Susie Mancini received one basic instruction from “Space Force” co-creator Greg Daniels when she was hired to design the sets for the Netflix comedy, which debuts May 29: “Re-create reality with a hint of enhancement.”
The series, based on the new branch of the U.S. military established at the request of President Trump, revolves around Gen. Mark R. Naird (played by series co-creator Steve Carell), who uproots his family and moves to a secret military base in Colorado where he must lead the service arm that protects America by “waging space warfare.”
For the “reality” part of her mandate, Mancini borrowed designs from NASA and SpaceX; for the “enhancement” part, she channeled brutalist architecture with a touch of Stanley Kubrick.
“The challenge was that it’s a world that doesn’t exist today, but it’s a real branch of the military,” says Mancini (“Ingrid Goes West” “Dollface”). Her guide was that the key to designing for comedy is “not to overstay the joke and not to overwhelm the viewer.” And her concept was simple: “Let’s pretend the U.S. and the president actually opened the branch, except they couldn’t afford to build it from scratch. They find something abandoned in the desert.”
Mancini’s research led her to brutalist architecture, a 1950s style that features massive block-like buildings made of poured concrete, a material that would keep interiors cooler. Inside, the lighting style relies on skylights. “What I loved about it was the way it created shadows that hit the actors’ faces,” she says.
Another influence, “Dr. Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick’s satire on an out-of-control military, seemed unavoidable (in a life-imitates-art moment, Trump, while unveiling the actual Space Force flag recently, boasted that the Pentagon is working on a “super-duper missile”). Around the Space Force base are echoes of production designer Ken Adam’s concrete bunkers in “Strangelove.” And the war room pays homage to his famous roundtable design.
To build the environment of mission control, Mancini consulted with contacts at both NASA and the Army, and took a trip to the Hawthorne, Calif., headquarters of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. “We were interested in going there to see what their launch rooms looked like,” Mancini says. “They had glass walls so everyone could see the launches.”
She returned determined to produce a “massive” open design. “Everyone who walked onto that set commented on how big it was,” she says, “and I’m glad we made it that big because they did a lot of shooting in there.”
Daniels wanted the sets to feel authentic to the character, so Mancini worked with set decorator Rachael Ferrara (“Booksmart,” “Barry”) to re-create that vibe. For Naird’s office, they aimed to serve up the image of a simple man with a lifetime in the military. Around the conference table, Mancini says, “were these very cheap old-school chairs to which we added the Air Force logo.” They also fashioned a display that suggested Naird’s life. “His whole history in the Air Force is on those walls, from lower to higher ranking — medals for different achievements and missions.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Daniels to ask about the reasons for the pieces. Ferrara, Mancini says with a laugh, “always had to have the perfect answer, so nothing on our sets was random or meaningless.”
At another juncture, Naird is tasked with getting American boots on the moon, which required Mancini to design not only the ship that’s supposed to get them there but also their potential landing spot. Again consulting with NASA, she and her team took three weeks to re-create a portion of the lunar surface. “I lost so much sleep over that,” she laughs.
For the ostensible moon lander, SpaceX and the work of Kubrick helped guide her efforts. She borrowed the white, black and orange color palette of the shuttle cockpit in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The lander was divided into a living area and a cockpit, with stairs in the former leading up to the latter. For the cockpit seats, she used the look of what she had seen inside the rockets at SpaceX and added the Space Force logo. But the designer also added her own touches: While older movies and TV shows aimed to dazzle viewers with an array of lights and buttons and dashboard screens, she determined that in “Space Force,” technology has advanced enough for the cockpit display to be minimal. “We condensed it all down to one monitor,” she says.
The lander also included an economy of design worthy of space travel. While Mancini created two sets for the lander, everything took place on the same set. “We shot the living area scenes,” she says. “Then we took the walls away, lowered the ceilings and dressed it as the cockpit control.”