Luke Cage film set design uncovered Part 1: Behind-the-scenes insights from production designer Loren Weeks
In Part 1 of our Film and Furniture interview with Production Designer Loren Weeks, we reveal fascinating behind-the scenes facts on Netflix-Marvel’s Luke Cage film set design, decoration and furniture. We also asked this talented creative about his favourite film sets which include Cornell Stokes’ (aka Cottonmouth) Harlem Paradise club and Pop’s barbershop, which are integral to the gritty and captivating plot of Luke Cage.
The mood of a film – created by the film sets, the set decoration, the furniture, the lighting, the locations – are details that go a long way to making that world believable. At Film and Furniture we believe these semiotics are as important as the dialogue in giving the viewer insights into the characters’ personalities and taste, and therefore the story. The visceral, ‘real world’ feel of the Netflix-Marvel series (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and to follow – Iron Fist, The Defenders, The Punisher) presents us with a genuinely dystopian “human” take on the Superhero.
The Netflix series portrays these Superheroes as everyday people who happen to have heightened powers and who become (sometimes unwilling) vigilantes ridding their neighbourhood of the demons they cannot rid within themselves. The very powers they wrestle to come to terms with, all too regularly, result in apocalyptic situations for the nearest and dearest surrounding them.
Film and Furniture: What is your background Loren? How did you get into the world of ‘make believe’?
Loren Weeks: I studied architecture and received my bachelors in 1980. In the mid eighties I moved to New York and continued working in architecture but after a few years I began searching for something new. I went to Pratt Institute and studied graphic design which I thoroughly enjoyed but didn’t pursue. In ’88 my younger brother graduated college and moved to New York. According to him we had at one time discussed making movies. I didn’t really remember this conversation but it sounded intriguing. I started freelancing in architecture so that he and I could make some short films and try our hand at writing. Later I decided I should get into production so that I could make some contacts. Starting as a production assistant in commercials in my mid thirties I eventually found my way to the art department on a small movie. Maybe some day I’ll try writing again. I certainly have the contacts now.
F&F: Which film/TV show’s were you working on before you started on the Netflix Marvel series?
LW: There were two shows I had a long run on. The first was ‘3rd Watch‘ on NBC, a show about cops, firemen and paramedics. I started as the art director but when the production designer left after three seasons I was given the opportunity to step up. I designed the pilot and worked on five seasons of ‘Gossip Girl‘ for the CW. I also designed HBO’s ‘Life Support‘ starring Queen Latifah as well as ‘Blind Date‘ directed by Stanley Tucci and ‘Interview‘ directed by Steve Buscemi together with many pilots.
F&F: Which film set are you most proud of, and why?
LW: I would say Harlem’s Paradise in Luke Cage. I feel it’s the most realized and the most unique of the sets I’ve designed so far. It took on a life of its own. Everything just clicked. When I look at Mahershala Ali who plays Cornell Cottonmouth standing on the balcony overlooking the club I feel like he owns it – I feel it became an integral part of the story. There is a set in Iron Fist is which is also a favourite and is the most unique set I’ve ever done.
F&F: How involved do you get in making decisions on the details of the set – the furniture and so on? Do you brief the set decorators, or do you personally make specific choices?
LW: I’m involved in all aspects of the set. Typically I have a particular direction I’d like the sets to take. I’ll show reference images and discuss pallet with the decorator but I rarely get into specifics of furniture and fabrics as that’s the decorators job. I have worked with some wonderfully talented set decorators. Christina Tonkin on Gossip Girl, Alison Froling on Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage and Stephanie Bowen on Iron Fist. As the design progresses, the decorator and I will review the options in furniture and fabrics and make final choices together. Sometimes the decorator will take us in a direction I didn’t anticipate or may have had trouble getting my head around but with all three of these decorators – if they feel strongly about it I will defer to them.
F&F: The Luke Cage zeitgeist is phenomenal. What were your references for Luke Cage?
LW: Harlem was a huge inspiration for colour pallet. The two major sets for the show were Pop’s barbershop and the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise.
Pops barbershop film set design
LW: We wanted Pop’s to feel like any neighbourhood barbershop in Harlem. The barbershop serves a dual role in Harlem, it’s where men get their hair cut but it’s also the neighbourhood social club and current events: Men and boys hang out, talk, play chess, play video games, or watch sports. Pop’s is a safe haven, it was ‘Switzerland’ – a place where conflicts and personal feuds are left outside. Pop was a father figure to the young men of the neighbourhood and is instrumental in getting Luke to use his abilities for the greater good. Though Pop himself is only in the first two episodes his presence remains, represented through the barbershop. Pop’s role in the community becomes Luke’s responsibility to carry on.
The biggest challenge of that set was that Cheo [Cheo Hodari Coker, former music journalist turned television writer, producer and director known for such television series as Luke Cage, NCIS: Los Angeles, Southland and Ray Donovan. Coker also wrote the screenplay for the 2009 biographical film Notorious, based on the life and death of The Notorious B.I.G.] insisted that it be on street level. An important aspect of the barbershop as social club is to have it connected both visually and geographically with the street, Harlem’s lifeblood. We discussed finding a location and dressing it to be Pop’s but again for budget reasons it needed to be on stage.
It’s very difficult to have a street level set on a stage on a TV budget. You can’t have cars passing outside the window, you can’t create “across the street business” as there simply isn’t the space of budget. So we decided to set the barbershop a few steps below street level. It is not unusual to find a storefront like that in Harlem. And we needed an actual location because we had many scenes that played both in the shop and just outside. Again, that connection to the street is what we were striving for.
What was difficult was finding a location that fit our needs for the set. We wanted it to be a busy street, a known street, the shop had to have a certain width; we wanted a corner place so we could have windows on the side. And it had to step down enough so that we could block the view of cars passing by but not so low that we couldn’t see out the storefront. It took a while but we found the best possible spot on Lennox Avenue. It didn’t step down quite enough so we cheated. On set we lowered the main floor of Pops below the street further than it was on location. We hid this by introducing a low wall in front of the shop which also acted to block the street traffic that wasn’t there. All in all it worked pretty well.
Cottonmouth’s Harlem Paradise club
F&F: Cottonmouth’s Harlem Paradise club is not only stunning – it’s clever. Is this a real club or a set and what did you want to convey with this club environment?
LW: The challenge of Harlem’s Paradise was to get production to green light a set. There was a big push to shoot the club on location. I knew that this was going to be a problem eventually. Club and event spaces in New York get booked pretty heavily going into the holiday season, which we were about to do, so scheduling becomes difficult. Factor into that Cheo’s desire to have real musical acts perform and the scheduling conflicts would become untenable. Cheo and I both felt that the club was essential to build.
I saw the club as metaphor for Cheo’s theme of a new Harlem Renaissance. In order to achieve this it was essential to control the look of the club, something we couldn’t do if it was a location. My pitch for the club was that it was a contemporary of The Apollo and Smalls Paradise, clubs from the original Harlem Renaissance of the late 1920’s early 1930’s.
I envisioned a club that was the place to be seen in the late 20’s, one that hosted all the top musical acts. Over the decades the club changed owners, fell on hard times, maybe became a strip club and eventually closed down. Neglected, it fell into disrepair. Cornell Stokes restores it to its original grandeur and it again becomes the place to be in Harlem. There was a nice symmetry that played into Mariah Dillard’s campaign for a New Harlem Renaissance. Eventually Cheo tied the club’s earlier ownership to Stokes crime queen aunt, Mama Mabel.
Since the club originated in the late 1920’s I decided to set it in the art deco style. This would give it a very distinctive look, and giving it an historical anchor.
In the lounge side of the club we see two murals by Archibald J. Motley, a black painter of the original Harlem renaissance. It was important that it feel like a museum piece. Since the architecture would be “original” we decided to update with the furniture, finishes and lighting fixtures. Allison, our set decorator, brought a lot of the contemporary feel to the set making it vibrant, alive and fresh. I think we are all very pleased with the way that set turned out. I feel that it became a character in its own right, one with soul.
In Part 2 of this in-depth interview on the Luke Cage film set design, we show you where to find the exact furniture and decor from Cottonmouth’s Harlem Paradise club and office. Read it here >