“Falling Water” showrunner Blake Masters told us he wanted the show to feel “cinematic,” and he’s succeeding: The most visually inventive series on TV right now definitely keeps the dialogue spare and and lets the beauty drive the story… And that means Scott Murphy might just be the hardest working production designer in the business.
We talked to Murphy about some of the challenges of making this high-concept, complex show — so read ahead to learn the secrets of the trade. (This conversation has been condensed and edited.)
The pilot was designed by Dan Leigh, Murphy tells us, so he did inherit some of the look of the show.
First challenge: Giving Marcello’s, the restaurant that serves as the show’s dreamworld hub, a consistent look. In the pilot, Marcello’s was shot on location at Minetta Tavern in Greenwich Village. But shooting in the Village can be difficult and expensive, so Murphy and his team had to recreate it on set.
They ran into a complication with a mural that’s near the ceiling of the tavern — they couldn’t get the rights to copy it exactly, so they found an alternative: They turned vintage aerial maps of New York into a wallpaper.
So you and your team have made all of the WTF items on the show, like Kumiko’s sculpture and the spyhole where Taka watches Tess…
Kumiko’s sculpture, the “porcupine sculpture” came from showrunner Blake Masters, Murphy tells us: There was a description of it in the script, and Murphy made a few sketches. His first version had the “peepholes” on a grid, but Murphy redesigned it after talking with Blake: He wanted it to look more organic, Murphy said. It was ultimately build out of an old industrial air tank.
Along those same lines, the spyhole Taka goes in looks kind of like the inside of a submarine or a ship. There’s a reason for that: Murphy spent a good deal of time researching the look of World War II era submarines.
But what you’re seeing on screen isn’t made of metal; it’s made of wood painted to look like metal. And while it looks like a big room plopped in the middle of a parking lot or warehouse, it’s not fully enclosed — the team built just two-thirds of it, Murphy said. (And it’s not a warehouse — it’s an old post office building in New York, across from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station.)
“We shot quite a bit of the show in there,” Murphy said.
Given that the show is about the dreamworld, it’s interesting that so many of the scenes are set in places with more modern architecture. There’s not really a “haunted mansion” feel to it…
“We definitely tried to avoid that,” Murphy said: Though at one point they looked into a “beautiful old mansion on Long Island,” ultimately Masters wanted something more ethereal.
We think Bill’s (Zak Orth) dream device looks like a sextant and a clock had a kid, who had a kid with a globe — what’s the real story there? How did you make it?
“It was a sextant,” Murphy confirmed. We’re moved by the imagery, now that we know it for sure: Sailors used them to map their routes, and that, plus that old-school look, all seems appropriately dreamlike. But finding the right one took a little bit of work.
“I knew on our time and budget we weren’t going to be able to find something from scratch,” Murphy said. So they went online, looking at antique scientific and medical devices, eventually finding the perfect one in England, on a tight turnaround: Murphy admitted they may have had to overnight it to get those climactic scenes on time!
“Falling Water” airs its Season 1 finale Thursday, Dec. 22 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on USA.