Behind the Scenes with Knut Loewe, the Creative Mind Shaping Netflix's Griselda

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Step into the captivating world of Netflix's latest sensation, "Griselda," and you're immediately transported back to the turbulent world of 1970s and 1980s Miami and Colombia. Behind this vivid tapestry of settings lies the visionary work of Knut Loewe, the production designer who orchestrated the transformation of Los Angeles into a sprawling canvas for the ruthless rise of Griselda Blanco's cartel.

In an exclusive interview, Knut Loewe unveils the meticulous process behind the creation of over 190 sets for just six gripping episodes. From architectural marvels to the minutiae of interior design, Loewe's team spared no detail in bringing this riveting saga to life.

One standout challenge Loewe encountered was in Episode 4, a pivotal installment that he submitted for Emmy consideration. Tasked with recreating a mansion vastly different from its scripted counterpart, Loewe and his team not only reinvented its backstory but also undertook a monumental renovation effort to restore its former glory before transforming it to suit the narrative's demands.

PH: Can you walk us through the process of avoiding stereotypical depictions of period Miami in "Griselda," and how did you ensure authenticity while steering clear of overused aesthetics like pinks and pastels?

Knut Loewe: This is a great question because the pinks and the pastels are colors that people often associate with Florida. So, yes, I wanted to limit the use of such a palette right from the beginning. This was even part of my pitch in my first meeting with director Andres Baiz and producer Eric Newman. Once we had agreed on this, it really wasn’t a big deal to introduce other color schemes, such as turquoise, light blues, browns, dark reds, and gold, of course. Creating a look that depicted Griselda’s world was more important to me than recreating an exact Miami of the 1970s. The show never wanted to be a documentary. The scripts are only inspired by real events. I wanted to focus on the difference between Griselda’s Latin American background and the over-the-top lifestyle of well-to-do drug lords in Miami. 

In the flashbacks, I introduce a more earthy color palette, such as ochre, rust, and pale greens in combination with “Spanish” looking woodwork. There are wooden beams in Griselda’s Medellin home, wooden balconies on the outside of the building, and Spanish tiles on the floor.  Dario’s mom’s house has hand-crafted wooden dividers between the living room and kitchen. All of this feels Spanish, Mexican, just not American. They did have money back in Colombia, and therefore, they lived a much better life than the majority of the people in Colombia. They had suede and leather sofas and Spanish textiles. They threw lavish parties, and Colombian food was served at the party scene.  

Once Griselda has arrived in the USA, we see a different kind of show-off: Amilcar’s penthouse, for instance, is a collage of very expensive materials, such as wooden paneling, crocodile table-tops, oriental rugs, impressionist and English school paintings, floor to ceiling glass atriums that house snakes, oversized golden animals under the piano, a taxidermy ostrich in one corner. We are highlighting the unnecessary, the silly, and the expensive. These are backgrounds that indicate the different worlds. I never wanted the sets to look too ambitious or to draw too much attention. The action, the drama, is supposed to be more important. 

Despite all this extravagance, a lot of what Griselda tries to accomplish goes horribly wrong, and she has to fight for everything and work her way up. From the designer’s point of view, that was a real challenge and joy at the same time. I merely provide additional tones and information, let's say, between the lines. Each episode depicts a bigger house than the previous episode. After Griselda and the boys have overcome the horrible Motel in episode 2, Griselda starts to make money. She buys the Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9 and rents a 6-bedroom house, which appears to be more or less “normal.” I mean the sizes of the rooms are almost moderate. In episode 4, she moves into the “Mansion,” and now we find the boys in a 1,000 sq ft. living room with 14ft. Ceiling, watching TV. The next one is an entire compound in episode 5: Endless rooms and corridors, an oversized motor court, and a park-like garden overlooking the sea. The master bedroom is a suite of 3,000 sq ft., which we build on stage, lavish burgundy, gold-leaf, and purple dominate the interior design of the enfilade set of rooms, and Griselda, on top of her success, takes place between two oversized golden foo-dogs. 

By now, she has learned to present herself and show everybody in Miami that she really made it. This progression is what the production design illustrates. This progression demanded that we would not only stick with one single color scheme, but in a subtle way, we played with various color palettes that are getting darker and darker episode by episode.  It wasn’t the only driving force, though. 

Period photography was a big inspiration, too:  I was so happy to be able to be working with a proper sign-writer again. Analyzing old photographs, one realizes that there was no cut-out-lettering in the 1970s. Cars have color, not just black and white and silver like today. Old Polaroids show us very contrasting images that we picked up and replicated. We avoided plain primary colors, and the extensive use of neon helped us set these tones for the exterior and interior. In one scene, Dario needs to get rid of an entire family. Afterward, he reports the completion of the task to Griselda over the phone. The EXT./ night scene is lit by an eerie, pale blue, foggy neon light in the background. One does not see much else, but the tone highlights the cruelty of the operation. 

PH: The choice of locations in "Griselda" seems to be quite eclectic, including a charming greenhouse and the ballroom of a yacht. What inspired these selections, and how did they contribute to achieving the splendid look of the show?

Knut Loewe: The locations are supposed to be characters. As I mentioned, they provide additional information. The locations that are Griselda’s residences tell how hard her struggles, fights, and battles still are, ep. 3, or how far she has come, ep. 5. The greenhouse belongs to a compound that Griselda occupies and fortifies in order to have enough space to build her private army. The house is derelict and abandoned, and the decay of the environment illustrates how Griselda’s operations are not working out the way she had planned. The greenhouse represents an overgrown jungle. The use of plants throughout the show was a very important tone that I used to create a “Florida-Feeling” in as many locations and sets as possible. Staging scenes in unusual environments is more interesting and more surprising, and it helps to highlight the pressure Griselda is facing all the time. 

The boat party highlights Griselda's business model, which is: “Create a safe space for rich people, and once they feel comfortable, they will buy the product. They do not go to strange and funny neighborhoods.” Therefore, I scouted a so-called “Gentlemen’s Yacht,” which was a bit of a challenge. First, we looked at a 100-foot fiberglass, modern 1970s yacht. It felt like a Winebago, like a Motorhome, it just wasn’t right. If Griselda says, “Rich people must be met in their usual habitat,” then I have to create something like a classy country club. I wanted to do “old money”. We located a boat that was built in the 1930s, 13o ft, huge decks, big enough to accommodate 100 guests. This time, we used the existing teak decks, mahogany interiors, black and white fabrics, and lots of silver and crystal. Color comes in with the arriving cars and costumes.  The next step was to find a mooring that depicts the Florida inner coastal waterway in the background. We had to build it. Floating docks were clad with wooden planks to create a period-correct setting for a shoot-out and stunt scene. 

The ballroom was a size decision; I wanted to build a nightclub in the manner of Studio 54. The Queen Mary Ballroom gave us the size we were looking for. The remaining Art-Deco elements were a great start to introduce several 1970s layers on top of the existing ballroom. We installed trussing for light effects back-lit bar counters (throughout the series, I must have designed about 10 counters because we needed so many in so many sets), and we created VIP areas that were raised above the main floor, put velvet ropes in front of them and brought in huge amounts of gold-leaf wallpaper.  The Set Decorator, Kim Leonard, came up with these wonderful golden glass mirror cocaine tables and the inevitable ostrich feathers to make it look even more 1970s.

PH: Transforming the abandoned Benedict mansion into a fortress for Griselda and her private army sounds like quite the feat. Could you share some insights into how you reversed years of neglect and water damage to bring it back to its former glory for episode 4?

Knut Loewe: Well, I didn’t want to bring it back to its former glory. I scouted many mansions, and the brief was: “Not lived in, not renovated.” In camera, everything always looks a lot nicer than in reality. One day, the location manager, Kris Bunting, came up with this empty and strange place. The architecture was more than perfect. A  weird mix of 1920s, mid-century, and Spanish style. Several “updates” that were done over almost a century had left their marks. That was the character we were looking for. We dressed it down. Period wallpaper is peeling off in the huge living room, and corrugated iron sheets and barbed wire surround the driveway. These were the details we added to emphasize the tone of the episode. Griselda builds a space, a home base for her people; this is a Robin Hood moment, this is when she becomes the “Godmother.”  Security is an important element that needs to be shown, it is less important to show off the wealth she has already accomplished. Again, greenery was one of the important design decisions. The wonderful greensman Matt Davila brought in truckloads of palms and trees and banana leaves. I wanted the place to look like an overgrown jungle. No gardener has been here for the last couple of years, this house should serve Griselda as a fortress and a hideaway.  The amount of greenery we used makes it also feel a lot more like Florida.

PH: "Griselda" spans decades and countries, each with its own distinct interior design styles. How did you approach reflecting the evolution of Columbia and Miami's interior design throughout the different time periods featured in the show?

Knut Loewe: My approach was, and I have done this in several period shows I designed in the past, to create several layers on top of each other. I start off with the architecture of each respective location, which is supposed to accommodate a film-set. I usually want to go at least 5 or 10 years back in time. If a scene is set in 1975, I try to scout a building that was completed between 1965 and 1970. The next layer would be wall finishes, flooring, and cabinetry, again, I am trying to create a passe-par-tout that is a bit older.  Of course, I work hand in hand with the set decorator. Set dec is bringing in the next layer that is going to be much closer to the time the scene is set in.  For the first layer, we used furniture that had been produced at least 10 years prior to any scene. Then Kim added a layer of pieces that reflect trends of the respective time period,  fancy seventies design and horrible eighties in ep. 5. The next layer would consist of even more period correct elements: The number of extravagant telephones Kim Leonard sourced is just incredible; one could fill a museum with these industrial design extravaganzas. Whatever we did, we always avoided being too 1970s or too 1980s. Yes, Griselda wanted to have it “nice,” she wanted to create a home for the boys, but she wasn’t brought up in a world where design even mattered.  Everything is supposed to be a bit off.

PH: The decision to use a vintage Jaguar for the action sequence is intriguing. What led you to choose the Jaguar over a Rolls Royce, and what were some of the challenges you faced in using actual vintage cars for stunts?

Knut Loewe: I mean, I am a real petrol-head, and so are Kim Leonard and Kris Bunting. I was so lucky to be able to work with Randy Wolff, the action vehicle coordinator. He sourced all of the cars, the exotic, the expensive, and for the stunts, even doubles when it was necessary; we had two identical Mercedes 450 SEL, 6.9, and two identical Cadillac Coupe de Ville. That was challenging. The four of us just couldn't get enough of the big-period American cars, the supercars, and the luxury brands of the time. 

The Jaguar was an easy choice: It is much faster than a Rolls Royce, making it the better escape vehicle. And again, to use a Rolls Royce as a hero car didn’t feel subtle enough. Remind you the owner of the car is Amilcar, who collects English school paintings who loves opera and the 18th-century classics. The Rolls would have been too bold. We used quite a few Rolls-Royces in the show; they are the epitome of expensive vehicles, but we used them as a background. There is so much in the show that is just silly and expensive, but I  never wanted these elements and details to be center stage.

PH: With over 190 sets to complete and no recurring sets in sight, "Griselda" presents a unique challenge. How did you manage to accomplish such a daunting task, and what were some of the strategies you employed to maintain consistency and quality throughout the production?

Knut Loewe: I worked on Griselda for a full year. I did have enough prep time to scout as much as possible in advance, Kris Bunting and I built a bit of a library of possible locations. Principal photography was split into two blocks, two months apart from each other, which created additional prep time. If one has to do that many sets, it is very important to work closely together with the AD department, which I did. Together, we figured out what the combination possibilities are because otherwise, one would have to do just too many unit moves and would have less shooting time. The other strategic move was to build most of the interiors on stage. We tried to be on location for three weeks, sometimes less, sometimes more, in order to give construction enough time to strike old sets and pull off new ones. Needless to say, every time we moved to the stages again, we shot out at least two or three or four sets at the time. Phil Ginolfi was the construction manager who managed to tackle this marathon wonderfully.  I worked with three art directors, Jakub Durkoth,  Bruce Buehner, and Gary McMonnies, to make all of this happen, but it also meant the days were never over; every night, I put together the briefings and designs for the following days and weeks. But I don’t mind that this is what we do, and I love it.

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