By Tia Lynn Ivey
Jess Royal, a Morgan County High School graduate, walked the red carpet in Los Angeles last Sunday, hoping to take home an Emmy for her set design work on the smash hit Netflix series, “Stranger Things.” Royal lost out to “The Crown,” but was honored to be nominated alongside such renowned designers and shows.
“Stranger Things,” which debuted in 2016, unexpectedly took the world by storm, becoming the third most-watched series on Netflix within a month of its debut.
“Stranger Things” follows the story of a small community in the 1980s rocked by the mysterious disappearance of a young boy, Will Byers, and an even more mysterious appearance of a young girl named Eleven (played by Millie Bobby Brown). Will’s mother Joyce (played by Winona Ryder), his brother Jonathan, three school friends, and the town chief of police embark on a bizarre journey to discover the truth about Will’s disappearance. The offbeat sci-fi thriller captured the hearts of millions across the world as they watched skilled young actors breathe life into the show, set to a now iconic backdrop, a 1980s-themed set designed by Madison’s very own Jess Royal.
“I can’t believe my work is being recognized alongside such high-end shows,” said Royal of her Emmy nomination.
But less than a decade ago, a career as a set decorator, let alone being nominated for an Emmy, was nowhere on the radar for Royal. “I was going to be a lawyer,” said Royal, who studied at the University of Georgia and interned for a criminal defense law firm after college. “I was all set to go to law school and I just realized it wasn’t for me,” said Royal. “So I quit.”
Jess remembers coming home to tell her parents, Jane and Everett Royal, and that they were understandably skeptical about her decision. “I remember telling my dad I just wanted to do something creative and he said to me, ‘Well, OK, but you’re not creative so how is that going to work?” laughed Jess. “That is my favorite line from him. He is very pragmatic and wanted to make sure I could make it in the world,” said Jess. “Now my parents are beyond proud, they are over the moon,” said Jess.
But it initially took Royal some time to figure out exactly what she wanted to do with her life. She moved back to Madison and worked at Madison Markets, owned by her parents.
“We moved to Madison at the beginning of me starting high school and it was a hard transition,” remembered Royal. “But I learned a lot about people and going to school there was an important part of who I am now,” reflected Royal. “But when I came back home after college and interning a law firm, I just didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted it to be creative,” said Royal. By chance, Royal watched a documentary on HBO that featured commentary by a set designer that worked on the film Revolutionary Road.
“After watching that and seeing what goes into creating these sets, I just knew it, I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life,” said Royal.
Royal jumped at the chance to volunteer herself to the production crew that came to Madison in 2009 to film Halloween II.
“I was relentless,” said Royal. “I kept pressing and pestering them to do anything, even if I had to start at the very bottom. I just wanted to get my foot into that world and work my way to the art department.” After doing some scout work for numerous projects, such as Vampire Diaries, she teamed up with production designer Chris Trujillo and was able to work on several small projects as a graphic designer and set decorator.
When Netflix approved Trujillo as the production designer for Stranger Things, he called Jess into work on the project.
“He said, I think this is going to be our hit,” remembered Jess. “And then when the show finally aired, everyone kept telling me, ‘you’re going to get nominated!’ But I didn’t believe. I still can’t believe it.”
Throughout the process of constructing the sets for Stranger Things, Royal was committed to procuring authentic decorations and employing older methods of special effects, instead of relying solely on digital effects. The most iconic visual out of the show was the “Ouija-wall” in Joyce Byer’s living room, which featured Christmas lights strategically hung over the alphabet painted on the living room wall.
“Those lights were my babies,” said Royal.
Royal, who just wrapped the second season of Stranger Things a couple months ago, is committed to working on Seasons 3 and 4 of the show and taking on other projects in between. She is currently working on a film starring Jennifer Aniston called Dumplin (based on the book). “It’s just been a whirlwind, working nonstop with no time for vacation, but I love this work,” said Royal.
Royal hopes her story might inspire other young people figuring out what to do with their lives.
“Spend your life doing what you love,” said Royal. “If you believe in yourself enough and follow your dreams, it’s cliche but true, you have to think big and pursue your interests,” said Royal.