New York State of Mind: Creating Boogie’s World

A Q&A with production designer Chris Trujillo

In Eddie Huang’s debut feature film Boogie, Alfred “Boogie” Chin (Taylor Takahashi), a high school kid growing up in the borough of Queens, dreams of becoming an NBA star. While his Taiwanese American parents (Perry Yung and Pamelyn Chee) are divided about their son’s future, Boogie just wants to find his own path in life. Traveling about New York City, Boogie samples dumplings with his girlfriend Eleanor (Taylour Paige) in Chinatown, walks through Noho with his best friend, Richie (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and plays street basketball in public courts from Brooklyn to the East River. To help bring this world to life, the filmmakers hired Chris Trujillo, a production designer whose imagination and talent have shaped different projects, from the cyber world of the thriller Nerve to  the 80s sci-fi universe of Netflix’s Stranger Things. Working intimately with Huang, Trujillo brought a cultural authenticity and urban reality to this classic coming-of-age story.

We spoke with Trujillo about his approach to production design, his close collaboration with Huang, and Boogie’s fresh take on the geography of New York movies.

Boogie is now playing in theaters and available on demand March 26.

The official trailer for Boogie

How did you get involved with Boogie?

I was in New York looking for something interesting to do. My agent sent me a number of projects, and Boogie stuck out at something worth considering. After reading the script, I was immediately interested. After I met Eddie, I felt like he was a lot of fun and was definitely going to make a good movie.

What did you see as your main creative challenge?

I knew from the start that what attracted me to the film was also going to be what was the most challenging. The movie presents New York in a way that we have never seen before. Eddie's whole angle was that he wanted to put a spotlight on this Taiwanese American culture in New York City. We were making a movie in the tradition of all the best New York movies but with a fresh spin.

You’ve done a lot of different types of films and TV series. What is your approach to production design?

I always start with story and characters, and I let that inform the design. I never set out to makes something that is flashy or simply design-for-design sake. Instead, I use the script to figure out who these people are, and then what is culturally and social-economically appropriate for the design. I want to present the film’s world in a real way. Then, it's about making good design decisions that suit what we have decided on in terms of tone, texture, and color.

How did you collaborate with Eddie Huang in creating the design?

Eddie was not like some directors I’ve worked with who just hand over the design aesthetic to me. He is intimately aware of the world he created in the script, because he is also a product of that world. In that way, he was very collaborative and a great resource in making sure what we created was as accurate as it could be. He also has a very unique sense of style and place, which helped set the tone for the design. He knew what Boogie’s world needed to feel like, and then he let me make that happen.

In Boogie, New York is such a bustling intersection of different cultures. How did that influence your production design?

For me, the design is a reflection of the characters. I think Eddie wrote a script in which things are just very naturally multicultural. All the characters come from their specific backgrounds, but they are also in New York City, which is a melting pot. Whenever we see the characters’ different homes, the design and objects tell us a little about who they are and where they come from. We also made sure we got as many interesting locations as we could. You get a little sampling of everything in the City.

The film features a range of parks and outdoor basketball courts from around NYC. How did you pick these locations?

There was a lot of back-and-forth on which courts to use because there are so many iconic outside basketball courts in the City. We tried to pick places that we felt were both interesting and right for the story. We also wanted the outside courts to contrast with the high school basketball games. We wanted to show how different basketball on the street looks. We toured all the boroughs looking at every conceivable outside basketball court with our eye to how it would play in the film. One of our best locations we got rather serendipitously. We lost a court that we were planning on using and we ended up taking a look at this court on the East River under the Williamsburg Bridge. It ended up being perfect for the film.

For the NYC street scenes, did you shoot them as they were or did you style them?

I’ve lived in New York City for a really long time, as has Eddie. We both had a clear sense of what locations would tell the story. What, for example, would be the most interesting and bustling street corner in the Lower East Side for Boogie to walk down. We were all on the same page what little pops of the city we wanted to feature. For the most part, we tried to keep the outdoor scenes feeling very verité, to let street life live as much as possible in the background. Obviously we needed to adjust street advertising and graffiti. And we inserted certain vendors and vegetable mongers to make a shot work. But mostly we tried to be true to the street life that existed in the locations that we had chosen.

In picking locations, what sort of things did you want to include or avoid?

I think we did a good job of avoiding all the major New York tourist spots. More interesting were the places we included, like Columbus Park down in Chinatown where Boogie and Eleanor hang out. We also had locations in Flushing, Queens, like the fortune teller’s shop. Those places aren't on the usual map of New York movie spots.

Looking back, what elements of the production design do you feel worked?

I'm really happy with the consistency of tone across all these different locations. We had a lot fun creating the Chins’s home. And the fortune teller's office was layered in some very culturally specific ways.

What do you hope audiences take away from Boogie?

How great it is to see an Asian man being at the center of this very American story. I also think that Eddie brought a gritty realness to the basketball scenes that gave them real emotional weight.