Why ‘Westworld’ and ‘The Crown’ Could Win Production Design Emmys

The dazzling HBO sci-fi western has two chances to take contemporary/fantasy, while the royalty glam of Netflix's "The Crown" shines among period contenders.
John P. Johnson/HBO

HBO’s sci-fi western “Westworld,” is the heavy favorite to win for contemporary and fantasy production design.  The question is whether two nominations for both its western theme park and futuristic programming center actually doubles its chances — or cancels it out. Competition comes from the dystopian minimalism of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the richly Gothic “Penny Dreadful” (nominated last year), and the Vatican beauty of “The Young Pope.”

Meanwhile, the royalty glam of Peter Morgan’s “The Crown” is the heavy favorite to win for period production design, with competition from the Old Hollywood trappings of “Feud: Bette and Joan,” the nightmarish ’80s sci-fi of “Stranger Things,” the alt history of “The Man in the High Castle” (nominated last year), and perennial contender, “Masters of Sex.”

The Dueling Dystopias

The imagination and scope of “Westworld” was unrivaled. In re-imagining Michael Crichton’s adult theme park gone berserk, Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy set up a series of dualities set against the inviting theme park and the forbidding programming center.

Production designers Nathan Crowley (“Dunkirk”) and Zack Grobler focused on the theme park and programming center, respectively. So much of the series’ visual metaphors reside in those contrasting worlds. There was a warm, old-town beauty to the western sequences (shot at Melody Ranch in Santa Clarita), the site of so much violence and death. By contrast, the futuristic programming center, dominated by concrete and glass, was the birthplace of a beautiful race of androids with more empathy than the guests. It’s hard to choose between them, but perhaps Grobler has the nod for the sci-fi world.

The Handmaid's Tale -- "The Bridge" Episode 109 -- Offred embarks on a dangerous mission for the resistance. Janine moves to a new posting. Serena Joy suspects the Commander’s infidelity. Naomi Putnam (Ever Carradine) and Janine (Madeline Brewer), shown. (Photo by: George Kraychyk/Hulu)
“The Handmaid’s Tale”George Kraychyk/Hulu

Minimalism, claustrophobia, and hidden meanings dominated Reed Morano’s re-imagining of Margaret Atwood’s allegory of violence, repression, and misogyny. Production designer Julie Berghoff fed off of the gray, muted look of Gilead and color-coded costumes from nominated costume designer Ane Crabtree.

For Offred’s (nominated Elisabeth Moss) stark, white room, there are are only a few essentials, but the odd presence of a desk serves as a reminder of the past she left behind as a book editor. The luxurious Waterford home is filled with watercolor masterworks and the ceilings are very decorative, including a map of the country in the Commander’s office (Joseph Fiennes).

Gothic Horror Versus Vatican Beauty

For the concluding Season 3 of John Logan’s 19th-century monster mash, “Penny Dreadful,” production designer Jonathan McKinstry got to expand beyond London and venture to the American West. He built warm Santa Fe settings in Almeria, Spain, home of the ’60s spaghetti westerns. At the same time, he got to make greater use of the Natural History Museum in Dublin as a backdrop for its exotic creatures overseen by Dr. Sweet/Dracula (Christian Camargo).

But the most exquisite set was the curved corridor of Dracula’s lair, where Ethan (Josh Hartnett) tries to rescue Vanessa (Eva Green) in the finale. On the tiled floor surrounded by candles, the tormented Vanessa looks ethereal.

“Penny Dreadful”

Production designer Ludovica Ferrario creates a different kind of beautiful aura for the Vatican in HBO’s “The Young Pope.” Unable to shoot in the Vatican, she reconstructed the interiors of the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Library, and the façades of St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Mark’s Basilica at Cinecittà Studios.

The designer also had to find gardening work to simulate the gorgeous Vatican garden. But the Sistine Chapel provided the biggest challenge in terms of dimensions, construction, and materials.

British Versus Hollywood Royalty

Production designer Martin Childs made the private world of Queen Elizabeth II (nominated Claire Foy) more intimate in Netflix’s “The Crown.” Although he couldn’t use Westminster Abbey for the wedding and coronation, Childs made great use of Ely Cathedral.

However, for the frugal wedding in 1947, Childs strayed a bit historically so it wouldn’t look too cheap to viewers, especially since this was part of the much anticipated Episode One kick-off.  So he played right into Ely’s grandeur and scale and didn’t disappoint in dressing it up. In addition, he rearrange a room at Elstree Studios to serve as different parts of Churchill’s (nominated John Lithgow) Downing Street office.

Crown Season 1
“The Crown”Alex Bailey/Netflix

For FX’s “Feud,” production designer Judy Becker got to not only contrast the homes of Bette Davis (nominated Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (nominated Jessica Lange), but also recreate the Gothic set of “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” Davis’ home had an earthy look with American Colonial furniture while Crawford’s was more regal Hollywood Regency with saturated colors dominated by blue and cream.

For the low-budget movie within the movie, Becker recreated the monochromatic sets (with a dash of bright colors), utilizing all of the cheap methods they used to make it look fake (linoleum and painted and stenciled staircases).

Getting Stranger and Stranger

For Netflix’s “Stranger Things” production designer Chris Trujillo, it was convenient shooting in Atlanta because it still looks like the ’80s. The Duffer Brothers drew on a host of influences (but mostly Steven Spielberg and Stephen King), and Trujillo made it grittier.

For the central Byers house, Trujillo utilized the same set for real-world and Upside Down environments. It was quite a dance, though, dressing and redressing it and adding vines and the spores to the darker dimension.

“Stranger Things”

Production designer Drew Boughton continued his upside down world building in the second season of Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle,” in which ’60s America is co-occupied by Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire. Only here we glimpse what Berlin might’ve looked like with the construction of a building, the Volkshalle, that Hitler envisioned as part of his future “Germania.”

The large, domed-shaped structure, the location of a rally, was originally designed by architect Albert Speer, which Boughton recreated in a much more suitable and cinematic way, consistent with the aesthetics of the series.

Throughout its four seasons, Showtime’s “Masters of Sex” explored the groundbreaking research of Masters (Michael Sheen) and Johnson (Lizzy Caplan) and its impact on the sexual revolution from the ’50s to the early ’70s. The final season, though, settles into more domestic crises, which was reflected in the production design of Elizabeth Gray as well.

Nominated four consecutive times, Gray still focused on staying ahead of the sexual revolution curve with cool clubs and hip lounges. Her standout set, though, was the office of “Playboy’s” Hugh Heffner (John Gleeson Connolly), featuring a rotating yellow round bed.

Will Win:  “Westworld” (contemporary/fantasy, Zack Grobler)
Will Win: “The Crown” (period)
Could Win:  Westworld” (contemporary/fantasy, Nathan Crowley), “The Handmaid’s Tale” (contemporary/fantasy)
Could Win: “Feud: Bette and Joan” (period)
Should Win: “Westworld” (contemporary/fantasy, Zack Grobler)
Should Win: “The Crown” (period)

Sign Up Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.