Collaborating with Ryan Murphy on series including Scream Queens, American Horror Story and American Crime Story, production designer Jeffrey Mossa found a new level of spectacle and logistical difficulty with the producer’s first responder procedural series 9-1-1, in which each episode presented an array of disasters to produce for the screen.
Finding out about 9-1-1 halfway through American Horror Story: Cult with the belief that he’d be working on American Crime Story: Katrina next, Mossa turned to the procedural series when that anthology installment got delayed, finding endless visual opportunities in designing for a world where the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“That’s what’s challenging about it and keeps it interesting—you’re doing things that are not everyday items. There’s always a challenge, whether it be a major stunt, or prop or prosthetic, or something that has to be worked into the storyline,” Mossa says. “For the show on the whole, you’re doing stuff that takes longer than the typical television production period to prep.”
What was described in early conversations with the 9-1-1 creators about their vision for the series?
Initially, it was a little bit of a moving target. We were trying to figure out where this show visually was going to fit within not only the Ryan Murphy television world, but within the episodic procedural world. Ultimately, Ryan wanted a world that everybody wanted to be invited to—something that had elements of high design and stands out as different from everything else, the same way that when Apple marketed its stores, it stood out from all the other stores that were like it.
What kind of preparatory work did you do going into the series? Did you look to real-world disasters for inspiration?
A lot of that stuff is taken straight from videos the guys found on YouTube, which of course are not always the best for visual research. But we could always start with that. The writers would often send me a link to something they found that they were going to write about. Then, in some cases—for instance, with the ballroom floor collapsing—that was based on something that happened in Israel. They wanted the wedding to have a little more color to it, a little more life. They wanted it to have this local Bollywood flavor. Often, it was a jumping-off point, and then I would come back to them with some basic visual references, and we’d go from there.
What was the thought process in designing your primary sets for the series, including the firehouse and Athena Grant’s police station?
Ryan wanted the firehouse to be something that everybody wanted to hang out in, but still be believable. We had a reference of an old police station, I believe in New York City. After it shut down, an architectural firm had bought it and completely redone it, and turned it into high-end loft apartments. So what you had was these industrial elements that had been cleaned up—and it was very graphic. Having worked with Ryan on a few shows now, I know that he and I always lean towards something that’s visually graphic.
The firehouse was particularly challenging because we did design a set from soup to nuts to be built on stage, but the logistics of having 70,000-pound-plus fire trucks create all kinds of problems. In the studio at Fox, there’s only a couple of stages that are built on slabs. The others are built with a sub-basement beneath them, so we couldn’t actually drive the trucks onto our stage. So we had to then, given our time frame, hunt to find a location, which took us a couple of months to find, something that had the bones in the wall that we were looking for. Then, we built into that.
When it came to things like the police station, and finding locations for that, again, it was finding something that was graphic and held a strong visual, whether it be historically or [in terms of] color palette. I found probably four or five dramatically different locations that we could have turned into Athena’s police station, but we ended up going with the one that was linear, graphic and modern. It all sort of circles back to those sleek, graphic bones.
Could you explain the logistics that go into planning disasters for the screen? In Season 1, the plane crash and the ballroom collapse at the Indian wedding would seem to be the most extreme scenarios.
Logistics is the key word because all of these are logistically very complicated, and there’s a lot of moving parts. The plane crash was initially in the pilot script, so that was one of the first things that we knew we were going to do—and at some point, the writers decided to move that to Episode 4. So we at least had a little bit of a jump on it. In terms of time, that was logistically the most difficult and all-consuming task.
In the same way that there are a couple of guys to go to if you need a fire truck for a movie or TV show, there’s also a handful of guys that you can call up if you need an airplane. I’ve been down this road before, and there’s a couple of airplane boneyards up in the desert—there’s one in Arizona and there’s one up in Mojave. That’s just a lot of calling and seeing what’s out there, and then seeing what we can get for the money that we have. Then, of course, there’s the logistics of transporting something that’s 16 feet in diameter, and having to cut it up, and get it in pieces, and bring it down here and put it together. Lots of moving parts, lots of people, lots of conversations, lots of hiccups.
The plane took a long time to get together, and we actually ended up building our own water tank up at Disney Ranch to put the plane parts in. We shot all the beach scenes at Dockweiler Beach, and then we shot the scenes with the plane in the water—in a tank that we built—over the course of months, between the time we dug the hole, filled it, put the plane pieces in, and special effects did their thing.
The ballroom collapse was a bit more interesting because we didn’t have a lot of time. Tim Minear sent myself and Bob Williams, the line producer, a link to the video and said, “Hey, can we do this for Episode 5?” Bob said, “Of course we can,” and then I went back to Bob and said, “Couldn’t you have told them we could have done this for Episode 7 or 8?” [laughs] Because we needed a little bit more time.
So what we ended up doing for that was, I had just rolled out of American Horror Story[Cult] and into this, and we were using the same stages. We actually had Ally and Ivy’s two-story house that we had not taken down yet, knowing that we could potentially use it for something in 9-1-1, and we were just waiting to figure out what to use it for. When this presented itself, we took the top floor off that set, built a new top floor and built the ballroom on it. Then, ever so slowly and carefully, we moved the supports around it underneath, cut a giant hole in the floor that we covered up with scenic tape, and the special effect guys supported everything with cables that they dropped with a charge. We actually dropped the stunt players onto a cushion of empty cardboard boxes, but it dropped a good eight or nine feet—that whole floor, with all thirty stunt players on top of it. For the most part, very little visual effects, mostly because we didn’t have time.
Almost every crazy stunt you see in the show, we did practically. We dropped the floor practically with thirty people on it; we had the camera 18 floors in the air for the scene where there was a jumper on a balcony. For the pilot, we had the gal jumping off of the shipping crane out in San Pedro—that was all done 125 feet in the air. So any time you see any stunts in our show, almost all of them are done real. The only one that stands out, where we relied more on visual effects than any of the others, was the roller coaster getting stuck upside down.
How did you handle that scene?
The biggest challenge with that was finding an amusement park that would let you film a scene where somebody’s going to die. Nobody wants to be associated with that, just from a legal standpoint. Of course, we called Six Flags, we called everybody, and they said, “No, no. We definitely want you to film here, but not if somebody’s going to die.” So we did find a small roller coaster out in Ontario, and they were letting us film our scene there, but it did not have a loop. We had to put the loop in in visual effects. Now, we still built a giant section of that loop, and attached the roller coaster cars to it, and put it on stage against green screen, and hung everybody upside down. Everybody was acting in their normal gravity, its just that that particular section was built and shot against green screen—and of course, the visual effects artists did a great job filling in the rest of the loop from there.
Were there any Season 1 set pieces that were much more complicated and involved than you might assume, just watching the final product?
There’s definitely some of that [with] just about every teaser that we shot. The episode with the tiger, and also that tree in the beginning, was pretty challenging for so many reasons. It all goes by so fast on screen, nobody would ever know it. We actually had to find a tree that somebody would let us destroy, which is not something that we would normally like to do anyways. But given our time frame, we didn’t have time to build a tree, which is a long, involved process. So we had to find this tree. Then, we had to not only destroy it, but the way the writers had written the tree, we see it in various chunks of time. Within one minute, you see all these flashbacks, so the tree has to be full of leaves, and then largely bare. It looks diseased, and it has to be the same tree. That was incredibly difficult to schedule, to be able to shoot the first portion of it when the tree is full, and then strip all the leaves off of this 70-foot tree, and then destroy it.
In that same episode, we had the challenge of shooting the tiger. It was a real tiger, and we wanted to shoot in a real zoo—and again, most zoos won’t let you in, especially if you’re going to kill somebody. Santa Barbara Zoo is independently owned, and they agreed to allow us to film there. They would let us do everything but take our tiger on their property, because they have a 30-day quarantine policy for any animal coming into the zoo, so that none of their animals get sick.
So we shot a full day in the Santa Barbara Zoo without any tiger. Of course we got a lot of after-reaction and a lot of life of the real zoo, and then we had to go to the old zoo at Griffith Park, where there’s some old enclosures, and they actually turned it into this picnic area. It had a bunch of graffiti, and we had to repaint all that, and build enclosures, and set up that whole section, and make it all look like that was part of the Santa Barbara Zoo—and then come back and shoot the real tiger there. It cut together absolutely seamlessly, and if I didn’t tell you, I doubt you’d know it was two locations.