Designing Horror: An Exclusive with Killer Book Club Production Designer Markos Keyto

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Production designer Markos Keyto has worked on everything from music videos to short films. This year alone he has had three feature films released: Screen Media’s The Ritual Killer, Cineverse’s Til Death Do Us Part and Netflix’s Killer Book Club. It’s Killer Book Club that is currently garnering intrigue from audiences because of its fresh take on the teen slasher genre that saw a resurgence in the 1990s thanks to films such as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. The official synopsis for the film reads: Eight horror-loving friends fight for their lives when a killer clown who seems to know the grim secret they share begins to pick them off, one by one.

We spoke with Markos below about everything from how the production design world has changed since he first got started to constructing the elaborate library in Killer Book Club.

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

Markos Keyto: I've been doing this since I was little. I started designing costumes and sets for theater at school. At that same time, I was already making short films with friends and I’ve never stopped until today. I studied interior architecture, art, fashion design and stage costumes in different schools in Europe without stopping working on productions during my adolescence. During my life I have been able to develop all these arts in productions of all kinds: opera, ballet, theater, film, television and even designing for amusement parks. My origins are very theatrical, so I base my way of working on the study of the dramaturgy of any of the projects that are proposed to me. As I have been very curious, reading and researching very diverse things has led me to have a very open and creative mind with knowledge in many areas. Among many of these immersions of knowledge I was able to study and prepare in the art of makeup and special effects, and thanks to my years in art school and modeling, I was also able to develop myself in character sculpture, and that led me to meet Rino Carboni, the great Italian makeup master of Federico Fellini, who taught me a lot and introduced me to the world of the great masters of Italian Cinema. I was working in Italy, jumping from profession to profession, as required, in some I designed costumes, in others characters and makeup, and in others sets and art. One afternoon with the great Oscar winner Manlio Rocchetti, he told me: what are you doing here and jumping from profession to profession, you dominate all the departments, art, costumes, makeup, effects, and with your vision you can design complete productions, you are a true production designer, and with these words I decided to shape my life.

PH: What do you look for when selecting the projects that you work on?

Markos Keyto: I like challenges, I am curious and I always want to investigate something new. Good scripts would be the primary basis, of course, stories that tell something interesting and that move you from inside. When this is not very clear in the script of the project in which I end up involved, I try to create a visual subtext that allows me to move something in the minds of the viewers. On the other hand, ideally, I like to work making art and not simply making films. The “Filmmaker” concept has always been a bad reference for me. If I think about the phrase semantically, it disturbs me to understand it as that one could be making movies or sausages or anything else, as if one were on an assembly line, and although I know we are in an industry, I did not get into this to simply make movies, I want to create worlds and art that transform attitudes, thoughts or intentions in the public. So, I try to avoid these types of productions as much as possible.

There is something important that attracts me even more than a good script, it is the people. Those of us who are in this, experience the movies and their entire process to the fullest, therefore, at least one should be surrounded by people who are interested in this in the same way as we are. I know that in such a large team it is impossible for all of us to be aligned, but at least everyone who makes up my team has to feel cinema in the same way, and of course the director has to be someone who speaks a language compatible with mine.

PH: How has your work as a production designer changed from when you were first starting out in the business until now?

Markos Keyto: Quite a few years have passed since I started in this, so you can imagine how many things have evolved since then. I still remember the excitement the day I was faxing some designs to New York.

I started drawing plans with the old ruler pens, and my sketches were always with watercolor. Technology has been giving us very interesting tools that have allowed us to expand our possibilities. CAD and BIM programs surpassed many tools and today AI is entering our lives with determination. One cannot be oblivious to them and we must be clear that we are in the film industry and that this is one of the great drivers of this entire evolution.

I am surrounded by new tools and I make use of them; my iPad is essential in my designs, 3D printers, the virtual visualizations that replace our beautiful physical models, etc. But I also never stop using my pencil, my watercolors or my glue to build paper or foam board models, nor can I avoid being surrounded by books and turning to them, even though it is said that “everything is in Google” nowadays.

 What I do believe has not changed one bit is the way I approach each project. The script is my guide, I read it and reread it, I feel it and study it, I break it down and do a thorough development of the dramaturgy to be able to design later with the freedom that knowing it in depth gives you.

PH: What was the best piece of advice you got about working as a production designer?

Markos Keyto: When I was a child, I had an art teacher, Antonio Angulo, his name was, he used to help all my classmates with their drawings, but when he approached me, he always did something to destroy what I was doing, he made the water of the brushes pour on my work or he did the same with the bottle of Indian ink, he would rest his big hairy hand on the paper and smear it, he did everything as if in an accidental and very disconcerting way, but the fact is that he destroyed everything I did, and the worst of all is that he didn't allow me to start over. He forced me to continue with whatever mess I had on the table. When I left school and entered art school, I met him there again and he continued with his sadistic practices. You won't believe it, but when I started studying interior architecture, he was my drawing teacher, but by then, we were already great friends and I had discovered his great teaching. He taught me to work from the spot, from the problem, he taught me to live and resolve any situation from the unexpected and that is the basis of my entire creative process.

PH: What was your favorite part of working on Killer Book Club?

Markos Keyto: I loved the whole creative process with the director. From the beginning we understood each other very well and we spent many weeks inventing and laughing a lot. Scouting the locations was also one of my favorite parts. During these searches, Carlos (the director) and I created and developed every detail of the film, then Pablo Díez, the cinematographer, joined us and together we finished the entire aesthetic of the film.

But, working with my entire team bringing those ideas to reality was perhaps my favorite par; working with Ana and the entire art team, with Matías and my costume girls, with Cruz and her hair and makeup artists, with the construction team, the special make up team, FX and the visual effects team. You can't imagine the connection we all made and how much we enjoyed creating for this film.

PH: What turned out to be unexpectedly challenging on Killer Book Club?

Markos Keyto: As I told you before, with the story of the stain, the unexpected is part of my existence, but if anything took longer than expected in this production, it was getting our clown to have the face that he has. I have more than 150 different designs of this mask and some of them I hope to be able to recover for other stories, because they were really good, but in order to fit what Netflix expected, what the producers dreamed of, what the director imagined, what the writer had in mind and a thousand requirements that the imaginary audience demanded of us, was perhaps the greatest challenge of the film.  In the end it was a very complex team effort that led us to it.

PH: A very large set in Killer Book Club is the library. We heard you designed this room in the film. How long did it take you to create this?

Markos Keyto: I don't want to sound pedantic, but the concept, design and development of the entire idea I don't think that it took me more than a few hours. Well, perhaps I am being unfair with myself, since searching for the exact place where we would create it and making everything fit into the scenarios with which we would compose the entire university was not an easy task, and it did take us quite a few weeks. Once my mind had worked through a thousand possibilities, I think everything came easily.

We found a place that seemed ideal due to its structure and architecture, but we had a problem to solve: in this place we only had half of the library, let me explain;  In the film, the library is made up of a study space with tables where students research books and another room in which we had to have a forest of shelves, but because as I said earlier, we only had one room, and it occurred to me that this room could house both places, making the appropriate changes. I decided that the rooms would be understood as symmetrical rooms, facing each other. So that with a mirroring effect, we passed from one room to the other. For this, all these shelves were created in a way that they could be moved very easily to be able to set up the study room with tables in a few minutes.

In addition to this, I had the challenge of working with a small budget for everything we had to do during the film, so the design of this library was not designed just for this scene. The shelves were designed, thinking that we would later transform them to reuse them at the book fair, and later to convert them into the shelves of the burning house. We did this by creating the house twice, since on the one hand we looked for a location in the mountains where we created the actual house scene and then we rebuilt it in a studio so we could burn it down.

The construction team was, of course, an essential element to be able to bring all this madness to a successful conclusion.

PH: Without giving too much away, someone falls on a statue with a very sharp spear on it. Did you design this statue? Can you talk more about this?

Markos Keyto: Don Quixote is the nexus of many ideas in the film. The madness for the nobleman for books is the same one that drives Alice's mother to madness, and it is the same book, the one that Guy Montag tries to save in Fahrenheit 451 from the bonfire, the one that lights up in the fireplace, starting our movie. Don Quixote himself appears in many corners of the sets, suggesting himself as the basis of the madness into which we humans enter in most situations in life. Furthermore, the same university is named after the author, Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra.

Well, yes, this statue had to open our story and it had to be designed for several purposes, one of them, as you say, to skewer the sad lives of some of our characters.

I designed it thinking about the visual effect that it should give us within that Renaissance architecture, knowing that the heights and measurements were important for the effect to work, for it to be safe and at the same time deadly, so that we would assume almost from the beginning that this was a good place where someone could end up skewered. I also designed it thinking about aesthetic and symbolic matter; we created a book chair for him, and thinking how that place, a symbol of universal literature, should become a tomb for writers who steal ideas from each other.

Arturo and Tony, the sculptors, were the ones who managed to materialize and refine the entire idea of ​​the sculpture.

PH: You have done several horror films — Til Death Do Us Part, The Call, The Final Wish. Are there genre design tropes you embrace or avoid? And what creates more horror from your perspective: leaning into creepy design elements or avoiding them?

Markos Keyto: I don't use one method for everything, each film has its own life. Every time I face a new project, I try to clear my mind and create from scratch. I guess you can't help your own inner story, but I do my best not to affect what should be seen as new.

I also don't have a list of resources or actions, nor do I like to use the patterns that are understood to be necessary to create the aesthetics in a horror film.

I like what you say about whether to lean towards or avoid creepy designs, I think like I say: Each movie can take you one way or the other. But I can tell you that I love horror when it is felt from normality, with light, and filled with unpredictability. And I also like the idea that when you expect something to happen, it doesn't happen. That's why those moments of darkness, tension and suspense where in the end what you expect doesn't happen are great, because they feed a hunger for horror that has to be satisfied only when you don't expect it.

PH: What is something people might not know about being a production designer?

Markos Keyto: Often in the industry, the position of production designer is not understood by many professionals, including many producers of medium productions. It's funny how the more serious a production is, the more respect that is given to this position.

In Spain, the position of production designer is not very common, and in this specific film it was not understood how from this position the entire visual aesthetic would be marked by combining the art, costume, makeup, special and visual effects departments; and even lighting, since we worked with countless practical lights that were coordinated with the gaffer and the director of photography, marking the color of each scene and its dramatic unity throughout the film, and yet surprisingly from the producers to every other position in this film they lived this experience as a beautiful one.

The value that production design can give or take away from a film is something important to value. The script of a movie says much more than the words that the characters say; the actors know well that they must feel them and interpret them to convey what is in these words. The production designer is responsible for telling you the story from a visual point of view without using words but using what those words have to convey.

Accompanying and supporting the actors, giving them life, giving meaning to the immaterial is our job. Telling you the story, making you feel it, enter into your emotions, is what some positions do, such as the production designer, but also the music composer, the costume designer, the makeup artist, the good lighting artist and the good narrator of images.

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About the Author

Jordan von Netzer
With over a decade of experience in the entertainment industry, Jordan von Netzer has been able to achieve a 360-degree view of the business. After graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in Film and Video Studies, he began working behind the scenes on shows such as AMC’s Mad Men, ABC’s Desperate Housewives, NBC’s My Own Worst Enemy and HBO’s True Blood. In 2010, he transitioned to public relations and now specializes in promoting behind the camera talent.

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