Thanks to Game Of Thrones and its massive success, there has never been more money in TV. As a result, tellyheads have begun to expect a certain depth to the shows they binge. But world-building on the level of Westeros doesn’t come cheap. Just ask Misha Green, whose new fantasy-horror series Lovecraft Country was given a massive budget to bring its scary monsters to life on-screen.
Set in 1950s America, the Sky Atlantic drama follows a young Black man as he goes on the road to track down his errant dad. Jonathan Majors and Birds of Prey star Jurnee Smollett head up the cast as Atticus ‘Tic’ Freeman and Letitia Lewis who, together with the former’s Uncle George, battle flesh-eating mammals, racial violence and misogynist wizards.
If that sounds a bit bonkers, then it’s because it is. There’s plenty of plot twists to throw you off course during Lovecraft Country‘s 10 episodes, but the expertly-made sets and stunning locations are easy to get lost in too. For the full experience, a rewatch is recommended, otherwise you’re bound to miss out on all the extra Easter eggs hidden throughout the show. To give you a helping hand, NME sat down with production designer Kalina Ivanov to hear how the show uses symbolism to create an immersive world.
They invented their own alphabet
One of the key locations in the series is Ardham Lodge, a sprawling Tudor-style mansion that houses an occult secret society of wizards called the Sons of Adam. To create the right environment for this part of the story, Ivanov says they had to go back to basics.
“There was a language professor hired before I was even [brought on board],” says Ivanov. “[For the Sons of Adam], we asked him for an alphabet first because we needed to create their symbols and language. For that you really do have to start with the alphabet. It’s the foundation for everything.”
Unfortunately, Kalina had to send the professor back to the drawing board. “When he sent me the symbols, they were too reminiscent of Native American symbols. That was confusing because it grounded the story in [a different place]… I loved the Sumerian alphabet [from ancient Iraq] the most. It has strong, very chiselled, very masculine graphics, which goes with the order because the Sons of Adam don’t accept women, they’re male-only.”
Teeth symbolise the power of racism
One of Ivanov’s favourite recurring themes throughout Lovecraft Country‘s production design was the use of teeth to denote danger.
“It was to symbolise that they’re being swallowed by racism,” she says. “They’re living under constant threat. There’s always a mouth open somewhere, ready to swallow you if you’re a Black person living in 1955 America.
“I put those teeth into the design of the arches inside Ardham Lodge,” she adds. “Then later, when they have to go to a museum in Boston, I added the teeth to the statue of Titus. Then I added these crocodiles. I remember Misha asking me: ‘Why crocodiles?’ and I really wanted them for the teeth. Then, later, the crocodile’s tooth becomes a clue. You can see how symbolism is woven through the visual narrative of the story.”
Henry VIII’s palaces form the basis for Ardham Lodge
Lovecraft Country‘s creepy, all-male cult, the Sons of Adam, are as racist as they are misogynist. Ivanov wanted to ground the place they live in society’s patriarchal history.
“I wanted to combine two very male architectural periods,” she says. “For the base, I wanted Tudor – I mean, how many wives did Henry VIII kill, that’s patriarchy! – and I wanted to add that Romanesque, Italian-palazzo style for the dome.
“I found a Tudor residence about an hour away from Atlanta, where we were shooting. The entrance was perfect! We added to the grounds to make it look more like the mysterious lodge of a rich person. It turned out quite well, people think it’s a real place!”
Colours help to create emotion
As with any visual medium, the colours used in Lovecraft Country dictate how a viewer may feel in a certain scene. Naturally, Kalina turned that to her advantage.
“Every character in the story needed a beautiful colour,” she says. “Take Montrose’s apartment, for example. I wanted to create a sense of jazz in its geometry [to evoke] book-reading and pot-smoking. He’s very unconventional. I gave the apartment these very happy colours. Then when you get to the bedroom it’s got this pomegranate red, to show passion.”