Production designer Patrick Howe takes DQ inside the world of Only Murders in the Building and outlines how he created the setting for the third season’s fictional stage musical, Death Rattle Dazzle.
With the number of mysterious deaths that occur inside Manhattan’s exclusive Arconia building, it’s a wonder anybody still resides there. Yet three people who call it home – Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel (Selina Gomez) – have made murder their business as the central characters of Hulu and Disney+ series Only Murders in the Building.
In season one of the comedy, the true-crime podcast fans team up to make their own audio show when they believe there’s something more sinister behind the apparent suicide of a young man, Tim Kono (Julian Cihi). In season two, they investigate the murder of Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell), the board president of the Arconia. And in the recently completed third season, the trio overcome personal challenges to find out who killed actor Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd).
As the production designer on Only Murders, it’s Patrick Howe’s job to oversee the lavish apartments belonging to the central trio, having joined the show for its second season. He was already a fan of the series before he joined the production, and was inspired to continue the design aesthetic already established by his predecessor, Curt Beech.
“I’ve certainly been doing other shows where there wasn’t that same luxury,” he tells DQ. “There are plenty of times where something already exists and you feel like, ‘Oh, I would have never done it that way. I need to change it.’
“The tone of the show as established by the three main character sets and the building itself was really great. That made it easier. Then I was able to just make choices in a similar spirit.”
In season two, the Arconia became an even bigger part of the story, with revelations about more of its history and the discovery of secret passageways that connect some apartments. But then in season three, much of the action takes place away from the Arconia as the characters relocate to the fictional Gooseberry Theatre, where Howe had to create the setting for Oliver’s murder-mystery play-turned-musical Death Rattle Dazzle, in which Ben was set to have a starring role.
It’s a creative decision Howe – and fans of the 20th Television-produced series – would have known about long before season three aired, as the murder at the centre of the storyline is shown at the end of season two.
“I wasn’t sure necessarily how much action would take place in the theatre, but the main thing is I knew we would at some point need to see more of the [musical] show than in that little teaser that we saw at the end of season two,” Howe says. “John [Hoffman, showrunner] explained what we saw in season two was a play and then it would become a musical [in season three]. Then I just waited for a little bit more information before I could start designing things.
“But I pretty much do all my designing from John’s verbal description. He wanted the show to take place in and around a Nova Scotia lighthouse, but the normal materials that a designer would have for a Broadway musical to make design choices by or be inspired by, we didn’t have. But John’s descriptions were really clear about certain characteristics that the lighthouse should have or how it would get used in the action, and that was enough to start working up scenarios for them.”
Early discussions involved whether they should build their own theatre and the rehearsal space used by the characters. But Hoffman really wanted scenes to be set on stage at the Gooseberry and featuring an audience to be shot at a real theatre – New York’s United Palace Theatre. He also knew the story was committed to showing that Mabel was going to change her apartment after she paints over a giant wall mural in the season two finale.
With a background studying theatre design before he moved into television, Howe relished the opportunity to create the staging for the Death Rattle Dazzle, which sees a detective investigate the murder of a mother in a lighthouse where the only witnesses are her infant triplets. But Howe didn’t have to design an entire stage play. Instead, he only had to provide the backdrops for the original numbers shown in the series, which include For the Sake of a Child, performed by Ben and Loretta (Meryl Streep), and Oliver’s Creature of the Night.
But aside from the stage scenes, every other part of the theatre – including dressing rooms, corridors and support spaces – were constructed on the show’s soundstages in Long Island City.
“It was just the actual stage and the audience that was in the real theatre,” the designer says. “But it was really nice to be able to have that because that sets a tone that’s much grander. The theatre itself is larger than all of our stages put together.”
Back at the Arconia – the exteriors of which belong to the grand Belnord on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – Howe had a lot of freedom to create spaces for new characters introduced each season while ensuring they matched the building’s overall aesthetic.
“The first season established a nice tone for the building itself and the spirit of it,” he says. “They just tried to try to have things as realistic as possible, but more elevated. There’s a little bit of licence for things having a little bit more levity, flamboyance or luxury. It’s just our look. It’s really being faithful to this brand that we accidentally developed ourselves and then sticking with it.”
For season three, Howe prepared new apartments for Loretta and Ben, whose home was previously occupied by Sting in season one and Amy Schumer in season two – guest stars playing fictionalised versions of themselves, just like Matthew Broderick in the latest season. But among the main trio, Mabel’s apartment proved to be the biggest challenge for the designer as it underwent a makeover – though not for reasons viewers might have expected.
“We knew we wanted something very nice and grand and tasteful,” he says. “What John had written was that in episode one, you opened on this really beautiful apartment that you see is hers, but there’s something off about it. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t seem like Mabel.
“That’s all justified by the end of the episode when she reveals there are new owners and she is selling the apartment. That’s almost a show-within-a-show-within-a-show because it’s trying to show the choices Mabel would make because she’s Mabel, but she’s making them within the constraints of staging an apartment for sale. I could picture her going all-out in certain directions of comfort and it being glamorous, sexy and swanky, but just not quite as personalised. Ultimately, it only makes sense to the viewers once they know she is selling the apartment.”
As well as the exteriors of the Belnord, Only Murders frequently takes to the streets of Manhattan for outside scenes. Howe jokes that “there are always challenges filming” there, but even more arise when the schedule dictates street scenes be filmed in nearby Brooklyn or Queens and those boroughs have to be made to look more like Manhattan.
“We try to pick places that are neutral enough that they’re not a strong giveaway that it’s not a Manhattan street,” he says. “But it’s very fortunate that the show is contemporary. A lot of times if we’re in Manhattan, I don’t have to do too much.
“We’re also rarely in any interior in the city,” he continues. “Those are usually sets in a build. The one exception was a fast one-off in episode two where Charles and Mabel are tied up in a basement, where we redressed an existing apartment at a location instead of building it.”
The “huge” challenge for season three was developing the theatre scenery for Death Rattle Dazzle at the same time as Hoffman was writing the scripts. What made it easier was the fact that viewers would never see the entire musical, avoiding any transitions between different stage sets.
“Those aspects made it simpler, and it didn’t have to have multiple locations for an entire show – only two or three locations within the made-up musical,” Howe says. “But it was a challenge to make choices about all of that when you don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle to put together.”
With another murder taking place in the S3 finale, and a fourth season of Only Murders quickly confirmed, the stage is now set for another dramatic investigation. It only remains to be seen what twists and turns the podcasters will face next – and why anyone would still want to live at the Arconia.