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Jeffrey Mossa (CFA’93) Earns Emmy Nod for American Horror Story: Cult

One of seven alums nominated for TV’s highest honor

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When Hollywood turns out for the 2018 Emmy Awards—the television industry’s highest honor—BU will be well represented among the nominees. This year seven BU alums have been nominated, recognized for their work on some of TV’s best-known programs, from CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown to NBC’s The Voice. All of them, with one exception, are producers on reality and news shows (see list at bottom).

That exception is Jeffrey Mossa (CFA’93), who is up for a Creative Arts Emmy, which recognizes outstanding artistic and technical achievement in a variety of genres, like production design, costumes, sound editing and mixing, and special visual effects. Mossa has been nominated for his work as a production designer on FX’s American Horror Story: Cult.

The show, the seventh season in the American Horror Story anthology, deals with the aftermath of the Trump-Clinton 2016 presidential election as it affects residents living in the fictional city of Brookfield, Mich. (In true American Horror Story fashion, it’s a bit bizarre.)

Mossa has worked in the business for more than two decades, on shows like Ray Donovan and Parks and Recreation and on movies like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. American Horror Story isn’t the first time Mossa has worked with show creator Ryan Murphy. He was production designer on Murphy’s Scream Queens and the Emmy-winning American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Over the course of his career, he’s been nominated four times for the Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award, including for his work on American Horror Story: Cult. This is his first Emmy nod.

The Creative Arts Emmys ceremony for Outstanding Production Design is tomorrow, September 8 (it’s being broadcast on September 15), with the winners announced during the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards on September 17.

BU Today spoke with Mossa about his career, his work as an American Horror Story: Cult designer, his reaction to the Emmy nomination, and his advice for BU students looking to get into the field.

BU Today: You majored in theater design at the College of Fine Arts. How did you get interested in that?

Mossa: I was interested in designing for film and television from the time I was in junior high. In high school I worked on the stage crew, and a counselor suggested I look into BU’s theatrical design program. You go one of two routes to enter this field: either theater design or architecture, and what I find interesting is most people in my industry working in the Northeast come through a theater background, and on the West Coast, most come through an architecture background.

What was your reaction when you learned you were nominated for the Emmy?

Very much surprised, very happy. I was driving my daughter to her art class that morning, and I knew the nominations were coming out, but they weren’t really on my radar, and I didn’t think I would garner a nomination, so I wasn’t paying too much attention. My agent texted me the minute they came out. My daughter told her classmates, “My dad’s not famous, but he is nominated for an Emmy.”

What does a production designer do?

This is the question I get the most, and there is no easy answer. Every project and every show is different. Depending on the material you are working on, the personalities involved, the writers, directors, it can vary dramatically. As a production designer, hopefully you’re creating a world that supports not only the characters, but the stories, building a world that creates a story, even if there is no action going on inside it.

Stills and sketches of scenes Mossa designed for American Horror Story: Cult.

I always think it’s an added feather in my cap if I get a good reaction from the actors. I usually do. If they feel like when they walk onto the set, the set helps them in their performance, then I know I’ve done my job.

Do they ever oooh and ahhh when they get on set?

Some do, some don’t. I’m an introverted guy and kind of stand to the side, and once in a while, they’ll make a big deal about one of my sets, and it’s not always comfortable for me. There is a reason I’m behind the camera.

What were some of the specific challenges in designing for American Horror Story: Cult?

Getting access to Ryan Murphy, because he works on so many shows, is tough, and he doesn’t give up the final decision-making process to anyone else. Every show I’ve done for Ryan, with the exception of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, there are no scripts to start. He tells you what he’s thinking, you go create a conceptual presentation, and you bring it back to him and he tells you what does and doesn’t work. You go build it, and then you get a script, and you make adjustments as you need to. That’s very challenging.

This was my first year on American Horror Story, and it’s a show with strong visuals, and folks who came before me also have Emmys for their work. You follow in the footsteps of some talented individuals, so people are expecting that. I was asked to design on a tighter budget this time around.

How did you achieve that?

It’s not easy. You assemble the team that’s best for you. You figure out where you can compromise. It’s a lot about knowing where you can fake it and where you can’t. The standards are really high right now. It used to be you had a higher standard of quality being produced in feature films than in TV, and the cameras they were using for TV weren’t as good. But we’re now in a major TV renaissance, where the work coming out of television is better writing than what’s going into features.

For American Horror Story, I knew I was building a set that only had to last for one season. If I’m building a set that I know has to be there for six to seven years potentially, and there are tiles on the wall, then I’ll probably do that out of real tile. There are other materials to use if it doesn’t need to be there as long. It’s a lot of that.

For an episode with Lena Dunham (HBO’s Girls), you had to re-create the famous Andy Warhol studio The Factory. What did that entail?

That was tricky and something that evolved along the way. To be correct and accurate, Andy Warhol had three spaces that he called The Factory, and the one that everyone has seen the iconic images of was the one that looked like a warehouse. He covered everything in aluminum foil. That was actually not the space he was in in the story’s timeline. I asked Ryan if he wanted to go with the accurate one or the one that everyone knows, and initially he wanted to be accurate. But the space looked like an empty New York brownstone. We started to go down that path and then realized we wanted to take creative license and use the space that was a little more visual and a little more dynamic.

Do you have any advice for BU students hoping to become production designers?

Call or email me. I reached out to some of the CFA faculty about a year ago, and said that anyone who wants to do this should reach out to me. I have a steady stream of CalArts grad students who work as assistants in my art department, and I was wondering why I have so many CalArts students and no BU students.

It’s a tough game and you have to have a cast-iron stomach to get started in this business. You have to be ready for rejection, call people you don’t know, not just email them, be persistent without being annoying. When I get a blanket email that has clearly been sent to 40 other designers, I generally don’t respond, but when I get an email or a message that is obviously very specific, I do try to get back to those people and meet with them and give them advice, because I was in the same position 25 years ago.

Are you superstitious about preparing a speech before the Emmy ceremony?

No. I was nominated for some Art Directors Guild Awards and prepared speeches, and I lost. I didn’t need the speeches. This time I’m not going to prepare anything, and maybe it will be different.

What’s next for you?

Don’t know. I’m in between shows right now. I just finished up doing some more stuff for the next season of Horror Story. I have some very exciting possibilities, but I don’t talk about them until they are real—I’m superstitious.

The other six BU alums nominated for a 2018 Emmy are Matthew Jordan Negrin (COM’09), a producer on Between the Scenes: The Daily Show, for Outstanding Short Form Variety Series; Courtney Doyle (CGS’05, COM’07), a producer on Project Runway, for Outstanding Reality Competition Program; Anthea Bhargava (COM’99) and Kyley Tucker (COM’07), supervising producers on The Voice, for Outstanding Reality Competition Program; Christopher Collins (Questrom’84), executive producer on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, for Outstanding Informational Series or Special; and Beverly Chase (COM’99), supervising producer on Vice, for Outstanding Informational Series or Special.

The Creative Arts Emmy Awards for Outstanding Production Design will be held September 8 and broadcast on September 15, at 8 pm, on FXX. The 70th Prime Time Emmy Awards will be broadcast on Monday, September 17, at 8 pm, on NBC.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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