Designing Art Deco Style Murder Mystery For Death And Other Details

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

James Philpott is the visionary production designer responsible for the captivating world of Hulu's latest sensation, "Death And Other Details," featuring the legendary Mandy Patinkin. Set to premiere its gripping first two episodes on January 16, followed by weekly releases until March 5, this murder mystery series thrusts viewers into a tantalizing tale where Imogene Scott finds herself entangled in a sinister locked room murder mystery, with Mandy Patinkin's character, Rufus Cotesworth, as an unexpected ally.

What sets this contemporary thriller apart is its unique setting—a lavish 1930s-style cruiser meticulously crafted by James Philpott to transport audiences back in time. From meticulously researched art deco aesthetics to intricate details like cubism-inspired murals and period-accurate service rooms and jail cell doors, every element of James's design immerses viewers in a bygone era. Moreover, his keen eye for detail extends beyond aesthetics, with subtle clues hidden throughout the set that play a pivotal role in unraveling the mystery. Join us as we delve into the mind of James Philpott, the mastermind behind the stunning production design of "Death And Other Details."

PH: The show's unique premise involves a murder mystery set on a stylized 1930s cruiser. Can you share some insights into the challenges of designing a contemporary show with a period-specific setting like this?

James Philpott: One of the challenges is that there are more limited resources in terms of locations, props, and furniture. Though challenging, artistically, it is exciting as most of the sets need to be built, as does many pieces of furniture, which gives greater artistic control over the vision. Similarly, both challenging and exciting is the volume of research required. One has to dig deep to fully understand the period, aspirations, influences, and vision of the designers of the time. The 1930s was a really interesting time for design as there were so many influences that contrasted with each other. The traditional design of the late 19th century and early 20th century were making way for modern design as we know it. I have to say the research is actually one of my favorite parts, as you learn so much, and it is so inspirational. Ultimately, in my role as the production designer of Death and Other Details, part of my job is to interpret all this information and relate it to the artistic vision of the show and its resources and technical needs.  

PH: You mentioned spending countless hours researching the art deco style for the yacht. Can you elaborate on the sources of inspiration you drew upon, and how you ensured the authenticity of the 1930s aesthetic while keeping it relevant to a contemporary audience?

James Philpott: Yes, I spent hours researching into this gorgeous world of the 1930s/40s ocean liners. It was very inspirational to see the actual ships from that era. Each ocean liner company would try to outdo each other by hiring the most creative and celebrated artists and designers of the time. As such, the design work I was looking at was the most creative, epic, and cutting-edge of its time. There are many, many photos of these beautiful ships, and I collected and studied everything I could find. I even found an Instagram account solely dedicated to1930s oceanliners, @oceanlinerstories, which I still look at as I am still low-key obsessed with these ships and this account. 

There were a couple of ships I drew the most inspiration from. The first one was the SS Normandie, a French ocean liner that started sailing in 1935. At the time, it was considered the most beautiful ship ever. Another one was the SS Queen Mary, which is from 1936 and which Death and Other Details had the good fortune to use as a location in the pilot episode. Other ships I really loved and drew inspiration from were two French ships, the L’Ile de France from 1926 and the SS L’Atlantique from 1931. The interesting part of the design aesthetic of these ships was the streamlined Art Deco that was used. As I mentioned, it is very much a transitional style bridging traditional 19th-century style with very modern elements that even today seem bold and fresh. The mix of elements ranging from gorgeous rich wood paneling to highly bold and graphic flooring, streamlined and graphic brass detailing, and modernist cubist inspired artwork was exciting. I really wanted to bring this to the SS Varuna, our ship in Death and Other Details.  

Being aware the show is contemporary, I also had to ensure our choices based on the period research still projected luxury to an elite contemporary clientele. Fortunately, the lush velvets, sumptuous fabrics, and rich woods, as well as the fresh design still do. I feel Art Deco still stands up as elegant and luxurious and, in some ways, is a hallmark of beautiful living.  

PH: The production design involves intricate details, from cubism-influenced murals to period-accurate service rooms and jail cell doors. How did you approach the process of incorporating these details to transport the audience to the 1930s while maintaining the functionality required for the story?

James Philpott: With every show, Death and Other Details being no exception, I approach the project from two places. One is to create a big artistic vision of the show, which will inform every set. As TV and film is a collaborative process, the vision was created in collaboration with my highly supportive showrunners, Heidi Cole Mc Adams and Mike Weiss. Through this collaboration, I learned the direction of the story and what is needed to facilitate its functionality as well as the artistic vision to transport our audience to the 1930s ship. But details only work if there is a big-picture vision that comes from this collaboration with the showrunners, the director, and the writers. I am able to read the scripts far in advance and have many conversations with our showrunners on how the story will evolve the sets and how the sets can facilitate the story as well as incorporating the design details of 1930 Art Deco, creating this wonderful lush world for our actors and of course our audience. 

The other place I would also like to start is with the details. From big and small, my design process meets in the middle to create a fully realized world. On Death and Other Details, I was able to collaborate with my incredibly talented art team of set designers, graphic artists, and art directors that I had gathered to work through all the intricate details that I had planned. Our construction coordinator, Zbish Scheller, and his team, and our paint coordinator, Billie Jo Thompson, and her team were alway eager to facilitate every design detail and project that I handed to them. They loved the challenge. Funny story: my wife was in our local coffee shop, and two men were talking about this crazy construction project they had been working on. It had really tested their brain with all the curves, details, and inlaid, but they were so proud. My wife saw photos over one of the men’s shoulders and recognized the photos as Death and Other Details.

PH: In a murder mystery, every detail matters. How closely did you collaborate with the writers and director to ensure that your production design not only captured the era but also contributed to the storytelling, especially with the small easter eggs left in the designs?

James Philpott: “Details Matter” was a motto for our show as well as frequent dialogue. So it was really important to keep a close and open communication with our writers on what the clues and easter eggs were and how they would unfold as the story progressed. If there were any questions on my end either I or my super talented art director Alyssa King would reach out, and conversely, the writer’s room would reach out to us. As all these clues would have to capture the era, so I would have to research and then design and have it built or sourced. My amazing Set Decorator, Alex Rojek, who I love dearly as we often share the same brain, would become involved with sourcing many of these items. Details often fall to props. Again, I was fortunate to have a brilliant props master, Keej Mullen, who is not only amazingly detail-oriented and has beautiful taste but is also able to build almost anything in-house with her team of props builders. Keej and I would collaborate on many of these special items. I feel the biggest piece that Keej and I collaborated on was the DollHouse in the pilot episode teaser. It was a monumental project, as we were really building an entire house. We had to match our set inside and out in every detail. And of course anything we created for these details would be vetted with the showrunners to ensure everything worked for the story.

PH: Balancing aesthetics with functionality can be challenging. How did you navigate the need for period-accurate elements while ensuring the practicality of the sets for the actors and the overall production?

James Philpott: This is a great question. Often, there are different levels and types of functionality for TV and film sets. Walls may have to be removed for special camera positions or ceiling panels, or in one case, in our jail, the entire ceiling may have to be removed for either a camera angle or lighting requirements. Also, built-in furniture pieces might need to come apart in a specific way to facilitate a special shot. So, to balance both the aesthetics and functionality, we chose to build most things. Of course, all the sets for the ship were built, and this allowed the sets to come apart to facilitate any shots that our directors or DOPs, Magni Agustsson and Fernando Reyes, would want. Many furniture pieces, like beds, built-in vanities, desks, and seating were built to be easily removed from the set or come apart for camera reasons. All this while maintaining the overall look of the show.

PH: You mentioned that the production design played a crucial role in catching the murderer, with small easter eggs hidden throughout. Without giving away spoilers, how did you work with the writing team to seamlessly integrate these design elements into the narrative?

James Philpott: Communication is key to ensure that all the easter eggs or hidden clues work with the overall story. As I mentioned, we had a continuous back-and-forth flow of communication with the writer’s room. From them, then back to us and then to the set dec and props teams, and then back to the writer’s room. There are all sorts of things like photos, books, and other small details to keep an eye out for. But you will have to watch the show to find them as I won’t tell you what they are.

PH: The series stars Mandy Patinkin. How did you collaborate with him and the rest of the cast to ensure that the production design complemented the performances and added to the overall atmosphere of the show?

James Philpott: One thing I always look to when doing any show or set is to create an immersive experience on a set for our actors. I want to feel that when an actor walks onto a set, they are entering the world of their character, and that, in turn, will help them become their character and give their best and most authentic performance. As the designer, I often work at least one or more episodes ahead of the actual shoot date, so my interactions with the actors are more limited. But we always consider the needs of the actors, and on the day, Alyssa or Alex will be there to ensure everything is alright for them and that they are fully prepared if an actor needs an adjustment. As an example, when we first shot Sunil’s office, Mandy was seated for most of the scenes, and Alex had several period-appropriate chairs available to ensure he was comfortable for the entire shooting day.  

PH: With the first two episodes premiering on January 16 and subsequent releases weekly until March 5, how does the episodic nature of the release impact the way viewers experience the unfolding mystery, especially considering the visual aspects of your design?

James Philpott: I feel the episodic nature of the show and the weekly drops allow the viewer to consider and analyze the clues and the different suspects before the next episode. In some ways, I think this will increase viewer involvement with the show. Additionally, as the show reveals itself, we venture into different areas of the ship that we have not seen, and we discover more and more about the past of each character. During the course of Death and Other Details, we go into the below deck quarters and hallways, the mechanical rooms of the ship, and other unexpected places. And with every character’s back story, we go to places important to them. All these places, I have designed and fit into the overriding aesthetic of the show. Some of these places were unexpected and very fun to do. I don’t want any spoilers, so I won’t say much more than that.

PH: Were there any particularly challenging or memorable moments during the production design process that stand out to you? Any specific scenes or sets that you are especially proud of?

James Philpott: Death and Other Details was a big undertaking, and there were both many challenges and many rewards. Despite having a fairly generous budget and a decent amount of space, it still was a challenge to achieve the epic scale of the 1930s ocean liners. Space and money became a consideration fairly quickly as it always does. After a while, I had built sets into almost every inch of the stage, including the mechanical rooms, and I even had sets in the parking lot. We had to use every space we had, and there was one stage that was a peculiar shape, 400’ long, 30’ wide, and 52’ tall. Ultimately, we decided to put the dining room and bar, which was inspired by the SS Normandie’s dining room, which was over 90’ long and two stories tall, into this space. Also, in this space, we put the two-storey outer deck and promenade set. We had to build it, so the floors of the set aligned with the floors of our stage building so we were able to cut holes into the stage walls to allow actors to come in and out of the set on camera.   

The two sets I am most proud of are the dining room and bar and Sunil’s office. For the dining room and bar, I really wanted a space that gave a grand scale. And despite the grand scale, I was very pleased to be able to bring in all the intricate Art Deco details. All the artwork was created with a celestial theme. This theme is very apparent in the bas-relief and bronze friezes, which are more illustrative, but all the abstract cubist murals also had a celestial theme, representing the natural elements (fire, water, earth, and air) of the zodiac star signs. Additionally, the materials were very rich with lush polished woods inlaid with brass details and lush emerald green velvet upholstery. I am really into green velvet at the moment. Love it. Green has always been my favorite color, and I discovered it was Heidi Cole Mcadams favorite color, too. Sunil’s office was one of the very first sets I designed. I really got to play with the geometry of the floor plan being inspired by Art Deco geometry of circles and squares. I also knew this would be a well-used important space, and I wanted to create many spaces within one space to provide multiple opportunities for the actors, directors, and DOPs. Like in the dining room, I was able to bring in the interesting deco elements. I noticed that Deco was really a transition from a traditional world to a modern world. So, there were design contrasts between the rich woods and brass detailing with the highly graphic monochromatic floor and the modern cubist artworks and murals.

PH: Finally, after the completion of "Death And Other Details," do you have any upcoming projects or themes you are eager to explore in future productions?

James Philpott: Right now, I have another series coming out called Sight Unseen, which is very different from Death and Other Details. I have had the good fortune to have been involved in a variety of different projects in terms of themes and styles in the last few years. So, I am really open to all kinds of projects. As a designer, I feel we bring a talent and vision that can be applied to all genres. What is exciting is to figure out how to bring your best to everything one does. Though moving forward, I am considering several opportunities that have come my way recently, and there are more that are developing for the near future. But I also look forward to the success of Death and Other Details, and in a perfect world, I can do more of this show.

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