The Attraction of Opposites

This week’s blog is from Patti Podesta, “Hannibal’s” production designer.

With the news this week that “Hannibal” has been renewed by NBC and that Season 2 will get deeper into the madness between Lecter and Will Graham, I thought this might be a good moment to describe how we developed the look of the series and the stylistic differences between its two main characters.

 Bryan Fuller and David Slade are major talents, so coming into the project I was immediately aware that this was a chance to do something complex and haunting. In our first conversation, Bryan invoked the painter Francis Bacon as a reference for Lecter, and from David came a very striking image, the Blood-Stag; this is how it started. I assembled an array of paintings and photographs through which the three of us discussed realism and expressionism, architecture, qualities of light and palette. In addition to Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Todd Hido, Gregory Crewdson and the French painter Caillebotte. I included Wyeth for his anxious rendering of the Midwest and certain paintings by Edward Hopper. David’s photographic images were key in defining the look of the series.

What emerged from our discussions was a quartet of themes:

1. Hannibal Lecter’s world: He is a sadist, albeit an incredibly elegant one with a highly refined aesthetic. He creates for himself in an interior limbo, a “re-naturalized nature.”

2. Will Graham’s world: He needs a sanctuary from the intensity of his “gifts” and so surrounds himself in actual nature. He lives in the farmlands outside Quantico.

3.  The FBI: Envisioned as ’80s Brutalist architecture. Such buildings can be found on the FBI campus in Quantio, VA, where there is also a new state-of-the-art forensics lab, which we would interpret in our own way. On a preliminary scouting trip to Toronto we found Scarborough University and David gave us treated photographs of the buildings with a cool, steely look.

4. The Midwest: classic American, horizontal with a kind of butterscotch light. Poignant landscapes. These qualities would disappear later in the series, as the cases move to the East Coast and deeper into Lecter’s world. 

 Bryan’s script cited Sir John Soane’s library in describing Lecter’s office. Soane was an English architect known for his neo-classical buildings and marvelous library, which redefined the idea of the categorical, displaying art and artifacts that he collected during his lifetime. I thought we could rework these qualities through Americana, using the style as Lecter’s pretense for “passing.” From a stack of images, Bryan singled out a photo of the old library room in the North Carolina State Building and Lecter’s office is based on this room. image

We spun a backstory that he had purchased an historic building and updated the surfaces, leaving the architecture intact. It has to pass as a place of business, but is also his showplace, impressive and intimidating. Creating this set in the time we had was a daunting task. Our construction coordinator Dwight Doerksen, lead painter Jack McCullough and their crews were just amazing. Virtually everything on both of Lecter’s sets is custom… custom millwork, custom cabinetry, custom mixed stains. Set decorator Jaro Dick has great taste and knows where to look for special things, like Hannibal’s desk, an original Leif Jacobsen. Shopping for “the mix” that describes Lecter’s curatorial vision occupied Jaro’s team every day for 2 months. Dressing the set… the books alone took days and days. Of course they had to be organized by subject. I spent an entire day with an assistant creating a complex system of colored dots on the spine of 700+ sketch books that I decided Lecter would use for his patient notes… the dots identifying the patients and their conditions.

Lavish textures define all of Lecter’s spaces, creating the “hyper-nature” mentioned earlier. His home is an enclave; his kitchen is his performance space and reflects his orderly, highly visceral taste. It is a chef’s kitchen that conceals its transgressive activities. It envelops him (and his “guests”) in corporal surfaces while remaining strict. There is barn wood and zebrawood, top-of-the-line stainless appliances and travertine counters and backsplash. The center island is stainless with pale grey leather panels on the front and sides. Another custom-made stainless table evokes cook’s prep table/autopsy table. image

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Lecter’s dining room evolved into his most theatrical chamber. The walls are made from stacked wood moldings, a bit of genius that came from Bryan Fuller… he had seen such a wall at a restaurant… for ours, I chose moldings that had voluptuous curves or simple geometry. We stained the wood indigo blue, surrounding Lecter and his “audience” in the color of the night sky. Bryan also suggested a “living wall” for Lecter’s dining room, and I thought to use a huge landscape as a backdrop. I found an etching by Oscar Grosch and loved its gothic tone, but also that it would fall into abstraction for close ups, almost like an early Jackson Pollock painting. It was reproduced as wallpaper, with box shelves that house live herbs in containers. My art department had many conversations debating whether the olfactory effect was properly epicurean; we decided in the end that the intensity was pure Lecter.

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Will Graham, by comparison, dwells in a world described by association, meaning that similar colors and shapes create a continuous flow through his space, with many windows connecting to a natural setting. It’s a sensual fish tank in which everything is held in a kind of ether. I found a farmhouse outside Toronto, untouched, habited by the original owners. This became our backstory for Will: he purchased the house and land and just moved in. He lives in the downstairs, so he can be aware of anyone showing up outside. We repainted it all: a deep, dull blue/green. Some of the furniture, paintings and books belong to the owners of the house (who are the most fabulous couple - he was a motocross champion in the ’60s, she paints). The rest of the furniture was accumulated by Jaro and is a conscious hodgepodge, unmatched, not theatrical in any way. Will lives there with his dogs, his motorboat parts and his fishing tackle. He does not have a computer and does not bring work home.

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Lecter and Will compose a duality, and their settings illustrate two concepts of sanctuary. Theirs is not a symmetrical opposition, but a pair of complementary colors whose qualities smear onto one another. “This is my design.” Will utters this in every episode. Is he channeling Lecter? Or Bryan? Is he asking us to reflect on design and its many meanings? It’s a multifaceted statement that makes me laugh AND tense up whenever I hear it. 

I had been designing a Stanley Kubrick exhibition that was to open at the Los Angeles County Museum on November 1, 2012. It was a project I had worked on for nearly a year, so I had an out point for “Hannibal.” During preproduction it became clear I would only be able to get the series started before I had to return to Los Angeles to oversee the exhibition. I would have liked to design more of the series, it was so provocative… although Stanley Kubrick is no slouch and designing his exhibition was a highlight of my career. “Hannibal” is a rare project in which one gets to work within a collaborative circle of highly intelligent and wildly creative people. I left the series in the capable hands of production designer Matthew Davies and the fabulous crew I encountered in Toronto. I watch the show every week and am left in its spell for days afterwards. 

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    Oh this. This article gave me an art-chubby.
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