When a Film or Television Show uses a certain location or building as an anchor, that space inevitably evolves into something more important. In the case of the narrative for the show, Russian Doll, the incredible locations around New York City and the overall exquisite Production Design both allowed the audience to observe and analyze the journey of the characters through these spaces.
This Series, created by Natasha Lyonne, Leslye Headland and Amy Poehler, makes intelligent decisions regarding Production Design, Set Design and Set Decoration. Whether these choices are obvious or ambiguous, conscious or subconscious, they still establish a very high bar that is unmatched.
In an exclusive interview with Interiors, we spoke with Michael Bricker, who is the Production Designer for Russian Doll.
INT: First off, we were curious how the opportunity to do the show, Russian Doll, came about? What was it about it that made you want to work on it?
MB: I really owe it to my good buddy, Steve Calitri. He worked as the cinematographer for the first three seasons of Broad City, and had developed a strong relationship with Jax Media. When he heard that they were gearing up for a new show called Russian Doll, he managed to slip my name into the mix. This led to a Skype interview with Natasha Lyonne and Leslye Headland, who somehow decided to trust me with this important project. I thought that the pilot script had such momentum and understated magic, so when I pitched for the gig, I really emphasized how the production design could reflect, refract, and reveal Nadia's journey.
Leslye and Natasha are voracious creatives, and I remember them racing through the pages of my pitchbook while we were on the call. There was this initial moment of silence I think, and I remember thinking, “shit, I missed the mark here.” But then Natasha said something like “this is more than I even imagined we could do.” Man, I really wish I could remember what she said. But I do remember feeling like I nailed the interview...but then you wait, and you never know what factors go into you getting the job. But two months later, my agent texted me and said “you got it.”
INT: Maxine’s Loft is an incredibly important space for the show and serves as a sort of compass and a place of dread for Nadia. How developed was this space when it was first described to you? Did it evolve and change over time? Was there a particular mood you were trying to reference?
MB: We had very little time to design this set (major kudos to Lisa Merik, our champion Set Designer), but we knew that it would serve as the anchor of the show. The pilot script revealed so much about this world - it mentioned the mirror, loosely described the bathroom door, and outlined this cavernous and fantastic art space. It also had these subtle nods to Alice in Wonderland, which I wanted to reference in a way that the audience would never guess. As such, the hallway out of the bathroom really became the 'rabbit hole' through which Nadia emerged into Wonderland. This allowed us to present New York as Wonderland, with our own set of visual rules and pushed realities. I also liked that Natasha and Leslye clearly wanted this to read as a formerly religious space. This helped us avoid the now trope-y “New York Loft with big factory windows that no one can afford” vibe.
Logistically, as scripts kept coming out, we were discovering more rooms in the loft. It needed to feel big, but not extravagant, and I wanted Nadia's reset point to be as far away from the front door as possible. As she starts learning about how she can and can't leave the loft, her route through the space changes. As such, the space is actually designed as a set of concentric paths, with the largest arc being through all the rooms, and the shortest being straight down the hallway to the front door. Another subtle nod to the nested doll. As Nadia learns that leaving the loft through the front door quickly leads to death, she discovers a different route down the fire escape. We wanted this space to have a “choose-your-own adventure” or video game vibe, with lots of options for Nadia to take.
On the character of the loft, I had tons of reference images that were narrowed down with Jessica Petruccelli, our stellar Set Decorator. It had to feel like an artist lived here, and perhaps that she had inherited it from a relative. For some reason, I knew that blue didn't belong in this world, so we focused on really dark greens in the bathroom (to contrast with Natasha's hair) and deep reds for the hallways. The main spaces are lighter so that the artwork, furniture, and lighting really stands out. John Cox our Art Director, led a top-notch scenic team to add all the layers and scratches and history to the space. And Jessica was able to source so many unique items and real New York art pieces. Natasha also helped us with the artwork, through her own extensive friend network. It was truly a collaborative effort, and my guidance was really about keeping it magical, unconventional, dense, and at times, almost ugly. That's why you believe it as a real place.
INT: Alan’s organized and minimally designed apartment reflects his personality, which directly contrasts Nadia’s. In terms of Production Design or Set Design/Decoration, how did this contrast develop and how did you and your team try to emphasize this?
MB: This was also clear in the scripts, which described his place as “everything from IKEA.” We were faithful to this in many ways, and yes, we wanted a clear contrast between the loft and Alan's space. The idea being that these two people could not be more dissimilar, and yet they have a clear connection. Once we learned that Alan was also resetting in his bathroom, I knew we had to build those sets back-to-back so that we could highlight this contrast, but also this strange connection. As such, both bathrooms are exact dimensional mirrors of each other, allowing the overhead and split screen shots in Episode 108 to be practically done (Thank You Chris Teague, our DP!).
More thematically, while Nadia's trauma was dense with family history, Alan's was more about his rigidity. So while Maxine's Loft and Nadia's apartment feel layered, Alan's feels shallow and bare. He has intentionally kept everything at the surface. That said, while Maxine's loft is the focus of the world, with the greatest density of color and texture, Nadia and Alan's apartments are actually more similar in tone and palette, though hers is shifted warm and his cool. Again, a contrast and a connection at the same time.
INT: The show contains numerous symbols (i.e. Mirrors, Rotten Fruit, Fish, The Bathroom Door). What layers of symbolism were intentionally hidden and placed within the spaces?
MB: I've been seeing all the great press about the show, and I love how people are finding all these easter eggs and hidden symbols. Almost all of these were planned and discussed at some level, which again links the show to a puzzle box or video game, where you are not sure what is meaningful and what is a red herring. I think this is partly why people are responding so well to the show - you just keep leaning forward in your chair.
That said, the contrast between Nadia and Alan is perhaps my favorite - She's a circle, he's a square. She's right, he's left. She's warm, he's cool. She's messy, he's clean. These visual rules manifest themselves throughout the show, and start to crossfade as each person gets infected by the other - in the design for example, both Nadia and Maxine’s apartments have wallpaper made of circles and squares. And even in the locations and blocking, Nadia resets on the right, but after she meets Alan, she starts moving left, taking the fire escape instead. Similarly, Alan resets on the left, but chooses to take the right elevator when he sees Nadia. That's just a taste - there's a lot more in there for people to catch on their second and hopefully third watches.
Michael Bricker is a Production Designer and Filmmaker and has worked on various Films, Television Shows and Commercials.