Call of the wild
From New York to Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, Prime Video thriller Wilderness sends its central characters on a road trip across America. Production designer Susie Mancini explains how she styled the drama while working across two countries.
While the characters in Prime Video thriller Wilderness embark on a road trip across the US, production designer Susie Mancini had to ensure she was always one step ahead as she created sets for every leg of their journey.
The six-part drama, produced by Firebird Pictures, follows British couple Liv (Jenna Coleman) and Will (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who seem to have it all. But when Liv learns of Will’s affair, heartbreak is soon replaced by fury – and as they leave their New York apartment for a cross-country trek, she only has revenge and murder on her mind.
Production designer Susie Mancini signed on to the project after reading the scripts, which are based on BE Jones’s novel of the same name. She particularly wanted to work on a UK-led series and jumped at the chance to partner with a creative team comprising writer Marnie Dickens, director So Yong Kim, DOP Kat Westergaard and executive producer Elizabeth Kilgarriff.
Having previously worked on shows such as Space Force, Dollface and The Sex Lives of College Girls, Mancini was also drawn to the fact that drama is firmly rooted in the real world – but would involve a number of production challenges spread across two countries and numerous regions, with different laws, restrictions and other issues to contend with.
Yet from the beginning, the biggest task was striking the right tone for a series described as a twisted love story, with a dream holiday turning into a living nightmare.
“That is the fun part to me,” Mancini says. “Then once you agree on the general tone, you go and focus on each space.”
The loft apartment that Liv and Will call home in New York set the mood for the series – a place that was inspiring and aspirational, and one so luxurious they couldn’t believe they got to live there. But as the characters came to the space unfurnished, Mancini had to dive into their backgrounds to determine what kind of furniture and other possessions might fill it.
“We didn’t want it to be a super high-end design place. We also wanted to add a little bit of a European vibe into it, so maybe they ship some stuff from home,” Mancini explains. “It’s been fun to find things that were typical of a British couple who move to New York and who maybe find a few designer pieces they can afford – and then the rest is from scavenger hunts on Craigslist, a thrift store or Ikea. So that’s what we really did. We mixed up the things that were a bit more high end but kept it in a very realistic world so a couple in their mid-30s could afford to furnish that apartment.”
For the numerous fictional hotels that feature in the series – including the Lowbeck in New York and the Grand Hotel close to the Grand Canyon – Mancini had to find a vibe that matched the action and emotion of the scenes that would take place in them.
For example, the Lowbeck “became the place where the cheating would happen, and there was the mistress, the secrecy and the darkness,” the designer says, “so we made it really cold with more muted tones.”
It became known as ‘Giorgio Armani,’ so called because Mancini likes to use fashion designers as the inspiration for different spaces. Armani matched the Lowbeck because “there are lots of greys and metallic tones, and undertones of baby blues, violets and a splash of red.”
The Grand Hotel was more inspired by the natural tones from the surrounding environment, while also still utilising a high-end look. The inspiration there was Etro, while another, smaller hotel with log walls was Ralph Lauren – “layered with lots of textures, like Native American fabrics, denim and wood,” Mancini says. “Those were our main environments, and then we worked on layering it up and making it less about fashion and more real.”
Mancini would present her ideas to Dickens and Kim, taking her lead from the scripts. She also worked closely with Westergaard to ensure her designs matched the DOP’s vision for the series – and how it might practically be shot during production.
“You have to face reality,” the designer notes. “There is a way in which I wish we could do this and somebody else has their ideas, but then Kat is the one who will be there on the day shooting it. She was very useful in making all the creative ideas really solid and functional.
“At the end of the day, when it comes to the five of us, our core idea was always to make something that wasn’t going to be cheesy or cheap looking. We never wanted to settle for the easy way out and we had to fight and struggle a lot to keep the tone going. But regardless of all the problems, we wanted to have a high-end show, something we were proud to have done. I hope that showed in the end.”
Mancini says preparing for a shoot is the hardest part of her job, as she has to stay ahead of the filming schedule – and the inevitable changes that can upturn any plans. For Wilderness, after setting out her vision with a series of mood boards, the LA-based Italian headed to Canada almost a month before the rest of the core production team to work with local crew and location managers to “scout the hell out of Vancouver” and the surrounding areas.
At first, she sought out real locations that could be transformed into the hotels, pathways and roads she needed for the story. Then when Kim and Westergaard arrived, they narrowed down their search to the locations they liked most – and were also affordable and available.
A studio in Vancouver was the main base for the built interiors, and Mancini estimates 90% of interiors in the show were original builds. “Sometimes we had to build on location or we built things in Calgary, and then we had a small crew on the road in the US,” she says. “We were supposed to shoot US things at the beginning of the schedule. Then there were changes so that got pushed to the end.”
The New York apartment was built, as were the hotel rooms used in various stages of Liv and Will’s trip, while work was also done in real locations to create the fictional hotels where the couple stay in the show.
“The first hotel they stop at by the Grand Canyon was this cute little hotel and we had to rebrand the entire place and refurbish it, and then we had to tie it with the room we built,” Mancini reveals. Filming for the Yosemite leg of Liv and Will’s journey took place in and around the iconic Fairmont Banff Springs Resort in Canada, but with the hotel open to guests, the production was limited to an abandoned wing of the building that was transformed into the main lobby, restaurant and bar of the fictional Majestic Hotel. Interior rooms and corridors were built in the studio.
“That happened over and over again,” she continues. “The biggest challenge for us was to find the Lowbeck hotel because we all had an idea of what the hotel looked like, but it was impossible to find such a location in Canada and we could not afford to build an entire hotel from scratch.” Vancouver’s Douglas Hotel was then transformed for those scenes, with two days to prep and shoot the building with new signage and lights. Panels were also needed to board up its large windows looking out over the city’s streets and buildings, which are significantly different from those in New York.
But while some parts of Vancouver did stand in for New York, the production also visited the Big Apple for real, as well as the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas to capture some of the show’s most eye-catching backdrops.
“There is a lot of work production design-wise [in the show], but I can’t take credit for the nature,” Mancini adds. “Maybe some signage and some bushes.”
It’s thanks to the streaming boom of the last decade that viewers have been spoiled with a seemingly endless conveyer belt of high-end content, and Mancini admits the production demands of new series are often “crazier and crazier” as shows demand cinematic value on the small screen. But as the industry’s economic woes continue to bite, a slowdown in commissioning won’t dampen that appetite for good-looking shows.
“It’s super fun if you’re a spectator on the couch but, for the people that are working on it, sometimes it’s really draining,” she says. “We’re still the same human beings we were [before] and there’s no technology that can make our job faster or easier. TV is becoming so fast-paced and there’s so little time to make the show because you need to do everything in a certain amount of time. Either the solution will be more time or more people.”
Despite the challenges she faced on Wilderness, Mancini looks back on the experience fondly. “It’s definitely a job I will always remember,” she says. “From crewing up to finding locations, it’s been a big journey. To be honest, it was a very challenging job but it’s something I will always bring with me. I will never forget Wilderness.”