The Mini-Series, Maniac, is a veritable cornucopia of Production Design, Set Design and Architectural Space. From the depiction of a “Retro-Present” New York City, a Japanese-inspired Testing Facility inspired by Sci-Fi films, to the countless hallucinatory worlds which feature alternate realities based in Fantasy, every single scene contains a mastery level of Production Design that is seldom seen on screen.
This Series, created by Patrick Somerville and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is able to blend numerous sequences and spaces while still making each one visually captivating for the audience. It’s no surprise that the Production Design and Set Decoration, which was done by Lydia Marks, has been praised by critics and audiences alike.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, we spoke with Alex DiGerlando, who is the Production Designer for Maniac.
INT: First off, we were curious how the opportunity to do the show, Maniac, came about? What was it about it that made you want to work on it?
AD: I was finishing up work on Ocean’s 8 and starting to think about what to do next when I got a text from Cary Fukunaga asking if I’d be interested in working on Maniac. I had really loved our collaboration on True Detective so the answer was yes before I read a script or really knew what it was even about. Once we spoke and he described the alternate reality backdrop of the show, as well as the period-hopping/genre-bending delusions the characters experience, I couldn’t have been more excited.
INT: The description for the show states that Maniac is “set is a world somewhat like our world, in a time quite similar to our time”. In terms of Production Design, what was your mindset when figuring out what this world would look like? Were there any references (Literature/Cinema) that you took from as you were planning?
AD: This was the most difficult design challenge of the show. Cary and Patrick Somerville (Creator/Writer) had the idea from the onset that in order for the audience to experience the displacement that both of our main characters were suffering, we needed to subvert their idea of normal, so the show was set in an alternate version of New York. The script had all the analogue versions of social media/gig-ecomomy/ad-driven commerce written in from the get-go, but there was really no indication of what any of that would look like. Moreover, we had to really give serious thought to how businesses and services like Ad-Buddy, FriendProxy, Dox Stop, etc. would shape the landscape of the world these characters live in. There were a lot of these things in the script that were superficially different than the way things are in the real world, but at their core, they were basically remixes of services and products we currently live with. We decided early on that in spite of these differences, we had to present all of the “otherness" of our show’s reality in such a way that it felt familiar and that is what our retro-future (or technically retro-present) aesthetic was born out of.
Still, it wasn’t immediately apparent what exactly our look would be since retro can mean so many things.
Brazil and Joe vs. the Volcano were touchstones in some ways in terms of tone, but they both felt a bit too far removed from our reality in order to properly serve our story. Since so much of what we called the 'Base-line Reality' of Maniac takes place in Neberdine Labs, we really needed to get a handle on what the technology would look like. We spent a lot of time looking at Sci-Fi movies from the late-70’s/early-80’s and started identifying which looks felt right and which didn’t.
One film in particular that really informed the vibe of the lab was a lesser-known 1983 Douglas Trumbull movie called Brainstorm. A lot of the equipment on display in that was based on real tech and was fairly cutting edge for the time so even though it is dated now, it doesn’t feel particularly hokey as many Sci-Fi movies from back then do. There’s a tactile quality to all of the science going on in that film and we really tried to incorporate a lot of that into our show. The technology really feels like it’s put together by human hands and everything appears to have a specific function. It was fun reimagining the present as someone back in the early 80’s might have imagined it.
INT: In the first 2 Episodes, the audience is able to see the residences for the characters, which is incredibly fascinating. From the Milgrim Residence, Owen’s Apartment and Annie’s Apartment, each space is unique and representative of the character. Was this intentional? Were Owen and Annie supposed to feel as though their worlds are different?
Absolutely. We worked really hard to showcase all the different ways people live in this tweaked version of New York since so much about each character is revealed via their contrasting lifestyles. The Milgrim's are the owners of an industrialist dynasty so we wanted to show great wealth, but they are also eccentrics so we needed to find a location that conveyed that. The mansion we found on the Upper East Side was designed by an art dealer for his family in 1970 and hadn’t been touched since. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
On the other hand, Owen is the black sheep of the family—his thoughts and feelings are constantly being minimized by his parents and siblings—so we wanted to give him a home that both reflected his fear of letting his personality shine through, but also a rebellion against the Milgrim family’s creature comforts. The script had several references to Owen’s 500 sq. ft. apartment costing him 87% of his income and I felt strongly that in order for that joke to land it really had to feel small on screen. We designed it in such a way that you basically could reach anything in there when standing in the middle of the room. Everything was built-in and compartmentalized to reflect Owen’s reliance on systems of order to keep his unstable mental state in check. The apartment exteriors were shot on Roosevelt Island which is a Brutalist mini-city within a city in New York’s East River; another nice visual metaphor of isolation and loneliness. The interior apartment was built on a soundstage at Silvercup Studios in Long Island City, Queens. The view out Owen’s window was built practically as a forced-perspective miniature complete with mini-neon signs.
Annie is unemployed so we gave her a room even smaller than Owen’s apartment in a DIY industrial space. She has seemingly countless roommates and a shared bathroom. As finished and tidy Owen’s apartment is, Annie’s is raw and chaotic. On the other hand, the home she grew up in is one of the sweeter, cozier locations we shot in for Maniac, the idea being to show hints of a once happy family before it was torn apart by mental illness. The house is warm but empty, so compared to all the other living spaces we see in the show it takes on a ghostly vibe, as if haunted by Annie's mother (who abandoned her husband and daughters) and her heart-broken father who has moved into a sensory deprivation tank in the back yard.
When we meet Dr. Mantleray, he has been fired from his life’s work and has hit bottom, binging on 16-bit VR porn in his converted shipping container apartment in a seedy part of town. That’s a real place that Ryan Smith’s Locations Department found. It’s so perfect. You can imagine an overcrowded city resorting to stacking containers as cheap transient housing.
INT: The Production Design for the Facilities at Neberdine Pharmaceutical and Biotech is remarkable. What was the process like designing this space especially since there are so many components within this area (i.e: Sleeping Quarters, Testing Roof, GRTA Machine)
Thanks so much! We really wanted it to be a living, working space that was all immersive for the cast and crew so that we could move throughout the lab and see from one room into another at any given time. A lot of effort was put into squeezing a lot into a relatively small space and creating a real sense of depth. There a lot of windows framed within windows as well as illuminated niches and cavities to achieve this.
In order to create a feeling of authenticity, it was really important that all the Neberdine staff that worked in Lab C had real jobs with authentic actions to perform, so we really had to plan out a logic for every work station and each piece of machinery.
Cary wanted the light in the room to shift in accordance with the subjects’ circadian rhythms and we had a lot of fun collaborating with Darren Lew, the DP, and his team on how to build that effect into the set.
The twinkling lights of the GRTA, along with her animated face and her teardrop were all done practically and we hired Alan Watts, an artist with a background in programming, to make all of that happen. He sat off-camera and ran codes to essentially puppeteer her actions.
The pink light of the mainframe room was our twist on disinfecting ultra-violet light often seen in hospitals and computer ‘clean’ rooms.
Since Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech was meant to be a Japanese corporation, we looked to Japanese culture for inspiration. For instance, the test subject’s pods were born out of Japan's capsule hotels. I loved the idea that our heroes would move into even smaller apartments for the trial than they lived in in the outside world. We had always wanted to have some sort of ‘green’ element as an artificial window to help the subjects cope with spending three days underground, but over the course of developing the set, that evolved into the bonsai diorama that features heavily in later episodes. Cary and Patrick loved it so much, they kept writing it in. The Etch-A-Sketch rendition of it was done by Jessie Katz of the Prop Department during down time on set and everyone was so enamored with it, it became a hero prop for Emma Stone.
The chairs and headsets the subjects are in were another great challenge. We wanted to avoid that Sci-Fi trope of a colander on the head with wires coming out the top. A lot of our earlier concepts obscured our stars faces too much. Eventually, we settled on microwave plates that don’t even touch their heads which I think ended up being pretty elegant. Those were made for us by Steven Brower, who I had worked with previously on The OA, another Netflix show featuring mad science in an underground lab. (Steven also made the PoopBots that roll around in Maniac’s base-line reality.)
Each headset has a different color cable coming out of it corresponding to one of six subjects participating in the experiment at any given time. The six colors converge to create a rainbow bundle of wires, which run from the experiment room into the mainframe. We did this to help the audience keep track of the crossed wires that are central to Annie and Owen’s plot, but also because rainbows are a reoccurring motif in Neberdine. The company’s slogan is “Find the end of your rainbow,” and a rainbow features in their logo. We also incorporated the stripes of the logo into a way-finding system based on Massimo Vignelli’s NYC subway map for visitors and employees to navigate Neberdine Headquarters. (If you look closely, you can also spot the actual Vignelli map when Owen is riding the subway with an AdBuddy in the first episode of the show.)
INT: There are numerous hallucinatory worlds that Owen and Annie create throughout the show that range from Alternate Realities to Mythological Fantasies. What were some of your favorite worlds or locations that you and your team designed? Did any exceed your expectations?
They were all fun in their own way for different reasons. I really enjoyed recreating episode nine’s 1957 NATO headquarters. The assembly room with its huge globe graphic of allied territories was based on research images we found of an actual event. The Extra-Galactic radio room from that same episode was really fun to make as well. The end of the episode involved Annie saying goodbye to her sister while standing knee-deep in the moss of the Neberdine bonsai diorama. We needed to recreate the moss in human scale so the actors would have something to walk through that would eventually be composited into the model. We ended up filling a soundstage with hundreds of ferns surrounded by blue screen, shot the actors there, and shot separate macro plates in the diorama itself. I think we were all a little unsure of how well this would work, but I couldn’t be happier with the results.
Another fun fantasy moment to make was the miniature Roosevelt Island street that Owen jumps into from the window of his micro-apartment. That was something that Cary and Patrick came up with at sort of the eleventh hour so we had to scramble to make it happen, but we had a blast sculpting mini street lamps and making tiny beds in each window complete with Kleenex for sheets.
Alex DiGerlando is a Production Designer and has worked on various Films and Television Series.