Building the House of Usher
Production designer Laurin Kelsey tells DQ about making Netflix horror The Fall of the House of Usher, her partnership with filmmaker Mike Flanagan and blending gothic architecture with modern style.
They’re as traditional as trick-or-treating, jack-o’-lanterns and fancy-dress parties, so is it even Halloween without a new series from Mike Flanagan? The writer and director has become synonymous with the spooky season in recent years thanks to Netflix shows such as The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Midnight Mass and The Midnight Club.
His latest effort, The Fall of the House of Usher, leans into the works of iconic writer Edgar Allan Poe for a gothic tale that centres on ruthless siblings Roderick and Madeline Usher, who have turned their Fortunato pharmaceutical company into an empire of wealth, privilege and power. But past secrets soon come to light when the heirs to the Usher dynasty start dying at the hands of a mysterious woman from their youth.
The eight-part series reunites Flanagan with a number of his frequent on-screen collaborators, including Bruce Greenwood (who plays Roderick), Carla Gugino (Verna), Henry Thomas (Frederick), Rahul Kohli (Napoleon), Samantha Sloyan (Tamerlane), T’Nia Miller (Victorine), Zack Gilford (young Roderick) and Flanagan’s real-life wife Kate Siegel (Camille). It also stars Mary McDonnell (Madeline) and Willa Fitzgerald (young Madeline).
Behind the scenes, Flanagan again worked with production designer Laurin Kelsey after previously partnering with her on The Midnight Club and Midnight Mass (as art director).
But as Kelsey explains, The Fall of the House of Usher is very different from Flanagan’s previous series, at least when it comes to creating the world of the Usher family.
“It was just a very large show,” she tells DQ. “They’re all large, but his previous shows usually centred on one house. In terms of production design [on House of Usher], while there are still a lot of sets, this one had many houses and they’re all very large, so there were a lot of large-scale sets to build in short timelines.”
In Poe’s short story, also called The Fall of the House of Usher, the central setting is a singular “mansion of gloom.” But as Flanagan retells it in a way that incorporates numerous other elements of the author’s works, the TV series takes place over several decades and between numerous locations, including homes belonging to Roderick at various stages of his life and those of his extended family.
“There’s a house from the 50s and 60s that Usher grew up in,” Kelsey says. “That’s not grand, it’s still gothic, but it’s quite small and a little bit more residential. Then he has a more grandiose home as an adult, and now [in the present day] he’s in his late 60s, early 70s and, as the head of the family, he has this big mansion. Then each of the children has a very specific space of their own.
“Mike’s always so skilled at taking a story or a theme and weaving many layers into it. He’s woven into each episode another Edgar Allan Poe story like The Tell-Tale Heart and The Murders in the Rue Morgue. So when it starts with such an intricate script, the first conversations are really about simplifying it and looking at it as a whole and then delving into the details and trying to pick up all the nuances he’s created.”
A 19th century writer and poet, Poe’s name is indelibly linked with the themes and images of gothic horror that permeate his work. But when it came to designing The Fall of the House of Usher, Kelsey found that singular aesthetic wouldn’t work for a series set over a 70-year timeframe – and particularly for characters who make up an ultra-wealthy family in the present day.
“It was really hard to bring a lot of the gothic architecture into the show. And some of [the family] are quite young, so they don’t have a gothic space. They have something very crisp and modern and edgy,” Kelsey notes. “But then in the 50s, 60s and 70s, you can bring a little bit more of that back in.
“We leaned into gothic for both of the Usher houses. The one in the 50s and 60s, even though it was on a little suburban street, we made it have flairs of Victorian architecture as if the houses were built in the 1800s and then they’ve been remodeled and renovated. Then we brought it into his modern-day mansion because we thought, with his age, he’d be more into having the heavy woods and some of those types of heavier materials they would have used in Gothic architecture.
“The children definitely have a more modern feel to them, and I tried to include more colours you might have seen in Gothic and Victorian architecture – more jewel tones, maroon, deep reds and deep blues and just more saturated colours.”
The Fall of the House of Usher was filmed mostly on soundstages and in some locations across Vancouver, Canada. As many of the sets would be used for very specific stunt sequences that were integral to the show – each episode features a different murder – it made sense to build the majority of them to ensure safe and controlled environments.
Real locations included the exterior shots of some cemeteries, while Roderick’s modern-day mansion is also a real building.
“But we were building on five stages spread across two studios, and we were building pretty much constantly on all five stages for almost a year,” Kelsey says. “We built a fairly large hospital that took up a whole stage. We built the Fortunato offices on one stage, and Leo had a loft that took up pretty much a whole stage. Then we usually had one stage that had smaller ‘swing sets,’ which don’t need to be there as long and are frequently rotating.”
Block-shooting the series meant all the scenes from one set across all eight episodes were filmed together. That set would then be taken down and a new one constructed in its place.
“We built the whole office floor on an eight-foot riser so we could get the window views right down onto the city,” the designer reveals. “That stayed there for two weeks. We shot it out and then we had about a week or two to change it over to another massive set. It was challenging, but it was probably the best way to shoot it. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been possible with this much space.”
Visual effects were then used to bring the city view to life behind the large office windows, and they were also utilised when it came to creating the neighbourhood of Roderick and Madeline’s childhood home.
Kelsey originally planned to build the street that links their home to that belonging to Longfellow (Robert Longstreet), their mother’s boss, on location. But because the street had to be a certain length, she instead opted to create it on a studio stage.
“We tried to be really clever. We built Longfellow’s house and then brought in a paver and we paved a road in the studio,” she says. “Then I designed the road in such a way that we could knock down Longfellow’s house and put in Usher’s house and a couple of other houses so they could connect the two. But visual effects had to fill in 12 houses in between them.”
Colours were particularly important to the series, and not just red. Flanagan assigned each character a different colour that would represent them throughout – yellow for Leo, silver for Camille – and it was then up to Kelsey and costume designer Terry Anderson to try to incorporate them into the show.
“Outside of the gothic worlds, you’ll notice some of the homes have a much more subtle colour flair to them so that every person’s home has their colour in it,” Kelsey says. “But we tried to not make it too saturated or too punchy, and we tried to let the costumes be the boldness of the colour. Often our focus is on creating a really well-rounded space. We can lean into colour themes, but we don’t really narrow it like that usually. But I found that very interesting and a good challenge to work on. It was fun.”
The whole project “was really challenging,” she says, largely owing to the tight turnaround time she would have to orchestrate the construction of new sets as filming continued elsewhere. But having now made several horror series, Kelsey has found different ways her work in the genre can help support the director and DOP.
“In House of Usher, we have candle lighting or well-positioned windows or bigger glass doors so you can get the moonlight coming through, or a fireplace so you can have a little glow from the fire,” she notes. “For the stunts and the special effects, it’s the same as an action drama where you just have more activity happening on the set, as opposed to a speaking drama where there are no real fight scenes or anything breaking.”
Flanagan’s work has certainly put the spotlight on horror on television – Gogglebox’s army of armchair critics are regular viewers – and Kelsey says his series continue to evolve with every new instalment.
“They’re always a little bit different, and this is definitely something different,” she adds. “It really packs a punch. It’s edgy, it’s interesting, it’s bold and I think the fans will really appreciate that.”