Coming off of the critically acclaimed first season of The Handmaid’s Tale—for which she won her first Emmy—production designer Julie Berghoff challenged herself with another singular dystopian sci-fi series, in the form of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.
An avid fan of the seminal sci-fi author’s short stories, Berghoff appreciated Dick’s ability to capture the world as it was in his time, as well as his unusual ability to forecast future societal developments with his prose. “He’s the king. He thought so much in the future about what it was going to look like that a lot of it is coming true to his writing,” Berghoff says of the author. “I specifically loved his short stories because they’re mostly about the working man, and what’s going on with the working man now is very prevalent.”
Looking back to several of Dick’s stories in prep for the series—specifically, the story behind Dee Rees’ season closer “Kill All Others”—Berghoff ultimately built the worlds of her episodes from the ground up based on the dictates of the script. Often challenged to build diverse sets within one stage space for separate episodes, the production designer’s task was to investigate the intertwining futures of technology and humanity, with a little help from the World Wide Web.
Having taken on The Handmaid’s Tale prior to this series, is there something exciting about venturing into dystopian worlds?
Of course. As a designer, to be able to come together with showrunners and directors to envision what this world is going to be, we know we’re creating a language. We’re creating a visual aspect to back up that language, especially in The Handmaid’s Tale, with a new, almost Puritan society. In all of these projects, there was a connection with each director, talking about the characters and what this world looked like.
All five [Electric Dreams episodes] were different time periods, so they were all unique with the language and the visuals and the technology, and finding out what each one of those was, was a journey. What does technology look like today, what does technology look like in 2048, and how much will it shift?
It was super-exciting to wrap my head around that because I hadn’t done sci-fi to this degree. The Handmaid’s Tale is science fiction in the writing, but this one had more sci-fi technology-driven elements that I had to think about. What do light switches look like? How do windows open? How do doors open? I had never wrapped my head around something like that before, so that was really fun for me to envision.
Bearing in mind that each episode of Electric Dreams is standalone, were there certain overarching concepts or inspirations for the aesthetics of the series, and the worlds you were building here?
I look to classic architecture a lot because I think that something clean and classic is going to be the one that continues to be rebuilt in our world. For “Autofac”, I looked to Italian architecture—but more the Brutalist architecture—and then the Brutalist architecture in Chicago, which originated in the ’40s, but has become predominant in government and school buildings. It still looks futuristic, even though it’s over 80 years old.
I think most designers you’ll find, especially in [projects centered on] the future, it depends on the project. It’s like, what do spaceships look like? I had to create a couple of spaceships and drones, thinking about the future in “Autofac”—like, how are packages now being delivered? All of that was really looking at what’s now and thinking, “Okay, in 80 years we won’t have this technology.” But for the drone, for example, I used air balloons for part of the flotation. Balloons have been around for hundreds of years, and they’re still prevalent, and still a function that we use.
There are certain things where I like to go back to something and say, “This is still going to be functional in the future, especially with certain elements disappearing.” Like, maybe gas disappearing, and we have to use solar and wind power. Those elements could be gone, so how would a car move in the future? For the car on “Real Life”, we did it with magnets. That was my philosophy. I don’t think it came across, but there were actually magnets, and that’s how it went up. It was connected to the ground through some magnet technology, which was something that is actually being developed now for the future.
Do anthology series tend to be more challenging than traditional narrative series? Working on a series of standalone episodes must necessitate a lot more construction.
Yeah, this is probably the hardest project I’ve ever worked on. We only had two-and-a-half weeks between each episode. We also shot double-up days so we would be shooting 11 days, and the last three of those days would be shooting the next project. So it was insane, and of course, money is always an object. I was always trying to figure out ways to re-use sets, and modify them, and do it in the timeframe that we had, but make them different enough that you didn’t know that it was the same set. We were spending $450-$500,000 on construction for the bigger design ones.
“Autofac” was a lot of building and, of course, “Kill All Others.” “Real Life,” I built the penthouse apartment, which then turned into the classroom for the later episodes, and then turned into the factory for “Autofac”. It was really challenging to try to use one set and make it look three different ways, and I think I was pretty successful in doing that.
While half of Season 1 was shot in the U.K., your episodes were shot in Chicago. How did you find exterior locations that would work within a futuristic setting? How much of the series was shot on stages?
They were shot all over the city and outside the city. I was on stages for probably half of it, and then I was on location for half of it ‘cause we had to balance it out. We would be shooting “Kill All Others”, the apartment on stage, but then shooting the train tracks, we actually shot live train tracks. I modified a train on the inside and then we VFX’d the outside. We had a visual effects person on every hour, and we would come together and decide what was visual effects, what I would build, what was location—and the more practical we could do, obviously, that’s what production wants us to do, usually for economic reasons. But because we’re shooting so much that was stylized, even if it was shooting an exterior, I would be modifying it to fit our world.
How did you work with the VFX team to develop holograms and other materials that wouldn’t be producible through physical means?
We literally were designing everything and having to go through the director to re-work it. I designed all the cars and what they look like, and the wraps—and again, we were on a limited budget. We’re on TV. For the self-driving cars we used for “Kill All Others”, I was like, “We’re re-using those and we’re going to wrap them in pink, green, and yellow for the later episode, and then we’re going to cover the windscreens to make it more futuristic because they’re self-driving.”
Everything had a backstory and was thought out thoroughly, what the holograms looked like. The aspect ratio on “Kill All Others” was different than the aspect ratio for “Autofac.” And what does the technology look like in a factory that’s all automated by robots? There’s a hippie colony, and what does that look like? They’re trying to survive off the earth, and their plants are dying. How does a shower work when there’s no power anymore? Every detail was thought out on how to make each aspect work for the future.
Beyond looking to the past, what are your main resources when you’re contemplating designs for a futuristic world? Are you looking to the headlines, as far as what’s really going on with the cutting-edge tech of today?
It’s really doing a lot of reading and finding out what’s happening for the future—like, what is Tesla going to look like in 10 or 20 or 30 years? Because [Elon Musk]’s at the forefront of technology, of the direction the world is going in. And then connecting it to the story, because each story has to reflect the characters.
There’s a lot of planning for how we’re going to expand in the world with more people coming. The government has a whole agency that just thinks about city planning, so I looked at a lot of city planning for the future and how we’re going to bring more nature into the world. For “Real Life”, there are very few cars anymore—it’s almost all flying cars and bicycles, and smaller, electric cars, so the roads would change. That would give opportunity for building either more properties for people or more parks, to bring more green into the world to help oxygenate the air. There’s a lot of sleepless nights, thinking about how just a simple four-lane road would change if there are no cars on it anymore. I mean, think about what that would look like.
I looked a lot to classics, adding something classic. We still maybe want to push a button to do something, but then it brings a hologram up. I think it’s the combination of classic with the future developing. We didn’t have any person that we called to talk to about Motorola, Apple, or any of these big companies. They’re not going to share their ideas with us. We just had to do our own research and dream it up.
What was the most challenging environment to design for Season 1?
“Autofac” was the most challenging to design because there was so much technology, so many locations, and it was such a big script, with a whole colony, spaceships, a factory. What does that factory look like? We basically built the whole inside of that factory. We started off at this water plant, where they were running through the tunnels, but after that it was all me, building all that in four to five weeks with my construction crew doing two shifts to get it done in time—[figuring out] how much to build, and how much we could do in visual effects, and working closely to do the pods [Juno Temple’s “Emily”] finds herself inside of. We loved the idea that it was a big doll box—that’s why it’s standing upright and has the acrylic that’s going over her face like a Vac-u-form. There was the old technology of vacuum forming a doll into place, and I brought that back, but made it sci-fi and futuristic looking.
Building the spaceship in the timeframe was really challenging because you have all these clean surfaces, and it’s very modern, and how are they going to interact with it? Then all the maps and the hand props that were futuristic—and going to “Real Life”, thinking, what does a virtual reality set look like from modern day to the future?