‘Retreat to You’ Production Designer Jordan Ninkovich on Creating a Wilderness Retreat

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

In our latest interview, we spoke with Jordan Ninkovich, the production designer behind the new Hallmark movie Retreat to You

Retreat to You follows two former high school best friends, Abby and Sean, as they accidentally reunite at a wilderness retreat. The duo needs to work together to find their way back to the retreat after getting separated from the group during a hike. 

Jordan and his team scouted out a hotel in Alberta and transformed it into a luxurious yet rustic wilderness retreat, serving as the movie's primary setting. Jordan aimed to create a rustic ambiance for the wilderness retreat by using all organic and sustainable materials. To capture the holistic energy of the place, he worked with raw and handcrafted materials sourced locally. Jordan also handcrafted six scenic wall art pieces using moss to foreshadow the events that would unfold during the movie. One of the wall art pieces depicts a river rock path and a forest with a split in the road, foreshadowing Abby and Sean's experience of getting lost in the woods.

PH: Can you tell us about the initial creative vision you had for transforming the hotel into the wilderness retreat setting for "Retreat to You"? What inspired your choice of using organic and sustainable materials?

Jordan Ninkovich: Great question; I was inspired by the natural surroundings of our locations. Utilizing the natural look and tone of the locations with a soft, beautiful palette while following the principles of a biophilic design. Biophilic design is a principle that focuses on the innate affinity for living things and our need for connection to the natural world. This design element brings in natural elements as the core part of the design or base, which complements our locations and represents health and well-being. The biophilic design may include nature elements such as plants, greens, moss art, or art/painting depicting or incorporating nature. It complements simple architectural elements or accents made from natural products like stone, wood, and bamboo. I have a wellness background from years ago, so when it comes to any designs/builds I do, I always look for organic and sustainable products and finishes to be used and reduce any negative footprints where I can. 

PH: The wall art pieces in the movie, particularly the one with the river rock path and the forest split, seem to play a significant role in foreshadowing Abby and Sean's journey. Can you share more about the process of creating these pieces and their significance to the film's narrative?

Jordan Ninkovich: I am so happy you mentioned the moss art. Throughout the stages of development, the talented Terry Ingram (director), the impressive (ep) Veronica Brown, and the amazing Adam Sliwinski discuss many layers and visions for what is best when it comes to the look, tone, and feel for Retreat to You. As a production designer, I love my job and live and breathe design so much that my team reminds me to eat. I'm not a designer who will rinse and repeat or provide a similarity to each film I do. I am always and forever raising the bar and providing fresh new looks and feels for each project I am attached to. That being said, something as fun as these foreshowed moss art displayed throughout the film was a creative decision; I thought it would be fun to integrate into these beautiful sets and allow all the Hallmark fans to enjoy these little easter eggs. I went ahead and selected a few fun moments to create wall moss art. I love getting my hands dirty, and I personally hand-made each one throughout the night between prep for Retreat to You.

PH: "Retreat to You" incorporates chakra colors to showcase Abby's emotional transformation. How did you approach integrating these colors into the film's set design and aesthetics to convey Abby's journey?

Jordan Ninkovich: When I was designing the resort, I wanted to go deeper into the color palette and the look, tone, and feel of the movie entirely on an energetic and symbolic level. I decided to incorporate the chakra colors deep into all the layers, not just at crucial points of the movie but throughout, allowing them to pop at important times during certain moments and dialogue while keeping a base foundational undertone, which was "green." Green, being the 4th chakra, which is the heart, has a profound symbolism and meaning, "love, peace, and compassion," things I felt Abby was in search of and needed. The 7th is the crown, meaning "peace, oneness," and the violet color; the 6th is the third eye, meaning intuition, understanding, and an indigo color; and the 5th chakra point throat, meaning communication, true to oneself, being blue are found harmoniously combined throughout the movie in important circumstance. For example, in the goat yago scene, you will find the yoga pillows being violet, representing the crown, the mats being indigo/blue combo with the accents of green and reds representing love and peace, and red being the root chakra grounding everyone at the moment including abby where we see the fun playfulness of them both for the first time.

Another time you see this combo artistically is in the main dining room, where lots of important dialogue is given, and Abby sees Sean for the first time. These chakras dominate within the green feature wall and décor items, providing an energetic, deep connection for the scene. As you go through the movie, you will see other highlights of these colors in the final scene, bringing it all together with the resort dance. Here, you will find the combination of yellow oranges and reds as the base not just to represent "fall" but to complete the journey of them both as these colors represent the "root, sacral, and solar plexus chakra points,” which means, physical needs, passion, joy, vitality, creativity, power and self-confidence all in which both Abby and Sean showed and discovered when romantically coming together in this scene and the journey they took to get there.

PH: Could you provide some insights into your collaboration with local artisans and craftsmen to source raw and handcrafted materials for the movie's set? 

Jordan Ninkovich: We worked on sourcing lots of natural materials from all the fantastic local vendors within the Calgary, Alberta, area. We did work closely with some local wood craftsman refurbishing and reusing materials to make all the signage within the movie, from the "Azuridge signage to the trail signs." 

PH: What unique experiences did you encounter during this process?

Jordan Ninkovich: We noticed that time is only sometimes on our side. So, we supported the vendors and craftsmen working together to complement our timelines respectfully and created some great partnerships for future projects. 

PH: The movie's setting combines rustic and luxurious elements. How did you balance these contrasting design elements to create a cohesive and visually appealing environment for the audience?

Jordan Ninkovich: I love this process and find it fun. I always want to make each one of my sets feel authentic and real but have that Hallmark magic to inspire our audience. Being an outdoorsman and passionate about wellbeing, I was excited to blend the rustic with the luxury elements. Calgary was amazing to work in. The people, crew, and film commission/unions are so amazing. So, I had very little restrictions on expanding my creative vision. My goal was to give the audience that "wow" factor so much that they would want to go to the Azuridge Resort and experience what our characters did. So, it harmoniously came together by infusing the biophilic design elements with the chakra colors and complementing the beauty of nature around us and the resort itself. The color palette complimented the locations' foundation by exaggerating their natural beauty, which I feel was captured so beautifully for everyone to enjoy and get lost in the journey alongside the characters. 

PH: Were there any specific challenges you faced while transforming the hotel into a wilderness retreat, and how did you overcome them?

Jordan Ninkovich: Oh yes, we did have some challenges. As a production designer, I always aim to think outside the box, go big, and go deep into the creative process. For example, the live green wall element with the whipping wisteria and flowers cascading down it was a blank wall almost 30 feet in height, so it was a fun challenge to carefully design and install this in a way that did not affect the current state of the space. Although this was fun and a beautiful statement for the space itself. We were given a new challenge of needing to take it down and back up again a few times as this was an "active" space with general guests, in this case, weddings going on, which we had to respect, of course, so this was a fun but created a challenge to redesign it in a way for my crew. I would not want to damage our set elements but be able to have it capable of being removed easily and installed quickly again to accommodate our shooting schedule. 

PH: Can you share any behind-the-scenes anecdotes or memorable moments from the production of "Retreat to You" related to your role as the production designer?

Jordan Ninkovich: Well, we are always having fun, my crew and I! There were some silly moments where, of course, when you have to design and set up two dances in one movie, you can't help yourself but find your team and even myself to take a moment and start busting out moves while we were setting up these dance scenes, an actor would say that's very "method" so we go deep into what we do, you know someone has to test the dance floor out before the actors arrive. Another one which was fun cause it was hectic. We, at times, got hit with wild, unpredictable weather. For example, we had this nice outdoor scene set up, and it was hot out, and in a second, a quick storm swooped in, hailing and windy, and I remember we all had to run and grab the tables, flower arrangements and décor items to stay dry. We were soaked in seconds laughing, and as quickly as it flew in, it was over. We ran to reset everything, which remained impressively dry, but I couldn't say much for myself and the crew. 

PH: Were there any specific scenes or locations within the retreat that posed interesting design challenges or opportunities that you'd like to highlight?

Jordan Ninkovich: Yes, I needed to connect the beginning and the end nicely together, from the opening "under the stars dance" to the hero "dance" at the end, tying everything nicely together. I needed to infuse the fall elements and the chakra colors into this to complete the journey and balance from a design perspective. I wanted to provide something magical while keeping some of the same dance elements from the past flashback, with the thought of shooting stars falling in the earlier dance, I wanted to keep that as a base, so I went with "falling of leaves." I had this vision to go out and harvest all these fallen branches and intertwine them together to represent a tree truck coming out of the dance floor and these branches crawling all along the ceiling. From there, I had leaves suspended in mid-fall coming down above the dancers below with ferry lights and crystal pendants suspended off the branches to reflect light and make it magical. In the end, what started as a challenge became one of the most beautiful sets, and why not complete such a fun journey of Abby and Sean reconnecting? I captured the same vibe while infusing the colors needed to showcase the magic on an energetic and deeper level for the audience. 

PH: In "Retreat to You," the setting plays a crucial role in the story's development. How did you work with the director and cinematographer to ensure that the set design enhanced the storytelling and character development?

Jordan Ninkovich: First off, working with Terry Ingram and Adam Sliwinski was amazing, and we effortlessly developed what was needed for Hallmark alongside VeronicaBbrown. I like to provide my directors, DP, EPS, and Hallmark with detailed sketches and in-depth design elements beyond the standard. Once we select locations, I provide hand and digitally-rendered sketches, providing such realism that you can hold the sketch next to the designed set and not notice the difference. To paint the world and the environment in such detail, there is no worry needed as to what will be delivered early in the design process. For Retreat to You, I provided that alongside deep, meaningful, emotional palettes to tell the story within the story through imagery, handcrafted foreshadowed wall art, chakra colors, and more. As the natural setting was beautiful, it was my base, and I worked from it for all my designs, making sure the natural beauty and greens of our surroundings were the constant undertone to everything provided. On a subconscious level, this provided the viewers with a deeper connection than just watching a movie. I am a big believer in multi-sensory design, and I go into that in my physical sets by supporting the crew and cast by connecting them to as many of their senses as possible. By doing this, it takes a set from not just a set anymore but to something where you do not just see it but feel it, smell it, and sometimes taste the elements that I infused into the design itself—bringing this to life even more for them, which ultimately gets captured by the audience at home.

PH: Lastly, what aspects of the movie's production design are you most proud of, and what do you hope audiences will take away from the visual experience you've created in "Retreat to You"?

Jordan Ninkovich: I am proud of every aspect of this film, the whole crew and cast, and what we all captured together. It is my passion to bring to life the words that have been written, to allow this world to shine through and these stories to be told. I believe the audience will love the characters and the story and connect with them even more with all the layers of elements I provided in the Retreat to You design. I aimed to connect with everyone on an energetic, deeper, and authentic level with my design approach. With the symbolic meaning behind the scenes and built into the sets alongside the fantastic acting by the cast, this will be a fun journey for everyone. 

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