An Emmy-nominated production designer responsible for Todd Solondz’ Dark Horse, the Oscar-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild, and the first two seasons of True Detective, Alex DiGerlando has established himself as an artist of tremendous versatility, working consistently alongside industry auteurs and the most exciting voices emerging from the world of independent film. The creators of Netflix original series The OA, Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling are among the latter—Sundance success stories known for Sound of My Voice and Another Earth, with whom DiGerlando had previously worked on another ambitious indie, The East.
Renewed for a second season in February, The OA is not an easy series to pin down—equal parts sci-fi, fantasy, mystery and mythology, with some stunning thriller moments, to boot. Speaking with Deadline, DiGerlando breaks down the process of designing some of the series’ most ambitious set pieces, touching on the experience of shooting in Cuba and the relocation of production to California in Season 2.
You’ve worked with Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij before, but what was it about The OA that attracted you?
I just really love working with them. They’re great collaborators, so open to suggestion and spit-balling ideas. The material of the show is pretty exciting as a designer because you’re creating so many different worlds that collide into one big story. There’s the sci-fi element, then the coming of age element, the mythic element. There’s all those pieces, so you get to flex a lot of different muscles.
The series’ creators have described you as a very close collaborator—almost like another writer on the series.
That’s very nice of them to say. They wrote the scripts, but when we came to conceiving the sets, I had a lot of input; in some ways, more input than I have had with other collaborators, even in the sense that they’re like, “Well, we wrote this, but how do you see it?” Then, I would go away and pull up some research and have my team do some sketches.
The cages are a big example of that. What they wrote was sort of a series of glass cages in a line. For various reasons, I thought that that might not work that well. For all of the things that they wrote that had to happen, I thought that would be limiting, so I came up with that pentagon formation.
Also, the whole drowning rig that they go in to trigger their NDEs, that thing was described in a totally different way. I said to Zal, “Hey, I feel like this could be better.” We looked at a bunch of ideas that I had, and we collaborated together and ended up with that.
The world of this series is quite complex, with a very distinct tone and its own set of rules. In the initial stages of conceptualizing this world, were you given a show bible or any illustrations to help the process along?
The way Zal and I talk is through images. On any job, I’ll put together a look book as a jumping off point, but on this, because I worked with Zal before, and he had been talking to me about this project since before it was even at Netflix, we set up a Pinterest account, and were sending images back and forth that didn’t literally have anything to do with the story, but just spoke to us, in terms of the spirit.
Zal talks a lot about the “hum” of the story, so when we would pick up on that frequency, we would just find images that just felt a way to us. A lot of that ended up in the show—a lot of that vibe, in terms of palette, in terms of mood.
The show is sci-fi, but it’s a very different kind of sci-fi than what we’re used to seeing. It’s a very analog sci-fi; it’s kind of off-kilter. We looked at a lot of photography, fine art, Tumblr, different blogs, pulled stuff from all over the place— and really kind of random places, honestly—but it all went into the soup, so to speak.
Were there any specific visual inspirations that you brought to the table, beyond these images that this search brought forth?
To pick one thing, the glass cages, that’s kind of a trope that you see in a lot of superhero movies, actually. Trying to figure out how to not make it feel like that—because the X-men and the OA really don’t live in the same world, even though it’s fantastical and a little bit stylized—that’s what we were trying for.
I said to Zal, “I want this to feel like Hap found this mine, and he—either by himself, or with the help of some contractors who didn’t really know what he was up to—built this lab themselves, with their own hands.” We looked at a lot of imagery of steel work and construction.
When the welders were building the cages, they would use grease pencil to mark the steel, so they would know where to cut. Usually, they wipe that off afterwards—I said, “No, leave that.” I told them, “Don’t worry about the welds. They can be sloppy,” and they all looked at me like I had six heads.
On movies, we are always in search of perfection, but I was like, “No. If someone’s rushing to build this thing, it’s utilitarian. The only people that are going to see this are Hap and his captives, so he’s not going to go out of his way to make it polished.”
There is a kind of handcrafted, almost artisan quality to laboratories that is usually glossed over and slicked up in movies. I was really trying to embrace that.
What went into designing the gorgeously ominous drowning rig that Hap employs in his lab?
It was originally described as a tank that the full body gets immersed in. I felt like we’ve see that before many times, and Zal agreed, so we were brainstorming, what else could it be? Also, what we were really trying to get at is, what exactly is it doing? It was a little bit amorphous.
He’s trying to kill [his subjects], and bring them back to life, and record this NDE in the few seconds between flatlining and resurrection. If you’re going to do that over and over again, what would be the least invasive way to do that? We came up with drowning, which, I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know. [Laughs]
I don’t know if it’s actually true, but we thought like, “I’d buy that,” as opposed to pumping chemicals into people, or electrocuting them, or whoever knows what. I think there was an electrical component in the original, in the script.
Then we thought, what’s the most economical way of doing that? Having a whole tank many stories underground that you have to fill up and keep clean, that didn’t seem that practical. Then we were like, “What if it’s just the head only?”
Then, we came up with this bracing system that would keep the bodies still, so when they’re drowning, even if they’re thrashing, they couldn’t hurt themselves, or disengage the experiment. Built into that, there would be all sorts of instruments to read pulse and other vital signs, and there would be a defibrillator built into it to zap them back at the last final moment, and all that
Then, we also had this idea, which is something that people did catch on to online. We built the vest and the tube that comes down over the head in such a way to emulate the wings and halo of an angel.
What was it like to film these drowning scenes, with the actors thrust so viscerally into the reality their characters are confronting?
The execution of it was much more complicated. We knew early on that the only way to make it work was to actually submerge their heads in water, but to figure out how to make that safe. Between all of us, we figured out we would have to film it in two separate parts.
Each shot would be shot twice, so that there’s the piece with the head underwater, and that had a completely different rig from the neck down, where the actors could be in wetsuits and would stay warm, and that there was a table that their head went through, so that if they started feeling unsafe or started to panic, all they had to do was bend their knees and their head would come out of the hole, and all the water would dump out, and they were fine—because it wouldn’t be safe to have them locked into this other harness.
Then, we shot the same shot all over again, with them strapped into the harness, but with the helmet dry. Then, Lesley [Robson-Foster] in VFX composited the two together, and on the day, she had a switcher that allowed us to line up the two shots, so we could see what the final thing would look like, and make sure that the actor was positioned properly.
The experience was a little nerve-wracking. You’re asking these people who, when they signed on, had no idea that they were signing on to do this. We talked them through it, and we had a stunt person do it once for them so they could see what it was like before they were actually in it. All three of them were super good sports, but it was intense.
It’s an uncomfortable thing to watch when you’re just watching the show, but in person, it’s even more uncomfortable to watch, really. It’s real.
But I think it did pay off in the performance—I think Brit and the others would say it, too. You see the discomfort in their face, and that’s real. When they’re catching their breath afterwards, that’s real, too.
You shot internationally for this production, including in Cuba. How was that experience, and what kind of texture did that geographic specificity contribute to the series?
Cuba was always in the script. For budgetary reasons, we explored the idea of faking it in America, and we quickly arrived at the conclusion that we could go to Cuba and shoot it pretty simply, with a stripped-down crew, for way less money than we could do it convincingly here, because the texture of Cuba, it can’t be recreated—not to the production value of just having them walk down those streets, or be on that balcony, and see Old Havana down below. The Cuban art department was amazing—they have so little resources there, and they moved mountains.
There’s actually a Cuban prop house from when propaganda films were being made way back, where they still have all of this furniture that had been seized during the Revolution, just sitting there in a warehouse that’s leaky and getting rained on. We found lots of great stuff and totally built out that restaurant music venue from scratch.
And then the other big pieces, we shot at the Hotel Nacional, which was where we all stayed, so that was kind of cool.
Heading into Season 2, The OA is one of 15 series benefiting from a California tax credit and relocating production to the Golden State. How do you foresee the move impacting your work on the series going forward?
The original idea was to shoot the show—even the first season—in California, and because of the whole Michigan storyline and other wintery Russia pieces, I felt pretty adamant that it had to be done in New York. I think Zal and Brit were rolling their eyes because I’m from New York, and they’re like, “Yeah, you just want to be at home.” I’m like, “Yeah, but I think the show would be served better here.”
We had some scouts in California looking for the housing development stuff and I said, “I really don’t think you’re going to find that bleak wintery landscape in LA. It just doesn’t exist there.” I had done True Detective out there, so I knew LA.
Season 2…Let’s just say that it makes sense for them to shoot Season 2 in Los Angeles. For story reasons, and for the look that they’re going for, it makes sense, but I don’t know what I should say about that.