Rachel Weisz’s series, “Dead Ringers,” amps up the horror with its sets

Prime Video series production designer Erin Magill talks about how the twisted desires of the Mantle twins twisted the space around them.

If you feel that Rachel Weisz’s vampire teeth are hiding behind the smiles of one or the other of the cloaked twins – she plays both the child-hungry Beverly and the simply hungry Elliot – it’s no accident. Prime Video’s new limited series ‘Dead Ringers’ is designed and lit just like the real world, but more so. Whether it’s the backdrop of a kitchen or the horrors of childbirth, the color red on this show is what the apple of the Garden of Eden should be: gory and sensual and with its own magnetic pull.

The world seems to be bending to Mantles’ wishes not only because the brilliant gynecologists have Sackler-like investors behind them. Production designer Erin Magill creates spaces that draw on our deepest suspicions of the wellness chic and billionaire class, but heightened by how the twins see the world as food for their desires.

In terms of visual inspiration, of course the 1988 David Cronenberg film was there as a template, and its iconic red bushes reappear as part of the dream/nightmare birthing center for the Mantle twins. However, Magill also looked to the art world to achieve the balance (and imbalance) of color and power that the 2023 versions of the Mantle twins possess. Two paintings were included in the show, one above Beverly’s bed and the other above the fireplace, both by the artist. Jesse Mockrin.

“His work is heavily inspired by these old masters from generations ago, and his work has this very feminist reinterpretation that’s a little twisted and dark—which was perfect,” Magill told IndieWire. “(Creator Alice Birch and director Sean Durkin) and I were really drawn to the many colors he used. There’s a real richness and darkness to a lot of her work, but also incredibly feminine, which is a very tough balance.

However, Magill wanted to find that balance for the rest of the series, not just for the Mantles. This meant that physical spaces were often stages, not just for actors. “It was a place where (the cinematographers) and the directors could play with the lighting, because I felt like, ‘I’m going to give you the tools and the textures and the colors (of the drama). But it’s like the idea of ​​turning on the lights when a bar closes. The moment you start playing with the way everything was positioned, framing the camera and lighting the spaces, it can take on a whole new, more heightened thriller noir feel than we’ve had,” Magill said.

Britne Oldford as Genevieve in the film "Dead Ringers"

“Dead Ringtones”

Niko Tavernise/Prime Video

When noir infects an otherwise unsuspecting environment, it’s not just the window blinds that become Venetian, and it’s not just the shadows that lengthen. You can feel the twist and the imbalance that Magill was able to build into the all-too-perfect symmetry of the cloaked twins’ life together. “We talked a lot about how in the beginning so many scenes were written in his (twins’) bathroom. I said very quickly, “We shouldn’t make two bathrooms.” My bad architectural pun was that we had to make them Jill and Jill, not Jack and Jill. A shared bathroom for these twins perfectly reflected their interdependence and involvement in each other’s lives,” said Magill.

“It’s going to be the most amazing, high-end bathroom, but it’s also a physical representation of the fact that these two are always in there – you can see through the glass walls of the shower, the toilet is very exposed, and (we matched) the doors to their rooms, so that if you opened each one, you could see through to the other’s bed. It was all a choice to show their two different personalities and how they would meet in the middle.”

Magill used color to express the temperament of the different mantles, even if they were definitely sides of the same screwed-up coin. Elliot, with his cute little jewelry bag for cocaine, ended up inheriting more of the red that made the original film so iconic. “I used red in Elliot’s bedroom with his wardrobe and some furniture. Elliot is a little bit more of the darker one, obviously the mischievous one, and I worked (with the cinematographers) and what they would do lighting-wise with his lab, so it would have bolder colors,” Magill said. . “We’d joke that there’s red, mustard and green (in Elliot’s room), and you never want to combine those colors because it feels like ketchup and mustard. But he always eats, and that was emblematic of him.”

Photographs of four sets from Mantle Parker Birthing Center "Dead ringtones," Elliott's lab, the lobby, the observation deck, and another view of Elliott's lab.

“Dead Ringtones”

Niko Tavernise/Prime Video

Beverly, meanwhile, leans toward more neutral palettes and stark, symmetrical spaces, which are reflected not only in her bedroom, but also on the outside of the birthing center. “We had this amazing lobby that we knew we wanted to use in a place with great walkways and stairs that are very clean with lots of marble and wood and organic textures,” Magill said. “But we loved the idea of ​​getting into (the center’s) belly. And it could be a little creepier and lean into that heightened red color.

Some of the heightened stylization simply stems from the milieu the Mantles travel through. Magill gravitated toward Art Deco and other iconic New York geometric flourishes that signaled wealth and status with their strong geometric patterns and neutral polishes that became almost sterile. But these styles can also be interestingly feminine in their many shapes and patterns, especially when mirrors are held up to reflect space on mantles—or one mantle is reflected on another.

“I think that look really lends itself to a horror thriller, to be honest, and the kind of starkness and shapes and ways that (cinematographers) would be able to light things with, you know? A kitchen can look a lot creepier than it originally does if you light it in a very nice way from Architectural Digest,” Magill said.

The collaboration between production design and cinematography becomes even more hilarious as it explores the Mantles’ backers, the Palmers (Jennifer Ehle and Emily Meade), and explores the horrors of the taste of the one percent. “I suggested to Sean and Alice, ‘Well, how about we go underground (for the dinner series)?’ Magill said. “Why don’t we lean a little bit into the very organic food conversation, the over-the-top stuff, and hint a little bit that it’s a wine cave? Maybe it’s part of their very high-quality bunker.”

Rachel Weisz as Elliott Mantle and Michael Chernus as Tom, in formal attire with a rehearsal martinis, checking out their new lab. "Dead Ringers"

“Dead Ringtones”

Niko Tavernise/Prime Video

But whether it’s the grandest details in the Palmers’ home and birthing center, or the small details that tie the gowns too tightly together, Magill was able to start from the same place. “Alice did this 20-page backstory for each character that was completely separate from the script,” Magill said. “For a designer, it’s a dream of details and history. It was unbelievable.”

From these stories and details, Magill perfectly captures the upper-class life into which the Cloaks have disappeared from their middle-class backgrounds, shaping their tastes in ways that are believable enough to be terrifying. “I think it helps with the sense of tension and fear, like, ‘Oh, this could really happen. That could have happened,” Magill said. “When you have that much money and power, you know, anything can happen. I think that was the fine line for me as to what was the world that I could give the directors and the actors to play in and make sense of what they were doing.”

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