In the heat of Emmy season, Awards Radar had an opportunity to speak to Neil Patel, production designer on HBO’s new show Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin. For the series, Neil designed spaces that enforced the horror feel of the show.
The spin-off show follows a brand new set of liars as they are tormented by a mysterious Assailant who makes them pay for their mothers’ secrets.
In the interview, Neil shared how he created sets inspired by classic horror films like The Shining and Carrie while ensuring that each character has a unique space that reflects their personalities and passions.
How did you get started in the industry?
I began my career in the downtown theater scene in New York in the 1990s. I worked with producers who also produced in the indie feature world. I started to design low-budget features and shorts, which eventually led to me being asked to design more significant projects like In Treatment for HBO, and so began my career as a Production Designer. I was always interested in creating new work from the ground up and giving the stories their first visual representation.
How did you get involved in Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin?
I knew Roberto through mutual friends from my theater work, and Producer Caroline Baron thought of me for the project and had me interview for it. Roberto, Lindsay, and I found we had a similar vision for the production design of the show and decided to work together.
What was different or challenging on this project compared to other things you worked on in the past?
There are five principal actors in the show, which is a lot for a series, so it was challenging to create individual and unique sets for so many characters that play repeatedly. In addition, the show is very stylized, so each set needed to be carefully crafted. Of course, these are all typical design challenges, but in this case, the enormity of the world we needed to create within the time frame was very challenging.
Walk us through each Little Liar’s bedroom, and how each one came together.
With the pilot director Lisa Soper we assigned each character an object (Tabby is a hammer, Imogen is a knife, Noa is a shield, Mouse is a trap, and Faran is an arrow). It was the starting point to give each bedroom a theme. I then used each character’s interests (Mouse/Technology, Faran/Ballet, Noa/Sports, Tabby/Film) to inform that dressing. Each character’s family history also plays into the look. For example, Mouse’s bedroom is full of vintage tech and has wallpaper created by an innovative female artist, Faran has her father’s hero Muhammed Ali on the wall but is also full of photos of her performances as a dancer, and Tabby is movie obsessed and has ticket stubs from every film she has seen in a theater dressed into the set, Noa’s set is full of sports references. The accumulation of these details created a distinct sense of the characters that I paired with bold wallpaper patterns and fabric choices.
All spaces you designed are full of little details like a hundred film posters rotating in the movie theater lobby throughout the show or decor elements in bedrooms. Is there one specific detail in one of the bedrooms or other sets you like the most? What other easter eggs should the audience look out for?
I love the IMac fish tank in Mouse’s bedroom! Our brilliant set decorator Keri Lederman found it, and it is a perfect manifestation of Mouse along with the wallpaper in her bedroom “Ladies” from Flavor Paper. The audience should be looking out for horror references like the windows in Imogen’s room at Tabby’s house.
What are your tips on personalizing spaces in a highly stylized show like this one, where you have the horror aesthetic but want to showcase individual characters as well?
I think you always need to create a detailed back story with the writers for each character that will inform the choices that individualize the sets. Sometimes it is the relationship with other characters. Tabby has the most nurturing relationship with her mother, which comes through in the warmth of her set, for instance. The horror aesthetic allowed me to exaggerate and stylize, but I always rooted the detail in character.
You essentially built and established the town of Millwood for this new series. Tell us about it, and what gives Millwood its heart.
Millwood is a working-class town that once had a thriving steel mill that has long since disappeared. That influenced the look of the town. The once impressive buildings of the town have a layered patina of age and neglect. I featured the factory image in the billboards and murals seen throughout the series. The characters’ homes are older and decorated with furniture handed down through the family. Nothing is quite up to date.
Besides the character homes, we created Millwood High School, which is an older and neglected school full of character and layered detail. Our location manager David Ginsberg found an abandoned high school in the Catskills that became our base. The school had been neglected for 20 years and had recently been purchased by a group of international art galleries that were to become our landlord. The walls had stories to tell, and the gym had resident bats. It was a perfect evocative location for our story, full of mid-century architectural details and a patina of decades of institutional decay. On stage, we built the locker rooms and bathrooms complete with working showers to blend in seamlessly with the location sets. I created an old movie theater lobby, one of my favorites to design. It is an homage to the lobbies of deco movie theaters I have loved, like the Vista Theatre in Los Angeles but with its uniquely Millwood sense of neglect. To decorate this set and some of the bedrooms, we licensed 100s film posters that change during the season to reflect the seasons and themes of the episodes. These needed to be real. PLLOS is a show that constantly refers to movies, and the character Tabby is a filmmaker.
The authentic attention to detail here was critical to selling that story. One of the hangouts is a pizza parlor called PinBall Pizza. I was inspired by many visits to Sally’s in New Haven to create a place that feels truly local and unique. We salvaged old booths, pinball machines, and a real pizza oven to give it authentic texture and detail. Old murals appear throughout the design, referring to Millwood’s glory days as a thriving steel mill town. We hand painted all of these. The look is analog, not digital. I think of Millwood as an analog place still entrenched in its past, much like the characters cannot escape past crimes.