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Interview With 'Silicon Valley' Production Designer Richard Toyon

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The headquarters of tech giants, venture capitalists and startups alike make up a major part of Silicon Valley culture. When you think of the places where some of the greatest tech innovations are being born today, you also can't help but think of college campus-like office complexes, nap pods and a bunch of coders crammed together at the kitchen table as they build the next big app.

It's no surprise then that much of this seemingly easy-to-parody environment has made it into the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, which wrapped up its second season in June and is currently available on digital HD. However, the various locations and sets of Silicon Valley are used more to evoke a sense of authenticity rather than to make a few jokes.

One of the people tasked with bringing real Silicon Valley life to the show is the series' production designer Richard Toyon, who was recently nominated for an Emmy for his work on the show, along with art director L.J. Houdyshell and set decorator Jenny Mueller. To help him adapt the actual Silicon Valley to the small screen, Toyon visited the offices of venture capitalists before production on Season 2 began. This kind of research has helped make the production design on the show incredibly detailed and true to the place it portrays, right down to what's written on a Post-it note or an algorithm scrawled across a whiteboard.

T-Lounge spoke with Toyon, with some SPOILERS ahead, about the work that goes into making the sets believable, building a potato cannon and what may be in store for the Pied Piper team in Season 3.

Congratulations on your Emmy nomination.

Thank you very much.

How does it feel to be nominated for the second year in a row for your work on Silicon Valley?

You know, it’s really gratifying. I often call the show the biggest little show I’ve ever worked on because it’s really incredibly complex, and there’s a lot that goes into it. It all boils down to what you see on the screen. There’s a lot of long days on that show, so to actually get nominated again was super gratifying, and it was really satisfying.

It seemed like Season 2 of Silicon Valley took the characters out of Erlich's house more and followed them to a lot of different locations. Was that exciting for you to work with or was that more challenging?

You know, it’s all kinds of challenging, and I love a good challenge, so it was great. Bring it on. It was really fun to go, for instance, in the episode where they’re actually looking for venture capitalist funding when they go out, they go to a bunch of different venture capitalist firms. The process of setting up for a season. I take a trip, a couple of trips sometimes, up to Silicon Valley to do essentially the same thing that they’re doing. What I do is I bring back that sort of culture, and it finds its way into our three dimensions, into our sets and locations and what you see on screen. So everything that you see on screen at one point or another has come across my desk. That’s everything from the props, what you see on computer screens to what’s on a Post-it to the formula that’s on their whiteboards. It all comes across my desk at some point.

You know, my job in large part is to essentially tell the truth and to create the environment so that the comedy can take place. We do very few sight gags, although we do some on occasion. We don’t do a ton of them, because the comedy comes from between the actors, and it comes from the dialogue. It’s my job to actually go to the places that we portray on camera. It’s a lot of fun to bring that and discover and actually speak with the real VCs and the real scientists.

Did you draw on any real-life inspiration for new character Russ Hanneman and his possessions, such as his bright orange car?

For sure, yeah. The Hanneman character, Mike Judge has very specific ideas about that, so we follow what he lays out in terms of what he thinks the character is, because it’s all very character-based. Then, once we know who that character is and what he is, we’ll then begin to establish the boundaries for his environment, so we really tried hard to reflect that character without hitting you over the head. There’s an old saying about production designers that they hold up the frame that you see when you’re watching it, and the second your fingertips creep into the frame, you’ve done too much. That idea is that you do just enough to portray that character for whatever drama, comedy is expressed in their environment.

Everything’s over-the-top for Russ Hanneman. Everything, like the little bit of roll your eyes type. Everything, even his car. We had to vet a number of different vehicles so that we had exactly the right vehicle for him. Once we found it and once it expressed the joke they were trying to tell, then of course on top of that goes just exactly what he’s driving, what the color is. When he was leaning against it that very first time we meet him, we had to create the little scratches on a $500,000 car. That’s a little scary, it’s a little fun, it’s a little challenging.

The Season 2 premiere ended with a memorial service for Peter Gregory, which was a memorial service of sorts for the actor who portrayed him, Christopher Evan Welch, who passed away in December 2013 before filming on Season 1 of Silicon Valley ended. How did you go about designing something like that, something that must have been emotional and has such a connection to real life?

Yeah, it was really sad. When he died, it was really a blow to the whole team. I remember I was meeting Mike Judge at the location, and he drove up, and he was really kind of agitated, and I asked him what’s going on. He told me that the actor had died, and it was really, boy, it was really a shock. I think, you know, for everybody, it left a real pall over the crew. On the other hand, he inhabited his character so completely that you knew he wanted us to carry on. You sort of found a reason to carry on. I think all the actors, all the crew, certainly, felt the same thing.

When it came to actually portraying when he died in the show, even though it was for the show, it was also, I think, an emotional moment for those of us who had worked with him. We were in contact with his family, and they provided us with the photograph that we made into a large banner. We wanted to make sure that it was done as tastefully as possible. His family even asked Mike Judge to complete the character and make it funny and have a good laugh with it. We all tried to do the same thing. It was very, very sad. So we tried to send him off with what we thought was the best example, and that was Steve Jobs’ memorial service. So we kind of used that for the basic architecture for our service. We thought that was a fitting memorial.

That episode kind of starts the chaos for the whole Pied Piper team during Season 2. How did that come into play when you were planning the production design for this season?

It turned a corner for us. After we sent Peter Gregory off, it set a new tone, and it was like behind us and then we move on. Even his office where he worked, that’s a stage set, and we had to convert it. We had to make it ready for a new character. There was a lot of discussion as to who would take over and who was that new character. We had to be careful not to sort of just do a female version of him but to actually find somebody who was different enough and that Monica, who is a very important character in the whole show, could play off of.

There was some trepidation going forth after that point, but for the most part, it was kind of the passing of the torch and time to move on to new ventures. It allowed, I think, the show to open up. It allowed the show to go further afield and to go out into the field and for them to really stretch their wings and go after funding and hopefully finding a new space and building their own server farm. They were a lot less, I think, inhibited in terms of their moves. I think they found new footing, actually.

What were your first thoughts when you heard you had to build a potato cannon?

That was actually kind of a lot of fun when we did Hooli XYZ. You know, these shows, they take place in five days. In other words, we get the script. We have five days to pull it all together, and then we start shooting for five days. So you have very little time to pull all of that together. When you look at [Hooli XYZ], the idea was that it was a lot like Google X in terms of it was the think tank. It was developing new technologies, new products in many fields, medical fields and otherwise. We had to come up with a number of different things very quickly.

In the case of the potato cannon, that was a very sort of large warehouse space that we had to essentially fill up with something cogent. I think you saw in there there was a big balloon. The idea was that it was kind of capitalizing on the idea of having Wi-Fi over cities in balloons. Then there were other robotics we were able to get from various companies who were willing to ship us their stuff. Then in the far reaches of that warehouse was a Prius that had sort of an autonomous vehicle lidar system on top of it, and so that was going to become the target of the potato cannon. Then they decided they wanted to do a potato cannon because that’s what Big Head would do. He never quite gets out of his teenage years. We just had to build the biggest, baddest-ass potato cannon ever.

The Pied Piper team considered moving out of Erlich's home this season, but they eventually decided to stay. Are you hoping that the company does move its headquarters in the future?

Yeah, the hacker hostel is such a fun set. I would hate to leave that behind. On the other hand, I think the story has to move forward, and my guess is that they will probably move out, but I think Erlich will still remain in the mix. After all, he does own 10 percent of the company. But the hacker hostel, I think, somehow will make its way back in there. They have to. It’s so much Silicon Valley the show that it would really be hard to leave it, but maybe they will. I know the writers are hard at work right now as we speak. They’re working away in their office. I’ve been getting kind of snippets of information here and there. I’ve heard that it can go any number of ways, but we’ll see. We’ll see. I’m very excited. I can’t wait to start getting the first scripts.

What would you hope to see in an office for them?

I think that they were looking to be in San Francisco somewhere. My guess is they may have to settle for something less, and it may be some place in some bad strip mall in downtown San Jose, but hard to say. Whatever it is, it’s going to be fun, and it’ll be fun to do.

Yeah, that’s so the show, having these grand dreams that don’t quite work out.

I know. That’s what makes it so fun. It makes them really relatable, and it’s fun now because I think everybody knows all those guys or at one time or another have known somebody like those guys, so it’s really relatable. I think that’s what makes it so fun is you can imagine yourself or you can at least imagine those guys that you knew or know in that environment or in that situation or in that predicament. Gosh, I mean, I’ve known a few Russ Hannemans in my life, and I’ve known a few Richards in my life. All in all, they’re great, great, great characters.

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