Production Designers on 'Veep,' 'Russian Doll' and More Spill Secrets on Creating Convention Stages and Quirky Homes

8:30 AM 8/6/2019

by Carolyn Giardina

The Emmy-nominated pros behind 'Escape at Dannemora,' 'Fosse/Verdon' and 'The Umbrella Academy' also reveal how they strived for authenticity.

Russian Doll_Apartment - Publicity - H 2019
John Coz/Netflix

  • 'Fosse/Verdon'

    Research and authenticity were the driving forces behind creating FX's period miniseries about the lives of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, which starts with Fosse's 1969 big-screen directorial debut, Sweet Charity, and wraps in the late '80s. "I had been a big fan of Fosse's work since seeing All That Jazz and read the biography [Fosse, by Sam Wasson] on which this is based, so I was pretty familiar with the story," says production designer Alex DiGerlando, adding that he rewatched the films and did an extensive amount of additional research. He even connected with Fosse and Verdon's daughter, Nicole Fosse, who shared stories and pictures to inform the design for sets including their home. Nicole "was adamant that when Bob moves out of his home, there would be a pair of binoculars in the apartment because he liked to look at the other apartments," he notes with a laugh. "She didn't sugarcoat anything."

    Indeed, Nicole Fosse's desire to make an authentic version of her parents' story aligned perfectly with the filmmakers' own goals, according to DiGerlando, who says they "didn't want to make a glossy version — Bob did that with All the Jazz. We wanted to do something that felt very real and authentic. A lot of energy was put into capturing the process of the filmmaking and the choreography." The more recognizable sets included the iconic Kit Kat Klub from Fosse's 1972 film Cabaret, built at New York's Silvercup Studios, which was more complicated than it might seem. "The stage was clearly documented, but there were other parts of the set that you only see in motion blur," DiGerlando explains. "We freeze-framed every single shot to get as much information as we could. We were also able to dig up one architectural drawing of the set from the Library of Congress, but when we analyzed it we realized it must have been an early version. We did use the drawing, but we couldn't rely too heavily on it."

    The team learned that the set was more colorful than it may have appeared. "We were [initially] talking about it as a black set, but it was anything but," he says. "The walls are red, purple — there's glitter surrounding the proscenium of the stage. There's painting on the piano and drum set. There are posters and graphics on the walls."

    He adds that the stage was surprisingly high. "When we first built it, the stage felt really high, and we realized that must have been a choice because of the way it was shot. We figured out the height based on the height of the audience in the film."

    As Fosse was filming his movie in these scenes, the production design team also had to track down production gear used in the period, including a Panavision film camera, lights and a dolly. This attention to detail carried onto the set of Fosse's editing rooms, for which DiGerlando even got some insight from his uncle, editor Jeffrey Wolf, and Fosse collaborator Alan Heim, who won an Oscar for editing 1979's All That Jazz. To create that set, he located period KEM and Moviola editing systems, as well as trim bins (where clipped outtakes were stored), reels and even a recognizable "yellow book" poster that was often found in editing rooms during that time.

    In scenes where Cabaret was being edited, DiGerlando filed the trim bins with strips of 35mm film of George Burns' 18 Again, which he found, inexpensively, on eBay. For scenes when Fosse is cutting 1974's Lenny (also edited by Heim), he placed black-and-white film in the trim bin.

  • 'Escape at Dannemora'

    The Showtime limited series based on a headline-making 2015 escape at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, features extensive scenes in the prison — the interior seen below was a full set built at Kaufman Astoria Studios in New York. "We replicated the three-story-tall 'honor' cellblock of Clinton Correctional, complete with three stories of catwalks behind the cells," explains production designer Mark Ricker, who says research was a significant challenge. "The extent of research for the cellblock, catwalks, tunnels, steam pipe and tailor shop sets was limited to about 10 photos released by Gov. Cuomo's office when the escape actually occurred in 2015," he says. "In addition, we were given a tour of the prison in Dannemora and shown all the relevant areas we were re-creating. However, no cameras allowed, so everything was limited to sketching and memory."

    For the world of prisoners Matt and Sweat, played by Benicio Del Toro and Paul Dano, Ricker wanted to create a sense of containment and claustrophobia. He brought this same feeling to the surroundings of prison worker Joyce "Tilly" Mitchell (Patricia Arquette) to establish that she felt trapped in her life. "We literally painted her living room the same pistachio green color as the prison cells — and wallpapered Tilly's kitchen with clover," he says. "By pushing the cool green palette for the entire series — from the prison cells to the forests of pine, moss and lichen — we were able to connect the trio of characters in their relative entrapment and desires to escape."

  • 'Russian Doll'

    In Russian Doll, Nadia (Natasha Lyonne) repeatedly dies and wakes at the same party at her friend Maxine's East Village loft. Created to roughly match an exterior location in the East Village, the set was built on a stage in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. Inspired by the script, it's a quintessential artist's apartment, production designer Michael Bricker explains — one that's filled with a mix of found, handmade and fabricated objects.

    "It was designed to be a maze, a mysterious rabbit hole that feels fundamentally New York, but also charmed with an edge of magic and surrealism," he says.

    Nadia begins each episode in a dark green bathroom, the color of which was selected to contrast with Lyonne's red hair. "The reflective tile emphasized our visual theme of mirrors and reflection," Bricker adds. "The rest of the loft was designed to be our most saturated location in the series — the center of Nadia's 'map' and her reset point." He adds that the art on the walls also reflected the show's theme: "Artwork was sourced from Instagram and local artists, often with a motif of death or multiplicity. We liked artwork that looked back at the viewer, giving the apartment a sense of awareness."

  • 'The Umbrella Academy'

    Based on the graphic novels by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, The Umbrella Academy follows the adopted children/superheroes of billionaire Reginald Hargreeves who gather for his funeral. "The original setting for the academy building in the graphic novel was a manor house in the country, but the house in the script was set in the middle of a fictional city, very much like New York," says production designer Mark Worthington, who built the interior sets, including the grand parlor (pictured), in Toronto, where the series was filmed. "The idea was a kind of mashup between an Upper East Side mansion and a Lower East Side tenement block. The concept was that Reginald Hargreeves took over an entire city block — in which is embedded the mansion/townhouse with the large opulent spaces where he keeps the extensive collections of art, artifacts and scientific research. The kids [were] relegated to the converted tenement buildings on either side, so immediately there is a strong contrast."

    A favorite set was that of the grand parlor, "which is essentially a Moorish folly, loosely based on a room in the Vanderbilt Mansion in New York," says Worthington, who adds that Moorish details include the patterned wallpaper and the fireplace with deer antlers above it. "Ours was double height and has a gallery — the Vanderbilt version is much smaller, but the Moorish design expressed the cultural appropriation that was common in the gilded age — something Hargreeves of course, embraces."

  • 'Veep'

    The finale of HBO's political comedy series is set largely at a fictional 2020 presidential nominating convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Julia Louis-Dreyfus' Selina Meyer is vying for her party's nomination. It was filmed in Los Angeles at USC's Galen Center, where the production built the stage for her acceptance speech. "The stage was about 60 feet deep by 100 feet wide, and we had to set it up in three days. It was a monumental task for our crew," production designer Jim Gloster says, adding that they also had to hang the lighting and the balloon drop. "We worked 24 hours in shifts." Throughout the series, Selina was never given a party affiliation, which continued in the finale. "We went for red, white and blue — not more red or more blue — [so as] not to in any way feel like her political party. She's in an alternate universe." For the crowd, they put in some seating and filmed with 600 extras, then extended the scene with visual effects. "We wanted to show the expanse of it," Gloster says, noting that research included reviewing the past couple of nominating conventions and visiting the Charlotte Convention Center. At the Galen, the team built four news venues with a view of the stage. The skybox was built on a stage at Paramount. "For Veep, we tried to create a real world of D.C. rather than a Hollywood version," says Gloster, "so in the skybox we showed a trash can and food spread."

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