Dead Ringers film sets pack a punch. F&F talks with Production Designer Erin Magill
TV series Dead Ringers is a visually stunning work built around the retelling of a disturbing story. Join us for a tour of the impeccably thought-through film sets with Production Designer Erin Magill as our personal guide.
Magill was tasked with creating a fresh female perspective for this modern take on David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers 1988 thriller starring Jeremy Irons. The 2023 series (out now on Prime Video) sees Rachel Weisz playing the double-lead roles of gynecologist twins Elliot and Beverly Mantle who are looking to fund a new women’s health clinic centred on fertility and giving birth. This inventive adaptation is a psychosexual thriller from writer Alice Birch, who has also written for Normal People and Succession, so you know you’re in for an intelligent rollercoaster of a ride.
The codependent Mantle twins share everything: Drugs, lovers, and a remorseless desire to do whatever it takes, including pushing the boundaries of medical ethics, in an effort to challenge out-dated practices and bring women’s health care to the forefront. Reinventing the twins as women gave Magill the opportunity to build a world suited to a female, if somewhat uncomfortable, perspective.
Film and Furniture: Did you refer to Cronenberg’s 1988 thriller in your research for your design of the new Dead Ringers film sets?
Erin Magill: All of the creators and department heads had great admiration for the aesthetics of the original film and wanted to pay homage wherever it seemed appropriate for Alice’s adaptation.
In the original film, the twins’ apartment had such a distinct late 80s Italian Post Modern style – it managed to be stark, cold, and sharp while also containing curves and some traditional motifs. That visual juxtaposition as a larger concept still felt very relevant to our story: our sunken living room, glass dining table with sharp chairs, curved breakfast nook, and bold staircase were all a bit of a nod to the original in a variety of ways.
It was decided that the iconic red scrubs were going to be reimagined by our costume designer, Keri Langerman. With that visual in mind, it made sense to follow her lead with aspects of the design in the birthing center, using some similar dramatic shapes and proportions from the original film – specifically in our birthing centre operating room.
Simultaneously, our DP, Laura Goncalves, was going to pay homage to the often harsh and dramatic lighting of the original through the use of a skylight or oculus. There are, of course, plenty of smaller nods here and there for the super fan, such as Genevieve’s apartment. We were all originally drawn to this location due to the warmer and ornate textures of the Brooklyn brownstone but collectively knew it was the perfect choice based on the foyer of the building, which looked almost identical to that character’s space in the original film.
F&F: We understand that Rachel Weisz was very hands-on in the look and feel of the film?
EM: Rachel championed this gender swap adaptation from the beginning, at the time approaching Sue Naegle of Annapurna to produce and bringing Alice Birch on to create and write. I was told that Rachel was heavily involved in the development and writing process; she is an EP on the project and, as such, was one of the people who interviewed me for the production designer position.
I’ll never forget how in my interview, the first thing she said was how much she had enjoyed the film Swallow that I had designed a few years earlier – which of course simultaneously shocked me and meant the world to me. Swallow was a micro budget film made as a true labor of love for all involved, but it packed a true visual punch. I think that, both aesthetically and thematically, the connection between Swallow and Dead Ringers is very evident for those who have seen both – in fact, they would make a great double feature of sorts.
The Mantle twins apartment
F&F: The Mantle twins apartment has a very distinctive interior style. How did you go about designing this space and choosing the décor?
EM: Our female twins are from middle/working class North England and their idea of the American dream more than likely seeped in, both consciously and subconsciously, through pop culture and their exposure to the 1% who they brushed shoulders with at private school. Therefore, when discussing what their apartment would look like with Alice and Sean Durkin (Director of the pilot and EP), a custom designed apartment on the upper west side was an obvious and natural choice seeing that the twins had worked their way to a certain level of societal and economic success.
At first glance, the apartment wasn’t going to reveal their deepest inner selves. Instead, it would be more emblematic of their awe-inspiring superiority; a space that, on the surface, would reflect the many masks they both wore. However, as the series/story and their lives unravel on screen, the apartment – from its bones to its palette and texture – would be the canvas to reveal and more honestly reflect their dysfunction.
F&F: Why so many arcs and curves in the interior design of the Mantle twins apartment? By contrast, the living room area has straight-edged hard-looking sofas, why is this? What can you tell us about the stained-glass window in the living ares and the grand painting above the fireplace?
EM: Using the Italian Renaissance revival motifs of the lobby and elevator of our Park Avenue exterior location as a jumping off point, I felt the quintessential New York and feminine motifs of the Art deco style (curves, mirrors, brass and marble) would seamlessly allow me to connect with some of the bolder signatures of the post modern Italian style associated with the original film that we were going to incorporate into the communal space: the sunken living room with Saratoga inspired couches, the bold proportion of the floating staircase mixed with a curved brass railing, the crisp graphic lines of a terrazzo floor or striped marble platform in the bathroom, all set against a cold, but not as saturated palette as the original film. Our shared spaces were more desaturated, cooler and feminine in nature with colours of mauve, mint green, burnt orange, maroon, charcoal grey, and steel blue.
In our discussions of backstory and motivation for the twins, Alice often spoke about her fascination with the god-like complex that doctors can possess, along with the mythical and elevated status twins can carry in religion and myth. These ideas were the inspiration and reasoning for some of the more dramatic sky lights found in the kitchen and foyer, as well as the symmetrical gothic inspired windows flanking Beverly’s bed and the stained glass window in the living room – which was mainly inspired but the artwork of Georgia O’Keeffe and Hilma Klint [who currently has an exhibition at London’s Tate in London], two female artists whose work was a constant inspiration for me in terms of shape, proportion and palette throughout the entire series, as seen in the birthing centre as well.
Art Deco Graphics book, Patricia Frantz Kery (pre owned, very good condition)As seen in:
Art Deco Graphics book, Patricia Frantz Kery (second hand, pre-owned by Film and Furniture founder Paula Benson as a reference book, very good condition) This book still stands as the most comprehensive survey on the dynamic graphic design in the three decades before World War II, when economic and political upheaval mixed with a wild pursuit of gaiety, luxury, modernism and elegance to produce a style known variously as Modern, Skyscraper, Jazz Style and, eventually, Art Deco. Watch the The Great Gatsby and have this book at hand to immerse yourself in the world of Art Deco. Patricia Frantz Kery … Continued
Approx £19.99 / $26
Alice and I spoke a lot about that lack of sentimentality and layering that would exist in the apartment and how this visual representation would align with the masks both sisters would often wear. The dramatic shape, proportion, palette and eventually lighting of that “personal” space would eventually lend itself to the collapse and exposure of those masks as the series unfolds.
In line with this idea, along with my brilliant set decorator, Shannon Finnerty, we made the decision to only largely feature the art work of contemporary artist Jesse Mockrin within the twins apartment. Fittingly, Jesse’s work is based on that of the old master’s, reinterpreted through a female gaze and feminist perspective.
The living room piece above the fireplace is from her 2019 exhibit Artissima, which included paintings that focus on violence and the objectification of the body. Drawing from 17th Century Dutch still life painting, specifically focusing on images of dead animals that appear as monuments to man’s dominion over the wild. Mockrin isolates the animals from their larger, banquet-like displays, making the loss of life more stark. The presence of hands, seemingly indifferent to the neighbouring violence, speaks to the flippancy of human cruelty; corpses become trophies, valued as symbols of a culture’s virility. For us, it was clear that Jesse’s work was the only choice for what could be hung on the walls of our twins apartment, not only in palette, and style but most of all in theme and tone.
The twins are most comfortable while at work in the hospital or at the lab. When home, they are not congregating on the living room couch, which is why there’s a formality and stiffness to the design of that space, although aesthetically pleasing, it is not an inviting space, and the sharpness is meant to reflect how uncomfortable the twins would be by just sitting in a space only meant to talk – we rarely see them here and in the formal dining room, except for when their parents are in town.
F&F: What can tell us about the kitchen design?
EM: The kitchen was designed to be utilitarian in nature, to feel sterile like an operating room with dramatic overhead lighting and cabinets painted in hue of hospital scrub green. While the space might contain gorgeous marble counters, form still follows function in this space because this is where the twins feel comfortable and congregate amongst the large cold marble island, built in seating, and top of the line appliances. Throughout the series, the twins are often seen eating, partying, and even hooking up in this space, and we wanted to create an environment that made sense for them to feel comfortable in when following their primal instincts – instincts that women are often shamed for.
Structurally, the main living space was a bit of an open floor plan because we wanted to reflect the lack of boundaries between the sisters. This also influenced the choice to create only one bathroom – a Jill and Jill if you will – with the sister’s bedroom doors aligning enabling them to see all the way through the communal bathroom from one’s bed to the other. That feature, along with the open shower featuring floor-to-ceiling glass walls and exposed toilets, highlighted the fact that even the most intimate of spaces in the home was going to be lacking any privacy.
The use of arched doorways, windows, and pocket doors was influenced by the work of Hilma Klint, art deco and the female body itself. These choices were also made in part knowing that later, when designing the Parker Mantle Birthing Center, I wanted to bring back similar shapes and textures from the twins apartment and the Parker Estate that not only felt personal to these founders, but also dramatically different from what we had seen in their initial old guard hospital, Westcott Memorial.
F&F: Can you tell us about the grand ceiling design and painting above Beverly’s bed?
EM: The twins’ bedrooms were the only spaces where we wanted to visually get a bit more personal and show their individuality. Beverly’s Room was a safe space for her, a calming sanctuary to retreat to after endless hours of work. She is more calm, collected and gentle of the twins; more empathic and romantic. All of these qualities lent to a more feminine space, one that is cool and calming.
The grand vintage art deco inspired bed – found by our decorator Shannon on Chairish was inspired by a stunning reference from a 1942 art deco inspired bedroom in The New Palace in Morbi, India.
Shannon and I loved the idea of pairing that bed with drapery that was a bit reminiscent of the hospital, creating this nesting safe space for Beverly that would also provide an opportunity for us to show the wreckage that Elliott causes when she is spinning out of control later in the series.
The painting above was another work by Jesse Mockrin, but one that Alice and I felt was a bit more ambiguous, shy and romantic – in line with Beverly’s state of mind. As for the light feature above the fireplace, I drew thematic inspiration from Hilma Klint, Georgia O’Keeffe, and structurally from James Turrell.
F&F: Elliot’s bedroom is a more haphazard affair, with clashing textures and colours. Were you looking to contrast the two characters’ personality?
EM: Absolutely. Elliot’s room was tucked into the part of a New York apartment building that is often closer to the inner back alley, with views directly into another’s apartment. She would be more comfortable in the room that had less natural light and a darker, cave-like feeling.
It’s beautifully designed to her more gregarious personality, with bolder shapes and more saturated reds, greens, and a fitting mustard wallpaper inspired by the almond tree paintings of Van Gogh.
Elliot would never be quite comfortable in the space and was always going to make it her own – throwing a TV up on the wall haphazardly, holding onto a few personal items from their childhood (Chair/lamp), and always rushing in and out like a tornado leaving piles of clothes and food in her wake.
The Parker estate
F&F: Where was the estate of Rebecca Parker filmed and can you tell us more about the design of the interiors?
Calder had his first exhibit at the house, and the iconic round living room with tile floors was reportedly a model for the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center. French painter Fernand Leger lived at the house along with other European artists fleeing World War II and created a mural for the wall; a monumental black and white composition of interlaced figures entitled “Les Plongeurs (The Divers)” that finally made sense of the room’s immense scale.
This actual history of the house location was one of the reasons we felt it was the perfect fit for one of likely many weekend homes owned by Rebecca Parker. No matter the latest family scandal, Rebecca cares about her family name and both its past and future. History and legacy should both be upheld; therefore, the storied past of a house is something she would want in her “collection”.
As she collects homes, wives, and causes, she (naturally) also collects art. Something that felt apropos to me for her uber wealth. Did she even like the art she collected? Or was it just because it has value? This mixture of art collections that I’ve often seen with the elite collectors of the world made sense for Rebecca – it wasn’t sentimental, it was about the money, and it gave us a bit of freedom to play with the types of pieces in the house.
This also made sense knowing the tone of the entire episode is very funny and a bit cheeky; I felt the design and decor could aid in that. Shannon reached out to the amazing team at R and Company where we were able to rent one of a kind pieces from Wendell Castle for Rebecca’s office, a Haas Brothers’ rug for the living room scene, and work from Katie Stout, Hun-Chung Lee, and many others all featured within the weekend away at this estate.
Because of the long and hilarious dinner party scene scripted for this estate, for production ease, we would design and build the dining room. I pitched to Alice and Sean the idea of going underground, using the existing textures of the stone on the property, the bold red walled hallway, and the idea that this is likely some sort of underground safe room/wine cave of the uber rich. This would allow us to once again play with god-like lighting in the form of skylights.
Shannon worked with designer JeanCarlo Valle to generously loan us the stunning, primitive, organic, and oval shaped wooden dining chairs – a perfect compliment to the two iconic paintings in the room (the one cheekily discussed and the other by Georgia O’Keeffe). Finally, we topped the design off with some fantastic Rogan Gregory pieces, whose organic shapes we knew we wanted to bring back in thematically at the birthing centre.
The Birthing Centre
F&F: The Birthing Centre feels pure Sci-fi. How did you approach creating the interiors of a futuristic hospital?
EM: As a designer, I always try to approach a major set build as an opportunity to comment on the how and why of a space’s design. For good and bad, a gendered bias should be examined – the same way the dialogue can thoughtfully ask questions, the design could and should as well.
Keeping this in mind when designing the first place we meet our twins (the OB/GYN wing at Wescott Memorial), I used Mt Sinai and Lenox Hill as benchmarks. Our twins are clearly brilliant but they are still stuck in the often bureaucratic maze and mess of the American public health system, which is predominantly run, created and designed by men.
Their hospital may be one of the best in NY, but over the years, potential profits have been prioritised over the patient and red tape and regulation have stood in the way of groundbreaking research. Visually, we wanted to show this by cramming more than one patient into a postpartum room – the lack of privacy and space is made evident through the mistakes that often occur. Constant remodels have likely turned the labor and delivery wing into a maze bursting at the seams, and within the layout of that wing, we were hoping to show some of these physical hurdles and roadblocks that the Twins face on a daily basis and the claustrophobia of a system built by those not actually concerned with the care being provided within the walls.
All of this set the stage for why our birthing centre would hopefully read quite differently on a visual level; it’s not perfect, but another form of design to question and examine. The space is a more bespoke spa and hotel featuring natural light, ample space per patient, the latest technologies and practices, and seemingly warm, inviting, female centric organic shapes. On the surface, this centre might appear far more advanced than where the twins previously worked and patient conscious, but the viewer is also aware of where the funding has come from and the motives of those holding the strings.
This poses the question: is this kind of stunning and advanced centre really available to all women across race and economic class? Is what is happening within these walls really that noble and ideal?
Using visual motifs we had seen from both the Mantles and the Parkers (arched doorways, spheres, cool marbles, organic woods, and godly light), we created a space that hopefully felt more in line with a woman’s body and concerns. The lobby and birthing suite were levels that I always viewed more in line with Beverly and her cool and calming nature, but when we get to the lab – the research space that Elliot is really in charge of – there is more actual red in the design elements (as opposed to solely from the lighting). These sets contain a bit more of the chaotic, groundbreaking energy of Elliott, hence the bolder colour and more futuristic shapes.
Immerse yourself in the weird and wonderful world of the Mantle twins by watching Dead Ringers on Prime Video and let us know your thoughts.