Working on low-budget horror flicks and critically acclaimed Sundance selects for the past several years, production designer Russell Barnes enthusiastically returned to the world of television with Hulu’s original drama series The Path. From creator Jessica Goldberg and executive producer Jason Katims, The Path stars Aaron Paul as Eddie Lane, a man involved with a cult-like religious group known as the Meyerists whose faith dwindles, risking the loss of his family and community as his doubts come to light.
Working alongside Goldberg and director Mike Cahill, Barnes was tasked with imagining the world of the Meyerists, building it from the ground up without direct reference to any particular cult or historic group. Describing the world we see on screen, Barnes jokes, “It’s similar to going to school or camp, but with more reprogramming detention cells and fewer hotdogs.” Below, Barnes discusses childhood experiences that influenced his work on the series, on-screen errors in design, out-of-the-box visual influences, and the work of his many close collaborators that made it all possible.
You’ve worked primarily in film for the past several years. What was it about The Path that drew you back to television?
I was attracted to Meyerism’s green philosophy and the challenge of being environmentally conscious while functioning in mainstream society, either as a consumer or industry professional—something I personally grapple with everyday. It was appealing to develop the organization from the ground up, shaping their sustainable world and giving life, food, and shelter to the group. I drew on my childhood experiences of growing up on an island where resources, water, and electricity were a precious resource, the supply often interrupted.
This island life also assisted with the design elements of living in a close-knit community and the camaraderie that occurs. Jessica Goldberg and Mike Cahill were extremely collaborative as we explored the group’s established daily rituals and philosophies towards alcohol and technology use. We compiled all of this into a quick reference guide to answer most questions that came up throughout Season 1 and as a guide for future seasons.
What was series creator Jessica Goldberg’s vision for the world of the Meyerists, as she described it to you?
The main goal was to make the Meyerist Movement appealing to the viewer — these are people who genuinely care about family, humanity, and the Earth. You want to join this group. They are warm, inviting and outwardly normal, keeping any radical actions to an individual [level]. We didn’t model the group directly after any existing or historical group, instead filling in the framework for Meyerism over many weeks of prep.
Given Goldberg’s desire to depart from existing religious sects, was there still a research process involved? Did you explore photography of existing groups?
Not specifically, though it inevitably came up, not from a design angle, but from how a group physically evolves as it grows; the logistical, financial, and geographical requirements. We created our movement from scratch. I actually was more influenced by photography of kibbutz living and collective farming organizations. Details drawn from research were crucial for adding life and realism to our group.
Was there any reference to Woodstock, New York, the town where creator Jessica Goldberg grew up, from which she drew some inspiration?
Not that anyone will see on camera. Originally, we based the Lane house and compound on a town close to Woodstock. This allowed us some geographic reference regarding the socio-economic design of other characters’ homes, neighborhood appearance, character commuting times, etcetera. It was extremely beneficial that she knew the area well, as we had a shorthand in discussing the chasteness of characters and scene environments. Most of my downtime is spent in the Catskills, so manipulating the many different upstate New York looks came naturally.
What visual contrasts, if any, did you create between the world of the Meyerists and the larger world outside of the compound?
When we first scouted our compound location, we were struck by the natural beauty and peace, the forested cliff face backing the buildings, and views to the east of the Hudson River. The Meyerist world is organic in color, tone and texture. We also keep workspaces simple, organized and minimalist, the Eye always having dominance in the room.
Exiting Meyerism, the aim was to heighten our distance from nature and order. We either increased the level of artificial color or materials or ramped up disorder, trash, crowds and chaos.
How did you arrive at the design for tokens of Meyerism that we see, including the ubiquitous symbol of the Eye?
For the eye symbol, I started designing it immediately, as it was of huge importance as a standalone symbol; but also for all the branding, it was key for the Meyerist organization. We considered all potential use—signage, T-shirts, art, books, paperwork, promotional and reading material, hundreds of cups and water bottles. It appears everywhere. I began with reference images from a range of research including tribal, Egyptian and contemporary art. The eye had to convey optimism—a new day—so the form of a rising sun was incorporated into the design.
I added ten segments around the pupil reflecting the ten rungs of the ladder. Then Maggie Ruder, our superstar graphic designer, took the rough work and added her own flair. During the fury of pre-production, the eye symbol was mistakenly flipped upside down on one printing run. I’ll leave it to keen-eyed viewers to try to find them!
How did you go about building the Meyerist compound?
We shot almost all of the compound on location in Nyack, New York. We added many elements to reflect the group’s philosophies—a functioning garden, greenhouses, solar panels and water reclamation systems, buildings in construction process, an endless list of details to enhance the world. We reinforced, refinished, and repainted many of the structures for appearance and safety, and it made us all happy to leave a location with some notable improvements. Every single room was used at least once, sometimes twice after redressing. I like to say we used all parts of the animal, hooves and all! What wasn’t being used for scenes on the day was used for support by other departments.
What was your approach to designing the interior spaces of Eddie’s house?
The two-story Lane house was completely built on a soundstage. The Lanes host large family events at the house, so it was key to have an open, layered environment with depth. A flow to the house was important, so an unobstructed camera could trail characters, naturally transitioning over to other interactions throughout the home.
We had three cameras simultaneously shooting a scene most days, so the space is slightly oversized to almost completely eliminate time spent removing walls. We also added camouflaged, removable camera ports throughout the house to aid with shots.
Due to the scale of the build, we had to navigate around structural support columns. (Art director) Alison Ford masterfully played a game of layout tetris, masking columns in the fireplace, in closets, and behind fake trees.
The interior design was loosely based on an actual home in Nyack used for exterior shots.
There’s a theme in your recent work—both The Path and the 2016 Sundance film Captain Fantastic, which you designed, incorporate the natural world into the picture. What design and set dressing is required when shooting these outdoor scenes?
It’s all about Mother Nature! She provides you with perfect, beautiful locations that require no input, or she can ruin your creation of an exterior set. For both shows and a lot of projects I’ve done, mud is always a huge issue, on and off camera. For The Path, we had to reshoot a picnic scene from fall in a specific area that was now winter mud. In order to quickly match the previous shots, an environmentally friendly “grass” paint was used on the ground. The paint darkened and changed tone and refused to dry. It looked comical amongst the existing grass – like a bad toupee.
Thankfully, we masked it with outdoor furniture, and VFX came in to tweak the colors. Rocco Sagerese, the head of the greens department, also had a huge task of snow removal in many locations. One particularly challenging project on a mountain top in a New York state park was covering the remaining snow or local plants with subtropical plants to cheat for Peru—all this during freezing, windy conditions.
Goldberg referred to the world of the series at TCA as a “world of shadows,” and indeed, much of the series takes place in low-light conditions. How did that affect your approach to design?
[Director of Photography] Yaron Orbach, [set decorator] Rob Covelman and I were constantly talking about lighting and window treatments. We definitely wanted a moody appearance that suggested deceptive actions. My background with horror films was valuable, as there are tricks to employ for low-light situations to maintain atmosphere. Additionally, the paint color used throughout was muted, and the finish was flat or eggshell, so shadows were enhanced.
There are fantasy sequences and surreal moments in the show. Do you approach these differently from the rest?
Yes, definitely—the hope is to transport the viewer out of the “normalcy” of the show and deeper into a fantasy. I love designing these sequences. My favorite scene is Eddie’s detention cell. Cahill and I sat in his office and designed the scene on scrap paper. Our stage flat walls were all breakaways to reveal hidden rooms behind. After shooting multiple shots within the scene using a fixed rotating camera, VFX then compiled the shots and added transitions and effects. I got chills watching the completed scene and was extremely happy with the result.
What was the most challenging set piece to design for The Path?
The most challenging piece was the tornado disaster opening sequence, due to time and logistics. David McGuire, our location manager, assembled a selection of sites. The primary requirement was an existing structure to build upon as our backdrop. Gold Coast Studios had an unused backlot that fulfilled our needs. Loading up trucks at a scrap yard was not an option for Rob, as we required clean, blunt, nontoxic, fireproof material, safe for actors and crew interaction. One rogue nail could ruin the day.
The difficult task is to amass enough authentic disaster material for half a city block with limited time and budget. We spent time plotting the camera’s path through the disaster, both on-site and with pre-visualization, constantly adjusting the scope and scale so there was no wastage of time or material. Our leadman, Garry Pastore, had produced a documentary, Destressed, that was partially shot on location in tornado-ravaged Moore, Oklahoma; he was an invaluable resource in keeping our disaster scene authentic.
Additionally difficult with this disaster [scene] was the first day of shooting. We were simultaneously prepping the Meyerist compound in upstate New York—a two hour drive away—and the Lane house stage build, so three massive sets. A day of scouting, office visits, stage and site visits had me driving for seven hours a day. I had an amazing art crew who held it all together; I’m forever thankful for their professional and positive attitude during this very challenging time!
There are always a few little design details that require repeated viewings to catch. Are there any of these details that you’re particularly proud of?
I’m extremely proud that we got almost all of our Peru scenes [shot] around upstate New York, though I loved the thought of going to Peru, personally. These moments of television and movie magic are one of the aspects of the job that keeps me invigorated and excited by our industry.