Concept rendering for the Spirit Week on "Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin", courtesy of Neil Patel

Production design of “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” – interview with Neil Patel

August 26th, 2022
Concept rendering for the Spirit Week on "Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin", courtesy of Neil Patel

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome back Neil Patel. In this interview, he reflects back on the impact that Covid has had on the industry, the increasing level of expectations from episodic productions, dressing and layering spaces, and his love of storytelling. Between all these and more, Neil dives deep into his work on the recently released “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, the inspirations and connections to seminal horror films of the ’70s, building out the sets and finding a fresh take on the high school world.

Kirill: We spoke early last year, and with everything that’s being going on it feels like much longer, to be honest. How have these last 18 months treated you?

Neil: I’ve been fortunate enough to have been working all this time. In January 2021 when we last spoke none of us were vaccinated yet so the situation at work was precarious. In March I got vaccinated while I was working on Season 3 of “Dickinson”.

Things definitely changed once vaccines were made available. Many shows were delayed during 2020, lots of infections and chaos. We managed to produce the season and wrapped in June 2021, and I went straight to “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”. We had a brief moment of not wearing masks in the office last summer, and it felt like it was starting to get back to normal. Then the Delta variant happened, and the effects of the pandemic were always present throughout the shoot of the show. We had constant delays due to positive tests and added 5 weeks to our schedule.

I will say that things did get a little looser around capacities in sets. The show is about high school students, and we had big scenes with sometimes hundreds of people in the same space, and that would never be allowed 9 months earlier. We were doing a bar scene in Season 3 of “Dickinson”, and we were only allowed to have 20 people on the set, while it should have looked like it had 80. That one was tricky to shoot. So that aspect definitely changed towards the summer of 2021. I think that the looser rules led to some of the infections but fortunately no one got seriously ill and we were able to make the show the way we wanted to.

From there I went to my current project in South Africa, a Showtime series about Shaka Zulu. It’s pretty different from “Pretty Little Liars”, as it’s set in 18th century pre-colonial Africa. We’re still testing once a week. We’re not wearing masks. There are very few infections here, far fewer than in the United States. We still use hand sanitizer and occasionally wear a mask, but it’s definitely changed.

Concept rendering for the rave warehouse on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

Kirill: Does it feel like it’s almost back to normal in terms of how the set operates, the pace and the intensity of it, the expectations from the production side of things?

Neil: Certainly. It’s busy here, but it’s not a place that I’m familiar with so I don’t know how it compares to pre covid times, but I know that in New York it’s very busy right now. It’s very hard to crew up productions because everybody’s working. It’s back to normal in terms of capacity but it doesn’t feel back to normal because nothing really feels “back to normal.” The world has changed.

One thing that I do enjoy on my current production is scouting in a foreign country. It’s nice to be back in a scouting van. The unstructured collaboration time is very important and fruitful time in my view. Being in a van with the director, the cinematographer and the producer allows you to have those spontaneous conversations that are sometimes more important than ones that happen in meetings. That was something that was very much missing during the height of Covid lockdowns. We were separated, and we didn’t have that unstructured time together. Creatively, it’s feeling to me more back to normal, because we had our hands tied for a long time. That’s a positive thing.

Kirill: Did you get any time to look around and see what productions other people have been working on?

Neil: I went straight from production to production, so I haven’t really seen other productions. We wrapped “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, and then I worked remotely on King Shaka for a few weeks before hopping on a plane to come down here to scout.

Concept rendering for the “Swan Lake” practice on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

Kirill: Speaking of “Pretty Little Liars”, it’s a pretty sizable universe, with lots of books and TV shows. How did you get into it?

Neil: I knew of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa [the show creator] from my past professional life in the theater, so we have lots of mutual colleagues. I was aware of his aesthetic and his approach to things. I wasn’t very familiar with the original “Pretty Little Liars” show, though my children have watched it a bit.

When I spoke to Roberto and Lindsay, they told me it was not necessary to watch the original. This version was to be to be its own thing. It was obviously going to be indebted to the old show, and was going to be connected to its audience, but in terms of the production design and the visual language, we wanted to start completely anew. It’s not in the same town. The socio-economic level of the characters is different. It’s a working class world, not a rich one. It takes place in a steel town that has seen better days. Nobody has new things, nobody has the latest things. Everything is handed down from generation to generation.

What I liked about this aesthetic is how it meshed with the horror genre of this show. It has a much more cinematic feeling to it. We were looking at the horror films of the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, anything from “Carrie” to “Suspiria” (original) to “The Shining” to “Friday the 13th” to “Halloween”. By choosing to put the characters in a working class town that is a little lost in time, we were able to align our look with the story. Those movies are pretty interesting. No matter the budget, they were all meticulously designed to support the tension and make a truly scary film. That was very much how I was thinking about the design of this show.

It’s quite different from “Dickinson”, and it’s quite different from a lot of things I’ve done before. I do enjoy horror movies, but I’ve never worked on a genre piece before. I was quite happy to take it on as I knew that it’s not easy and I like to be challenged.

We were based in Catskills outside of the New York City. It was nice to get outside of the city, as I had been in the city since the lockdown started. We were a little bit farther north than people are usually based, and we had some incredible locations and looks up there that were very in line with our made-up Pennsylvania steel town.

Stills from “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, production design by Neil Patel, courtesy of Warner.

Kirill: Usually people talk about elevating the look and the design, and here it felt the opposite of that. I look at the track around the football field, the lockers in the hallway, the mirrors in the dance room – everything is about to fall apart.

Neil: This is a neglected town. One of the challenges during the Covid was to find a high school to shoot in. Shooting in a working high school became impossible for the amount of work we had to do, and we didn’t have time to build an entire high school.

Our location manager Dave Ginsburg found an abandoned high school north of Hudson, NY that was perfect. It was in terrible shape, and it was in transition. The town sold the school in the early 90’s to an artist who used it as an installation space, and when we found it, it was being sold to an international group of gallery owners who are now using it as storage and exhibition space. It was build in 1951, a classic mid-century institutional look, full of broken, crooked, messed up things.

This is what I love about locations. When you build on stage, you get the advantage of creating an intention world, but when you look at locations, you find things that you could have never thought of. It’s a different creative process, and I love it. There were details and aspects of that space that were not what you’d think of when you think of your typical high school teen show. It’s a wonderfully messed up school full of unlikely details.

Concept rendering for Millwood high school hallways on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

Kirill: Is it all one building that we see in the show?

Neil: Everything is in the same building except the front exterior. We had two prominent exteriors. One was the courtyard with the sculpture of the wolf which is part of the school location. The front facade of our location was a bit underwhelming, so we found a similar building in Hudson that had the proportions and the presence that we wanted. We shot the front exterior there and stitched it together. But that’s the only thing that we did for the high school outside of our main building.

We built sets on stage to match the location, and as the season went on, we built more of them based on the schedule. We built a couple of classrooms, a section of the hallway, and some offices. Because of the sensitive nature of what we were doing in the locker room and the bathrooms, those sets were built on stage as well. I don’t know if there’s going to be another season, but now that we know what it looks like, we could build the whole school. But as we were working on this first season, we were trying to figure out what it looks like, so that combination of stage build and location was helpful and creatively stimulating.

Kirill: I loved the usage of red color in the hallways, the bathrooms and other common areas, kind of foreshadowing the final confrontation in the last episode of the season.

Neil: Absolutely, red was our color. We leaned into it heavily all the time. Obviously there’s all sorts of other palettes and colors that we worked with on the show, but red was the predominant one.

Stills from “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, production design by Neil Patel, courtesy of Warner.

Kirill: Was there any color that you wanted to stay away from?

Neil: I find that a lot time, school sets tend to favor cooler colors, greens and blues – for good reason, as they look good against skin. But I wanted to stay away from that. I wanted more aggressive colors. I wanted to put in color combinations that you don’t think to be good [laughs]. You said it before, we’re not creating an elevated look. We’re bringing it down, but that down, depending on your taste, can be beautiful.

We were mixing lighting sources, we were mixing colors that were not necessarily harmonious color combinations. That creates tension and anxiety for the viewer, which is what we wanted. We didn’t want the viewer to relax and watch a harmonious, beautiful space. We wanted to always keep our audience on edge.

Kirill: The movie theater was a bit more beautiful in a sense, a little bit less run down.

Neil: That’s true. The exterior location is an old Art Deco theater. When you make a movie theater set with a bunch of filmmakers, everybody has a nostalgic love for those spaces, because we’ve all spent so much time in spaces like that.

That space is definitely the most conventionally beautiful, but still a neglected one. You have bubbling plaster in the corners for example. We had a functioning popcorn machine and soda machine and when you walked in it really smelled like a movie theater. It was a wonderful space to create. Roberto and Lindsay the show creators wanted to build that set. We considered a location dress but they convinced the producers to let us build it. I’m glad that we got to as it became one of the key sets for our characters to meet, along with the pizza parlor, the school library and the girls’ bathroom.

Concept rendering for the Orpheum movie theater lobby on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

Kirill: The show’s modern-day arc spans about four months, and is about ten hours of television material. How did you evolve the sets to keep it from becoming boring for the viewers?

Neil: One interesting thing was that we went through several major holidays, and we leaned heavily into the decor of that. Halloween is obviously the biggest one, but we also had Thanksgiving and Christmas to change the look.

We also introduce some significant locations and visual ideas as we get into the season. When we get to Episode 6, we go to a bowling alley and a tattoo parlor as well as back to Rosewood and the Radley Hotel. Those were great sets to add to the palette of the show. A highlight for me was the carnival in Episode 7. We were definitely aware of trying to keep the look evolving and expanding.

Concept rendering for Imogen’s bedroom on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

Kirill: And the you have 5-6 fully furnished houses for the girls and their families, each one decorated based on those specific characters and their personalities.

Neil: That was one of first things in my work – to figure out the girls’ bedrooms, because we’re in them so much. We analyzed each of the characters, who they were, their socio-economic level, their interests, so that we could create a look for each one of them that was specific.

As always on these shows, it should feel real, but the actual design is exaggerated at the level of dressing and layering in the rooms that is a bit extreme. We also decided to use bold wallpapers and palettes to make each room distinct. You can easily fall into the cliches of what a teenage bedroom is. It’s hard work to give them an actual character.

The show walks a line between thorough character detail and a great deal of stylization. It was also refreshing to do a show that did not need to look very current and fashionable. We were in upstate New York, and our set decorator Keri Lederman was hitting all the antique stores and yard sales, and coming up with some interesting pieces that gave a lot more character and nuance to each room. I think that helped to make the look sustainable throughout the episodes, having that layering that we see in each room. You might not notice this particular detail in the first episode, and then you see it later on.

Kirill: If I watch something like “Clueless”, it’s clearly the product of the ’90s. But this show, apart from the large timestamps to tell us that most of the time is spent in 2021, feels like it’s not anchored in today’s fashion or design trends. Looking just at the environments of the school or the girls’ rooms, it could have as easily have been in 2000s or the ’80s.

Neil: Absolutely, and we were definitely going for that, so I’m glad that it comes across. Except for the iPhones and other electronic devices, it could definitely be the ’80s or the 2000s. The technology is the only thing that gives it away.

Once you get out of the big urban and suburban environments, and go to the smaller towns, that’s what things look like. People don’t have new cars. Things are older, timeless.

But also, it is the look of the very famous horror movies. Look at the interiors of De Palma and Kubrick, and how really detailed and thoughtful those designs are. It’s hard to pull off that genre, and the really good films like “Carrie” and “The Shining” are exquisitely designed. It’s something wonderful to aim for.

Kirill: Is it easy to overdo it, to create so many layers and textures that it’s too busy on the screen?

Neil: Yes, you have to be careful. It’s a combination of the camerawork and the lighting to keep you focused on the characters. You don’t want to be lost in the morass of dressing. It is an interesting approach that I have not taken before in my work. I tend to be a bit of a minimalist.

Concept renderings for the Y2K party face paint and masks on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

If you have a blank wall with one perfect detail you can create a great set. It’s not easy to do, but it’s a look that usually appeals to me. It feels modern. When you look at some older films and classical paintings, they attempt to fill the whole frame. You can look at one corner and be fully fascinated by it. You can look anywhere in the frame, and there’s something interesting to see. It’s a different way to approach design, and it’s hard [laughs] because we have limited time to do this. It is a fun exercise and very different for me.

Sometimes you’re filling the frame with texture and pattern, and you don’t have to throw a lot of dressing at it. It’s about the overall feel you get from the frame, the feel that it’s full and there’s no negative space. That was definitely our philosophy that we were going for.

Kirill: How busy was your graphics department? There’s so many posters and flyers and banners, and everything kept on changing from episode to episode.

Neil: It was very busy [laughs]. We had 3-4 people working under the leadership of graphic genius Valeria Fox non stop through the whole show. In addition, we did a lot of concept renderings and pre-visualizations. When you’re doing this look, you need to prevent it from being about throwing a lot of random dressing on the set. You really need to craft it, especially on a series schedule. Pre-vis is a big help. We can see how every surface needs to be dressed, we can make decisions for each set, we can communicate with our show runners. Graphics was huge.

Stills from “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, production design by Neil Patel, courtesy of Warner.

Kirill: Out of the big three holidays, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, which one took the most time for you?

Neil: Definitely Halloween, for obvious the reasons of making a horror series. We had that big party at Imogen’s house, but we didn’t want to do contemporary Halloween decorations. We wanted a more classic, old-fashioned graphic look.

Kirill: There’s only so many shades of orange in there, and there’s been so many takes on Halloween in the horror genre throughout the decades. Is it hard to come up with something that stands out?

Neil: Going for the retro look of it helped. Our sets already had so much saturated color, so the orange-black palette didn’t necessarily overwhelm them. It was another layer on top of the existing patterns and layers. It’s different if you bring Halloween decorations on top of a modern monochromatic space, and it becomes overwhelming. We didn’t have that issue.

What often happens on these things is that you’re surprised by how much dressing you need to bring in to make it read. If we’re dressing someone’s house, even the most enthusiastic Halloween decorator that I’ve ever known would never put as many decorations as we did. If you do it naturalistically, it just doesn’t read on the camera the way we wanted it to. We wanted to see Halloween everywhere the camera looked.

Concept rendering for the trial scene in Millwood high school auditorium on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

Kirill: In our first interview you talked about your experiences coming from the world of theater. Do you find that it’s sometimes drastically different to design for the camera?

Neil: It’s totally different. Theatrical design gives you great discipline in storytelling and visually expressing the script. But the craft is so different. Theater has a fixed POV, it’s presentational while the camera can look everywhere. Film design for me is more about architecture and detail. Also the scale is different, as any small thing can become extremely important on camera the way it never will on stage. If you come from the theatrical background, you have to think very differently about how you approach the design. I think in terms of filmic images now not theatrical ones.

The word “theatrical” in production design is not a positive description, usually. Unless you’re doing it on purpose as a story point, it’s not good as to call attention to the design. But at the same time, even the most realistic production design for film is not real. We’re always composing for the camera. We are ultimately making lots of paintings not real rooms but it has to feel real. That’s the trick.

Kirill: Do you find yourself in a state of emergency, so to speak, when you discover that the camera sees an empty spot?

Neil: I’ve gotten pretty good at avoiding those emergencies. We all have them, of course. When such a situation happens, you have to have a good dresser and you have to think quickly. You have to always be prepared for it.

You can look at an empty wall, and it will look beautiful if that’s the intent. Or you can look at an empty wall and feel that it’s an undressed set. What is the difference? It depends. You have to have everybody on the same wavelength of creating an image together that is strong and purposeful. You don’t want to turn and look at something that doesn’t look complete in the frame. That’s when you have to hustle and dress it up. With time you get better at anticipating these issues. Never believe anybody when they say they are not going to look 360! Be prepared to dress everything you could possibly see.

Stills from “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, production design by Neil Patel, courtesy of Warner.

Kirill: Do you ever have nightmares where you wake up in the middle of the night after seeing an unfinished set.

Neil: Sure [laughs], I definitely have those. For me it comes from creative anxiety. If you have a vision for something, you want your work to elevate to that level. That’s a lot of pressure sometimes when something is not quite what you thought it was going to be.

Kirill: You said that you didn’t necessarily want to look at the original show, but there are still some connections. One of those is when the girls go to the hotel that was converted from the sanitarium in the original. How much visual connection is in there?

Neil: It’s the same location in name only. The original was shot in Southern California with high-end, upper middle class characters. The look of it is quite different. But in this particular instance when we go into the original “Pretty Little Liars” town of Rosewood, we are in that high-end world.

We brought our aesthetic to it, but it was one of the very few times when we are in a conventionally nice place. That was definitely a departure from our general look. We used a location for the hotel lobby, and we built the bedroom suite in a way that would look at the right level of detail and depth that we were going for.

Kirill: What did you use for the bathtub where Imogen’s mother is found dead at the very beginning of the show?

Neil: Just water and stage blood.

Kirill: Did it look as horrifying as it does on the camera?

Neil: It did, yes. It was pretty scary. That bathroom was our homage to “The Shining” bathroom in its layout, with an unnaturally long hallway that led to it.

Kirill: I liked how that opening sequence sets the mood for the whole show, that it’s not a happy story.

Neil: No no [laughs], it’s a very depressing beginning.

Concept rendering for the carnival on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

Kirill: Looking back at it, is there such a thing as your favorite location or set?

Neil: It was pretty thrilling to do the carnival. Horror genre has a whole history of carnivals and it’s a fun space to get into. We put our carnival inside, into an old armory, and that added a certain twist to it. Our carnival also looks like it could have been in the ’70s or ’80s, with older rides.

I loved designing that set, especially the mirror maze. That’s one set I’ve never done before, and it was a blast. It was so disorienting, that even I got lost walking through it, even though I designed it [laughs].

Kirill: Are there any visual effects in the show, or is it all practical?

Neil: Almost everything is practical. I was surprised, because I thought we would use more VFX. We used it for the snow in the final episodes, because we were getting into spring when we needed our “snowiest” scenes. The pinball pizza sign was a CG [computer-generated] build because we were not allowed to remove the existing sign on that location. We had the budget and time to do it practically, but we were not allowed to.

I don’t want to downplay the importance of VFX, because it’s a useful tool. The one sequence where it shined was the chase with Noa and A on the building roofs. That jump from one building to the other, as is often done, was completely VFX. We built the parapet with green screen, and then when you look down, it’s constructed in VFX. That turned out quite well.

But other than that, it’s quite light on VFX, which is unusual. I feel that trend with VFX is that it’s becoming a much bigger part of production design but show runners like to shoot as much practically in camera as possible.

Kirill: Plus, all the visual references that you’ve mentioned were done 50 years ago without the computer-based VFX.

Neil: They did not, right. We also used a lot of old-fashioned camera techniques like split diopters that were used back then.

Kirill: And those are pretty unsettling in the show, maybe because how infrequently they are used nowadays.

Neil: It’s also quite effective. De Palma made great use of it, as well as a lot of other filmmakers, especially in the ’70s. It is unsettling indeed.

Concept rendering for Mouse’s bedroom on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

Kirill: If you could go back in time and tell your younger self to not worry about one thing, what would that thing be?

Neil: It’s that life lesson that everybody talks about – worry less and enjoy the moment [laughs]. We’re all freelancers, maybe just on longer projects, and there’s always that anxiety of not knowing what’s next.

You have to have faith that it will come, and the presence of mind to enjoy what you’re doing right now. I think that everybody struggles with that all the time. It’s a really important thing, and it’s hard to see that when you’re just starting out. You don’t know when your next job is going to be, and it’s hard to imagine how it will look like in 20 years’ time.

But that is also what’s exciting and fun about this career, if you have the nerves for it. You never know what’s next, but the adventure is worth it.

Kirill: Looking into the future, do you think you’ll get to a point where you’re done telling stories?

Neil: It’s hard to imagine that. Maybe if I got really tired [laughs]. I love what I do, and I find that it energizes my brain. I can’t imagine that there won’t be more stories to tell.

There’s so much change in the world right now. There’s so much uncertainty in our profession and art form. We’re in the middle of this massive technological shift in the way we make and consume things, and we don’t even know what to call things any more. Are they movies? Are they TV shows? Everything is crossing barriers. It’s an exciting time to be doing this for sure. I imagine it would be nice to take a long holiday break – that I would definitely welcome.

Concept rendering for the tattoo parlor on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

Kirill: It looks like the different studios, be it feature, episodic or streaming, are pushing to produce ever more stories.

Neil: True, and they are getting more ambitious all the time. I look at what’s being written, certainly for the premium streaming platforms, and it’s so cinematic in nature and ambitious – including the one that I’m working on now. It feels like I’m working on several movies, but still within the framework of episodic television. In the creative side it is thrilling.

That’s the big challenge. How do we, who work on these productions, maintain the pace and not burn out? How do we do the work, but also preserve our own sanity? It’s great to work, but sometimes demands can be quite extreme. Audiences expect more scale and more scope and want to see these stories told in a cinematic way. It takes a toll on the crew to produce this in the schedules we are often given. But that’s what people expect, and those are the shows that are getting the most visibility. I don’t see that slowing down at all. And I love it myself, as a viewer. You grow to expect and look forward to the production value.

Concept rendering for the Water’s house on “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin”, courtesy of Neil Patel.

And here I’d like to thank Neil Patel for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and Daria Wilk for making this interview happen. “Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” is streaming on HBO Max. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.