How Production Designers Created Aspirational (Not Abhorrent) Wealth Displays for 'Politician,' 'Succession' and More Shows

11:30 AM 7/8/2020

by Sharareh Drury and Trilby Beresford

In a season that offered many 1-percenter lifestyles (and by extension, commented on an inequitable system), top pros reveal the challenges of designing mansions, seaside estates and lavish city suites.

'The Politician,' 'Succession'
'The Politician,' 'Succession'
Courtesy of Netflix; HBO

  • 'Big Little Lies'

    John Paino

    Nicole Kidman’s Celeste (left) spars with her mother-in-law (Meryl Streep).
    Nicole Kidman’s Celeste (left) spars with her mother-in-law (Meryl Streep).
    Courtesy of HBO

    Paino, who says he sees film and television as mediums to view new worlds and subcultures, was quite intrigued by the opportunity to home in on what "misty, melancholy" Monterey could offer as a setting for HBO's Big Little Lies.

    Paino initially likened the series that follows the seemingly perfect lives of upper-class mothers in the quaint California beach town to the soapy Desperate Housewives, but soon saw how creator David E. Kelley and directors Jean-Marc Vallée and Andrea Arnold wanted to create a story that showed "something more than these people living in gorgeous homes." Paino focused his production design on ensuring that each of the story's central women — Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), Renata Klein (Laura Dern), Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz) and Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) — had a home that reflected her personality and journey.

    One way to differentiate the women was their proximity to the water, which presented a challenge given that Monterey does not have a bounty of mansions along the oceanfront. For Celeste's home in particular, that secluded unit was found "last minute" because Paino wanted to capture her mysterious and secretive persona as she endures abuse from husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). For other homes, such as the intense and career-driven Renata's, Paino opted for a Malibu house that could give space for her to be fully "on display."

  • 'Billions'

    Jim Gloster

    Hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis, right) finds himself in escalating danger as he continues to aggressively navigate the finance world in season five, which premiered May 3.
    Hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis, right) finds himself in escalating danger as he continues to aggressively navigate the finance world in season five, which premiered May 3.
    Courtesy of SHOWTIME

    When production designer Gloster joined Showtime's Billions for the fifth season, he was fresh off another show with lavish homes, HBO's Ballers. But compared to the latter's L.A. locales, status in New York is often based around the city's famous skyscrapers: "Simply — how high up are you?" says the designer, adding that a lot of glass and white walls often characterize elite New York abodes.

    Building upon pre-established locations, Gloster looked at "at least a hundred" high-rise penthouses in the $15 million to $60 million range, some of them 12,000 square feet. "What we're looking for in a show is character and a place to have character," he says. In the case of Wall Street billionaire Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis), he doesn't show off his wealth, so they used artwork to do so. "For Axe Capital, every year they replace the art with a new artist or collection of art," says Gloster, noting that they recently used some of David Lynch's pieces.

    Gloster tries to show his ideas to showrunners Brian Koppelman and David Levien as early in the process as he can, but "even though you can have renderings and ground plans and 3D flyovers, sometimes it just takes them being there to feel whether it's a success or not."

    Gloster had just wrapped the seventh episode (of a planned 12) for the fifth season when production was shut down because of the pandemic. "It's way up in the air as far as when we'll get going again," he says.

  • 'The Politician'

    Jamie McCall

    Payton’s bedroom was inspired by Sister Parish’s designs for President Kennedy’s White House abode. Though the show is set in Santa Barbara, it was filmed in locations around Los Angeles. A home in Thousand Oaks stands in for the Hobarts’ mansion.
    Payton’s bedroom was inspired by Sister Parish’s designs for President Kennedy’s White House abode. Though the show is set in Santa Barbara, it was filmed in locations around Los Angeles. A home in Thousand Oaks stands in for the Hobarts’ mansion.
    Courtesy of Netflix

    "We wanted it to feel sort of like old money," says production designer McCall, who was tasked with creating the world of wealthy Santa Barbara high schooler Payton Hobart (Ben Platt), who aspires to be U.S. president. The initial design concept was to blend Spanish Mission Revival, a popular West Coast style, with a bit of East Coast architecture and high-quality furniture that looks lived-in, sometimes tattered — a characteristic of elite living.

    When McCall first read the script for the Netflix comedy, the Kennedys immediately came to mind. After studying the works of interior designer Sister Parish, who decorated the White House in 1961, McCall used John F. Kennedy's bedroom as inspiration for Payton's dwelling, specifically the browns and blues, and the canopy bed. His house was further accentuated with white painted wood and clean lines. "Each character had a certain level of wealth to them, so we wanted to represent that in each house we chose," explains McCall, adding that a lot of high-end homes in Los Angeles are not available for filming, so it took extensive scouts to find the right locations.

    For Alice's (Julia Schlaepfer) home, McCall added taxidermy to show off her "kooky" nature, and a hand-painted wall mural was a key aspect of the home of Astrid (Lucy Boynton), who isn't as wealthy as her rival Payton.

    Among the visual inspirations, McCall remembers that early conversations highlighted the "fun pops of color" and historic feel of Call Me by Your Name: "Something that felt timeless," she says, "so you weren't really sure what period we were in."

  • 'Succession'

    Stephen H. Carter

    Logan Roy’s home is bathed in creams and gold and peppered with Roman antiquity inspiration.
    Logan Roy’s home is bathed in creams and gold and peppered with Roman antiquity inspiration.
    Courtesy of HBO

    To create the luxurious world of Succession's billionaire media family, production designer Carter first researched the homes of America's most powerful — the Murdochs, Redstones, Bronfmans — while familiarizing himself with recent luxury trends to find the "segue between old money and new money." A key focus was to create homes "not just for millionaires and billionaires but also make it believable that you could find them in Manhattan."

    For Brian Cox's Logan Roy, his apartment with third wife Marcia (Hiam Abbass) needed to reflect his conservatism and interest in Roman antiquity. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) begins in an Upper East Side townhouse with his wife, Rava (Natalie Gold), but transitions after their separation to a "very nice flop pad," as Carter calls it — a place that reflects his "trying to sort of figure out where he is in life." As for the New Mexico ranch of Connor Roy (Alan Ruck), Carter admits finding "comic relief in the design side of things" to sell the odd characteristics of Logan's eldest son.

    Shooting on location — the Waystar Royco offices were filmed at the World Trade Center in both 4 WTC and 7 WTC — posed challenges, as did the involvement of travel in nearly every episode, from the Hamptons' summer palace to an English estate wedding and a retirement party in Dundee, Scotland, in the second season. But Carter notes that "what makes Succession work is we stay on our feet as a design team." He adds, "For us, being able to stay light and flexible enough while maintaining a very grounded, real-world picture of wealth is what we do best and allows the show to be what it is."

    This story first appeared in a July stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.