The designer behind “American Horror Story: Hotel” and its creepy setting

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DnA producer Avishay Artsy, left, and host Frances Anderton on the set of American Horror Story: Hotel. Photo courtesy LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office.

As the Halloween-industrial complex ramps up and our attentions turn to costume parties and trick-or-treating, Hollywood is cranking out a barrage of TV shows like Bates Motel, iZombie and Scream Queens, and movies like Goosebumps and Crimson Peak. It’s all very spooky and fun, but the show that delivers the biggest chills is American Horror Story. The fifth season premiered last week on FX. Each season of the creepy horror drama is set in a different location – haunted house, insane asylum, carnival freak show – and this time it’s at the Hotel Cortez, a fictional establishment inspired by downtown LA’s notorious Cecil Hotel (now rebranded as Stay on Main).

Mark Worthington, production designer for "American Horror Story."
Mark Worthington, production designer for American Horror Story. Photo credit: Edward Rubin

While the plot includes such horror tropes as a murderous countess (played by Lady Gaga), beautiful but unwitting tourists, and a police detective running from his past, it’s really the production design that steals the show.

The hotel’s lobby dazzles with Art Deco-inspired features, from the engraved skylight to the slender chandeliers and the stunning gold staircase. DnA spoke with Mark Worthington, the production designer for the entire American Horror Story franchise, about the research that went into making the show look so good.

DnA: The fifth season of American Horror Story is set in this fictional Hotel Cortez in downtown Los Angeles. Tell us about what went into the thinking for the design of this hotel. What kind of mood were you trying to set?

MW: When we start every year with Horror Story, I meet with Ryan Murphy, our show runner, and sometimes we meet even before there’s a script. He will describe things to me and give me a shape of that world. In this case he referenced things like the Cecil Hotel, which had a sort of checkered history and is a real hotel in downtown L.A., and also the Alexandria which is an old legacy hotel from the ’20s and was a very big hotel in the silent era.

He’ll give an overall sense of, as you say, the tone that he wants to achieve and then he shows me some research, and then I go away and I do a lot of research and come up with some images and we cull through all that and land on some specific ideas. Early on, Art Deco became something that we both were attracted to, because it’s both extremely glamorous and it speaks to  because our hotel is built in the in the ’20s  speaks to that era very well. But it can also be very creepy and dark and strange — because the imagery in some cases is a bit more modern and streamlined, (and yet) it’s also somewhat decorative. It’s just odd. And so that felt right to us. So we started from that kernel and worked out from there.

Wes Bentley as John Lowe. Photo credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX
Wes Bentley as John Lowe. Photo credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX

DnA: Yeah I can see what you mean about how Art Deco can be both beautiful but a little bit off-putting too. It seems a little strange and scary. And there are also different types of Art Deco. Did your research involve the type of Art Deco you wanted the hotel to represent?

MW: Yes, we talked a lot about that, and Ryan and I looked at images of different Art Deco. European Art Deco, for example, is very different (from American). French Art Deco or Belgian Art Deco is, I would say, a little softer, based more on natural forms, whereas the American version, especially in New York — but I would also say San Francisco to some extent — is more linear. It’s more architectonic.

So you get a building like the Chrysler Building which has a lot of angular sharp imagery. The Empire State Building has the same thing and both exteriors of the buildings show that as well. It’s the style that grew out of New York called “Zigzag Art Deco.” The hard lines and sharp angles play well into an idea like horror. So we went more in that direction, though that’s mixed up a bit even in our hotel.

DnA: I was amazed to learn that all that took just seven weeks to build.

MW: Yes. We had a design development period which was longer than that prior to building. It’s a lot of drawing and drafting. We’re not building the mechanical services of a hotel but we’re building everything else essentially of that interior. So it’s a lot of work, and in the meantime we’re also having conversations about budget.

Initially our costs were too high and so we had to make cuts and changes and so you’re going through that dialogue with the studio which also eats up some time and by the time you get to developing the right design with Ryan, we had about seven weeks left to build it, which is not untypical. Near Season 2 [Asylum], I think we had five weeks to build all that scenery, which was as ambitious as what we’ve done this year.

Kathy Bates as Iris. Photo credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX
Kathy Bates as Iris. Photo credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX

DnA: I know you worked closely with set decorator Ellen Brill to make this a reality and it was a combination of sourcing furnishings that were of that period and also building some of your own. Especially when cost came into play, sometimes it’s cheaper to make your own than to find the old stuff and then rebuild it or rehab it.

MW: And also part of that is a matter of appropriateness and style. Lady Gaga’s penthouse is a really stylized bedroom. It’s quite tall. It has a custom chandelier that we designed and built and then the bed had to be quite special.

We weren’t going to find a round bed with Art Deco fluting in the way that thing was designed, so we designed that bed and had it made and it’s lacquered with car paint to get that kind of light, almost metallic surface that it has. There was just no way we were going to find that bed in the real world.

DnA: Right. And you had the chandeliers in the hotel lobby, these really beautiful, elongated glass chandeliers. Did the Warner Brothers design department build those for the show?

MW: Yeah. I did a little sectional drawing of the hotel lobby. I thought they were probably going to be three or four feet. In scale, once you see everything, they’re nine feet. They’re big. I passed off my little rough drawing to a set designer, and then we sent it to Warner Brothers and they manufactured it for us.

We’re lucky this season to be in Los Angeles because of the resources that are available to do a show of this ambition. I’m not sure that this would have been possible elsewhere.

Denis O'Hare as Liz Taylor. Photo credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX
Denis O’Hare as Liz Taylor. Photo credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX

DnA: One other striking thing is the skylight of the hotel. It reminded me of the Bradbury Building in the way natural light — well, it’s in a studio — but you would be able to have natural light flowing into the hotel. And that also allows a tonal change in the hotel lobby. Near the end of the first episode, there’s a guy who comes in who wants to buy the hotel, and it suddenly looks a lot brighter and a lot less intimidating then it did earlier in the show. I thought it was interesting, the way lighting can really change the way you feel inside the lobby.

MW: That was a choice I made early on. I also wanted to avoid the direct reference to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. There have been a lot of references to it being similar. It is in certain respects, and totally different in other respects. The carpet I think is really the thing that ties in the most, but rather than having those three tall huge windows that the Overlook has, with those big shafts of light coming in, the dilemma was, ‘well, what do we do to change the lighting in there.’

So I thought a skylight makes the most sense. And they’re a very common feature in hotels where in many cases the lobby is sort of buried in the core of the building itself. And it allows Michael Goi, our director of photography, to light it up and it can be quite bright and and almost sparkling in a certain way and then we can turn that off and turn off more lights and it’s quite dark and shadowy and forbidding. So it allows a huge range of tone.

DnA: Do you consider the Hotel Cortez to be a character in the show? So much of the show is set inside the hotel. There are those foreboding labyrinthine hallways that people are running through. The hotel really does play a quite a strong role in the show itself.

MW: It always does. (That’s) the DNA of the show — and I’ve been designing every bit of it since the first season. Early on, Murder House [Season 1] was a character. The house is almost active in that season. It changed people, it made people into ghosts, it did all kinds of strange things. It was almost personified in an odd kind of way…

DnA: Right, the basement…

MW: Yeah, the basement, and just everything about it. The hotel definitely has a presence of character and it affects people in specific ways. And that’s very intentional. There are two schools of thought in what I do in production design. And both come into play when you’re working, but one of them is, these are just backgrounds and they provide an environment for the action and then they sit back and they don’t otherwise have an active part. I think in most cases that’s not really what you want. I think environments interact with the story and with the characters when they’re at their best, not in an inappropriate way — but in a way which really shores up the action and actually help support the characters and support the action and the tone of the piece.

The candy dispensers in "the nursery." Photo credit Avishay Artsy.
The candy dispensers in “the nursery.” Photo credit: Avishay Artsy.

DnA: One of the rooms that I really liked in the hotel is the one where the children are, that Lady Gaga takes the little boy into. Tell me a little bit about that room. You have those long glass candy dispensers. And then you have the video game screens. It seems like such a different tone than the rest of the hotel.

MW: That’s very intentional. We call that room “the nursery,” which makes sense and is also slightly perverse. It started basically as a description of a kind of amazing room with TVs and they’re playing video games and there’s candy. Ryan, because he loves Kubrick, needed it to have that sort of Kubrickian feel. I call it a mashup between [A] Clockwork Orange and Willy Wonka, that room. But it came out of that desire for it to be completely different, and kind of shockingly so.

Hence the choice for what was essentially a white room. And rather than just have TV monitors sitting on stands somewhere, in a kind of mundane or sort of quotidian way, I thought, let’s make it a vertical format and make them huge and we’ll integrate them into the architecture, so this is very much a purposefully built room for these kids.

And the candy stand, I actually sat down and drew that piece myself because I had a really particular vision of what that needed to be. So there’s this almost idealized sense of, would you really have a dispenser like that for these kids in a room? Probably not but that’s all about sort of tone and the strangeness of the whole idea. It’s both alluring and attractive and glamorous and it’s utterly alienating at the same time. And all of that’s very intentional.

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DnA: One of the most striking features of that lobby is that huge staircase. You have these grand entrances and that’s actually something that happens in every season, right, there is a staircase in every season. Can you talk about how that staircase plays a role in the lobby?

MW: Staircases are inherently cinematic and, you know, you can name thousands of them in every film. There’s Gone with the Wind or, you know, you could go on and on. But I think there’s physical and formal reasons why that’s true. They create a transition from one space to another, that’s an obvious one. And then they create a sense of hierarchy because you have levels, people coming down, people being in a lower level, you’re looking down at them, you’re looking up at them. That creates an immediate difference in relationships.

They’re visually dynamic, just inherently, because they imply movement and change and transition and just strictly from an architectural standpoint they’re usually placed especially in something like Hotel, in the center of the building. And so they’re almost like a sculpture really. So they’re inherently dramatic and interesting. We always have staircases. We even had one last year, it wasn’t as featured as much, in Freak Show. The challenge is to create a different staircase every season, and one of these days we’re going to run out of ideas because there are only so many types that exist before you start repeating yourself. But we’ve made it so far.

Matt Bomer as Donovan. Photo credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX
Matt Bomer as Donovan. Photo credit: Frank Ockenfels/FX

DnA: I want to ask about some of the really small details, the things that might get overlooked in a show like this that has big prominent architectural features — things like the room keys or the bar coasters or, even above the doors to some of the rooms off of the lobby, there are little signs like “haberdashery” that don’t even really show up in the show but are there nonetheless. Tell us about the importance of those kinds of tiny details in the show.

MW: The assumption is that television is cheaper and it’s a factory and we just make these episodes every week. In previous decades that was the case to some extent. It is not the case now. Television has inherited, I think, the mantle of the dramatic narrative that used to be in middle-sized feature films that almost don’t exist anymore. So HBO, Showtime, FX in our case, have picked up that idea.

So with that the expectations are much higher. And the other thing about television is that you build a space like that hotel lobby, but you don’t know what’s going to get used, so I tend to err on the side of completeness. In other words, this is a hotel lobby. We’re not going to see this corner in this episode. But we might in episode 8. So I tend, ironically, to be more particular and more complete in the way I design a space like that, when I’m working in television, than I would in a feature film where you’re given the parameters specifically.

And that of course creates tension budget-wise, like, ‘hey, this is TV, why are we spending this money?’ It’s like, well, you know, down the road, we may need this.

DnA: We haven’t met all the characters yet. We haven’t met Angela Bassett’s character yet, for example. Are there rooms in the hotel that we haven’t seen? Can you give us a teaser of something to look to look forward to, design wise, in the show?

MW: I can’t really say specifically what, but there are some surprises coming up. And there is one room that we haven’t seen yet with a particularly stunning scene with some interesting characters that people will know from history, more recent history. Ryan’s always writing in some wonderful things for us to do. He’s so committed to the visual idea of the show. It’s fun because he’s always coming up with new fun things to do even as the season progresses.

Catch American Horror Story on Wednesday nights at 10 pm EST/7 pm PST on FX. This interview was edited for length and clarity.