In 2015, during “Penny Dreadful’s” second season, production designer Jonathan McKinstry asked John Logan, its creator, to look at the natural history museum in Dublin, where the Showtime drama filmed all three of its seasons. Logan resisted, given that the season two story didn’t require a set like that. “But I said, ‘Look at it. I think it’s a place you’d like.’ He walked in and he went, ‘Oh my God, this has to be in season three,’” McKinstry said. “He literally wrote the character of Dr. Sweet working at the natural history museum around having seen that location a year prior.”
Further afield, “Penny Dreadful” also shot on sets in Almeria, Spain, that had been used for spaghetti Westerns in the ‘60s; they stood in for the birthplace of Ethan Chandler, a character who hailed from New Mexico. “We had to go in and do quite a bit of work. We did our own adding and subtracting, but a lot of the structures were already there,” McKinstry noted.
Giving the show’s sets — everything from Dr. Frankenstein’s elaborate lab to Dorian Grey’s austere salon — a great deal of depth and texture was always McKinstry’s priority, especially in a genre piece like “Penny Dreadful,” which used fantastical scenarios to get at difficult emotions. “One of my sticking points is to try and make it feel real, because I think about what that does for the actors. However absurd the things they’re having to do or say might be, I think it just helps actors to believe it that much more if they’re in a believable environment,” McKinstry said.
McKinstry, who is now working on AMC’s “The Terror,” talks below about the design aesthetic of “Penny Dreadful” and how it evolved through the show’s three seasons. (For more coverage of the show’s third season, check out Variety’s coverage.)
Why did you want to take on the “Penny Dreadful” job in the first place? Was it just a love for Victoriana or just liking the writing?
I thought the scripts were beautifully written. And it just seemed like a nice, exciting project to be part of. I liked what John Logan had done, the team of people were a team I’d worked with previously on “The Borgias.” And so it just felt like a comfortable thing to move into. But obviously being a Victorian period [piece,] I felt it was a great opportunity to look at how we could stylistically look at that in a way that hopefully felt real, but at the same time, stylish.
I think what the show did really well was not resort to Victorian stereotypes but make very specific environments for these particular people. Is that what you were going for?
Yes. And even sort of pushing the boundaries of real historical architecture . Dorian Gray’s place was probably 30 years ahead of its time. He was pushing kind of Art Deco interiors. But because he was a character who was sort of timeless, I just felt that we could do that with his interior — be a lot more stylized and austere, in terms of kind of a minimalist amount of furnishings. His life was all about his history and his collection of paintings and portraits. In a way, it’s almost like Dorian Gray would possibly be the inspiration for the artists and architects who came up with the idea of Art Deco architecture 30 years later.
One of the things I really love about the production design is that it’s very layered. I’m thinking of Jekyll’s lab or Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, where there are so many different materials and textures that give viewers indications about what goes on there. Is it just very hard to assemble something that detailed?
I tried to imagine how a camera might shoot a set, and obviously you don’t have all of the scripts for all of the future episodes. But you have to try and imagine how we might want to move around the set. And what I always try to do where possible is, like you say, to create layers. The idea was that here’s a foreground, a mid-ground and a background that has interest and shapes.
Depending on how it’s lit, there’s always something that can capture light, something that’s out of focus with shape and texture. No background ever literally just falls off into a total black hole. Even wallpaper. They catch the light and reflect the light and there are textures in them, and there can be reflections on a floor that is shiny. It’s just trying to consider all of those elements that hopefully paint a picture, however you look at it, from whatever angle — there’s something interesting to look at.
“Penny Dreadful” used color so well. There’s such a richness of the deep brocade reds and a whole range of Victorian greens. Was color something that you really thought about a lot in terms of your design?
Yeah, absolutely. Initially, I set myself a little bit of a color palette. [The home of] Dorian Gray was very cold and gray and blue and black. And apart from his paintings, he had no warmth in his interiors at all, so even candelabras and fittings were silver. There was no brass or bronze or color except in the paintings, and his floor was black and the walls were blue, and there were sort of pale grays and whites. I wanted him to have these kind of cool, slightly cold, calculating feel about his interior, and very modern for the time.
On the other hand, Sir Malcolm was a very sort of traditional man who I felt potentially had a father who was in the military. He’d grown up with a very traditional Victorian military background. He’d traveled. His passion was discovering things in Africa, and so he was a person grounded in Earth. Everything in his palette was much more earthy in terms of colors — ochres, greens and browns and wood paneling. Really the only feminine [note] within Sir Malcolm’s house was Vanessa’s bedroom, where she had some net curtains. But everything else was wooden shutters and paneling, so there’s a hardness about it.
This season you had all the scenes set in the American West as well.
That was an opportunity to break away from the drab gray fog of what was going on in London, and have [storylines] where we’re in the Wild West, with big blue skies and desert and a New Mexico-style hacienda, and Santa Fe kind of architecture. It was an opportunity to have a different kind of color scheme and a different look, as a sharp contrast to Victorian England. It was an opportunity to develop a whole new color palette and to have the warmth of the sunshine.
For the outdoor Western scenes, where did you film that and how much did you have to build versus what was already there?
We shot in southern Spain in a place called Almeria. We built some of the things and we did a lot of repainting and obviously redressing and so on. There are some of those towns from the spaghetti Westerns that were shot in the 60’s that are still standing and have been used for commercials and various things over the years. Some of them are tourist places. So we had to go in and do quite a bit of work. We did our own adding and subtracting, but a lot of the structures were already there. We couldn’t have afforded to rebuild everything.
Was this season the most challenging in terms of the three that you’ve done for this program?
No, I think season two was possibly slightly more challenging. We had to build the back lot out for a lot of the [Soho] street scenes that we did for season two. For season three, we just had to add on and modify [to make it look like] Chinatown. But season two we had to actually physically build that whole kind of back-lot world of Soho and also we had to create Evelyn Poole’s witches’ mansion.
Do you have a favorite set?
My favorite set is the one we’ve just finished. [laughs] Basically because at least it’s finished, and they’re now filming on it and we’ve moved on to the next one.
What made “Penny Dreadful” different from other jobs you’ve had and different from other films and TV series you’ve been part of?
[Partly] John Logan’s pedigree, that he’d come from big feature films, and this was his first time as showrunner. And initially we were going to be based in London. I’d had a conversation with him on the phone and he said, “We have to film everything on location. I’ve worked on great big movies and I never believed sets.” That was a challenge. I wanted to convince him that I could build sets that were believable, that he would walk on to hopefully and not say, “Oh, this is a set.”
But he originally wanted to do almost everything on location and in London. And in fact, after having spent several weeks in London looking for locations, we were going to look for studio space for building some sets, but all of the stages and all of the studios got booked up with “Star Wars” and various other things. There was no stage space available, and we then started looking at industrial warehouse spaces that just didn’t work out, for financial reasons and space reasons and various other reasons.
So literally overnight, we moved to Dublin and basically with only a two- or three-week delay in shooting, we had to start all over again and find all the new locations in Ireland, and then start building sets. So it was a bit of a frantic first season to try and get everything off the ground. But it was a great challenge, I have to say.
I think the grounded, detailed nature of the characters’ surroundings allowed the fantastical elements to kind of resonate more or feel more believable.
Yeah. One of my sticking points, as it were, is to try and make it feel real because I think about what that does for the actors. However absurd the things they’re having to do or say might be, I think it just helps actors to believe it that much more if they’re in a believable environment that is right for [the characters] as well. If I did my job properly, hopefully, I think it might have helped them to be the character.
I have to ask about another season two set. The Cut Wife’s cottage. I thought it was incredible. Did you build that?
Yes. We built the whole interior on a stage and we build the exterior on a location not far from the studio in an area that felt like it could be the moors. [It was the show’s] Heathcliff moment out on the wild moors. That was a giant set, but it was fun to do, and there was a whole episode dedicated to that set, so it was worth investing in getting it right.
When Ethan has that conversation with Vanessa in the season three finale, did John give you detailed instructions on that space?
Originally in the script, it was a sort of “endless space,” and honestly, I can’t create an endless space. It was something that has to feel like it belongs somehow or other in [the kind of factory where Dracula was hiding out]. So I created this slightly curving corridor with a central hub area that could be the meeting point, but it was sort of a blank canvas. Being tiled, it reflected the light and caught the light in different ways. That allowed the actors to take center stage, as it were, and everything just fall off to a sort of a relatively textured blank canvas behind them. It was all about trying to be a kind of a uniform background for them. [Director] Paco Cabezas and the director of photography came up with the beautiful crane shot, pulling away [near the end of the scene]. You get an almost kind of heavenly shot of her.
Did you usually get detailed instructions from the scripts, and was John open to collaboration in terms of evolving what was on the page and creating the sets?
Absolutely. He’s very hands-on. His scripts are very descriptive, and so there’s a lot of clues that I can bite on and get a good sense of what’s needed. But certainly he would always be coming around and looking at what we were doing and have comments to make, especially in season one. In season one, virtually nothing for the first half of the season could even be painted without him having first seen a sketch or some sort of idea. By halfway through the first season, I think he realized that we sort of had an idea of what we were doing, and he kind of eased up a little bit and allowed us a little bit more freedom. But he was always hands-on. He was always interested in what was going on and he always had a reason why something was the way it was. Having written the stories, he obviously knew the characters more intimately than we did.
Finally, where were you when you found out you’d been nominated for an Emmy?
I was in a meeting in London with the producers and showrunners for this [new] project. We were all sitting around a table discussing things and I got a text from my daughter saying, “You’ve just been nominated.” At the end of the meeting, we were still sitting there, but we were just having a glass of wine, and I checked my messages and emails and things and I realized that there had been two or three more messages coming through saying congratulations. And so it wasn’t just my daughter misunderstanding something or exaggerating or whatever. I said, “Oh, I’ve been nominated.” And so we all had another bottle of wine.