When director Jon M. Chu needed to build the sets for Apple TV’s “Home Before Dark” he called on longtime collaborator Nelson Coates.
The show is inspired by the real-life story of Hidle Lysiak, the young journalist who stumbles across a crime scene and scoops the town paper on a murder investigation. Lysiak’s story took place in a small town in Pennslyvania, but the show was shot in Vancouver.
“We set it in a small fishing town in the Pacific North West,” Coates says. The idea was to set the story in a small town that had both a feeling of remoteness and visual intrigue.
Writers Hillary Cunin, Dana Fox and Dara Resnik had initially envisioned a small town with a lake, but despite scouting, the team couldn’t find one. Coates show them the town of Steveston. “It had fisheries and everyone got excited when I explained that this was the perfect setting where kids could be out on their bikes and you’d feel safe, but it still had this sense of mystery,” explains Coates.
The challenges to shooting in Vancouver during winter meant they didn’t have many hours of daylight: by 4 p.m., the sun had set. “We built a lot of the school environments and used a lot of ways to make it seem like there was daylight, even though we didn’t have it,” Coates says.
Since the house features at the core of the story — it’s patriarch Matthew Lisko’s (Jim Sturgess) family home — Coates needed to find a house that had some mystery to it too, but one that didn’t feel scary. “I wanted it to feel like it had secrets too.”
Coates says he “scouted like crazy to find just the right house,” but once they found it, they had to do exterior work — adding on shutters, foliage and the garage.
For the interiors, Coates transformed a converted warehouse into the Lykso family home. The inspiration for the design came from looking at Victorian homes with a hallway down the middle and rooms off to the side. The interiors were also designed for blocking to allow fluid movement throughout the house.
When it came to giving the house a warm feeling, Coates collaborated with costume designer Mitchell Travers. Chu and Coates both knew Travers had worked with “Crazy Rich Asians” actress Awkwafina on “Ocean’s 8” and had fallen in love with him. He also collaborated with cinematographer Alice Brooks, who had worked with Chu on his USC film project. Together, they discussed fabrics and wallpapers, deciding on a textural look so you could feel the detail and history of the home.
The notion of history continued when it came to designing the evidence room. Coates found the Steveston Harbour Authority offices to be the perfect location for the Sheriff’s office. The layout was just right, and his team could redress and make adjustments for the visual aesthetic.
“We didn’t have space for a file room there, so we found this garage a few blocks away and we converted that,” Coates says. “I wanted it to have top lighting and this table in the middle. With that and the files all around, it was just perfect. There’s a lot of history in this town, and it’s been locked away.”
For scenes following young Hilde (played by Brooklynn Prince) in school, the original idea was to use a real school. But classes were still in session, which meant filming would only be able to take place after 3 p.m.
“By the time we started shooting, it was 4 pm and pitch black outside,” Coates says of the Canadian winter hours. “We decided to build a school that was about 10,000 square feet,” he admits.
It was the only way to overcome that challenge and to have the flexibility to shoot when needed.
“I made the hallway a square and everything faced something. When it came to looking outside, we ended up doing a match shot,” Coates says. “The bonus of building the school setting was that the lockers were on wagons and they could roll away. The crew could get any shot they wanted. That’s the fun part of set building, the ability to do that.”
“Home Before Dark” is streaming now on Apple TV Plus.