The Jobs Board is up and running! | If you need a book interior laid out, visit | Visit our Blog for tips on self publishing

Who designed the book covers used in the hit film “American Fiction?”

From book shelves to the big screen

Who designed the book covers used in the hit film “American Fiction?”

From book shelves to the big screen
photo © Melanie Dunea

During her long career as a professional book cover designer, Catherine Casalino has done work for almost every major publishing house across Manhattan. And now, she’s added a Hollywood studio to her client list! Catherine designed the book covers seen in American Fiction, the 2023 indie hit directed by Cord Jefferson. This comedy-drama adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel Erasure is a thought-provoking exploration of race, identity, and literary stereotypes. With an ensemble cast featuring Jeffrey Wright, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Issa Rae, the film has garnered substantial critical acclaim since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. I had the privilege of asking Catherine questions about her creative process bringing these important props to life.

This opportunity came to you through your friendship with the director of American Fiction, Cord Jefferson. How do you two know each other?

Catherine Casalino: Cord Jefferson and I went to college together at William & Mary in Virginia. We were in the same social circles and sometimes in the same classes (I was an English major ‘03 and he was a Sociology major ‘04)—I specifically remember taking a really fun music history class together!

After college we both ended up in New York City—Cord was working as a journalist and I landed in graphic design—so we hung out during that time as well. Later, Cord moved to the West Coast to write for television, and whenever I saw something cool he was working on I’d drop him a note. (Master of None, Watchmen, Station 11, etc) We were lucky to graduate college right when social media was taking off because everyone was able to keep track of each other.

American Fiction premiered on September 8, 2023, but when were you brought on to begin working on these props? And what was your reaction when he approached you to design the book jackets used in this film?

Catherine Casalino: Cord texted me in July 2022 and said he was working on an indie movie about a novelist. And he asked if I would be interested in designing the book covers. (We had actually randomly ran into each other in New York a few weeks earlier—my husband and I were having dinner at a cafe and Cord walked by!—so I guess my work was top of mind.)

Designing covers for the movie was an immediate “yes” for me. At the time I didn’t know anything other than that Cord was working on it and that it was about a novelist, but that was enough. I was so blown away by the television work Cord had done and was excited to be a part of one of his projects. When a brilliant friend asks me to collaborate on something, my answer is always yes!

One of the biggest reasons I opened my own studio in 2016 after 13 years inside publishing houses was that I wanted to work on new and different projects with new and different clients. American Fiction fit the bill on all fronts.

When I was later told that Jeffrey Wright had been cast to play Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, that really got me excited. Wright’s acting in Westworld had blown me away, and I could totally see him as Monk.

In traditional publishing, our main point of contact is an Editor or Art Director. Who was your main point of contact from the film crew and how did that process work in terms of art direction, creative briefs, and approvals?
Since these books were to appear in movie scenes and as a part of a larger narrative, what sorts of considerations did you have to take into account while designing?

Catherine Casalino: My main point of contact on the film was the production designer—Jonathan Guggenheim—who was so wonderful to work with. We started the process with a phone call, and then I read the script and noted down all the covers. I designed 6 hero covers and 7 background covers for the film. (The background covers were used for the literary award submissions because we couldn’t use real books for that.)

There were a lot of differences in designing for a film versus designing for traditional publishing. Since these were not real books we didn’t have manuscripts or traditional cover briefs. Some of the books’ plots are briefly mentioned in the script, and then Jonathan and Cord filled in the blanks when I had questions.

It was a pretty tight circle for approving the cover designs—so that was a really nice difference from working for traditional publishing where cover design approval is often a long process because of all the stakeholders that need to weigh in. Jonathan and Cord really trusted me to package the books and to make them look authentic.

Another difference was that we looked at all of the designs at the same time. It was essential to see all the covers together because each book had to have a distinct look on screen, but also work in concert with each other. You couldn’t have 2 books with the same color scheme or typeface, and each design had to fit squarely into a specific category. For example, Thelonious Ellison’s previously published books are very academic—The Frogs is supposed to be a modern retelling of the Greek comedy—so I used the font Trajan and an Ionic column.

We also had a pretty tight timeline—my initial conversation with Jonathan was mid-July and the shoot was set for the end of August—so doing everything at once was essential from a timing perspective as well.

© Orion Pictures / Amazon MGM Studios
The first time we see Issa Rae’s book We’s Lives In Da Ghetto, the cover art is part of a giant, horizontal book poster. Later, we see the cover art featured on an elaborate in-store display.
Did the Director tell you all the ways that the book design would be used so that you could create the jacket with these factors in mind, or did everything just work itself out?

Catherine Casalino: I had read the script early on and knew where the books would come into play, but seeing the covers on screen for the first time was such a thrilling experience. The directing and cinematography choices aren’t something you get from the script—it’s so different reading it versus seeing how they framed the shots or how the actors interpreted a scene. When they released the trailer and I saw Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) holding a book that I designed, I was floored.

What type of direction did you receive from the crew about your design for the protagonist’s main book, My Pafology / Fuck?

Catherine Casalino: For My Pafology / Fuck, I was told “trauma drama” and I knew immediately that it needed to be visually in your face. And because so many books about race are black and white, that was the obvious choice. With all of the books I really played within the stereotypes of each genre.

Outtakes designed by Catherine Casalino
How many design possibilities did you show the team before they settled on the white, all-type jacket art for Fuck?

Catherine Casalino: We tried a few options for the cover of Fuck [above], but they were all close in feel—gritty and bold. We considered photography but moved to an all-type solution since we really wanted it to be an instant visual punch.

If I forced you to pick a favorite cover design, which one would it be and why?

Catherine Casalino: Fuck was my favorite cover to design by far. It’s such a brilliant choice to have Monk demand that as the book’s title. In real-world book publishing, titles with swears are discouraged, and if a book has a swear in the title you always have to do the visual equivalent of a bleep with an asterisk or something. It felt good to actually swear on a cover! Ha. Plus designers love short titles because you can make them huge.

Tell us how you felt seeing your designs on the big screen for the first time!

Catherine Casalino: I got to see American Fiction on the big screen for the first time at the New York screening. It was a few days after the film had premiered at the Toronto Film Festival—where it won the People’s Choice Award!—so the energy in the theater was electric. And Cord was there to introduce the film, so that made it extra special. I just remember thinking how amazing the movie was and how proud I was to have played a small part in that. Everyone who worked on the movie brought the script to life so perfectly, so to see the books in the world that they built and in the hands of the actors was just magical. I honestly geeked out every time a cover came on screen.

Were there any particular scenes or moments in the film where you felt especially proud or satisfied with how your book cover designs were incorporated?

Catherine Casalino: The production design team did an incredible job showing off the covers in the film. The first time we see Fuck and it’s blurred out on a tv talk show I completely cracked up.. But I think my favorite moment is (spoiler alert!) at the end of the film when Monk (Jeffrey Wright) is running down the street and he’s confronted with wheat paste ads of Fuck that completely fill the screen. It’s such a brilliant way to show that what started out as a joke has spiraled out of control.

© Orion Pictures / Amazon MGM Studios

Many thanks to Catherine Casalino for taking the time to answer my questions! American Fiction is still in theaters and is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video (as of March 2024).

If you’re craving more behind-the-scenes info about American Fiction, check out these talks and links:

*All film stills of American Fiction are © Orion Pictures / Amazon MGM Studios

Template is not defined.
Template is not defined.
Template is not defined.
Template is not defined.
Template is not defined.
Template is not defined.
I Need a Book Cover Logo
Need a book interior?

Job Alerts

Sign up to get notifications about cover jobs posted on INABC.



Join our mailing list to receive a monthly summary highlighting recent cover uploads and blog posts.