This story about “Lovecraft Country” first appeared in the Comedy & Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Even in a television landscape that includes close to 500 scripted series, HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” might cross more genres and eras than any other. A hearty blend of science fiction, drama, horror, romance, revisionist history and even a modicum of actual biography, this phalanx of styles would prove daunting to even the most seasoned of designers. But under the mindful guidance of showrunner Misha Green, production designer Kalina Ivanov and costume designer Dayna Pink found a way to transform it into one cohesive visual universe.
“I think that was part of the draw,” Pink said. “What if you got to add your own style to something that already exists? It gave us room to be incredibly creative.” The creativity included more than 160 sets on five soundstages and a backlot, and 4,500 costumes which, much like characters in the series, leap from 1950s Chicago to 1920s Tulsa, Oklahoma, and sometimes all the way back to 19th-century Benin. “This is a very heavy set-building show,” said Ivanov, who used Beyoncé’s music film “Lemonade” as one of her visual aids for shepherding her vision.
Principal shooting took place in Atlanta, which also doubled as 1950s Jim Crow-era Chicago. That’s where we’re introduced to Atticus (Jonathan Majors), a Korean War vet who embarks on a road trip with his childhood friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) to see his long-lost father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) in the fictional Massachusetts town of Ardham. The town’s name is a deliberate play on writer H.P. Lovecraft’s self-created town Arkham, which is the backdrop for many of his sci-fi tales.
“The design could not afford to confuse the audience, it needed to guide them,” Ivanov said. “So I developed a specific color palette to have the Black characters in beautiful, vibrant jewel tones brimming with life, whereas the white characters that controlled magic had a darker, sinister palette. I went to deeper browns and purples, infused with gold, because they’re also very wealthy.” Pink employed a similar approach. “Atticus’ T-shirts are soft and worn and inviting — you want to touch them,” she said, contrasting those with the “crisp, high-fashion attire” worn by the mysterious heiress Christina (Abbey Lee). “You don’t necessarily want to sit by her.”
The designers also had to contend with a panoply of visual effects (including “shoggoths,” the toothy Cthulhu-like monsters that roam Ardham) and lots of running, destruction and gore. “I think we had more than a dozen versions of each costume,” Pink said. “There was blood, sweat, mud, ripping, everything.” Ivanov added, “I do my little black-and-white architectural sketches to work out the shapes, then the effects department works out how they can destroy it. It’s always fun to see.”
But when the show re-creates real-life events, the team lent those images the gravity they deserved, most notably in the series’ unflinching depiction of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. “There were definitely lessons learned from what Watchmen did for this event, but if you’ve watched both, there are distinct differences,” Ivanov said. “We studied the exact stores that were on the block, we had the exact names and knew that there would be barber shops, a movie theater, a hotel, a jewelry store… We had to do a very deep dive on it since there wasn’t a lot out there.”
Pink took her cue from Ivanov’s research, including wall layouts and books, but found that small differences truly defined the eras. “In the Tulsa scenes, the research showed that people wore hats pinned to the back of the head, which is very different from our 1950s scenes. So we had our whole department running around pulling them up in those scenes. Also, for me, undergarments are key to understanding each era even before the clothes. The hose, the stockings… It reads the period immediately.”
Both designers are eager to work on a second season, and Ivanov even hints at some choice intel. “I’m not at liberty to share, but I can tell you it’s a completely different world and take,” she said. “Misha’s done with the (Matt Ruff-written) book so it’s all starting from the ground up. It will really surprise people.”