[This story contains spoilers for The Fall of the House of Usher.]
With Mike Flanagan‘s latest, the Edgar Allen Poe-inspired The Fall of the House of Usher, production designer Laurin Kelsey had a lot of houses on her hands.
The Netflix horror series goes full-tilt into Poe, complete with episode titles referencing one of his notable works, and the main home of the series’ patriarch (played by Bruce Greenwood) being a twist on the one featured in the late writer’s original short story. It also stars Mary McDonnell, Henry Thomas, T’Nia Miller, Samantha Sloyan, Rahul Kohli, Kate Siegel, Sauriyan Sapkota, Kyliegh Curran, Carla Gugino, Carly Lumbly, Zack Gilford and Willa Fitzgerald.
The Fall of the House of Usher follows the lives (and deaths) that surround siblings Roderick and Madeline Usher, the ruthless founders of the Fortunato Pharmaceuticals empire. Literally built on the pain of others, their family’s wealth, privilege and power are challenged after their past secrets resurface as a curse when the heirs start dying at the hands of a mysterious woman from their youth.
Kelsey, who previously worked with Flanagan on The Midnight Club and Midnight Mass (as an art director), had the joy of building not one but multiple homes of the macabre — one for each member of the Usher family. They were also assigned colors — red for Perry, blue for Frederick, orange for Vic, silver for Camille, green for Tamerlane, yellow for Leo, purple for Madeline and gold for Roderick — that made their space distinct, whether they were inside their residence or beyond it.
That, coupled with so much death — and the replacement of Frank Langella as Roderick by Greenwood following reports of onset misconduct — created a few unique challenges for the production designer.
“We rebuilt massive sets,” Kelsey told The Music news about how the series reshot the show after Langella’s departure. “And it was exactly the same because if we had the opposite side or coverage with another character that he was in [the scene with], we kept that footage and just changed his side.”
To help with some of the more regular challenges of production design, Kelsey says her theater background came in handy. “The thing that helps me the most from theater — that a lot of the time when I work with other designers that come from just a film background don’t necessarily have — is the moving parts element. To be more efficient with our budget, we’re using the same walls, and I’m coming up with ways to change out three or four walls, or change the shape of the windows to get a whole new look out of the set that works better for our schedule, for the budget.”
At New York Comic Con, ahead of the show’s debut, THR spoke with Kelsey about building Usher’s homes, its color coordination, working from Flanagan’s floor plans and the most challenging death for the show’s production design.
How did you approach the design on the Ushers’ “main” house for this series versus the heirs’?
I love that it wasn’t just one central house this time, but the main house for me was Roderick’s childhood home, which had a digital side extension of top on the exterior. That house was most like the Poe original house, in that it was scripted as a 1950s, suburban home, and his mom has very little money. It doesn’t have the opulence and the wealth of the original story of The Fall of the House of Usher, so it had to be a subdued version, but that’s where I brought in some Gothic architecture and Victorianism into this old 1890s home. That house we also see through multiple time periods, so it was the most detailed of the houses, even though it was probably the smallest. Then, each of the kids get their own individual house — Mike assigned each of the kids’ colors.
Those colors in their homes but also everywhere from their clothes to their offices. Can you break down the color guide you were using for each?
Perry had red, Vic was orange, Camille had silver, green was for Tamerlane. The idea behind all [that] was to give each a color story. They have these gruesome deaths, and in the death scene, you notice all the light and all the saturation of the color. That came from Mike and then Michael Fimognari, who’s the cinematographer and co-director. Michael and I sat down, went through each of the colors and dictated how it would present in the set; how saturated or unsaturated it would be; where he would go with lighting. Then, we layered in with costumes, hair and makeup, which also picked up on the colors. I was actually the first part of designing this.
Then, each of the children has a very distinct personality, so I really used everything that Mike had in the script as a jumping-off point. Perry’s the young millennial who’s kind of obnoxious. He has all the techie stuff, but he’s like a hardcore partier, so he’s got graffiti everywhere. Camille’s like an icey, PR queen, so she’s got big monitor walls and everything feels jagged with glass and metal. That leans into and connects with the silver. Tamerlane is the Upper East Side, so she has a little bit more molding — a little bit more classic taste. With each of them I took what he had on the page, and then amped it up, and honestly, every set that I amped up, he wanted it amped up more — more characterized — because they were these extreme versions of people.
There are a few scenes where the entire family comes together. Did you try and create a space in this series at any point that represented them all?
No, I would say they stay pretty separate because each of the children has their own episode. That’s really their central story. There’s scenes and sets sprinkled through the whole thing, but [it doesn’t come together] too much because the only time that they appear together is in the boardroom, which is kind of a neutral space, or the courtroom, another neutral space. There, it’s more costume you’ll notice rather than anything I’m doing.
Mike is really conscious of space and line of sight in all of his series. How did you work to create the spaces he needs for all his twists and turns, literally and psychologically?
He’s really detailed in his blocking and in his script. It will literally say, “He walks from the window to the door,” and then he’ll tell me I need the door to be at a 45 angle from the window. I don’t get plates, I don’t get storyboards. I get floor plans of where the characters are going to be in relationship to the camera. They’re just indications of walls, where I go from there is up to me. But they do always change through the process quite a bit. So, it does mean that in terms of a floor plan, I’m really, really oriented around the script. For example, if you watch episode seven, Tamerlane has a massive apartment, but there’s a very specific sequence that she goes through to get the fire poker. She has to go to the window, then she has to go to a mirror, then the kitchen. So, really, I am following the script when I’m laying out the floor plan, which feels quite unique to Mike. I don’t think that’s a very typical process.
Homes are a big part of this, but so are the professional spaces — the desks and offices where this “dynasty” carries out its work. How did you think about those spaces as representative of the characters?
The only two that have offices at Fortunato itself, Madeline and Roderick. Because they’re the original generation, if you will, they come from a little bit of a different perspective than the kids who are younger, more modern, more edgy. Mike gave Roderick the color of gold and Madeline the color of purple. So the office is very gold because it’s really his in a lot of ways, and that really is the base for what their two offices look like. What’s different between their spaces that gets more into character is that Roderick is really into antiquities in general, and Madeline is really into Egypt and antiquities. For the individual kids and their workspaces, they’re each in their own kind of complexes, Victorine’s off at RUE Morgue so her’s is really concrete, and her color is orange, so there’s backlight copper shelves that glow. It’s much more a modern, crisp space. Same for Camille, who’s got an office at home. Her monitors are everywhere, and she has these big jagged backlit walls. I didn’t really connect all their offices in a way that said, these are all Fortunato, they’re all the same company. I really connected it to the character — this is their workspace, and they have enough money to make it whatever way they need.
This show exists in multiple time periods. Can you talk about how you navigated that in a show where we’re not just jumping through different modern styles but different historical styles?
It’s always a challenge when we’re doing a time period, because if you make quintessential ’70s — we’re in the ’70s a lot in the show — it can feel a little bit cartoon. If you’re in the 1970s, and you don’t have a ton of money, your apartment is actually probably built in the 1940s, and you have those accents in it. Some things are modern, like the way that your toaster looks or your fridge, but the actual architecture might not be 1970s because it’s not realistic. So, I think, often I’m trying to make everything as realistic as possible and hopefully, it’s still clear where when we are to a certain extent, with what you see. But I think it’s always about realism, so the house in the 1950s, it’s built in the 1890s, but then the fridge is very quintessential ’50s, or the stove and other accents that are in the house. This one just had an added layer, which was Edgar, where I could then bring in gothic touches or a layer that did kind of honor his stories in the time period these were written, which ranges from like 1819 to 1860. So very different.
Mike likes doing easter eggs in all of his shows. Can you talk about some of the biggest ones in The Fall of the House of Usher?
There’s two things that my boys always put in the shows somewhere — they were in Midnight Club and Midnight Mass. That is the Oculus mirror. He takes that to every show, and it has to fit into at least one set. He also directed Ouiji, so the board is in there as well. It’s very visible actually. I saw it the other day I didn’t realize this set dresser had it put so in the foreground. Those two always go for the ride. Set details that I really tried to do was give like little nods to Poe. There’s a bar in the 1970s where they did the New Year’s Eve party and all the stained glass behind Verna is all Edgar Allen Poe references — the black cat, the black horse and the raven. For Perry’s party, which is “The Masque of the Red Death,” there’s this room with all these old, beat-up bathrooms. We don’t get to see it super well except on the wide [shot], but there’s graffiti all across the wall behind the sinks.
That’s a portion of “The Masque of the Red Death” scrawled across the wall. And that [episode is] probably the one with the most direct relationship with the production design and original story. We had to build that warehouse for all about water effects that we needed to do. It wasn’t safe to do it in an existing warehouse and pour water on it, so we didn’t. But when we built it, we did things like in the original story, there’s a certain number of rooms that are down this corridor where he locks everybody down. We did that along the hallways on the side, and there’s big stained glass windows in the story so we picked round, arch windows at the end of the building.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The Fall of the House of Usher is currently streaming on Netflix.