Production design is always integral to a project, regardless of the size of the production or its genre. But perhaps it plays an even bigger role in the genre of murder mystery, where all the details of every location could point to a potential culprit and solving the crime.
Production designer James Philpott was tasked with leading the team on one such project, Hulu’s new murder mystery, Death and Other Details. The show, starring Mandy Patinkin as the world’s greatest detective, is largely set on a chartered cruise ship, although the story later expands into flashbacks for several characters in locations around the world.
Needless to say, the production presented quite a challenge for the art department, who leaned into rich art deco elements for most of the ship settings. In a conversation via Zoom, Philpott told us about all the research he did to design the ship’s interiors, the obstacles of the shoot, and his advice for saving some money as a production designer.
Take out your magnifying glass and get lost in all the details!
Death and Other Details | Trailer | Hulu
Editor’s note: the following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: The look of the show is very unique. What was your research process for coming up with these art deco vibes?
James Philpott: I think one of the things was it was established that we were going to do an art deco ship. And so one of the things that I started looking at quite extensively was the research of these ships from this period, and there’s actually quite a lot of information about these ships.
And I found it really interesting, because every ship had a story, but there were a couple of ships that I was particularly interested in. One in the pilot episode, they had the good fortune of filming on the Queen Mary in Long Beach in California. So that was one ship that was obviously important to research.
But the other ships that I also really enjoyed were there was a ship called the SS Normandie, which was the French ocean liner. And then there were several others, but the other two that were also very interesting were called the SS Île de France and SS L’Atlantique, which were also Atlantic Ocean liners.And I believe both of those ships were French ships as well.
The bar in Death and Other DetailsJames Philpott/Provided
And one of the things that when discussing with our showrunners, Mike Weiss and Heidi Cole McAdams, is Mike was really very interested in French art deco, which was a little bit cleaner, more streamlined.
I focused on looking at a lot of French ships, but also at the time, the French ships were considered the “most beautiful” ships, and they would bring in all sorts of designers and different people in the 1930s that were very progressive. I thought it was really interesting looking at those images. And the other thing is, even though we had shot on the Queen Mary, because we were not moving forward with that as a location, our legal department said I couldn’t actually use anything from the Queen Mary.
So anything that was more inspirational rather than specific. Which actually was really interesting, it freed me to look at all the other options and all the other images that I could work with. And the other thing I discovered, which was, I mean I’m still a little obsessed with this, but there’s actually an Instagram account, which is called Ocean Liner Stories, and essentially it has every couple days images from these ocean liners, and a lot of them are colorized in that. And I have to say I did follow that quite extensively, and that gave me a lot of really inspiring information.
NFS: I was going to also ask about what the actual production looked like. I assumed a lot of builds.
Philpott: Yes. So by the time after the pilot episode when we went to series, I mean essentially the entire ship became a build. So every piece that you see has been built. The dining room, which was one of my favorite sets, and Sunil’s office, those were complete builds. Corridors, elevators, all the cabins, suites, all the decks, everything were builds.
Philpott: So it was a big undertaking, to say the least.
Sunil’s office in Death and Other DetailsJames Philpott/Provided
NFS: As you get a little bit further into the series, you see that distinction between upstairs/downstairs. What was your method for getting the look of the downstairs, the underbelly of the ship?
Philpott: We had three stratifications, in a sense. We did have the upstairs, which were the builds that I just mentioned. And then we did have builds that we were developing for the crew quarters, crew hallways. And in episode four, we see the prison, or the brig as it’s called.
I also start researching in terms of what those images and what those things looked like. Then we had the sort of innards and the mechanical rooms of the ship. And again, that was based on research. But for those, actually I found a location, and it was interesting, because I was scouting for another show just prior to doing Death and Other Details. And I’m like, “Oh. This could look like an ocean liner machine room.”
And because I knew I had the show, I kept that in my mind. And then we used that, but we also were able to use some of the mechanical rooms in our studio, so that we kind of tied the two elements together to create the sort of a whole look at the ship.
NFS: I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone, but I am interested in what the process is like for you on a murder mystery. How much latitude do you have in leaving viewers Easter eggs about the case?
Philpott: In terms of the Easter eggs, a lot of that obviously has to come from our showrunners and our writers because they’re very specific. And so in terms of latitude for us as the design department, art department, it was more about bringing these clues into an aesthetic that worked with the show, rather than actually making them up.
Because a murder mystery is very, very complex. And I mean, we have a lot of very smart writers working to make that happen. So we would take the lead from them, but then we would create them and then we would say, “Okay. Well, we think this could be good. This would be good here and there.”
And basically show them just to make sure it fits into the overall idea of the story. And because film is collaborative, I mean, that information does have to be part of the collaborative process.
The brig in Death and Other DetailsJames Philpott/Provided
NFS: You may have touched on it with the scope of the show and how many builds you had, but what was the most challenging aspect of the production?
Philpott: I think the challenging sets were I would say probably the sheer scale of some of the sets. Some of the outer decks were challenging because they were very large, and they had to represent the scale of the show, the pool, the pool deck where the hot tub and the bar was a big build as are the outer decks.
The dining room also was challenging just because of the size and the scale, but also we really wanted to drill into the architectural details and the artwork and whatnot of that set. So that one was specific, because it was about making sure we addressed all the work in terms of art, and detailing, and just to make sure it was incredibly beautiful.
NFS: Do you have any advice for maybe elevating production design on a lower budget, or just making it look a little bit more expensive than what you might have?
Philpott: Even though this was a fairly generous Hulu budget show, I mean there were areas that we did have to look at in terms of a much more fiscally responsible aspects. And one of the areas in specific is that you probably noticed quite a number of suites that all the different characters go back to.
Essentially, what we did was, I think we ultimately had three suites, but we would rotate the suites by redressing them, doing different furniture. On one suite we called it the Lego Suite, because we would pull walls out and put different elements in it was creating a kit apart, and that’s one way of extending your budget.
And then another example, which we do see in the end of episode four, is we go to what they’re referring to as the wet dock. And that was actually only a two-wall set that I found a space in our HVAC rooms. And I sort of retrofitted it, and we shot everything from, as it’s two walls, so that you imagine it has more walls.
So, from an indie point of view, those would be things that I would talk about is, look at where you could make the set beautiful, but maybe it’s only two walls as opposed to four walls, and how can you take sets and make them different sets?
Anna’s foyer in Death and Other DetailsJames Philpott/Provided
NFS: Is there anything that you wanted to mention I didn’t ask about?
Philpott: Of course this was a really fun and beautiful show to work on. And I really enjoyed the research, and I’m hoping everyone really is enjoying the show itself.
NFS: It’s such a unique way to tell a murder mystery. The look of it also reflects that uniqueness with the art deco, and the beautiful colors.
Philpott: That’s the other thing we can touch upon is the beautiful colors. I mean, the other thing that was kind of fun about it is you kind of see there’s also stories told through flashbacks, and that was another interesting part of the show. It was outside of the ship, but it was very much part of the show, and we had to make that very beautiful. And obviously, the color palette of those elements was really important as well.
NFS: I think I was surprised as we were getting into further episodes that the scope of the show was much larger. I thought it was going to be just the ship, but then it ends up being all these additional locations … I’m sure it was a massive undertaking.
Philpott: And there’s more to come too, but I can’t tell you any about that. There’s a lot of fun stuff to come.