This story originally appeared in EmmyWrap: Movies/Miniseries
Whimsical and fun.
These are two words Ryan Murphy kept throwing around when talking about “American Horror Story: Coven.” Even before the third installment of the hit FX anthology debuted in the fall of 2013, the co-executive producer, creator and writer behind the spooky drama vowed that his latest incarnation would be more humorous than the first two AHS seasons, “Murder House” and “Asylum.”
For Mark Worthington, the production designer behind all three seasons of “AHS,” Murphy’s sanguine description became an incantation of sorts as he toured houses on location in New Orleans. Before long, Worthington set his sights on the white and black Greco-Roman Antebellum-style Buckner mansion in the Garden District. This is the house that would become Miss Robichaux’s Academy for exceptional young witches — or at least the outside of it.
“Part of scouting is how to plan and set up a shoot,” Worthington told TheWrap. “There has to be a visual connection and frames inside frames, and many times existing architecture doesn’t allow for that.”
While a number of exterior scenes were shot around the actual home, Worthington and company created the school’s breathtakingly beautiful two-story interior on a soundstage in the Big Easy. The whole thing, including a palatial two-sided staircase, took about six weeks to build — and gave the building a more lavish interior than the actual Buckner mansion has.
“Ryan is after a characteristic tone with the interior,” said Worthington, whose previous credits include “Ugly Betty” and “Lost.” “With ‘Coven,’ he definitely wanted something lighter to coincide with the show’s moments of levity. ‘Coven’ was prettier and more glamorous, with a lot of Greco-Roman revival. Everything was white with an aged patina and sense of history. We also made sure it didn’t come across as kitschy.”
Nowhere is the anti-kitschy intent more tangible than in the portrait room. No detail was spared for this French-inspired room where much of “AHS: Coven’s” action took place. Even the portraits of previous coven superiors were painstakingly created to give a sense of place and protect the show legally.
“The portraits created an audience of faces judging you,” Worthington said, adding that two portrait painters did all the work and helped bring the parlor/living room to life. But the painters couldn’t just use any faces: “We had to be able to say who the sources were for the portraits in order to clear things. It was very complicated and we had to come up with original art — amalgams of an idea or style.”
Worthington also relied on a locally-based custom drape maker and a plaster artist who created authentic-looking moldings and an impressive fireplace in the portrait room. But the fireplace wasn’t made of real marble — professional stone painters made it look that way, as they often do for real mansions in the Garden District.
“They allowed us to get the work just the way we wanted it,” Worthington said. “If you watch our show, you see everything. Sets typically don’t put a ceiling in. My preference is if you can get away with it, complete as much of the set as possible. You have to get the details right.”
Tireless attention to detail also went into the bathroom. Even the loo relied on timeless black-and-white subway tiles, a clawed tub and pedestal sink for a sense of agelessness and modernity. “We wanted to use materials used in many periods intervening,” Worthington said. “That same period bathroom worked in scenes for the 1920s as it did for scenes in 2013.”
As Worthington gears up for the fourth installment, “American Horror Story: Freak Show,” he said he can’t help but feel grateful. “This show is like crack cocaine for set designers,” he said. “But it’s not easy. It’s like doing a major motion picture every time we step out.”