There’s a lot that stands out about Netflix’s wildly popular horror series The Haunting of Hill House, but one element that continually captures the eye is the impressive production design created by Patricio Farrell. Whether it’s through the functional sparseness of a funeral home or the opulence of the title “character,” the series is a classic case of how much environment enhances storytelling. We spoke with Farrell about how he works, what goes into creating a set, and the process of creating the home at the center of The Haunting of Hill House.
The Script as a Blueprint
A script is Farrell’s first blueprint as a production designer, and on a first read-through, he has a single goal: “I Concentrate on the script as a story, see what feelings I get, and what images come to mind while I’m reading it.” It’s not until he reads it again (and again) that Farrell starts to make note of where his skills will be called for.
During the process, he looks for telltale signs. “The importance of the different sets comes from the number of pages that happen within that environment. Sometimes, you can have a set that’s there for 25 pages, so that environment needs specific and very special attention,” he explains. Given how often Hill House itself appeared in the scripts (and the fact that it lends the project its name), he knew it would require a lot of that kind of attention.
Which isn’t to say page length is the exclusive indicator of which sets will matter most; there’s also what Farrell calls the “emotional content” of a setting. “Sometimes, maybe something that’s just a page, or half a page, is a very emotional part of the story that we’re telling. That also needs to be noted.”
The Red Room from The Haunting of Hill House
Using Mood Boards and Research
Once Farrell has annotated his script, he moves on to research. He puts together mood boards by drawing on the various styles, time periods, artists, and mediums that he feels best suit the project he’s working on. In the case of Hill House, for example, director Mike Flanagan wanted Farrell to give the home a “schizophrenic” feeling that would evoke its supernatural spirit.
To do that, Farrell’s research process and mood boarding led him to the kind of robber-baron homes that were best cinematically captured by Xanadu in Citizen Kane. “With very rich people at the turn of the century who were trying to just recreate these castles and have all the riches of the world and bring them in one place, there was always this mix of style,” he says. Gothic, Tudor, and Roman influences all played on what Hill House would have to become.
Of course, intention is one thing, but realizing the research is another. Farrell still had to turn his findings and designs into something that would work on screen. In other words, inspiration doesn’t supersede (cinematic) functionality and aesthetics. Ultimately, he says, “My goal was to create an enchanting work of architecture.”
Michiel Huisman and Timothy Hutton in The Haunting of Hill House
Creating an Illusion of Scale
Few budgets could afford for the building of an actual Xanadu (including Citizen Kane). That meant that, for Hill House, Farrell had to find a way to convey a sense of scale without actually making something really big. “How to give the impression that we were really in a place like that was a main goal and a big challenge,” he says.
By singling out spaces that played prominent early roles in the story, Farrell was able to use them to create a feeling of scale that would guide the audience’s impression. “That’s why the foyer, when you enter the house, has very high ceilings and the proportions are large,” he explains about the space that appears very early in the show.
“Where we couldn’t have that same scale, we would have, for example, the fireplace in the living room,” he continues. “It’s a big fireplace that’s about six feet high. So, once you’re standing next to elements like this fireplace, or you’re standing in a doorway that’s very large, you see that you’re clearly not in an apartment.” In that way, he was able to create the sense that some spaces were bigger than they really were.
Kate Siegel in The Haunting of Hill House
Adding Depth and Seamlessness
Farrell didn’t just need to give the set a sense of scale, but also a sense of seamlessness, despite the schizophrenic use of styles within it. “Something important to me was not to get lost in that interpretation and end up with a parody,” he reveals. Part of how he accomplished that was with something unconventional in production design, motivated by lack of enough soundstage: Typically, two-story homes are handled by an actor going up some stairs before the camera cuts. Then the crew moves to another ground-level set representing a second floor. “I proposed to build the house in two stories instead,” he says.
The construction did prove to be much more complicated from an engineering point of view, but it had its benefits. “We were building something that helped bring that sense of seamlessness,” he says. “You could actually go up and down through multiple sets of stairs, and in and out of rooms and areas, through doors and passageways and hallways.”
That helped create a depth that made the house seem more cohesive, especially when allowing for the camera to have greater depth-of-field. “You would see through multiple layers of rooms and tonalities and styles that you can have in the frame without even having to move the camera,” Farrell explains. He accentuated that further when he could, adding decorative trims and textures, sculptures, and any geometric and asymmetrical shapes that would add even further depth. “There was a sense of alignment for arches and corridors and doors,” he says. “You can be in one point and see through multiple rooms in every direction.”
Designing the Mechanical
Room to allow audiences to see deep into a frame also creates room for film crews. That’s another key component of production design, after all. Farrell’s goal isn’t solely to create sets for aesthetic or emotional purposes. “A set is as emotional as it is mechanical,” he says. For example, “If there’s somebody who’s going to be holding a dolly, or following an actor walking around, you need to give them some elbow room. You look at reality, but then you cheat. If a regular apartment hallway is four-feet wide, I’m going to make ours five-feet wide.”
Some of that Farrell already knows to do, but things also come up once he starts meeting with other crew members, like cinematographers. “Usually, we start designing a place before the director of photography comes around,” he says. “Once that other person comes, they bring their own set of needs and specific issues that will have to be addressed. And with that, sometimes we need to make revisions to our plans.”
A good example of that is in Episode 6 of the series, which features several long takes, including one where a character walks from a funeral home directly into Hill House. Once Farrell was told about the shot, he knew that meant he would have to make that happen by designing the funeral home set right next to the Hill House set with a connecting hallway.
But once all the revisions are made, and a production design comes together to take shape in the real world on a soundstage — especially something as big and ambitious as Hill House — that’s one of Farrell’s favorite parts of his job. “We are lucky enough to dream of a space, of a building, and then we start seeing it, getting more detail, and watching it come up. There’s no better feeling.”
All images from The Haunting of Hill House courtesy of Netflix