If one were to think of the post-apocalyptic genre, they would most likely imagine a dark, sci-fi drama set in the distant future. In fact, 9 times of 10, that would be the case.
The critically-acclaimed television series, The Last Man on Earth, is able to inject brilliant humor into a relatively dark subject matter in a unique and creative way. The series is created by Executive Producer, Writer and lead Actor, Will Forte. The Last Man on Earth is the type of show that opens a new door to architectural analysis in cinema and television.
The show alters many things that we're used to with the genre, but in inventive ways -- from showing the protagonist stealing artwork and artifacts from museums, to showing a group of survivors living in their own personal mansion in Southern California. The show is able to create a brilliant architectural and psychological discussion about space and how people use it, while still being humorous.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, we talked to production designer, Bruce Robert Hill. The drawings, renderings, and photographs used in the show are property of Bruce Robert Hill and his team.
INT: You've mentioned that you did extensive research on the Post-Apocalyptic genre. Even though The Last Man on Earth has more of a comedic take on this category, was there anything interesting that you realized about these fictional dystopian worlds in terms of Architecture/Design?
BH: I have long been a fan of the post-apocalyptic genre. It’s a chilling reality to explore and has always been fascinating to me. To take this genre and layer over it the narrative of the single cam comedy is brilliant. From an architectural and design standpoint, I feel that realism helps fortify the comedy here. It is a post-apocalyptic world, but it is still the world that we come from. We approached the design and architecture in The Last Man on Earth with this in mind.
INT: The first season was brilliant in the ways that different parts of the country were shown, especially the McMansions in Tucson, Arizona. Was Phil's housing community modeled after anywhere specific? Or was it always supposed to feel generic?
BH: Yes the McMansion sensibility and the location of Tucson, Arizona was a big part of the first season. The excesses of our culture and the inflated design sensibility of that gated McMansion world, set in the desolate climate of Arizona, seemed to be a perfect place for the character, Phil Miller, to land. The creator/writer/producer/star, Will Forte specifically chose Tucson as the setting of the show. Aside from being a comical and terribly misguided choice as a place to survive after the pandemic, Tucson surrounds our characters with a desolate environment that helps play up the hopelessness that these survivors are feeling. The choice to go with a more opulent gated community that has been cut off from electricity and running water helps accentuate the absurd level to which our society has disconnected itself from the earth. We film this show in Los Angeles. The closest local area here that resembles Tucson is Chatsworth, located in the northwest corner of the San Fernando Valley. This is where we filmed a lot of the first season and where we found our gated McMansion community exterior. We based the design of the interior stage sets on these overblown and opulent houses.
INT: Because this is a fictional dystopian world, was it challenging having to find other locations besides Phil's house? (i.e. O'Rozco's Bar & Grille, Silvers Hardware). Or in a way, did you have more freedom because you could choose a wide range of locations since everything is available in this world?
BH: Yes. In a way, the world is Phil’s oyster. He is a kid in a candy store and the owner of that candy store died in the pandemic. This is a great layer to the comedy of The Last Man on Earth. What would you do if no one were around? We, of course, are limited by budget and, to some degree, to what is close to our studio here in Chatsworth. That said, we could also lean on the visual effects department to remove the living world from frame if we wanted to use a location that is not completely deserted. If we like a location and there are living things around, we can simply take them out in post production to keep our world deserted and void of life.
INT: You and your team masterfully built a physical set of the cul-de-sac where Phil lives. Did any design or production decisions revolutionize once you knew you were in full control of all the elements?
BH: We actually had a virtual 3D model of the cul-de-sac built by an excellent visual effect house, CBS Digital, to surround the practical cul-de-sac asphalt footprint that we created on stage. The finished virtual cul-de-sac was fed to the monitors and the camera viewfinder so that we could see how the foreground set dressing and the actors gelled with the 3D model in real time. It was an incredible tool that allowed us greater freedom to film on stage without the constraints of filming on a location.
INT: The first season mostly looked at Tucson, Arizona and the second season seems to be more focused on Malibu, California. What do you think it says about the characters in the show that they moved up to larger spaces and a more opulent area?
BH: The group split at the end of the first season. The others went west to Malibu and after some awkward reconciliation, Carol and Phil (Tandy) eventually reunite with them. I'm not sure, but it feels to me that the group simply wanted to get to a more pleasant climate than Tucson and find a very comfortable place to live. After Phil (Tandy) and Carol left they probably woke up and said, “what the hell are we doing in Tucson!”
INT: Overall, the production design is exceptional because it is able to capture realness without being over the top. What was the biggest challenge you had in trying to balance the line between being authentic and being too dark?
BH: I actually don't shy away from the dark side. I believe that the darkness helps to sell the authenticity of this pandemic world and ultimately helps intensify the comedy. Comedy can be dark and real and I think when you blur those lines the comedy hits you more deeply. Comedy comes from a deep and real place. At least good comedy does.
Bruce Robert Hill is a Production Designer and Art Director and has worked on various Films and Television Shows. You can visit his Website to see more of his work.