Flowers and Fake Marble: How TV Production Designers Create the Past

“I always say that if there were a marble Olympics, our team would definitely take the gold,” Bob Shaw bragged.

Shaw, the Emmy-winning production designer of the HBO drama “The Gilded Age,” was discussing the painstaking effort and maddening attention to detail that goes into painting a wooden column so that the camera can’t help but read it as stone. The scenic artists of “The Gilded Age” can paint a half-dozen distinct marble varieties. To pause at nearly any frame of the show is to marvel at the meticulous mix of authentic materials and brilliant fakes. Look closely at the candelabras, for example: They are fitted with fire-safe LEDs hooked to wavering filaments that substitute for open flame.

Though production design is often seen as a mere backdrop to the action, the scenery, furnishings, finishes and props have their own stories to tell. And these stories are often especially intricate in period dramas, in which a need for accuracy must accommodate narrative demands and the constraints of a show’s budget.

The New York Times spoke to the production designers of four shows that collectively span a century this fall: Amy Maguire of “The Buccaneers,” set in the 1870s; Shaw of “The Gilded Age,” set in the 1880s; Cat Smith of “Lessons in Chemistry,” set in the 1950s; and Drew Boughton of “The Continental: From the World of John Wick,” set in the 1970s. Focusing on one exemplary set each, from a castle’s reception rooms to a dream garden to a kitchen nightmare to a hotel lobby, the designers discussed the challenges and rewards of stepping back in time with high-definition cameras watching.

Hemmed in by history

Designers for “The Buccaneers” sought to highlight the contrast between the staid rooms of the English aristocracy, like this one, and the flashy interiors of the New York girls.Credit…Apple TV+

Based on Edith Wharton’s posthumously published novel “The Buccaneers,” premiering on Apple TV+ on Nov. 8, follows five nouveau riche American girls who travel to England in search of titled husbands. In designing the show, which was shot in Scotland, Maguire had to highlight the contrast between the exuberant, flashy interiors of the girls’ New York homes and the more staid spaces inhabited and inherited by the English aristocracy.

The most significant of these is Tintagel Castle, the home of Theo, Duke of Tintagel (Guy Remmers), the show’s most eligible bachelor. A real Tintagel Castle exists, but it is inconveniently a ruin; the filmed one needed to have rather more solidity. “That feeling of ancestral weight and inherited status,” Maguire said.

So she and the locations team found a substitute in Drumlanrig Castle, in Dumfriesshire. Exteriors were borrowed from other places, chiefly Culzean Castle, which is situated on cliffs above the sea, lending the place a feeling of the sublime.

For the castle’s interiors, Maguire chose rich, deep tones for the upholstery and silk paneling, often coordinating them with Drumlanrig’s real art collection. “The private art collections in these buildings are just obscene,” she said. “So it really felt like you were surrounded, almost hemmed in, by the history.” That worked for the story, showing how out of place these boisterous heiresses feel in these weighty, formal spaces.

The rooms built in the studio near Edinburgh had to match the real ones, mirroring every wood grain type, every shade of gilded paint. Maguire joked that the production used every stick of antique furniture in London’s prop houses.

For the American spaces, Maguire used other historic homes, including Manderston House and Gosford House, as well as some of Glasgow’s cityscape. These spaces were designed to be lighter, more modern, more femme. Wharton’s girls have all the money in the world, and these spaces had to show it, in marble and silver and extravagant floral display. The bright colors and clashing patterns are meant to a suggest what a teenage girl with no limit to her budget or imagination might choose.

“It’s kind of toeing the line between gaudy and just enough taste,” Maguire said.

A slightly less gilded age

For one sequence in the new season of “The Gilded Age,” designers turned a staircase into an approximation of scenery from the opera “Faust.”Credit…Barbara Nitke/HBO

Flowers were not enough.

In the first season of “The Gilded Age,” the home of Bertha Russell (Carrie Coon), the wife of a railroad magnate (Morgan Spector), was garlanded with fields of flowers for each social event. So even though the script for the first episode of Season 2, which premieres on HBO on Oct. 29, described the Russell home as resplendent with flowers, Shaw knew he had to do more.

In a scene at the close of the episode, Bertha, a patron of the nascent Metropolitan Opera, arranges a surprise performance of a song from Gounod’s “Faust” by the Swedish soprano Christine Nilsson. While her guests are dining, her sumptuous staircase is transformed into Marguerite’s garden. There are flowers, yes, a mix of real and artificial ones, garlanding the railings. But above the staircase are several panels of hand-painted Italian scenery, as would have been seen in the opera houses of the day.

“It was a challenge to have it be beautiful and evocative and tasteful and not be cute,” Shaw said. “It conveys that Bertha goes to extremes beyond what anyone could imagine to get what she wants.”

The result is ostentatious but still gorgeous. This is a line that Shaw and his team often walk, on lush carpeting. “The Gilded Age” dramatizes the conflict between new money, like the Russells, and old money, like their near neighbors, Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) and Ada Brook (Cynthia Nixon). The excesses of the new money crowd gave the Gilded Age its name, but whether in the studio or filming on location in various historic homes, Shaw balances lavishness with restraint.

“In all of the houses that we did, we had to back off a little bit from the 100 percent period look,” Shaw said. “Because it’s too much visual information for modern eyes.” He is careful to avoid using the set decoration, a combination of period furniture and scenic art, to judge or insult the characters.

“They’re more complex,” he said. “They’re not simply out to say, ‘Anything you can have I can have bigger.’”

Sexist scenery

Brie Larson in “Lessons in Chemistry.” The pink kitchen set is designed to reflect what 1950s TV executives assumed women would want.Credit…Apple TV+

Smith designed the perfect kitchen for “Lessons in Chemistry,” immersing herself in the most technologically advanced appliances and finishes the late 1950s could offer. Then she showed her findings to Brie Larson, an executive producer and a star of the series, premiering on Oct. 13 on Apple TV+. Larson plays Elizabeth Zott, a brilliant chemist who finds herself hosting “Supper at Six,” a popular cooking show.

Larson loved Smith’s ideas for the “Supper at Six” kitchen, Smith recalled, saying it was just what Elizabeth would have chosen. But that was a problem: Throughout the series, based on the best seller by Bonnie Garmus, Elizabeth is stymied in her career by men who resent her, distrust her, believe they know better. The show set, Larson reasoned, would be dictated not by Elizabeth’s taste but by what the station executives assumed women would want. That’s how the kitchen became so frilly and so worryingly pink.

Having studied both “I Love Lucy” and Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” Smith settled on a lightened version of Benjamin Moore’s Cat’s Meow, which resembles the interior of a particularly girlie seashell. The kitchen island and lower cabinets have turquoise detailing, meant to provide some contrast, particularly in the black-and-white shots. The appliances are all period-appropriate — they don’t actually work, but water or propane can be piped through when necessary.

“We were very specific about what was available and what wasn’t,” Smith said. “Strangely enough, you can find most of these things on eBay.”

The wallpaper, a nightmare of stripes and cherries, came courtesy of a Los Angeles company that scans and prints retro patterns. The linoleum tile was tougher to find, but it was eventually sourced, too. There are lacy curtains on the windows, and knickknacks — figurines, wax fruit, cozies — on every flat surface. During her first broadcast, Elizabeth orders these tchotchkes removed. Later, she brings in scientific equipment.

The set illustrates a tension between form and function, which the series mirrors. Because Elizabeth looks a certain way, the men in power expect her to conform to certain behaviors. In a lab coat and pedal pushers, she defies those expectations.

This show kitchen isn’t practical or comfortable, and it seems too pink a space for fomenting liberation. But in Elizabeth’s hands, that’s what it becomes.

Creative destruction

Mishel Prada, left, and Sallay Garnett in “The Continental.” The lobby set was first meticulously crafted and then destroyed.Credit…Katalin Vermes/Starz

The Continental Hotel, a luxury property with an all-assassin clientele, is a staple of the John Wick films. Those movies used the facade of Lower Manhattan’s Beaver Building to represent the hotel. But for “The Continental: From the World of John Wick,” a three-part prequel mini-series debuting on Peacock on Sept. 22, the owners of the building declined to grant the rights to its image.

Boughton described this denial as “an obstacle with an opportunity inside.” He designed a new facade — more rococo, more redolent of a secret society — and he took a similarly expansive approach to the Continental’s lobby.

Even in the earlier films, the lobby had undergone different iterations. “So many films have deep concerns about being consistent and making sure this is just so, and the Wick world doesn’t do that,” he said. “They just do art. So in many ways, it was one of the most liberating things.”

The series was shot in Budapest, and for this version of the lobby, meant to represent the Continental in 1970s New York, the production filmed in the British embassy, which boasts a dazzling skylight. Because the series takes place in a moment of violent transition for the hotel, Boughton and his team filled that space with nods to the 1970s — a cigarette vending machine, a bank of phone booths, upholstery in shades of avocado and rust — along with details that look backward to the beaux arts period.

“It’s a Frankenstein of styles,” Boughton said.

Boughton created a new version of the guest services desk, staffed by Charon (Lance Reddick in the films, Ayomide Aden here). While Boughton confessed that he had saved on the upholstery — those sofas are not upholstered in real leather — the bar is real walnut, which gave it the necessary heft on camera before and after its destruction.

If you have seen a John Wick movie, it isn’t a spoiler to suggest that the lobby may sustain some collateral damage. Which means that Boughton had to design it twice: once in pristine form and once post-catastrophe. (That catastrophe is achieved by a crew armed with sledgehammers and drills.)

“There is some sadness when you see a beautifully manufactured walnut bar just smashed to bits,” Boughton admitted. But he also said that what he called the “aftermath” scenes were about as much fun as a production designer could have on set, taking all of that hard work and, for the good of the story, savaging it.

“It’s quite a kick,” he said.

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