If it feels like Rachel Weisz has vampire fangs hidden behind the smile of one or the other Mantle twins — she plays both the child-hungry Beverly and the simply hungry Elliot — that’s no accident. Prime Video’s new limited series “Dead Ringers” is designed and lit like the real world, but more so. Whether it’s the backsplash of a kitchen or the gore of childbirth, red on this show pops the way the apple in the Garden of Eden must have: bloody and sensuous and with a magnetic pull of its own.
The world seems to bend and twist around the Mantles’ desires not simply because the brilliant gynecologists have Sackler-esque investors behind them. Production designer Erin Magill creates spaces based on our deepest suspicions about wellness chic and the billionaire class but heightened in a way that provides a sense of how the twins see the world as fodder for their desires.
In terms of visual inspiration, there was the 1988 David Cronenberg film as a template, of course, and its iconic red scrubs reappear as part of the Mantle twins’ dream/nightmare birthing center. But Magill also looked to the art world to achieve the balance (and imbalance) of color and power that the 2023 versions of the Mantle twins wield. Two paintings that made it into the show, one above Beverly’s bed and another above the fireplace, were both done by artist Jesse Mockrin.
“Her work is very much inspired by these old masters of generations ago, and her work does this very feminist reinterpretation that’s a little bit twisted and dark — which was perfect,” Magill told IndieWire. “[Creator Alice Birch and director Sean Durkin] and I were all very drawn to a lot of the colors that she uses. There’s just a real richness and darkness to a lot of her work, but at the same time, it’s also incredibly feminine, which is a very hard balance.
But it’s a balance that Magill wanted to strike for the rest of the series, not merely for the Mantles themselves. That meant that the physical spaces would often be stages, not just for the actors. “It was really going to be a place for [the cinematographers] and the directors to play with lighting because I felt like, ‘I’m going to give you the tools and the textures and colors [of the drama]. But it’s kind of like the idea of turning the lights on when a bar closes. The minute you start playing with the way everything was positioned, framing the camera and lighting the spaces, then this can take on a whole new, much more heightened kind of thriller noir feeling we had going on,” Magill said.
When noir infects an otherwise unsuspecting setting, it isn’t just the window blinds that go venetian and the shadows that get longer. There’s a sense of the twisted and the unbalanced that Magill was able to build into the all-too-perfect symmetry of the Mantle twins’ lives together. “We spoke a lot about how, in the beginning, there were so many scenes scripted for the [twins’] bathroom. Very quickly I was like, ‘We shouldn’t make two bathrooms.’ It was my bad architecture pun that we needed to make them a Jill and Jill, not a Jack and Jill. A shared bathroom for these twins was the perfect representation of their codependency and their enmeshment in each others’ lives,” Magill said.
“It’s going to be the most gorgeous, high-end bathroom, but it’s also the physical representation of the fact that these two are always in here – you can see through the glass walls of the shower, the toilet are very exposed, and [we aligned] the doors of their rooms so you could, if you opened all of them, see through to the other one’s bed. That was all a choice to show their two different personalities and how they would meet in the middle.”
Magill used color to express the different Mantles’ temperaments, even if they are definitively just sides of the same fucked-up coin. Elliot, with her cute little jewel case for cocaine, ended up inheriting more of the red that was made so iconic by the original film. “I used red in Elliot’s bedroom, with her closet and some furniture pieces. Elliot’s a little bit more of the darker one, obviously the mischievous one, and I worked with [the cinematographers], and what they would be doing lighting-wise with her lab, so there’d be bolder colors in it,” Magill said. “We would joke that there’s red and mustard and green [in Elliot’s room], and you never want to combine those colors because it feels like ketchup and mustard. But she’s always eating, and it felt emblematic of her.”
Beverly, meanwhile, gravitates towards more neutral palettes and swooping, symmetrical spaces that are reflected not just in her bedroom but in the exteriors of the birthing center as well. “We had that amazing lobby we knew we wanted to use on location that had great walkways and stairways that are very clean, with lots of marble and woods and organic textures,” Magill said. “But we loved the idea of getting into the bowels of [the center]. And that could be a little creepier and lean into that heightened stylization in red.”
Some of the heightened stylization comes simply from the milieu the Mantles move through. Magill gravitated towards Art Deco and other iconic New York geometric flourishes that tend to signal wealth and status with their strong geometric patterns and neutral polish that almost becomes sterile. But those styles can also be interestingly feminine in a lot of their shapes and patterns, especially when mirrors are held up to reflect the space back at the Mantles – or one Mantle is reflected back at another.
“I think that look really lends itself to a horror-thriller, frankly, and the kind of starkness and shapes and ways that [the cinematographers] would be able to light things, you know? A kitchen might start to appear far creepier than it would be originally if we lit it in a very beautifully different way from Architectural Digest,” Magill said.
The collaboration between production design and cinematography becomes even more gleeful in how it explores the Mantles’ backers, the Palmers (Jennifer Ehle and Emily Meade) and exposes perhaps an inherent horror in the tastes of the one percent. “I pitched Sean and Alice on the idea of, well, what if we go underground [for the dinner sequence]?’” Magill said. “‘Why don’t we lean into a bit of the very organic food conversation, the over-the-topness that’s going on and allude a little to maybe it being a wine cave? Maybe it’s part of their very high-end bunker.”
But whether it came to the most opulent details in the Palmers’ home and the birthing center or the small touches that bind the Mantles too closely to each other, Magill was able to start from the same place. “Alice had done this 20-page backstory on every character that was entirely separate from the scripts,” Magill said. “For a designer, that is a dream of detail and history. It was amazing.”
From those histories and details, Magill perfectly captured the upper-class life the Mantles have vanished into from their more middle-class background and tweaked their tastes to be plausible enough to be terrifying. “I think it helps the sense of tension and fear of, like, ‘Oh, this really could happen. This may have happened,’” Magill said. “When you have that much money and power, you know, anything could happen. That was the fine line for me, I think, of what was that world I could give the directors and actors to play in and to have what they’re doing all make sense.”