When production designer Michael Bricker was approached for Russian Doll, he had only “a very contained set of knowledge” about the series with which to craft his pitch. Reading over the pilot script without others to go on, Bricker had “no sense of what was going to happen over the course of the season,” recognizing only “this really magical quality” within the script.
A Netflix comedy created by Leslye Headland, Amy Poehler and Natasha Lyonne, Russian Doll centers on Nadia (Lyonne), a cynical New Yorker who dies on the night of her 36th birthday, only to mysteriously reappear at the party being thrown in her honor. Finding herself trapped in a time loop, à la Groundhog Day, Nadia dies many deaths and relives the same night repeatedly, as she tries to figure out what is going on.
In a way, Bricker’s journey with Russian Doll mirrored that of the series’ protagonist. Thrust into a strange and mysterious world, he then had to figure out the rules by which it operated. In another sense, Bricker and Nadia had quite different parts to play. If Nadia was the puppet, Bricker was the puppetmaster—the architect of the bizarre scenario she was experiencing, who would write the rules, and develop the underlying logic by which it would play out on screen.
Coming aboard Russian Doll, Bricker aimed to create a “more personal” connection between character, performance and design than is often seen on television, lending a great deal of attention to one specific set—a loft owned by Nadia’s friend Maxine (Greta Lee), which would change in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways over the course of Season 1. “Its own special piece,” the loft was tied inexplicably to the crucible of Nadia’s many lives—the space to which she would return, time and time again.
What were your first impressions of Russian Doll? What did you see in the pilot script that compelled you take the project on?
I knew reading it that the rules of the world were bending a little bit—that this was something more magical or fantasy, versus sci-fi—which I think is actually a pretty important distinction. There wasn’t necessarily something there that was the specific reason why everything was happening; it was a little bit more fantastic. I liked that that was on the page, and it felt like the design could be really pushed or heightened, to a degree that would celebrate that magic.
When you first spoke with the series’ creators, what did they convey in terms of their conception of it, and an overarching aesthetic for its world?
It was a really cryptic process. Before I got hired, I had a Skype call with Natasha and Leslye, and I didn’t have any visuals from them, so I just pitched what I responded to, which again was this kind of fantasy art-scape—and that as soon as Nadia left the bathroom, she was entering Wonderland, and entering this dream space. I think what Natasha responded to with that is, she had always imagined or described the world as a snow globe, so that there were actual edges to the world.
I think we had a connection there in how we were thinking about the universe, and that was the pitch. I didn’t hear from them for a while, and then it came around and they were like, “Get in here. Let’s get started.” From there, most of our conversations were really similar to what I pitched. It was about a very colorful, very saturated, very artist-based landscape and world, and then the logic that I injected into it was how that would change over the course of the evening, and how it would change based on where Nadia went within the world.
How did you come to your design for Maxine’s loft and the bathroom portal within it?
After we got started and I had maybe three scripts, we knew that the loft was really the anchor point for the series, and the bathroom was her reset point. The show is not a take on Alice in Wonderland, I don’t think, but there are a few similarities and the script had a few very subtle references to Alice in Wonderland. So, I took that notion of the bathroom itself being the rabbit hole, and I liked that the mirror itself would be a portal. In my mind, it always had to be round and thick, and feel almost like the portal of a ship. That’s where she resets, and then she turns and looks down at the door.
The door was in the script, but it was described as more like a papier mâché art piece, and we decided to go with something that was more mysterious and deeper. We wanted to imply a sense that the door was deeper than a door could actually be, so that’s your second clue. Then, when that opens, that really long hallway was designed to be her passing through the rabbit hole and entering Wonderland. So, the loft itself is Wonderland, full of artwork and fantastic elements—the projector that goes on, and things hanging from the ceiling and off the walls—just very much this dense, saturated, chaotic art space.
Over the course of the show, as Nadia would move farther and farther away from the loft, depending on where her path took her, the world would start to desaturate and be less textural. So in that way, the show is designed like a Russian doll, where the loft is the center of the doll, and as she moves outwards, away from that center point, the world shifts and becomes less clear, almost as if you were moving to the edges of a video game map.
Was the loft built on stage as one cohesive piece?
Yeah, it’s all there. I don’t think they even had to move any walls, so that whole space, until she gets to the front door, is all on the stage, and it’s all shot pretty honestly. The way she moves through is the way that it actually was, and we did it so fast, but it was designed very intentionally.
We never wanted to be heavy-handed with the Russian doll references, but it’s a pretty interesting metaphor, which I think is partially what makes the show so interesting. So, I tried to inject that metaphor into the design in subtle ways, and the other way we did it is the layout of the loft.
The loft is actually designed as a set of concentric rings, based on how she would move through the space, so her longest arc through the space is at the beginning of the show, where she’s walking through the bedroom, the art space, the dining room, the living room and the kitchen. Midway through the show, she starts skipping the bedroom and goes straight into the art space—and then later in the show, she starts going straight to the kitchen. Then, even later than that, she walks straight out the front door. We wanted it so that she could take the long route or the short route, and then when she really starts to think differently, realizing that she has to make a major change, she turns left and goes out of the fire escape.
We had this notion throughout the series that Nadia and Alan were these polar opposites in many ways, and as their relationship progressed, they started infecting the other one. Nadia was right, and Alan was left, so when she’s making those loops through the loft, she’s always turning right to leave out the front door. But then when she realizes she has to make a change, she turns left going out of the bathroom, and left out of the fire escape. So, she’s starting to move toward Alan, if that makes sense. It’s not something that the audience would necessarily ever get, but that was something that we talked about. You’ll even see—over the course of the season, as they’re framed—that they’re often in doorways, and she would be on the right, and he would be on the left. And over the course of the season, they switch, so that she’s on the left and he’s on the right.
Could you elaborate on some of the visual details you brought to the loft to create its unique texture and imbue the space with a sense of life?
In the bathroom, I just knew that the tile had to be this really dark green, and that was mostly because I wanted it to be in contrast with Natasha’s hair. That bathroom is the beginning of the rabbit hole, so to me, it had to be very dark, and then the glossiness of the tile ended up having that awesome effect, where it reflects the door in the tile. The shape of that door was inspired by the location that we used to match the exterior of the loft, a Gothic church that we were playing as a synagogue. I took that Gothic archway and pulled it into the bathroom, and down the hallway at the bathroom, which again makes [that space] feel more like this dark rabbit hole.
Then, as we moved through the space, we talked a lot about the artwork. Natasha had a lot of ideas about the artwork, and she’s just deeply connected with the art scene in New York, so she had a lot of people that she recommended. We did get some of their work, or we would try to find work that was similar, and I was directing that, in terms of looking for work that was often showing people’s faces or bodies splitting into two, three or four. A lot of the artwork has a glitchiness to it, which is obviously a connection to them constantly resetting, and there was a little bit of projecting some of the deaths in the artwork. We moved away from that somewhat, but the big piece above the fireplace is a woman lying in water, maybe almost drowning, and that connects to one of the deaths that Nadia had, when she drowned early on.
Color-wise, the only color I didn’t want in there was blue, so there’s almost no blue in the space, other than the sofa, which is a blue-gray. We wanted it to be really warm, to feel safe, to feel comfortable and to have a lot of depth, so no matter what direction you’re looking in, there’s a sense that there’s a space beyond the space, like we almost never really got to see the whole place.
How did you keep track of each minute change to Russian Doll’s central location over the course of Season 1?
We had this huge document that was like, “Here’s what disappears when,” and the on-set dressers were total heroes because they had to track, “When did the flowers need to be wilted? When does the food start to age? When does the artwork disappear?” All of that was pretty well mapped out. So, that was a constant puzzle and shuffle of moving furniture pieces in and out, and hopefully it has this effect where you don’t really notice that anything’s missing until Nadia says something. It really accelerates near the end, but if you go back and re-watch it, things are disappearing in every episode, so there’s definitely a lot of re-watchability there, and little Easter eggs throughout that hopefully we got right.
What inspired the season’s final scene, which sees Nadia and Alan’s two timelines converging into a huge parade? The puppets and other design elements seem to be in line with those you might see on Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
Natasha wrote that episode, and she wanted this big finish. I can’t remember who thought about it being in a tunnel; it might’ve been the DP, Chris [Teague]. But we liked that idea, and then he had this notion of the two split screens merging into each other, which I think was pretty rad. The parade, we talked about a couple of different ways, but we liked that it would be a little bit makeshift and homemade, and earlier in Episode 8, you’d see characters actually making some of the puppets. So, once we landed on what the vibe was, it then became about sourcing them.
We found a puppet group in New York that had a lot of them, so we engaged them for some of the bigger ones. And then some of the smaller ones, and some of the bikes, and lights and things, we rigged and made ourselves.
In some ways, that’s a non-answer, because it’s supposed to be a non-answer, I think. It is open-ended; it is about being lost in a crowd. It’s a mystery, right? So I think that Natasha would have to speak to it more. But that’s how we talked about it, creatively.