Designing Between the Reality and Dream with PD on Rabbit Hole

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Rocco Matteo is the production designer on Paramount+’s new thriller Rabbit Hole, which premiered Sunday, March 26, with new episodes releasing weekly. Rabbit Hole follows John Weir, a private espionage operative who battles to preserve democracy in a world constantly at odds. As John gets framed for murder, the lines between reality and imagination blur, leaving the audience guessing what comes next.

Rocco leaned into the idea of a labyrinth or maze in many of his designs to create an illusion that the interiors require effort from John to escape or reach the goal in the middle of the maze. By making the designs active participants in the story, Rocco’s work emphasized uncertainty and the blurred lines between reality and John’s perception of the events. Additionally, to make a variety of stunts possible, including explosions and people jumping off the buildings, Rocco had to collaborate closely with the stunt coordinator to ensure the sets he built from the ground up were safe for the performers.

PH: Hi Rocco! Can you describe a bit about your professional history and how you got into the field of production design?

Rocco Matteo: I have a degree in Architecture and was interested in art & film while in university. After graduating, as work in my field was scarce, I assisted in theater and performance art projects that led me to the art department. As a junior, I worked on some high-concept sci-fi series and Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. 

PH: How has your role as a production professional evolved over the years?

Rocco Matteo: I started in the art department as a trainee and worked my way up in every category to the head of the department. Having a feel for what everyone on my team does helps me be a better leader. On some projects that I was on from the beginning, I also served as an associate producer. As film-making techniques advance and story-telling has become more ambitious, the demands of shooting have become more complex. As a production designer, my role involves ever more strategic planning to create environments, combining location work and Stage builds within very tight schedules and budgets.

PH: How do you go about selecting a project to work on? Do you have a certain criteria you follow?

Rocco Matteo: The project has to be interesting on some artistic level, and the creative team has to be compelling. I am attracted to projects that explore ideas about culture or historical moments in entertaining ways. In that sense, I have been drawn to projects about ‘intelligence’ in the spy genre that deal with politics, media, and global identities. This includes projects like Covert Affairs, Condor, and now Rabbit Hole.

PH: I'd love to learn more about your work on Rabbit Hole. First, how did you become involved with this project?

Rocco Matteo: I was introduced to the showrunners/directors by a local producer I had worked with who thought I might be a good fit. The first script was very compelling, and my meeting with John Requa and Glenn Ficara revealed we shared a strong affinity for the subject matter and the style of storytelling.

PH: Can you talk me through your pre-production mindset when constructing the design for this project?

Rocco Matteo: The world of the show had to be very realistic and suggest the scope and scale of a big-city media hub like New York. Principal settings had to be carefully planned to allow for action and stunts and for the evolution of ‘looks’ across different time periods. While all those aspects were meant to be very realistic, the story contained the theme of deception at its core. Our hero, Weir, has experienced emotional trauma, and we are immersed in what may be his delusion. We did a lot of scouting in the GTA to see what kind of places we had to work with.

PH: How were you able to lean into the idea of a labyrinth or maze?

Rocco Matteo: Weir believes he can use misinformation techniques to undo the harm created by larger players doing the same. When one of his plans goes awry, he has to go on the run while trying to figure out what happened and where he went wrong. Our hero is always moving and struggling to understand what is actually happening around him. In our main sets, spaces extend in all directions with veiled views between rooms, where it seems we can see clearly, but can we? Also, we are always reminded that he is being watched from ‘above’ while trying to get out. The environments allude to the deceptive nature of what they do and the disquiet they feel. 

PH: Can you dive deep into some of the interior and exterior sets you specifically had to create? How did the designs become active participants in the story?

Rocco Matteo: Our main character John Weir has a backstory with his best friend and former business partner. Their working partnership split with both focussing on career paths as media consultants–John running a small firm set in an old downtown warehouse, while his partner moved on to a large corporate firm set in a gleaming high-rise midtown tower. 

These two sets ‘mirror’ each other. Both are big-city office floors defined by glass walls creating spaces for their teams’ activities and routes to navigate.

That also allowed us to develop a different material palette for each partner where the setting helps define who they are - Weir is practical, somewhat old-fashioned, grounded, and feels secure in smaller groups. Fluted glass gives a sense of privacy.  

His friend Valence is ambitious, technical, large-scale, and confident that the technological future is benign, where profitability creates promise, and that their enterprise is transparent. In a high-tech fishbowl, everything is ‘visible’ unless veiled by static.

In each case, we had to accommodate a very particular stunt, action-like jumping off a balcony! The main story arc which spans decades and involves Weir’s family home -a ‘ranch-style’ house near a wooded area. We see the house during happier times when Weir is a boy playing in his Dad’s study. A traumatic event here ruins his family life and sets in motion a life-long quest for answers. The house is seen across decades to the present day, where it is overgrown and seemingly derelict. A rebuilt exterior on location with an interior built on stage allowed us to stage very visceral scenes with gun blasts, fire, and varying kinds of damage, highlighting the passage of time. The place is seemingly a symbol of our hero’s dangerous obsession and desire for safety.

Some sets were created for ‘missions’- physical and spy action where elaborate scenarios are staged, such as a street near Times Square, the exterior and interior of a downtown Police precinct, and the Interior of a high-tech secure deposit vault. Mis-direction in action.

These places didn’t exist as available locations; they had to be created as builds-on-location or full studio builds. The scenarios were very precise and specific, illustrating the skill and bravado of Weir’s team. We needed the details to be arranged and work to a precise plan and style.

PH: Did you encounter any challenges from a design perspective?

Rocco Matteo: We wanted story places to be as materially real as possible and seem grand without being ‘fantasy.’ It was important to suggest we were in a central media hub like NYC. And we wanted to allude to the growing ‘delusional’ mental state of our protagonist. Physical locations provided us with a starting point, but we had to contend with a city reopening after a long covid shutdown. So as locations were not amenable to complex and disruptive action beyond a certain point, we needed to build these environments by combining locations with augmented scenery, VFX, and sets built in the studio. All of this is in a very compressed TV schedule.

PH: Can you share what the experience was like collaborating with the stunt coordinator to make some of these scenes come to life?

Rocco Matteo: John Stead and his associates have a very hands-on approach to planning choreographed action, where actors and the camera move together to create excitement. So we did a lot of ‘acting out’ on location and on set to work out what crazy action could be achieved, beat by beat, and what my team needed to provide to facilitate it -whether it was adding protective foam padding to walls, or providing a flat, wide band handrail for the actor to stand on before jumping.

PH: How did you ensure performer safety?

Rocco Matteo: Each complex stunt sequence was broken down into minute details and staged accordingly, allowing our principal actors to be involved throughout while using trained stunt personnel to be doubled seamlessly at key points. Our main sets were built to allow for VFX screens or stunt action, and we had a VFX stage within our main set stage, allowing rehearsal time. Who knew a trained stunt horse doesn’t like running on wet pavement?! So as their shoes slid on the tarmac after a rain, we had a team with brooms and air equipment to help dry the ground before shooting the run.

PH: What's a big focus for you this year (personally or professionally)?

Rocco Matteo: Taking stock of what opportunities there are to be challenged by a project outside of my comfort zone. My experience on Rabbit Hole inspired me to think a bit bigger.

PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you have in the works?

Rocco Matteo: I am working on a great pilot project for the 20th Century and the Onyx Collective called 1266.

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