For Netflix limited series Maniac, a show that “lent itself to being creative and out there,” production designer Alex DiGerlando thoughtfully crafted the many layers of a retrofuturistic world unlike any seen on screen before.
Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, with whom DiGerlando enjoyed a “great collaboration” on the first season of True Detective, the series centered on Annie (Emma Stone) and Owen (Jonah Hill), two strangers who meet while participating in a mind-bending pharmaceutical trial, connecting in a way that neither understands.
During these trials, the pair would be transported into a series of drug-induced fantasy scenarios—including a 1980s Long Island lemur caper, a 1940s séance and an epic world akin to Lord of the Rings—which DiGerlando brought to life. His crowning achievements, though, would have to be his portrait of a “bizarro New York”—a strange, ambiguous world in which past, present and future converge—as well as the creation of lab interiors for the series’ principal location, Neberdine Pharmaceutical Biotech. “Clearly, a lot of the world had been imagined in the script,” the production designer explains, “but there was a lot of room left to imagine.”
Bringing primary colors and delectable mid-century aesthetics to Maniac, DiGerlando finds the look he crafted for the series “a very hard thing to verbalize,” to this day. Gravitating toward films of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the designs of notable futurists, he compares his early stages of research and design to “mining for gold.”
Between Maniac and The OA—another beautifully heady Netflix series—DiGerlando has established himself as a master of design, when it comes to worlds that are as challenging to craft as they are rewarding to watch. For the production designer, the key to tackling these kinds of projects successfully is “being open to all sorts of inputs and inspirations.”
“It’s sort of ineffable. You start building up a library of things that inspire you, and then eventually, the things that you respond to tell you what it is you’re doing,” DiGerlando reflects. “I find that if I try to impose myself on the project, that’s when I get slapped in the face. It’s more like I have to let the material tell me.”
The way it’s written, it’s never clear, but it kind of takes place in what feels like the future—but really, on closer examination, is more like an offbeat version of now. A lot of the things, like Ad Buddy and Friend Proxy, are things that are really available to us in the tech sphere. But in our show, they’re more analog.
So, we were trying to figure out, “What does the world that things like that exist in look like?” For half a second, we thought about following design trends that are of the present time, veering toward what’s coming down the pike in the future. But we quickly abandoned it, because we realized it would distract from the story. Even with a quick turnaround time, there were going to be things that immediately [became] dated, and the story is not about that. The story is not about technology; this wasn’t like Altered Carbonor Blade Runner. It’s about humanity and connection, so we didn’t want people to get caught up.
As we were making the show, eventually we developed a shorthand of figuring out what felt like the world of Maniac and what didn’t, but it was sort of a binary thing. Just going through tons of images, we knew “This is it” or “This isn’t.” We never really figured out the perfect way to describe it, but if I was going to attempt to, I would say that the world is like [the way in which] someone in the mid-century to ‘80s would have imagined the future might’ve turned out—our present being their future.
Was Maniac’s aesthetic inspired by any films or works of art in particular?
We looked at a large cross section of films from the ‘70s and ‘80s to inspire the world, and that’s where the funky, 8-bit computer graphics look of the world came from. But the one that is the best encapsulation of the look I was going for is the Douglas Trumbull film, Brainstorm. It’s about scientists who develop a device that lets you see the world through other people’s eyes; it’s kind of like Strange Days, that Kathryn Bigelow movie, which we also looked at.
That does not age well, but one of the amazing things about Brainstormis that even now, all the technology that you see in that film, even though it’s very dated, felt very convincing. You could look at that movie and believe that what you were seeing was actual technology. It was very handmade and DIY. We looked at a lot of documentary photos of the way scientists work, and you don’t go to the Science Store and buy technology, right? You make technology. The prototypes for all of these high-tech things—before they come to you or me, before we ever see them—were made in labs, out of hundreds of unruly wires. They’re not in a slick package designed by Jony Ive, and Brainstorm had that feel. The lab felt like a lab, everyone’s smoking, and there’s piles of sh*t everywhere.
You see the inner workings of all the machinery, and that’s something that Cary and I really wanted to feel. Even though we were creating a stylized look for the technology and for the world in general, it needed to feel tangible, like you could interact with it.
How were you able to create the visual presentation of a strange, futuristic world, while often shooting on location in New York?
We had a very talented location manager named Ryan Smith, who is a very creative person in his own right. I needed him to find all of the most amazing places that feel quintessentially New York, but that we’ve never seen before on film. I said, “Anything that you scouted in the past, but couldn’t use because it was too weird, that’s what we want for this show.”
Pretty early on, we had the idea to shoot in Roosevelt Island for where Owen lives. [With their] brutalist architecture, a big swath of the apartment complexes that are on Roosevelt Island have this futuristic feel to them. So, we built the apartment itself, but we based it on an apartment that we found. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Roosevelt Island, but it’s all these concrete buildings, and they’re attached to one another, so you could enter one, and walk through three, and come out in another building down the block. Everything feels really European, and the only way you know where you are is, there’s these primary colors. Each building has its own; there’s a red one, a blue one, and a yellow one, and that’s their wayfinding system. It’s very mid-century.
So, it was finding these interesting pieces of architecture and unusual landmarks that we could build our New York out of. It was really a curation job, piecing it together so that when it all got cut together, you believed it was all the same place, and it still felt like New York. We couldn’t build everything like they did in Blade Runner, so we had to sort of stitch together a tapestry using places.
All five boroughs and beyond were on the table, so we were jumping all over the city, [based on] what worked for the look. For example, the Neberdine Pharmaceutical building—the building that has that rainbow stripe—that’s the first thing we looked for, and the last thing we found, over nine or 10 months of pre-production and production. It took forever to find the right thing, and then we found this condominium in Chinatown. It’s enclosed in its own little courtyard, so it sort of feels like an ivory tower—and obviously, we digitally extended it so that it’s much taller than it actually is.
What was your approach to designing Maniac’s lab interiors?
The lobby check-in area was at Queens College, and we actually plugged up all the windows so that it felt like it was underground. Then, once they take the elevator down that hallway that leads them to the lab—where the pods are, and the control room, the GRTA mainframe computer room, and the room with the chairs and headsets—all of that was one big set. Because Cary really likes uninterrupted shots and living environments. He wanted a working space where all of the different components related to one another, so that the actors and extras felt like they were immersed in this space, and nothing broke the illusion for them.
[In that space], there’s people running the control booth, people doing repairs on the mainframe, the janitor staff, the food service ladies, the various technicians and doctors and orderlies, and all that stuff, and it was super important to Cary that it felt like all those people had a purpose—that they were all engaged in what they were doing—so that it wouldn’t look like a bad episode of Star Trek, where some random light’s blinking, and someone’s just pushing a button meaninglessly. So, we actually had rehearsals, and advisors coming in to teach the extras what they should be doing—coaching them, in terms of protocol, which is obviously a funny exercise for a clearly fictional activity. But [Sonoya Mizuno], the actress who played Azumi, she would come in while we were still building the set and sit at that console, and just practice pressing buttons, so that it felt like she was doing it with purpose.
All of that to say that a lot of the thought that went into the design was, “How would the space work?” How would staff flow from one area to the other? What are the areas behind the scenes where the test subjects would they be? Where would the staff be? Where would the staff and the subjects intersect? Where would the staff be that the patients would never see?
Some of the more challenging design things were logistical. We knew we wanted to base the bunks for the subjects on Japanese pod hotels, but it’s tricky to fit that many pods into a small space. How do the actors get in and out of them easily? It’s fine for the lower ones, but we spent a long time designing ladders that could easily collapse and fold into the set, so that the actor could pull out the ladder, climb up, and it wouldn’t be awkward or clunky.
How did you bring fictional technology to life for the series, including the headsets you mentioned, and the GRTA supercomputer?
We went through lots of different versions [of each], and these are all tropes—things that are in many science-fiction movies that we wanted to make our own version of. In a lot of films with devices that are reading brainwaves, it’s usually like the upside-down colander with wires sticking out, so we knew early on that we didn’t want to do that. We came up with helmets that sort of obscured the actors’ heads, but we realized, we’ve got Emma Stone and Jonah Hill—we want to be able to see them.
Cary was sort of caught up on microwaves, and the technology that you see for playback monitors on a film set. So, we thought it could be kind of interesting if there’s these antennas that close around the head, but don’t actually touch the head, and we torched the metal panels to make them look like they take a lot of heat, so you can see the residue of past experiments on it.
There’s a motif in the show in general—but also at Neberdine Pharmaceuticals—of rainbows. Their slogan is “Find the end of your rainbow”, and we based the wayfinding in the lab on the Vignelli subway maps from the ‘60s, those rainbow lines that lead you to different parts of the lab. But then there’s six colors of wires that lead from each of the six headsets and converge. Each subject has their own color, and then all those colored wires coming from their headsets converge into a bundle, which is a rainbow that matches the Neberdine Pharmaceuticals logo. Then, those bundles go through portals in the wall, which lead into the mainframe computer. So, that was a big thing that we thought about when we were designing the headsets.
The GRTA, that’s another trope. You have HAL 9000, and you have MOTHER in Alien; MOTHER was probably a pretty big influence for us, with the way the lights blink. It’s funny, Patrick wrote it as if the computer was blinking and smiling at Owen. I don’t know that he necessarily meant that so literally, but we found this programmer in Austin, and I was like, “Could you program the lights to be animated?” So, all that stuff is practical. None of that was done in post.
The inside of the computer was one of the trickiest things to design, because it bore a lot of weight in the storytelling. It explains a lot of why [Annie and Owen] are sharing these delusions, and we had a ton of conversations on how to visualize that. But we looked at a lot of mainframe computers from the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and built it to look like one of those, trying our best to add personality to it.
The pink light came from research we saw in medical spaces and computer clean rooms where they use ultraviolet light to kill germs. So, the room is actually white, but it appears pink because it always has this disinfectant light in it. And it created a really cool effect because when you were in that room and then moved out into the control room, the colors just felt so much more vibrant.
In addition to Maniac, you were behind the critically acclaimed FX series Fosse/Verdon, which is a dramatically different kind of story. What kinds of challenges presented themselves there?
With Maniac, we really invented that world, so anything could be put on the table, whereas Fosse/Verdon was based on real events, and a lot of the sets are recreations of iconic sets that people are very familiar with, like the Kit Kat Club from Cabaret, and the Fandango Ballroom from Sweet Charity. So, I took a different approach in that, rather than a curator, I treated myself as a custodian of history. I took recreating these things as accurately as possible very, very seriously, and it’s a funny thing: I had never done such extensive recreations before. I think naively, I thought it would be somehow easier, because there’s a picture of the Kit Kat Club. But recreating a three dimensional space from a two-dimensional image that’s moving is a totally different ballgame. I really discovered a different set of muscles, [as far as] how to look at things. It’s not invention; it’s looking closely and deciphering clues.