'American Horror Story: Asylum': Inside creepy Briarcliff Manor
In American Horror Story: Asylum, the FX show’s criminally insane asylum namesake Briarcliff Manor dominates like the scariest haunted house you could ever imagine. It’s got twisting dark passageways, claustrophobic cells, a seemingly never-ending grand lobby reminiscent of a loopy M.C. Escher lithograph, a basement laboratory run by possible ex-Nazi Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell) full of devices, literally, of torture, a slightly less frightening bakery, and the sparse room of main nun Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). The show’s production designer Mark Worthington told EW about his vision with show co-creator Ryan Murphy, and how the sets — all built — were conceptualized and made under the dictate of “less is more.” Even the actors were creeped out.
As told by: Mark Worthington
Everything is a built set. We shoot very little on location. Developing the look of Briarcliff started last February with Ryan. We got together, after they developed the basic arc of the season. He knew now where he wanted it to be, that it had been a tuberculosis hospital built in 1910. They found antibiotics that would cure tuberculosis, so those hospitals closed. The Catholic Church, in our case, turned it into a mental institution. It’s supposed to be an older building on the East Coast. We looked at a lot of research of mental institutions and tuberculosis hospitals. They’re usually a lighter green color, painted surfaces. We felt that had been seen a lot. The tone of our story is horror, creepier and scarier.
We were looking at exterior locations. We found a great building in Santa Ana, Calif., the old Santa Ana courthouse. It’s referred to as Richardsonian and Romanesque. It’s named after an architect named Henry Hobson Richardson. He developed the style in the 19th century. It’s circular arches, heavy stone. It’s creepy, great for horror. It’s dark, dark shiny brick. That’s how we got away from all the hospital light stuff. There’s still an institutional feel to it.
I had the first script, so we knew the areas we needed to account for. I spoke to Ryan, and I knew we wanted to account for the grand lobby, and the hallways are important, the cells are important. One of the ideas for the grand lobby is that it seems to go on forever, very M.C. Escher-esque. That vertigo. With Escher you never quite know where you are. It’s not meant to be a very comfortable place. With some sets that are warm, comfy, people want to hang out. At the end of the day, with this, people just want to beat it out of there. We put in a lot of window sources. Ryan said he, in his words, “Wanted the light to struggle to get into the building.” There’s grating, there’s exterior bars. There’s shafts of light, dark and light. You never see the exterior. It’s very claustrophobic. It never allows the people inside to think of some sort of escape. In most shows, the environment and the set become another character. Most of the shows I’ve done have that quality. It’s a glazed brick and terracotta for the grand lobby, the hallway. We’re using brick skins: formed plastic skins that are placed in and are pointed, with the edges cleaned up. The door surrounds, and the molding is high density foams cut in all the various forms we need and hard coated and painted to look like terracotta. The grand lobby, hallways, Arden’s laboratory, the bakery, the patient rooms, and the death chute took five weeks to build and change, altogether. The lobby, the hallway, the common room are all glazed dark green brick, with the moldings in an oxblood color.
That long hallway, we wanted length, as if there were many, many patients there. You didn’t want it to feel mundane. There are arched tops to the doors. That adds to the drama and level of contrast. The ceiling of that big hallway is a barrel vault, a half circle. Would they really make a hallway like that? Probably not. But it’s creepy, it’s about tone.
The cells need to feel very claustrophobic and spare. One of Ryan’s key notes in terms of design is less is more. Clutter doesn’t add meaning or emotional tone to a scene. A lot of designers are nervous about not having anything there. You want people feeling very isolated in a dark, spare, monastic room devoid of hope and the future. They have details: arches, some articulation so the camera has something to frame. The beds in the cells are rentals. They’ve been in a rental prop house for decades. That style really dates back to the ‘20s and ‘30s. The show is set in 1964. One of my pet peeves with period pieces is that it reflects a current design aesthetic. I always backdate things to give it a sense of voracity. Tuberculosis hospitals probably had beds purchased in the ‘20s. The Catholic Church would keep what’s there because of the economic conditions. That goes into it. How do they acquire these things? We do a very stylized thing with the show. It’s quite extreme, but we try to ground aspects of it in some kind of reality, so you’re not taken out of the story. You always want to have one foot in the real world.
We based Arden’s laboratory on an operating theater, a surgical theater. You would perform procedures for an audience of medical students. Why it would be in an institution we don’t know. We passed over that detail. There’s this weird sense of voyeurism about it, everything he’s doing there, the potential of people watching, of witnesses. Potentially he’s a Nazi, which we don’t know yet. There’s this great weight of this population of the dead. I love that set. There’s so much attention and weight to it. Those steps and seating area are as if they’re big plates of steel bolted. They’re really material called MDS, Medium Density Fiberboard, that’s painted and made to look like grey oxidized metal. There’s railing, and that’s all metal pipe and brass fittings. The operating table is a piece maybe we bought or rent. It’s a vintage piece I believe from the ‘20s. A lot of surgical equipment from the ‘20s is cast metal and painted white, and almost looks like foam. It has an anthropomorphic quality to it, that tension of seeing it in the corner of the screen. We’re all scared of hospital things and scalpels. Ryan loves those things. We had the doctor in the last season from the 1925 narrative.
The bakery needed to be in the basement of the institution and normally wouldn’t be. We have a lot of spaces that are quite tall, so we wanted to do a space that was quite low and intimate. There’s a scene between Jude and the Monsignor, and between [inmates] Kit and Grace. With the warmer tone, it lends itself more to those intimate scenes. Jessica was rehearsing in the bakery one day, and said out loud, “This is really the only set I like.” She blanched when she saw me, that I heard. But those other sets are made to be creepy. It was kind of a backhanded compliment. It smells of bread, because we actually bake bread there. Everyone loves it. It’s a warmer tone, a beige light sort of cream color. That immediately sets it apart from the rest of Briarcliff. The rest of the tones are cold and green.
As for the underground death chute tunnel, I always say that geography is important only when it’s important. Again, especially in our show, the logic of the geography of the building is critical. It’s more about the confusion, hallways going on and on. The death chute is not actually said in the show. It’s our term for where they take the bodies out. The idea is that in the old tuberculosis hospital, it’s where they took the bodies out. It’s a weird, nasty tunnel that seems to go on forever, and really designs itself. You have to put arches in it, and that kind of detail to give it a sense of receding. There are grates where you presumably get light from above. I have an astonishingly skilled crew. A number of us that worked on the show come from the feature world: our painter, art director. There’s an arbitrary distinction between TV and film, and it’s breaking down. With cable, the good writing is in TV. Another thing about television, when you’re designing sets, it’s very unlike a feature, which is like a short story. For movies, the sets are all custom for a given scene for five or six days at the most, and then they’re done. With TV, you have to build in flexibility for the space for future ideas. It’s difficult. I think we care about a cinematic sensibility now. The expectations now are very high. People expect it to look like a feature.
Sister Jude’s room is different. Ryan referenced words such as “very spare” and “monastic.” We made it a great deal lighter than the rest of the set. It’s of the world of Briarcliff, but has this sense of lightness to it, in a certain way. Her character arc is more complex than just the strident moralistic nun that’s presented. We start to see the other side of Jude, or Judy. That sense that the face she puts to the world is very virtuous, a strict Catholic nun, and her space reflects that. The contrast is interesting for her character. There are no curtains. There’s nothing soft. Nothing is upholstered. It’s all hard surfaces. It’s more about absence: What has she denied herself in terms of luxury? She has a cross over her bed, and then there’s one picture of Christ on the wall, and that’s it, very spare. Other people get a little nervous, “What are we going to do! There’s nothing there!” But it works.
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An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.