On Suspiria, her first project with Oscar-nominated director Luca Guadagnino, production designer Inbal Weinberg faced challenges that were almost insurmountable, on creative and practical levels. An homage to Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, rather than a straight remake, Guadagnino’s film demanded boundless creativity on the part of the artisans involved. “It was tough from the beginning to push your imagination further, constructing something from nothing,” Weinberg says. “Sure, references are great, but you can’t just walk into someone’s apartment and say, ‘Oh, I want to do it like this.’ It [features] a space that’s never existed, so that was tough.”
Putting herself through endless “mental exercises” to satisfy a specific vision, the designer also faced off against The Grand Hotel Camp dei Fiori, an abandoned hotel on top of an Italian mountain which was built in 1910, and closed its doors in 1968. Effective as this location was in evoking the eeriness at the film’s core, it proved an altogether brutal environment in which to shoot. “I always believe that there is some karma-like feeling when you’re working in difficult spaces. It’s like when you’re shooting in a prison or something like that—it permeates, which is the point of architecture,” the designer explains. “We were working in the middle of the winter, and we had to construct these spaces in the underground part of the hotel. The hotel itself even had rooms that were creepier than the rooms that we had constructed.”
Like the original Suspiria, this iteration centers on a world-renowned dance company that just so happens to be run by witches, with an American (Dakota Johnson) talent falling into a tangled web of their design. In truth, Weinberg didn’t spend all that much time thinking about witchcraft and the imagery associated with it (pentagrams aside), though she did have to break the “mother house” (or “Mutterhaus”) down into all kinds of spaces with their various manifestations of dark magic. “Every room had its own function; we sequestered it by rooms and tried to think of each room, what was its purpose, and then we constructed it differently,” Weinberg notes. There was the “Room of Shelves,” a cabinet of curiosities with its beautiful china and sophisticated elements, and the “Room of Feasts,” a grand space where rituals took place. And then, there was the “Room of Compartments,” the design of which Weinberg broke down exclusively for Deadline:
The set was conceived as part of the dark world hidden within the Markos Dance Company. Here, the witches keep their victims in limbo as they wait to be sacrificed.
Visual references included 1800s Puritan boarding schools, ‘coffin’ beds made for the homeless in Victorian England, Norman Bates’ mother’s bed in Psycho, and illustrations by surrealist artist Alfred Kubin.
One of Kubin’s drawings depicted a meager gure hunched inside a triangle. Luca Guadagnino loved it, so Weinberg expanded the idea into a pentagram window, “which we built into the pre-existing nooks on location.”
The space was intended to feel like a “menacing cocoon” and so the art department researched materials like wax, honey and wire, but ended up embracing “the simplicity of threadwork”, like that used by contemporary artist Chiharu Shiota.
Guadagnino fell for the threadwork, and it ultimately covered the entire room. “The final result was an eerie and mesmerizing cobweb-like space; part horror, part art installation,” Weinberg says.
If Suspiria was a passion project for its director, it was also one that necessitated passion on the part of everyone else, too difficult to manage in its absence. For more from our conversation with Weinberg, read on.
Reading the script for Suspiria, what did you see that excited you?
There were three things in it that I personally love. One is modern dance, one is the late ‘70s, and one is Berlin, so to have all three elements together in a script was very rare. I was thinking, when would I ever have this opportunity again? And the script was just very good. I’m not a big fan of the [horror] genre, but the script didn’t really read like a horror film. It was a psychological examination of the darkness in people. I loved the historical connotations that it was making to this specific time in the history of Germany, and knowing Luca’s work, I was also assuming it was going to have a very specific style, and was going to be really refined.
Did you have any relationship to the original film by Dario Argento, going into the project?
No, actually. I hadn’t even seen it until I got the script and then immediately went to—if you can believe it—a video store, and found the movie there. It’s a super intriguing movie in many ways, but my sensibility is a little more realistic, so I was left a bit confused as to why certain artistic decisions were made. There’s also merit to not knowing why certain artistic decisions are made, but I always want to be able to connect style and content, and at times in the original Suspiria, I couldn’t find the connection.
Can you describe the early stages of your collaboration with Luca? What references became important in developing the film’s look?
Luca is a designer himself and he sees things very distinctively, so immediately he had a lot of books that he had put aside for that project—a lot of different references from photography, from different eras of fine art—and I brought my references. Some of our references were the same, but it was just for a while looking through images, deciding what images stuck, what was important to the story.
Luca’s team had already found our main location, which was this large abandoned hotel. Very quickly I was brought into that conversation, and once we decided that was going to be our main location, we already had the image of most of the spaces. They were altered significantly, but still, we knew where we were starting from.
We explored a lot of architecture of the early 20th century to decide on our style for the main locations. I did a lot of research on Berlin in the ‘70s—exactly what it was like to live in a divided city, and what exact neighborhoods we were going to portray, since we were shooting a lot out of Germany, and we wanted to make sure that everything connected seamlessly. For Berlin, a lot of it was photographic reference—a lot of documentary photography and films from the time that were made in Germany. Then when it came to the underworld, it became a bit more eclectic, and we collected from a lot of different eras, from surrealist to postmodernist art.
Did you travel to Berlin before filming, as part of your research?
Yeah. I knew Berlin well already; I’d lived there for a summer. I speak German, and I’ve been there many times, but it was really interesting to go for a few days, just in the context of the film. There are a few areas in Berlin where there are still remnants of the wall, so I went to the wall and even measured it, took as many photos as possible of the texture of the wall, because we already knew we were going to have to recreate it. So, it was like a survey of the wall.
We had a lot of modes of transportation, so I got in touch with the authorities to see [about] the streetcars that were used in the ‘70s in Berlin, and what exact subway trains were used, just to understand the architecture. We went to a museum that used to be the central station where people would pass from one side to the other, and it’s actually called the “[Palace] of Tears,” because it was obviously a tragic place where a lot of people had to separate. We explored a lot of the actual stuff that was more historical, and that helped a lot later on when we were recreating things—for sure in Italy, and then also when we came back to Germany to do two weeks of shooting there.
From what I hear, you had to not only build sets within an isolated, abandoned hotel, but also renovate the building itself to make filming safe—and therefore, possible.
Yes, absolutely. I remember distinctly the first time I went there. We spent a few hours, I walked out and I could almost not breathe. I almost wanted to throw up because it was so overwhelming. The place was amazing. You could tell immediately that it was going to be very, very difficult to find anything better, just because of the grandness of the place—that large lobby, the way certain rooms flowed into other rooms, the large ballroom that was already there. We scouted other places because we knew that that location was going to be so difficult logistically, but nothing else came close. But the logistical challenge was immense.
First of all, driving up to the top of the mountain would take about half an hour, just from the bottom to the top. We started working in the fall, but then we worked all through the winter, and when you get to this amazing place, it’s basically abandoned, so there was almost no electricity, and no heat whatsoever. Some rooms, the ceiling had caved in. There was debris on the floor; certain areas, the walls were flaking. It was such a grand challenge that when we all decided that that was going to be the place, we were just like, “Okay, no matter what, we have to make this happen.”
So, then the entire production moved up to this hotel. We had to rewire the entire hotel for electricity and make sure all the water pipes worked, so we could use the restrooms and use running water. We couldn’t get the heating systems to work because they had been down for decades, so the entire winter, we just worked with these portable heaters—these mushroom heaters that everybody had to carry around from one room to the other. I can’t believe nothing caught on fire because it was just like live fire everywhere, and then these tiny, tiny electric heaters that we had in the art department.
We had our little art department satellite office inside the hotel, and the construction team had taken over the old cable car station and worked out of there. Our scenic team found some space in the basement. It was kind of insane how everybody worked it out, and thankfully, everybody made do. We had to have green rooms there, hair and makeup, so logistically, just making that space work for everyone was a huge challenge—and even though it was inhabitable, let me tell you, it was no picnic.
What was the process of building your sets within this environment?
A lot of the hotel had been built in a more decorative era in Italian architecture, so there were a lot of decorative elements that we had to cover to make into a more modernist aesthetic that we were going for. We actually built a lot on top of what was there so that it fit our style better, and what’s interesting in such a large space is that you’re working within your sets, and you’re sort of living in your sets.
We spent a lot of our time just protecting our sets because that was the only way out of the building. We had made this incredible floor in the lobby that the scenic team had worked on for weeks. But then, of course, that’s where the entire crew had to walk in and out of every day. So there was a lot going on in that space—it was kind of madness daily.
What was beautiful is that we had so much real estate there. We made the entire Klemperer apartment there; we literally took one wing of the hotel and turned it into an apartment. All of the underground was the Mutterhaus area, and we always would find little nooks where they could be shooting B unit for dream sequences. There was always stuff happening everywhere.
How did you go about designing scenes where mirrors were omnipresent? That scenario seems like it would be a major challenge for a film crew to confront.
The Room of Mirrors was always written as a studio of mirrors, so the issue of reflection was always going to be there, and the visual effects supervisors really wanted to try to figure things out ahead of time. There wasn’t a lot of time to pre-plan and in the end, Luca just kind of said, “Listen, whatever happens, happens.” But we did our absolute best to prepare. We prepared a model in order for people to get the understanding of what you see through. We also got a two-way mirror, so that they could actually shoot from the outside of the room, through the mirror, and not see their reflection. But I don’t actually know what, if any of that footage, was ever used.
What I think happened in the end is that there’s probably a lot of visual effects erasing. I’m not 100% sure how much. But also, I think when they got in there, they realized that not every shot was as complex as they had feared. In terms of the art department, we had tried to pre-visualize it with everybody, and we did a few rehearsals with the dancers there. We photographed all of the rehearsals, so we knew what areas were going to be explored within the room, and then we offered up the two-way mirror as well.