Decorating Dreamscapes and Narrating Nightmares
Atticus Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors), a young Black US soldier, returns home to Chicago in the 1950s Jim Crow era. Upon his arrival, one of the first places he stops into is a quaint mechanic shop. The store’s window is big with perfect lettering arched over the top near the frame, inviting light into the crowded store. There are cars being fixed, customers being served, and a big rickety bookshelf that Atticus immediately walks over to. He pulls out the book, The Outsider And Others by H.P. Lovecraft, bound with a black and white cover decorated with a naked woman and bright stars of different shapes and sizes.
The HBO series, “Lovecraft Country,” follows Atticus to his hometown to figure out the mystery behind the disappearance of his estranged father, Montrose Freeman (Michael Kenneth Williams). Once the young soldier returns to his Uncle George’s (Courtney B. Vance) apartment and runs into his old friend, Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), he is equipped with a team to accompany him on a road trip of a lifetime, with the goal of finding Montrose. Along this journey, the three stumble upon mansions and monsters. All the while, the audience is pulled into the story with its extremely detailed sets that are worth marveling at for far longer than what a ten-episode season allows for.
“Lovecraft Country” combines the genres of science fiction, historical, drama, psychological thriller and horror into one show, creating an incredibly addicting series that left audience members on the edge of their seats in 2020. Becoming the most nominated television show at the inaugural Critics Choice Super Awards, “Lovecraft Country” provided its viewers an exciting escape from reality. It is also currently the most viewed show on HBO’s streaming platform, HBO Max.
With Underground’s Misha Green as the writer and Get Out’s Jordan Peele and “Lost’s” JJ Abrams as its Executive Producers, the genre-defying show reached an estimated 1.5 million viewers for the finale and 10 million viewers throughout the first season on all of HBO’s platforms.
While the majority of filming for “Lovecraft Country” took place in Georgia, the pilot was originally shot in Chicago. Once production was moved to Georgia, the crew had the exciting challenge of not only recreating Chicago’s landscape, but also making it fit within the ‘50s time frame.
“IT IS KIND OF COOL TO SEE JUST HOW VERSATILE WORKING IN GEORGIA CAN BE AND HOW BRILLIANT SOME PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY IN LOCATIONS, ARE AT FINDING THESE LOCATIONS.”
- EMILEE COX, SET DECORATION COORDINATOR
When creating a hit television show, like “Lovecraft Country,” there is a lot of work that goes into a mise-en-scene (what’s in front of the camera and inside its recorded frame) that brilliantly encapsulates moments in history. The crew members on the set of shows work tirelessly during filming to curate the final project that fans enjoy on their streaming devices and TV screens. Oz Magazine interviewed two essential crew members, Set Decoration Coordinator, Emilee Cox, and On Set Dresser, Marissa Korchak, to showcase the work that goes into creating the background images that viewers see on “Lovecraft Country.”
Redressing some of the streets and recreating specific locations required a lot of hard work, but the versatility that Georgia’s landscape offered assisted the crew members tremendously. “All of that is actually facades and you can walk into some of those places, but a lot of them are just flats standing in the middle of the parking lot,” Cox told Oz. As Set Dec. Coordinator, Cox assists in putting objects in the background that would have meaning to the script. “We try to provide subtle impressions in the background as a team and are there to enhance the story or reflect on the mood of the scene as best we can,” Cox said. Head creatives do the research on their ideas for the show and make references to historical moments captured to establish this in the background. Then the head creatives go to the production heads for approval, and once the ideas are approved, the art department collaborates to implement the idea cinematically.
“We're in such a great place like Georgia,” Korchak said when asked why she enjoys filming where she’s based. “It wasn't difficult to make it come to life as far as looking like Chicago. We were able to implement those specific landscapes and things like that, to accommodate the look that we needed.”
Having worked on shows filmed in Georgia, such as “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Quad” and “Being Mary Jane,” Marissa Korchak, the On Set Dresser for “Lovecraft Country,” praised Georgia’s malleable landscapes.
“I think Georgia is a very special place because of that, because there are so many landscapes that can easily be portrayed as different places,” Korchak said. “We're capitalizing off of that and using it to its advantage.”
Emilee Cox explained that with the help of the locations team, they were able to locate beautiful places within Georgia that were perfect for filming. “It is kind of cool to see just how versatile working in Georgia can be and how brilliant some people, especially in locations, are at finding these locations,” Cox said. “I think it’s kind of a fun challenge to shoot for other places around the world and make it passable.”
After finding the perfect location, the design team had to go in and recreate the scene in preparation for filming. According to Cox, when it came to recreating some of the spaces, it was a mixture of challenging and fun. “It took a lot of hours and a lot of time and a bit of money to recreate and cover up buildings and have to remaster stuff and make it for the ‘50s. It was a lot of fun and definitely a challenge in a lot of aspects to be able to make it look authentic,” Cox said.
Cox also has experience working on set in Georgia; she’s worked on “The Walking Dead,” “Ozark,” and “Raising Dion.” She revealed that her favorite building to film at is the Hurt Building in downtown Atlanta, which is a historic 18-story building located next to Georgia State University’s campus. “I’ve used it on several different shows, but each show uses it in such a different way,” Cox said.
Working in the art department provides Cox with a front row seat to the evolution of the building the sets for each project. “It was really cool to walk in and to see the transformation of everything that we had to get and obtain to make it really unique and reminiscent of Chicago’s department stores of the time,” she said. “It really did feel like you were stepping back in time sometimes walking on these sets. It’s pretty awesome.”
Cox and Korchak both jumped at the opportunity to work on this project for various reasons. For Cox, the chance to work on the set of “Lovecraft Country” provided her with the platform to shine a light on history that is typically forgotten about or brushed over. “I really can’t stand whenever history is being buried constantly and we conveniently forget about certain things or just kind of whitewash things, and I don’t want that to happen ever again … I want to be a part of the movement of pushing things forward and seeing the value of learning our lesson from past problems,” Cox said.
Korchak explained that what drew her to the set was a combination of the script and being provided with the opportunity to work on a project with Green, Peele and Abrams. As a fan of science fiction and psychological films, Korchak was excited to see that “Lovecraft Country” was a combination of a little bit of everything.
“I had never read anything like that in my life,” Korchak told Oz when describing the first time she read the script for “Lovecraft Country.” The show manages to combine historical events, the spirit world, and fantastical monsters. “When I was asked to do that project, I was excited through the roof to do it.”
On set, Cox and Korchak worked with various crew members to create everything that viewers were able to see in the background. “It really does pull people into the story more or less depending on how you dress it,” Cox said. “It just is incredible having a team that could work behind the scenes and work around the clock almost to make sure everything gets in on time.”
“For the 1950s artwork … it was kind of hard and difficult to try and get access and try to get clearances for a lot of those pieces, because they are just so loved and cherished now,” Cox said about one of her many tasks: getting approval to use trademarked items on set. “We had to kind of work around it a little bit and we had some of our own painters come in and do some of [the] custom work.”
Normally, Cox would also be responsible for product placement, which allows different brands to have their products featured in the show; however, since “Lovecraft Country” has a historical environment, she said that there were not many chances to do that. “We don’t have too many opportunities to have product placement, but there is a little bit in ‘Lovecraft Country.’ Primarily, I think Coca-Cola,” Cox shared.
While she could not be on set most of the time during the actual filming, Cox was always busy helping prepare the sets that would be used for the future filming sessions. “Since we had most of the scripts upfront … we kind of had like a motif and we knew what we wanted to aim for and because we were dealing with such older pieces, and older sets, and different periods,” she said. “I like being able to build messages subtly just by putting stuff in the background and having hints to things and stuff.”
The most challenging part of Cox’s role on set revolved around the stress of obtaining the clearances in a timely manner. “I will say that getting to get clearances for things, and that includes everything from like a painting in the background to a little poster to someone having something in their hands, can be stressful,” she admitted.
Another challenge that Cox faced was ensuring that all of the background materials were period appropriate. “It is not like you can just go out to Target and buy a chair or something. You have to actually do the research,” Cox explained. “And sometimes it can make us pull our hair out to make sure that it happens in time.”
Although researching the specific details added to some of the stress that the crew faced on set, Cox really enjoys doing it. “The crazy thing with a lot of those historical elements of the show is like doing the research was so much fun, especially for the amount that we covered on it. It’s a lot of hidden history in some ways; it’s really cool to have to try to unbury this history and kind of get the chance to expose it especially on such a wide scale,” she said. “We got several vinyl albums cleared, specifically in Montrose’s apt. We wanted the albums to reflect his love of music and also build on the hollowness felt by Montrose as music was a shared passion between him and his late wife. Duke Ellington and Armstrong being the larger contenders.”
While Cox’s responsibility focuses around acquiring the rights to use artwork and obtaining clearances for certain items on the set, Korchak assisted with maintaining the continuity of the show. “My job title on the set of ‘Lovecraft Country’ was to keep the integrity of the art department, so the production designer comes up with a look that they're going for. The set decorator finds these items, and they decorate it with the look that they're going for as well, and I actually work on set,” Korchak explained.
“It's my job to keep up with the continuity, and make sure that everything's in the right place, and that we set good frames,” she added. “Sometimes we might have to shuffle around some of our set decoration to make sure that each frame is aesthetically pleasing.”
As the On-set Dresser, Korchak focuses on ensuring that each scene will flow into the next, which ultimately assists in creating one cohesive project. “Every little detail counts when it comes to building the frame,” she said when asked about the mise-en-scene. For example, Korchak uses the small and large background details to portray the emotions of the characters. She described that if the character was upset in the last scene, she may suggest to the set decorator that the background reflect that the character is upset with an unmade bed or an unclean house.
“Paying attention to detail and just thinking outside of the box and knowing the script and the material that [we’re] doing that day and having open communication with the art department to make sure that [we’re] all on the same page is really what's always key for me,” Korchak told Oz. “I have this saying that I say on set and it's ‘respect the frame’ because that's generally what my job is: to pay attention to the frame and to respect it like every detail matters.”
Korchak’s position is similar to Cox; it’s object oriented skills and requires someone with acute attention to detail. When dealing with a period piece, it is imperative that the background materials reflect life during that time period, and both women are dedicated to the craftsmanship that goes into circumspectly constructing these spaces in history.
“There would be some times on set where I would just have to keep an eye out to make sure that things were period appropriate, like the specific type of blinds that they had. Maybe if it was plastic, I might be looking like, this wasn't how blinds looked in the ‘50s, so just little things like that. My job heavily relies on attention to detail,” Korchak said.
Prior to arriving on set to film the show, Korchak said that her preparation consists of familiarizing herself with the part of the script that would be filming that day. After that, she brings her kit full of materials, which assist her in every daily task, from straightening a picture to tidying up a set, to the filming location and sets up for the day. “For instance, we may want to relocate a piece of art to a place that looks more aesthetically pleasing on camera. I have to be prepared to do so with any tools that are required … my kit has a collection of tools, tapes, extra set decoration pieces that may be requested to add to the set.
“EVERY LITTLE DETAIL COUNTS WHEN IT COMES TO BUILDING THE FRAME.”
- MARISSA KORCHAK, ON-SET DRESSER
“You get your kit to set, you find your spot and you talk to the director about the set and you walk through the set and make sure that they're pleased with what they see for the day,” Korchak said. “Then, once you're filming, you’re hip-and-hip with the camera operators. You're pretty much with them all day and … creating the perfect frames.”
When it comes to both the small and large details on set, Korchak explained that the most important thing when trying to maintain the continuity of the show is communication “You want to make sure that the set decorator and designer are happy with what they’re seeing. Sometimes there's things put on set that we really want to see or that's really an important piece to the storytelling,” she said. “[You’re] making sure that you're communicating information to the correct people [and] that you know the designer is happy with what the frame looks like [and] that the director feels that this frame is encapsulating what they have in mind for the scene.”
Korchak cut her teeth on theatre at an early age. She remembers her childhood, filming her own productions with her siblings as the cast. She achieved further experience in theatre throughout high school. Her high school theater experience sparked her interest in productions. “I wanted to understand the mechanics of every department, and learn how each department contributes to bringing the script to life,” she told Oz. Her theatre experience and foundation directly impacted the work that she did on the set of “Lovecraft Country.” “I think it plays a big role in what I do, because even for the fact that I'm kind of method, and I'm not an actor, but I'm sharing the emotions when I come to set.”
With “Lovecraft Country” taking place in specific time frames, Korchak expressed that the hardest part about being on set was going back to some of the heavy moments in American history. “On this show, we got to experience some amazing pillars who contributed to Black culture,” Korchak listed Josephine Baker and Bessie Smith as some of her favorite reintroductions. Reintroductions were engaging in a multitude of ways; they brought excitement, like seeing Jackie Robinson swing through the insides of a flying monster, and they also brought challenges.
“The most challenging part would probably be taking yourself back to those time periods,” she told Oz. “It can be heavy when you're filming Emmett Till's funeral, so that's challenging to make sure that you're still present and you're not too caught up in the moment [or] are too emotional.”
Korchak aims to find a good combination of everyone’s ideas in order to make sure that everyone is proud of what they’ve collaborated on. “Sometimes one person's idea of something might differ a little bit from another person and so that becomes a challenge to trying to find a good medium to where everyone's happy and we like the work that we have and the final product that we have come up with,” she said.
“Lovecraft Country” premiered on both HBO and its streaming platform HBO Max in August of 2020 after the series finished filming in last January. Both Cox and Korchak are proud of the product that they helped to create and tuned in weekly to watch the new episodes with their families and friends. “It became a thing in my household where people would come over on Sundays and we would have Lovecraft day,” Korchak said.
For Korchak, each week’s episode left her with a rewarding and fulfilling feeling; watching the show every week filled her with a sense of happiness, because she was able to say that she had a role in making the script come to life. Still, she gives credit to all of the crew members who worked on the set and who also really put their all in creating what viewers watched weekly.
“Everybody showed up and did their part. Wardrobe really did their thing. And then, of course, the art department, like our designer … really poured her heart and soul into those sets and so did the decorator, the decorator really poured her heart and soul and you can really feel it when you watch that. I feel like it translates,” Korchak said.
Following the process from script to screen, Cox proclaimed her appreciation for the actors who portrayed the roles and brought the characters to life. “Getting to read the script is one thing and getting to have that feeling of this is going to be really good and then having someone portray that character and bring it to life is really cool. Everybody has their own interpretations of what those characters can be and what they put into the show,” Cox said. “I think the cast did a really phenomenal job at pulling those [interpretations] and putting good heart into it.”
Both crew members and fans of the show are waiting anxiously for news from HBO about a second season renewal, with hopes that the sets stay here in the scenic Southeast.
Oz Magazine celebrates the life of Carol Sutton, who died at the age of 76 due to complications with COVID-19. The New-Orleans born actress was best known for her roles in “Lovecraft Country,” “Queen Sugar” (2014), and Steel Magnolias (1989) as well as for her passion for theatre. Her legacy expanded beyond the screen as a dedicated philanthropist whose work earned her the New Orleans Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012.
New Orleans mayor LaToya Cantrell shared in a statement: "Carol Sutton was practically the Queen of New Orleans theater, having graced the stages across the city for decades. The world may recognize her from her performances in movies and on TV — whether it's 'Treme' or 'Claws,' or 'Runaway Jury' or 'Queen Sugar' — but we will always remember her commanding stage presence, her richly portrayed characters, and the warm heart she shared with her fellow cast and crew in productions such as '4000 Miles' and 'A Raisin in the Sun.' May she rest in God's perfect peace.”