Creating an authentic feel in a set for a historic television series is always important. But for the new AMC series The Terror: Infamy, coming up with a physical space that conveys the reality of this historical time and place was absolutely crucial. The series premieres on August 12 at 9/8c on AMC and takes place in a World War Two internment camp where Japanese American families were forcibly confined from 1942 to 1945. This was an action called for by President Franklin Roosevelt because of fear of spying and sabotage after war was declared between the U.S. and Japan–and one that this country has since formally apologized for.
The story in The Terror: Infamy takes place on the west coast of America. It follows the members of a Japanese-American community as they are haunted by an “uncanny specter,” starting in their home in Southern California and continuing on through to their experiences in WWII, when they are forced into internment camps.
Jonathan McKinstry, the Emmy-nominated production designer for the first season of The Terror as well as Penny Dreadful, The Borgias, and other series, tells how he brought this tragic chapter of America’s past to life.
The Vintage News: There were 10 camps in the U.S. that more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated to during World War Two. Is there one in particular that you modeled the camp in The Terror on?
Jonathan McKinstry: The camp was mainly modeled on Manzanar in California as it’s the most well known. The huts were covered in tar paper and battened. Our set was obviously nowhere near as big as a full camp and so the more anonymous the huts were, the more chances we had to utilize different parts of the camp for some of our characters’ journeys. It also made it easier to extend the camp based on only two or three different hut types. Our camp, however, was not in the desert but rather set in a northern U.S. state.
The Vintage News: Are any of these camps still standing, and if so, did you visit them?
Jonathan McKinstry: I don’t believe any of them are standing except for a few new versions of the huts that some historical group has rebuilt at Manzanar.
The Vintage News: Did you get access to contemporary photographs, films, or blueprint drawings when working on the set design?
Jonathan McKinstry: We found the materials ourselves and also through a researcher working on the show. Much of the information was sourced through various websites and communities. There were descriptions of the camps, too, which helped in creating our sets.
The Vintage News: Was it important to use materials that were authentic to the 1940s in the design?
Jonathan McKinstry: Very important. Plywood had been around for a while but was still considered an expensive material so it was used scarcely. Pine planking was the main material on a wooden frame. This was covered in tar paper & held down by wooden battens to prevent wind damage.
The set, as well as the camps, were only just being completed when the first inmates arrived and so were building sites with fresh materials. I wanted the set to have this feel and then to evolve over the years and age and develop from a series of very large sheds to something that became much more personalized by the Japanese.
The Vintage News: George Takei, a series regular and also a consultant on the series, lived in a camp in Arkansas for three years. Did he help with creating an authentic feel to the camp?
Jonathan McKinstry: He sent us some great family photos that we used on some sets. When he arrived for filming, he also made some comments about how the mess hall should be more messy than we had it!
The Vintage News: The families were only allowed to bring their own bedding, clothes, and other possessions they could carry on them to these camps. Was that an important aspect to be used on the set?
Jonathan McKinstry: Each person was allowed to carry two suitcases. This was another way of showing time passing and progression as the huts were very sparse to begin with and over the years became more personalized with things that they had made, bought, or had been sent by friends. It is also quite poignant to see people loaded onto buses with the barest minimum of possessions and leaving behind everything they had achieved to that point.
The Vintage News: How do you want audiences to feel about the camps that these families were forced to live in by the creation of your set design?
Jonathan McKinstry: Hopefully that the sets tell the right story of what the Japanese suffered and that over time, in the most basic of environments, the Japanese resilience made the best of their situation to the point that it became their home.
Watch the trailer for AMC’s new season of The Terror below:
Check out another fascinating article on the ghostly aspect of the chilling new season of The Terror:
To find out more info on the upcoming season of The Terror, premiering Aug. 12 at 9/8c on AMC, please visit the official website.
Nancy Bilyeau, a former staff editor at Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, and InStyle, has written a trilogy of historical thrillers for Touchstone Books. Her new book, The Blue, is a spy story set in the 18th-century porcelain world. For more information, go to www.nancybilyeau.com