[Editor’s Note: The following article contains spoilers for “Brand New Cherry Flavor,” including the ending.]
There are times when “Brand New Cherry Flavor” seems to exist in its own universe. The Netflix series, based on Todd Grimson’s book of the same name, takes place in an early-’90s Los Angeles, bathed in equal layers of possibility and dread.
Lisa Nova (Rosa Salazar) arrives in this thick rainbow soup of a city with only one valuable item in tow: a short film called “Lucy’s Eye” that transfixes anyone who watches it. Director Matt Sobel, who was behind the camera for the show’s fourth and fifth episodes, directed the film-within-a-film. It’s an ideal example of how “Brand New Cherry Flavor” takes a hazy, fictional version of LA filled with inexplicable oddities and delivers something tangible.
“It’s got this raw energy, right? It’s not supposed to be this perfect masterpiece,” said series co-creator and co-showrunner Nick Antosca. “It’s supposed to show that she’s got tremendous potential so that everybody who sees it can go like, ‘Whoa, what else does she have to say? Where is this strange energy coming from?'”
It’s an energy that the show manages to maintain, whether or not it happens to be focused directly on the film industry. Between Antosca and fellow co-showrunner Lenore Zion, the series’ writing staff, and the show’s directing team, “Brand New Cherry Flavor” is an amalgamation of many different views of Los Angeles and the creative process in general. To complete the vision of the city meant leaning on a number of practical executions of key scenes and ideas in order to keep all the otherworldly eeriness grounded.
No conversation about bringing some of the show’s bizarre curveballs to life would be complete without addressing some of its breakout stars: the bevy of mystical kittens that Lisa offers up as payment to the enigmatic Boro (Catherine Keener). From Salazar to the opening episode’s director, Arkasha Stevenson, to the show’s visual effects team led by supervisor Danny Yoon, making those tiny KY jelly-covered felines feel real took a committed team effort.
“It was entirely practical. Rosa put those little kittens into her mouth and basically pretended to be vomiting them up,” Zion said. “At one point, we were working on some weird rig that would make it look like a lump was coming up through her throat, but it was this really complicated thing. Once we saw Rosa do it without it, it was so convincing that we were like, ‘We don’t need her to have this extra help.'”
“There are hundreds and hundreds of email threads about the animatronic kittens and the puppets. We have more pictures of weird alien kittens in our email inboxes than probably anybody else alive,” Antosca joked.
“My favorite moment ever is Rosa throwing up that kitten. I will hold that memory very close to my heart for a very long time,” Stevenson said. “Nick and Lenore had this idea of creativity being something that’s alive and has a physical form. So it was really important that this cat that came out wasn’t CG, that this actually felt like something real that was coming up out of her throat in that room. There was real gag reflexes and real drool and real phlegm involved. It was me, the camera operator, and the SFX artist, all squished together on the receiving end of that vomit, just getting splashed with it all. I was just shaking with glee. And I looked over at the SFX artist and I said, ‘This is amazing.’ And he, with the most rock’n’roll voice ever was like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ It was a very fun moment, being able to feel that spittle splash on your face and feel this lump just getting pushed out of Rosa’s esophagus. I really wanted that excitement to get into the camera.”
While the first kitten helps put the finishing touches on the opening episode (and sets up one of the show’s most distinctive running features), one memorable bookend on the other side of the series is the merciless beheading of the show’s fictional Golden Globe-winning megastar Roy Hardaway (Jeff Ward).
“Nick had planned that out for a long time before,” Zion said. “I actually have saved, in my pictures on my phone, a drawing that he did of a stickman getting decapitated. It’s one of my favorite things to look at.”
“That was the day we all had to wear ponchos because there was so much blood everywhere,” Antosca said. “Todd Grimson told us that when he was writing the novel, he watched hundreds of ’80s shlock horror movies. He tried to use a lot of the grisliest and most cinematic death scenes in the novel. That aesthetic permeated the show as well. A practical, gonzo, but fun horror vibe.”
One of the ever-present mystical forces in “Brand New Cherry Flavor” is the show’s magical vegetation. Antosca saluted the efforts of production designer Troy Hansen to ensure that, especially for the many greenhouse scenes, there was a steady supply of actual greenery. From the vines that quickly overrun Lisa’s apartment building to the spooky botanical gardens that Boro has in her personal domain, there’s something about these plants that reads differently on screen than any run-of-the-mill artificial office plants.
“There isn’t a lot of nature in LA. Palm trees aren’t native, and there’s not a huge amount of greenery, depending on where you live. But walking around the city, you see the earth trying to break through the concrete. You’ll see plants trying to smash their way through sidewalks,” Stevenson said. “Thinking about Boro as this magical, maternal figure, of course nature would be flourishing around her. So that was really important to bring in real plants. We don’t use a lot of mist or haze in most of the pilot, but it was very damp and humid in the greenhouse by design. It should feel like the core of life, something almost prehistoric in there, because Boro is prehistoric. It should feel wild like a jungle when Rosa walks in there.”
Speaking of Boro, Stevenson also talked about how Keener’s screen presence was almost an effect in itself. For someone embodying millennia of experience in a cosmic tug-of-war, every detail about her appearance was key in building that mystique. One distinct touch in particular came from Keener herself.
“I love acrylic nails and I usually have long acrylic nails. We were getting them done and Catherine goes, ‘I want them on my feet.’ And I just thought that was the most brilliant thing,” Stevenson said. “The greenhouse day was a very packed day, a very emotional day. But we just had to get that shot of Catherine’s foot with these long acrylic nails on them. I will forever remember in between takes of that, picking up dirt and massaging it into Catherine’s foot. Catherine can even act through her toenails. She’s just such a movie star.”
With this much to potentially continue to explore, “Brand New Cherry Flavor” ends on a note that’s somehow both ambiguous and self-contained. That feeling is by design. Though there’s still plenty of Grimson’s novel to explore, there’s also a sense of finality as Lisa disappears into the vast white emptiness just beyond the international terminal at LAX.
“The book is so sprawling, and there’s so much in it that we sort of only adapted the first like 100 pages, what we what we wanted to do is be spiritually faithful to the book and to the character. So we designed it in a way that it would be that that we can tell the thematic story that we wanted to tell in one season. That’s not to say, you know, we would never consider doing, you know, Chapter Two of the story. The intention was to have a conclusion at the end that makes you feel like the world will go on, but it tells the story of Lisa’s journey that we wanted to tell.”
“Brand New Cherry Flavor” is available to stream via Netflix.