‘Euphoria’: Inside Lexi’s Spinning, Meta High School Play at the Center of Episode 7

Production designer Jason Baldwin Stewart breaks down his complicated set for the high school play that only "Euphoria" could stage.
Maude Apatow in 'Euphoria' holding letter 'O'
Eddy Chen / HBO
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The HBO series “Euphoria” has become a cultural phenomenon thanks to its talented and charismatic ensemble cast, controversial attitudes toward teen sex and drug use, and trend-setting approach to fashion and makeup. All of that tends to obscure the show’s ground-breaking visual style, but that style is every bit as instrumental to the show’s success as Zendaya’s Emmy-winning performance as Rue. In finding the precise cinematic language to express Rue’s struggles with addiction and the roiling interior tensions of Rue’s classmates and parents, creator Sam Levinson (who directed all the episodes in Season 2) has turned “Euphoria” into essential viewing for anyone interested in seeing how far television can push visual and aural grammar. From the insanely creative needle drops to intricately choreographed Steadicam shots that would make “Magnolia”-era Paul Thomas Anderson jealous, “Euphoria” is the place to find 2022’s boldest and most inspiring filmmaking.

Episode 7, “The Theater and Its Double,” is the show’s most exciting high-wire act yet, a commentary on the series itself baked into the narrative in the form of a school play written by Rue’s friend Lexi (Maude Apatow). Levinson’s script is typically audacious in its structural energy, whipping from one intersecting character and relationship to another while mirroring all of them in the play that we view from a variety of perspectives in the audience, on stage, and behind the scenes. But what really makes the episode sing is the way Levinson’s team plays with the line between reality and theatricality by connecting the “fictional” world and the “real” one in astonishingly elaborate camera moves and sets.

It’s a real showcase for the talents of production designer Jason Baldwin Stewart, who recognized both the opportunities and the challenges from the time that he first read the script in early 2020. “This was always going to be the most creative episode but also the hardest to handle,” he told IndieWire in a recent interview. One of the immediate challenges was simply figuring out how authentic to make the staging of the play as a production that could — or could not — realistically be mounted on a high school stage. “What we were trying to figure out right from the start was, ‘Are we going to treat this the way we treat everything else on “Euphoria,” where there’s realism but it’s emotionally driven and not held to the exact standards of real life? Are we going to present this as a real high school play, or go bigger and just have fun with it?’”

Euphoria Maude Apatow as Lexi
Maude Apatow as LexiEddy Chen / HBO

Complicating matters was the fact that Levinson and cinematographer Marcel Rev wanted to be able to jump in and out of the play for both memories and in-the-moment reactions from the characters in the audience. “One of the challenges right out of the gate was the auditorium set itself,” Stewart recalled. Production considered shooting in a real theater until COVID shut down that idea. Stewart was instead able to build a set that facilitated not only Levinson and Rev’s dynamic camera movements but a wide array of point of view shots tying together the audience and the play. “We do a lot of aerial shots on ‘Euphoria,’ and we see more ceilings and floors than on most shows — shots that are difficult to achieve on a static location. It took quite a bit of thought to build that auditorium in a way that would maximize the space and support as many long lens and crane shots as possible.”

A key component of Lexi’s play is an onstage turntable that enables various set changes, and this had to be taken into account when building the auditorium as well. “We had to be able to remove portions of the set, but also keep it structural enough to integrate the turntable,” Stewart said. Building on a stage also created an elegant solution to the problem of how to link real memories and events with Lexi’s play without cuts or digital stitches: “I actually took portions of our sets and put them backstage,” Stewart said. Trying to do as much as possible with unbroken camera moves was consistent with Levinson and Rev’s technical methodology, and, according to Stewart, there was an added benefit when it came to performance. “It helps the actors if we’re able to keep the flow of the show going and they don’t have to break up the components of it.”

In order to differentiate the look of the play itself, Stewart brought in a new set designer to create a different feel than the rest of the show while he searched for an impressionistic corollary for what he was trying to represent with the play’s scenes. “Sam, Marcel and I had a free-flowing creative meeting about how we would approach certain sets,” he explained. “At one point we wanted to suggest a winter formal, but not actually do a winter formal. What elements could we extract that would hint at that in terms of color and light that would also be non-defined? In most cases we didn’t have literal walls — we wanted a more theatrical design.”

Ultimately Stewart allowed himself to deviate from the reality of staging a high school play. “I was a little worried that it might be too sophisticated, but in the end we did what felt emotionally right and real,” he said, adding that because the show is essentially from Rue’s perspective — and, in the case of Episode 7, Lexi’s — there’s a certain amount of freedom that he, Levinson, and Rev embrace. “What’s really fun about ‘Euphoria’ is that although we have the limitations of a series, we try to give it the scope of a feature thematically and creatively. We’re always trying to come up with a new way to shoot. We don’t want to repeat ourselves, and we’re always looking for an opportunity to do something better.”

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