Surprisingly, when production designer Arv Greywal joined Genius in Season 2 to take on Picasso, sourcing art was the least of his concerns.
Perhaps the greatest painter of the 20th century, Picasso led a long and fascinating life, spanning 91 years, three wars, and endless artistic creations. For Greywal—who also has Waco and Alias Grace up for Emmys consideration—the incredible path Picasso’s life took resulted in endless design opportunities. “He lived for so long, and lived in so many different places, and experienced so many different things,” Greywal says. “How many wives and muses did he have? How many art schools, art studios, art galleries displayed [his work]? How many places did he live?”
While Picasso’s complex life provided endless design opportunities, it also resulted in a complex production. “To me, the project was so expansive that it was really daunting, in terms of, how do you bring this together?” the production designer explains.
Juggling timeline continuity, 300 sets, and five art departments—while bouncing between the myriad European locales Picasso haunted—Greywal faced an uphill battle in crafting a cohesive piece.
In the end, it was one solitary photograph that would give him his “coalescing thread”—his key to unlocking Picasso’s world.
Joining Genius in Season 2, did you look to Season 1 as an aesthetic guide? Were certain aspects of the series’ creative DNA set in stone with Einstein?
I watched the first couple of episodes of Season 1 to get an idea of the scope of the show, and to determine the style of lighting and camera. CGI plays an important role on this show, and I wanted to glean any information I could to use their talent and strengths in creating Picasso’s world for the second season.
The most important lesson to be learned from the first season was about the shifting timelines. The younger and older Einstein storylines intercut each other, and the story stretched throughout several decades. Picasso’s storylines would be intercutting the same way, and run over nine decades, so it was imperative that the production design pay careful attention to this and track it in a way that maintained a cohesion to it, and kept it from being either too similar or too disjointed. Guarding that balance was important.
In early discussion, it was determined that in the second season, the lighting style would be relatively the same, but the camera movements and the production design would alter radically. [Showrunner] Ken Biller and [cinematographer] Mathias Herndl came up with a plan as to how camera would see Picasso throughout the different time periods. For the young Picasso, from birth to about age 35, we were going to have a livelier camera: Lots of hand-held shots, a lot of energetic movement to show him within his world. The older Picasso’s world would be depicted in a very staged or very contained frame. The idea was to stage a tableau on the screen, very much like you would see in a painting—action within a frame.
In terms of production design, I very much wanted to capture the fresh excitement of the young painter, the manic energy and the vibrancy of his life as he grew into someone who is arguably the greatest painter of the 20th century. Then, with the older Picasso, I wanted the production design to lend a formality and gravitas that mirrored him, the importance of his work and his weighty struggles in later life.
Were there particular finds in your research, preparing for the series, that were helpful in determining your aesthetic concepts for the season?
After my first phone call with Mathias, even before I was officially hired, he sent me a photograph that he thought encapsulated the way he wanted camera to depict the older Picasso. It was an entrancing Arnold Newman color photograph, taken in 1956, of Picasso in his studio at La Californie, near Cannes.
I’m always thrilled by the numinous energy of artwork and Picasso’s art certainly has this numinosity, if you will, in spades. Arnold Newman is a master at his craft, and this photo gave me that same numinous experience that I’ve felt with other works of renown—the photos of Picasso at the height of his career in his second to last house. It’s a very cinematic photo. It shows Picasso [in] medium close-up, cigarette in hand, his dark eyes glaring out at you. The light in the studio is beautiful; it embellishes the art nouveau architecture, and he’s surrounded by all the things that inspire him. Hundreds of canvases, easels, brushes, sculpture and pottery all around him. Also, Iberian statuary, African masks, and drawings and sketches by the hundreds.
We made this photo our template, our parti pris. I studied this photo endlessly because I wanted to capture that same impalpable spirit the photo had in my sets. I [conceived of] the scope and scale of the various sets using this particular room he was photographed in as a measure; from it, I also derived our overarching color palette and a really strong direction for the way we were going to physically dress the sets.
What was the process in finding locations for a series that is so dynamic, moving back and forth geographically and in time?
We were based out of Budapest, where our studio sets were built and the majority of our shooting was done. We also shot in Paris, Málaga, Barcelona and Malta. I was working with five separate locations departments and I must’ve taken between 40 to 50 flights over the course of the show. The cities provided an amazing amount of extraordinary locations. The challenge was that because we were block shooting two episodes at a time and our story was intercutting between two different timelines, we couldn’t always shoot Paris for Paris or Barcelona for Barcelona.
We also had a further challenge of shooting summer scenes during the winter months. So we had to create Rome, Barcelona, Paris and the south of France in Malta; an outdoor Parisian Cafe in Budapest in March; Montmartre in a tiny little snowbound town outside Budapest when it was supposed to be late summer. This is mostly par for the course when making a TV series, but it became a real challenge to make sure that the Barcelona we were filming in Malta tracked with the Barcelona we’d already filmed in Budapest, and with the one we had already filmed in a little town near Sitges—and with Barcelona, itself.
So it was imperative that each location we chose, or each set we built on location, met our defined parameters of timeline continuity, historical accuracy, type of architecture, material and color palette, and finally scale and scope.
By design, the series makes an interesting aesthetic juxtaposition between the poverty Picasso grew up in and the lavish spaces he would later occupy.
Absolutely. He was born in Málaga, and we actually filmed in the apartment building that he was in. We were on the floor below, which had been turned into a bit of a museum; the floor above had been cut up into administrative offices. We recreated his birth in that room, in the very building he was in.
One of the bigger contrasts that we played up was the small scale of his father’s studio, where we see his first painting that he does at the age of nine, called “The Picador.” It was small and cramped, with very little light coming in, and we then contrast that with where he was in Vauvenargues, for example, this massive castle that he was in. It was almost like a Citizen Kane type thing.
Also in terms of the places he visited, the art schools are very tiny and cramped, and we stuffed them full of old furniture of the era. The brothels that as a 16- or 14-year-old he first visits, we gave them this really grimy look, versus where he started to live in the Rue La Boétie for example, one of his massive places; the types of exhibitions that he would have and the types of galleries, where we had these beautiful, fantastic, sunlit spaces. So there was a lot of contrast, beginning to end, that way.
What was important to capture, in terms of Picasso’s workspaces?
His workspace was burgeoning; it was filled. Once he put something in its place, it really never got moved or cleaned up or anything like that—and that was consistent throughout every studio he had, with the exception of maybe one, which was in Vauvenargues.
When you look at his studio in Bateau-Lavoir, which translates into “The Boat Wash-house,” it was creaky and leaky and waterlogged to some effect. What we saw there in photographs was this idea of being cramped. It wasn’t so much cramped, but it was more visual stimulation. Everything that he painted, everything that influenced him was constantly around him. Whether it was his apartment, or his art studios or art schools that he went to—or even the brothels or bullrings—we always filled the spaces with images and pieces that would influence him, from Iberian sculpture, to African masks, to bull skulls, to pottery.
How did you go about securing Picasso’s art for this installment of Genius?
The Picasso Foundation gave us permission to access 150 of his paintings in the form of hi-res images from an approved website—a digital repository for works for a multitude of significant artists. Once we had these images, the process of re-creating the artwork—Picasso’s and all the other artists’—was really quite simple. We ink-jet printed the images onto canvas, and then stretched them on stretchers accurate to the period. The Picasso Foundation also gave us permission to layer on brushstrokes using a clear coat acrylic. The goal with this was to give the paintings a depth that would make them more real for camera. I’m not sure how many paintings we ultimately ended up recreating, but I’m guessing it was around 400. We had about 14 people working full time on creating all the paintings required for the show.
How was the bombing of Guernica recreated for the screen?
It’s a really good mix of practical and CGI. We had a tough time finding the location that would play for Guernica. I looked at over a dozen locations and none of them really suited the geography we needed for the scene; others were so modernized that it would have been cost prohibitive to make them historically accurate.
Ken wanted the audience to be uncertain of the time period they were in, initially. We also needed long streets coming into the square, which would allow the camera to track the attacking planes from ground level as they approached. Most importantly, I wanted an open space somewhere on the square, where we could build a building that could be blown up by special effects, at the very end, to punctuate the scene.
Fortunately, on a day I was out scouting with Ken and Mathias, we came across this little town called La Granada. It had a beautiful square that lent itself perfectly to the geography that the script was asking for, and like all Spanish squares, it had a beautiful church anchoring it.
We undertook a really long process to take the location back in time to 1937. We stripped the buildings in the square and the three streets entering it of all modern elements. We added architectural and set dressing elements to the buildings that would make them historically accurate. We also covered the ground in dirt and gravel and built a market that matched our research for markets in Northern Spanish towns. My goal was to show simple everyday human interaction and the innocence with which those people went about their daily life. That, though, was only half of the mandate. Beyond this, we built structures and scenarios where stunts and special effects would have an opportunity to create the violence that was necessary to show the savagery that ultimately informed Picasso’s Guernica.