Russian Doll is a Netflix show from the minds of creators Leslye Headland and Natasha Lyonne (who also stars). Amy Poehler is a writer/producer on the show also. It follows a cynical New York woman, Nadia (Lyonne) who keeps dying on the day of her 36th birthday, only to return to her birthday party at her best friend Maxine’s (Greta Lee) apartment to live out the day again. She meets a man called Alan (Charlie Barnett) who is in the same situation and together they try to escape the cycle they are trapped in. Chloe Sevigny cameos as Nadia’s mother and Elizabeth Ashley plays Nadia’s guardian and confidante Ruthie. Dascha Polanco plays Alan’s girlfriend, Beatrice.
I spoke with production designer Michael Bricker about some of the choices and influences behind the design of the key locations in the series.
Russian Doll is known for being an authentically New York show – how much were real locations and apartments and how much did you use sets?
Other than the primary loft space, Maxine’s loft – that was a set that we built on a stage and everything else was a location out in the city. It was important to all of the creatives, including Natasha, for it to have the real feel of the East Village and the Lower East Side and that was such a character in the show as well as, in some ways, the limitations of her world and it was great that we made it so we were out on all those locations.
I am going to ask you about Maxine’s apartment, of course, but if we could start with the bathroom. The bathroom is such an important location to the whole show, we keep returning there and the design of that is so important with the dark tile and the door which kind of looks like a vortex. What were the decisions behind all of that?
The tile is actually dark green and that was picked actually to be in contrast with her hair. I wanted the green to be a deep contrast with her hair. The script had these really subtle references to Alice in Wonderland and the show is not a take on Alice in Wonderland necessarily but there were a few beats and notes that were in the script so I very much viewed the bathroom as the rabbit hole, the beginning of the rabbit hole and once she passes through the door, she’s entering Wonderland. So I wanted the bathroom to be very dark, so starting with the dark green and the mirror itself was functioning as this portal or a hole, you know?
Mirrors are important to the whole show because of Alan as well. Also Nadia’s mother – I loved that she tries to destroy mirrors but they’re so significant to both Nadia and Alan.
Exactly, yes. So there’s mirrors throughout the entire show and obviously they start disappearing. There is that connection with her history, with her mother but it’s also when these characters are resetting, they’re having to look at themselves again and face themselves again at the beginning of every loop. We wanted to show that contrast between Nadia and Alan, so that’s why the shape of the mirrors are different. So we used circles to be more part of Nadia’s world and squares to be more part of Alan’s world. There are more circles in her world and there are more squares in his and then there a few moments where actually some of the patterns we picked are a merging of circles and squares. So the wallpaper in Maxine’s loft and the wallpaper in Nadia’s apartment are a combination of circles and squares, which is a super subtle design nod to show that these two characters have some inexplicable connection.
Maxine’s apartment is the main set that we keep returning to. It’s an incredible space, it’s so large and you can really see towards the end how big it is, once it starts to empty out. When she first emerges from the bathroom and you’ve got that incredible tracking shot, where she goes into lots of different rooms, she’s interacting with lots of different people, you have to have everything dressed and ready and also you have to allow room for the camera – I’m wondering about the logistics of it and how you achieved all of that. What were the main challenges with that space?
So the space is loosely designed as a Russian doll and it’s based on her paths through the apartment. So, I had this idea that when we first meet her, she takes the longest path through the apartment. So she’s walking through all of the rooms and then later, when she resets, she’s starting to realise what’s going on, so she needs to get to the kitchen a little quicker, so she’s taking a slightly shorter route where she skips the bedroom and goes straight to the dining room, then she can take another route that’s all the way down the hallway and straight to the kitchen and then she can go even faster, where she just leaves out of the front door. So, I had this idea that there needed to be these kind of concentric paths for her to leave and that actually really informs the way out of the apartment.
And, as I mentioned with the circles and squares, the contrast between Nadia and Alan, we have all these other contrasts and another one was that Nadia was right and Alan was left. So, she was always moving right as she moved through the apartment and then after she meets Alan and she goes out of the fire escape, she’s actually turning back to go out, she leaves the bathroom and turns left. So there’s these subtle things that the audience wouldn’t necessarily pick up on that the loft was actually designed with those kind of rules in mind, that are really steeped in character and how she was exploring.
And the other thing I would say about the loft is that there’s this notion that she’s in a video game in a way, right? And every time she makes the wrong choice, she dies and she resets in the bathroom. I like that the loft feels like that are a lot of choices that she could make and that there’s always a space beyond a space. Even though we spend so much time in that loft, in the series, I hope the audience gets a sense that we actually haven’t seen the whole thing. That there is even more there that we haven’t walked through and so I think that that is important as well, that the audience feels that there maybe there’s a few more paths that she could take that we haven’t seen.
Can I ask you about some of the other apartments, starting with Ruthie’s? What were some of the design choices there?
With the other spaces, we plotted all of the locations in the show based on how far away they were from the loft. And the farther away the space was from the loft, the more Nadia was off track and the more the world started to desaturate. So I think that Ruth’s apartment was halfway of that distance so that means it’s a little less saturated, or 50% less saturated than the loft, but still warm and comfortable, it’s a place that she’s familiar with. We liked that a lot of those scenes took place in the kitchen, I think Ruthie talks about how Nadia feels more at home in the kitchen, so that was an important space in that regard. From a character standpoint, I think that’s one of the main kitchen spaces that we’re in. And also we wanted it to feel like a big New York brownstone, but also with a lot of depth, we tried to chose spaces that had a lot of thresholds and doorways, so there’s a few shots in that space where you can see layers of doorways. And again, that’s tying back into this notion of having different paths, different realities, different choices and I think her apartment also speaks to that a little bit.
We don’t see Nadia’s apartment that much, but it’s obviously a lot more cluttered than Alan’s, who is kind of a clean freak. Alan’s apartment has blocks and straight lines, as you said, but what I like about it is that it does have pops of colour as well…
Yeah – his apartment and her apartment were the same distance away from the loft and so, while hers is warmer and his is cooler, they should read as having the same level of saturation. And those are the places where we really tried to amplify their contrasts, so again; circles and squares, left and right, clean and dirty, high and low. She lives in a basement, he lives up high. So there’s all these really really clear contrasts between these characters, particularly when we meet them. And then over the course of the season, they start infecting each other because they realise that they have this connection that can’t explain, so Alan cleans her apartment and his starts to get messier. There’s this cross-contamination that starts to happen between the two of them which I think is really cool, so we tried to make it that the spaces started to feel a little bit more similar or that the contrast was less severe as the season went forward.
We didn’t want his apartment to be completely stark, we wanted to pull some of the same colours that are present in her apartment. He tends to shift a bit more primary in his colours, but we didn’t want him to be a caricature, we wanted him to be a real person and some folks go to IKEA and buy most of their stuff and then they’re set. So I think that’s a little bit more of who he is. But he still has a history and he still has a life and he still makes mistakes and he’s trying to control his world as much as he can. Both of them are trying to control things in their own ways and I think the way that manifests with Alan is controlling his space and that’s why it’s so linear and somewhat rigid and simple.
With Beatrice’s apartment as well, there are lots of neutral tones in her apartment and you can see that the way she’s dressed is reflected in that. I love Nadia’s line about Beatrice’s art from Urban Outfitters.
If you think about Nadia’s journey and where she is going, as she’s on this kind of scavenger hunt to solve this mystery, she moves pretty close to the edge of the map. And Beatrice’s would be really far to the edge. It’s a place that she only can get there through Alan, she has no direct connection there. So that was one of the locations that we plotted pretty far away, really on the edge. So that’s why it’s very black and white and very desaturated, but still rich. But what’s cool with that is that you can really see how we were collaborating both with camera and costume, the three of us were so in synch about these kind of visual rules that it carries across the lighting and the wardrobe. Her wardrobe is simple, there’s not a lot of pattern or texture, her apartment is pretty flat and again, that’s all by design and this notion that it’s unexplored, it’s near the edge of the map. The details there are a little less than they should be. Similar to her office which you only see once, but not very well. That was another location which was designed to be pretty black and white and foggy if that makes any sense.
The deli set – how do you go about designing something like that, where there has to be so much going on with the level of detail, you have to buy so many products and consider where they will be placed and again, you have to consider how the camera is going to get around a space like that.
That was a team effort as well, the camera was a big consideration there, so making sure Chris Teague (cinematographer) felt like it was a space that they could work in. We really liked that it had a single aisle down the middle, so it established this left/right dynamic. When Nadia first tracks Alan, he’s on the right which means he’s kind of in her zone. But at the beginning, she chooses to go left, so they miss each other so that kind of split was important and that deli kind of allowed us to do that. But also we just wanted it to feel like a real New York bodega and it was in the neighbourhood. I think it was a block away from the bar which was also a block away from Alan’s apartment. So these places actually really were all in and around the East Village, in reality. So I think that’s also why this show has this pretty special quality that we actually were playing all in the same sandbox in real life.
I know New Yorkers who have had said it’s one of the most authentic depictions of New York on any film or TV of recent years, so I want to pass that on.
Well, I’m from Indianapolis and I don’t live in New York, so I really take that as an extraordinary compliment. But also it’s a true testament to Leslye and Natasha’s leadership and vision. They know that neighbourhood well and they know what they wanted the show to be, so I think it’s definitely a team effort in that regard.
Lastly, I want to ask you about some of the lighting and colour choices. There are some bold uses of colour eg. in the drug dealer scene, it’s predominantly blue, there’s a beautiful shot in Maxine’s apartment where rainbow lights are playing with Natasha’s hair.
Chris and I talked a lot about practical – we wanted as many practical lights throughout all of the sets as possible. We’ve both come out of the independent film world and we prefer real light that you see on camera vs more stage lights so I think we were both starting from a mutual appreciation and a understanding in that regard. There’s not much blue in the show and I just think we were leaning toward a warmer, hotter show – there’s a lot of red and green throughout. I don’t have a great answer to that one but it feels like, again, the bathroom – the contrast between the green tile and her red hair. There’s something about it that feels Russian and Russian Doll like and intense and hot. And it’s the life of New York city, the streetlights and neon signs as they’re walking down the street. For us, it felt like the nightlife of New York and that we play with the lighting of that nightlife, even during the day if that makes sense.
Thank you so much.
It was a total pleasure to work on the show and I love that people are responding to the design so much, so thank you!
We have interviews with the costume and production designers of Netflix’s GLOW and The Umbrella Academy coming soon.