When it comes to creating odd and vibrant new worlds, Bo Welch has frankly done it all. The four-time Oscar nominated production designer has tackled the old west, outer space, and even the Marvel Cinematic Universe, working on the first Thor movie. For the last three years however, Welch has designed… let’s say more unfortunate settings. Working with long-time collaborator Barry Sonnenfeld, Welch has designed sets for A Series of Unfortunate Events. The colourful, booming nature of each setting fully engulfs you in the stories being told, and as Welch says here in our chat, they always strived to achieve a unique feel to each book adaptation. In the first of several Talkies Network interviews with Netflix-based series crew members, Production Designer Bo Welch describes to us his process for designing a set, working on a film vs. TV, and what it was like to pull double duty as a PD and an episode director.
Bo: How are you today sir?
Nick: I’m very good. This is so cool to be talking to you today. You’ve worked on some of my favourite movies growing up like the Men in Black series, and Beetlejuice. So it’s really awesome to be talking to you today.
Bo: Oh my pleasure. I’m lucky to have done those films
Nick: You’ve worked on A Series of Unfortunate Events from its inception. When you met with Barry Sonnenfeld and author Daniel Handler, what were some of the initial conversations you had regarding building such an “unfortunate” world?
Bo: I think those initial conversations were between myself and Barry, and because we’ve worked together in the past on several occasions, we have that short-hand thing, and you know we talk about the look and the dreariness of the series. Honestly between Barry and myself, there was a minimum of dialogue for that reason, and then we started sharing visuals, and this all happened at lightning speed since after that I started generating images. We both discussed how we love the material, the dry sense of humor, exaggerated melodrama, and the opportunity to create our own universe and do it all on stage to be in complete control; and to be able to shoot it all. You shoot an episode every 11-12 days, so it’s not like you can go around different locations, you have to go around from set to set, and then tear them down for the next episode. It’s an amazing experience.
Nick: Well, building off that last point, you’ve directed 5 episodes in total correct?
Bo: Five yes, that’s correct.
Nick: So you’re designing and building these sets at lightning speed, and you’d obviously be getting these episodes ready for binging.
Bo: We actually shot seasons 2 and 3 together. The pace was insane but we had a tremendous crew. Knowing that it had to be this way, I would start designing immediately, I wouldn’t wait for scripts, but when they did, I would adjust and tune up the designs as we went along. We needed the time to start prefabbing set-pieces for episodes way in advance.
Nick: Now obviously, because you read the source material, that helped give you an image of what you needed to design, even without scripts.
Bo: Oh for sure. And you know, Barry and I had an understanding of what to do. Our initial meeting with Netflix, we pitched a bunch of concept art of what we wanted to do. Now, they loved it, but we were meant with a bunch of skepticism with them essentially saying “well good luck!” And then they widely give you enough rope to hang yourself, and it all becomes your problem. And it was a thrilling experience without a lot of meddling, and it all happens so fast that you can’t second guess yourself, like you have with feature films.
Nick: It’s funny you say that. So you’ve worked Men in Black, and Beetlejuice, and the first Thor movie. Would you say you have a different approach to production design on film versus a series as expansive as A Series of Unfortunate Events?
Bo: The process is the same. You know you try to see it in your head and try to put it on paper. There are restrictions that come out of time and money, but aim high and then retreat into what you can achieve. We aimed high and we did it in such an efficient manner that we got it. We got what we wanted. Maybe, having worked with Barry a long time, his film language involves wide angle lenses. We realized that with a wide angle lens, 21mm, you can build sets that are slightly scaled down, but see more. If you build big sets, stuff falls off with that lens. So we deliberately scaled sets down many of the sets within the series so that you can feel them within the camera, and it felt right for our three orphans. And it was fun! So there are small sets within the series, and huge ass ones as well! And now I honestly don’t even remember what you asked because I’ve just been rambling.
Nick: (laughs) I’m all for you rambling about the filmmaking process. Hearing about how sets are designed, how costumes come together, it’s all so fascinating to me.
Bo: Well what was really helpful was I do rough drawings. And then I work with concept artists who see my rough drawings and say “oh this is what you want!” And they generate, just gorgeous concept art, and then when people sign off on it, we really love everything, then you get a blueprint. You take the blueprint and go “oh I see.” And so the set decorator, costume designer, everyone gets it, and without slavishly copying it, although concept art and stills from our show usually match up, that’s fun. It’s all about control.
Nick: Well now you got me curious. One of my favourite episodes is the Ersatz Elevator, one of the pairs of episodes you directed. The biggest thing of that episode is its nervousness vs anxiousness. I find that throughout the episode, there’s this heroic vibe, you know like when they’re in the restaurant and Jacques is trying to find the Quagmires. But there’s such an unnerving atmosphere throughout the episode, like just this super creepy aspect to it all. I was wondering if you could describe the process of building the sets of the elevator, restaurant and hotel, from both a production design and director’s standpoint.
Bo: (laughs) First of all, thank you for that compliment and the fact that you got that, it’s fantastic! It was the episode Netflix really liked. It was the episode they used for the premiere in New York. So, it was genuinely a lot of peoples favourite because of that anxious, anxiety, and sense of humour, but also the amazing cast. Now design wise, I start these things way in advance, and I particularly love that one, for the creepiness, anxiousness, and anxiety. And it was a sharp left turn from all the other series of unfortunate settings. You know like finally these kids are with safe, rich people. So they were picking directors for the season and I usually direct one pair per season, normally it being at the end, so that I can do my day job and direct. There was a glitch however and Barry came to me and send “do you want to direct this one?” And of course from a design standpoint it was my favourite, that kind of rich weird collection of settings. And it was a big one, so I leaped right onto it. But I gotta say, there was great writing, a great cast, and the design was perfect, so it was a rare occasion where al cylinders fire at once. And I did do the series finale at the end.
Nick: How did it feel tackling the final episode?
Bo: That was a fat one’er. I was toast at the end. But it was really fun. The show was great because every book is so radically different. Design wise and directing wise, it’s like 13 little movies that happen to have the same cast. But the end was really fun because towards the end of the end, the AD would say “ok ladies and gentlemen, that’s a series wrap for so and so.” So every day, someone who’s worked on this thing for three years was done, and then there would be crying and it was so emotionally fraught, it was like a real life bonus to a real life adventure.
Nick: Ok you know what. Now that we’re discussing the ending, I want to ask something. Can you tell me why Mr. Poe coughs all the time? Has Daniel Handler ever revealed that?
Bo: Uhh he never revealed it. I believe he had a mild case of medusoid mycelium. That’s how I think it happened. You know that deadly mushroom?
Nick: I do! I ask because my little sister, who is a bigger fan of this series than I am goes “if you ever get an interview with someone from the show, ask them about Mr. Poe’s cough!”
Bo: Well I ask the same thing! And that’s where our writer Joe Tracz comes in. I ask him about this complicated material, and he knew the answers for everything. And I believe I asked him about that and, to my recollection, it’s the medusoid mycelium. And if she’s a fan she’ll know it. Now she’ll ask “why didn’t he die?”
Nick: Well, now I’ll just have to ask more cast and crew members for answers!
Bo: Oh I’m sure you will.
Nick: Now I know I only have you for one more question, so I’ll ask about the overall feel of the series. When watching the series, it very much feels like a story book. Was that the goal to have each scene feel like your turning the page in a children’s book?
Bo: I think that’s fairly deliberate. With all the millions of choices we make, the main was to shoot this on a stage to control everything. So it has a real, tangible feel to it, but also has its own distinct, fable-like vibe.
I’d like to send out a huge thank you to Mr. Welch for taking the time to talk with us. Interviewing him was by far, one of the coolest things I’ve ever gotten to do for Talkies. Make sure to check out A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix… unless of course… you’re looking for something happy… because that show is quite… unfortunate.
*This interview is the first of several that explores the field of craft nominees at this year’s Emmy Awards.