, with the five part series airing in weekly installments. Check out the trailer below!