Proving a book sometimes can be judged by its cover, Matt Ruff’s fantasy-horror novel “Lovecraft Country” left quite an impression on Kalina Ivanov, even before the production designer considered working on showrunner Misha Green’s HBO adaptation.
“I really chased this project,” said Ivanov in an interview with IndieWire. “I had read the book in 2017 and was quite taken with it, [even] the front cover graphics. It’s a really well-thought-out book. When I heard it was coming together for HBO, I pestered my agent and said, ‘We gotta go for this.'”
That pestering paid off, as Ivanov would land the challenging project by showing how it needed to go far beyond designing a single look for the series as whole. Each episode of Green’s adaptation would reveal a new aspect of America’s true horrors, which run far deeper than introducing a new scaly monster, shifting genre and time period, or traversing different dimensions every week. After the pilot was shot with production designer Howard Cummings, Green turned to Ivanov to help conceptualize how the world-building of each of the nine remaining episodes would work.
“I did a very elaborate presentation and spoke on why this project connects to me,” said Ivanov, a previous Emmy winner for her work on HBO’s “Grey Gardens.” “Back in the 1950s, my grandfathers were arrested at the exact same time [as the story’s setting], with no trial, in Communist Bulgaria,” from which Ivanov and her family would later escape in 1979.
The extensive presentation involved creating a full-on lookbook that played an enormous role in how the series would evolve. “I do my own black-and-white sketches, and I send them to concept artists,” Ivanov said. “They were able to see the entire show in front of them. That’s how we got green lit.”
And while the world-building task would shift episode to episode, Ivanov kept the series grounded in a very specific color palette. “First I had to root the characters in their everyday reality and really get 1950s Black life in Chicago correct. From there, I was able to travel into different periods,” said the production designer. Pointing to the jewel tone she used in the apartment belonging to Montrose (Michael K. Williams), Ivanov said, “African American culture is so beautiful in its approach to color. It’s not timid, it’s not afraid.”
The world outside Montrose’s apartment was the streets of 1950s Chicago, the practicalities of which required Ivanov to move largely to sound stages or Atlanta locations after the pilot. Seven months of a Georgia-based production required the series’ main neighborhood boulevard to be built on a back lot.
The limitations and scale of the production would also lead Ivanov into an extensive collaboration with visual effects supervisor Kevin Blank, who she praised as being a generous and collaborative artist. One principal example comes in Episode 2 with The Lodge, a set which serves as the base for the sinister Order of the Ancient Dawn, whose history and machinations thread throughout the series.
“You want the ground floor [of The Lodge] to be practical, everything around the actor needs to be real,” Ivanov said, who had an entirely different architectural style in mind for the large dome and upper levels of the key set, which would therefore need to be created with visual effects. “It starts with my black-and-white concepts, when I figure out the architecture. [Then] with Kevin, I’d sit down and ask, ‘How much of this should be practical, how much should be extended?'”
Ivanov described her creative partnership with Blank as “dreamy,” but it went part and parcel of her working relationship with the “Lovecraft” team as a whole. “This was one of the most coherent and creative production teams; everyone cared so much about the project,” said Ivanov, who indicated that it starts with Green herself. “Not only did Misha have a great vision, but the vision was baked into the script. She was also incredibly open-minded about artists’ ideas.”
One of Ivanov’s favorite examples of this open-mindedness came with Episode 4, which was referred to as “The Goonies” episode — according to Ivanov, each episode has a nickname based on its themes and influences — since it involved the discovery of a secret cave. When various leads draw the series heroes to the Boston Museum of Natural History and a proverbial “door in the floor,” Ivanov had a design idea that changed the trail of clues leading to that particular plot-enhancing hatchway.
The entrance was found in a wing of the museum that belonged to the Order’s Titus Braithwhite, which Ivanov said, “If it’s Titus’ wing, what if he had a sculpture of himself?” Working off that idea led to the concept of a sculpture with crocodiles sporting prominent teeth. Green liked the idea, but her proviso to Ivanov was for the production designer to now come up with the clues to lead them to the new hatchway concept. Ivanov’s final version had a moonbeam alighting on a particular crocodile tooth, as a means of accessing the secrets below.
It was emblematic of what Ivanov will take from her “Lovecraft” experience. “[Misha] gave me the space to be bold, and be constantly creative,” said Ivanov. It all hearkened back to her roots in theater, where “you’re trained in multiple genres; you do Shakespeare, you do Tennessee Williams, you do operas.”
Or in the case of “Lovecraft Country,” 10 separate genres — one per week.