“The White Lotus” creator Mike White gave production designer Laura Fox a unique direction when it came to designing the sets of his new HBO series: “Think of The Madonna Inn and The Four Seasons having a baby.”
Fox’s job was to take the normally restrained and tasteful decor of the Four Seasons Maui just a few steps farther, with too many patterns, too many tropical colors and too many slightly-dated accessories. The series follows a group of American tourists who stay at a luxurious Hawaiian resort that doesn’t quite live up to their standards. The mood is set through the production design, their costumes and the golden cast of the cinematography, which combine to make their stay feel slightly dreamlike and surreal.
Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandra Daddario, Fred Hechinger, Jake Lacy, Brittany O’Grady, Sydney Sweeney and Steve Zahn all star as the spoiled rich guests around whom Fox centered her designs, while Murray Bartlett and Natasha Rothwell play employees of the hotel.
Fox talked with Variety about how she transformed the real-life Four Seasons Resort Maui into the fictional world of the White Lotus resort.
After receiving Mike’s creative brief, what was your process?
I met with my art director Charles Varga and my set decorator Jennifer Lukehart. We ordered all this fabric because I needed something to think about. Every picture of the Four Seasons is tailored for the tourist trade. I got to Hawaii and was quarantined in my room for 10 days with this fabric, pinning it to my headboard. The thing you realize is that even the nicest hotel is designed for everyone — I’m in Florence right now, in a hotel room on location, and it’s the same colors as the Four Seasons Maui. It’s beige and you don’t notice that when you’re there because you’re looking out the window.
The fabric started the process and that led to the characters. I became aware of this Polynesian artist Herb Kawainui Kāne and he painted the canoe pictures that you see in the Tradewinds suite. He was a huge artist in the ‘70s and everyone said I wouldn’t get clearance on it, and I did.
How did you style the suites to match their characters?
(Slight spoilers ahead) That was an interesting challenge. Jake Lacy’s character starts in the palm suite, which was this beautiful room on the second floor [and then] they switch to this other suite, [the pineapple suite,] a bigger room for families. The pineapple suite had lower ceilings, but he was happy because he got the more expensive room. It just adds to who [the characters] are. That suite was ridiculous because his character was just a bit ridiculous.
Then you have Connie Britton’s character rearranging the suite because the feng shui is off. Where did the turtle in that room come from?
That was not scripted. The only thing scripted was her character was moving the couch. I found out there is a lot of turtle art in Hawaii. We were not allowed to leave the hotel — we could not leave for three months — [so] we had shoppers send us pictures and it felt appropriate to the Tradewinds Suite, which was ocean-based and blue.
Four Seasons is a real location, but you transformed it, including the drapes to match the suites?
Yes, I had an amazing draper who I’d worked with in Santa Fe and I realized she lived in Hawaii, so she moved in and we were hanging curtains and swapping things out. We were also stitching into their real headboards, which were built in. It was a real challenge because we couldn’t paint the rooms. But we did have real views and real architecture, which ended up helping.
Did you change out the spa, which Jennifer Coolidge’s character Tanya makes great use of?
The spa existed, but again, we emptied everything because we wanted it to be cinema-oriented. We just wanted to tie it to everything else that we were doing.
What about her suite?
In the fabrics, we called it the Hibiscus suite, but there was no Hibiscus suite in the script. I sent Mike a presentation with the art and he loved the colors for her. The colors just fit a lot of layers that she brought with that character.
I saw those red chairs in pictures, but I called my decorator in L.A. and said, “I don’t know what we’re doing, but let’s bring red velvet chairs because I don’t think we’ll find those in Hawaii.” To find the art to suit that I discovered a website called plantillustrations.org which has hundreds of botanical drawings, so that’s where I got her art.
She often wears prints, and there’s a lot of similarities in the color palettes of the costumes and room design. How closely did you collaborate with costume designer Alex Bovaird?
She was fantastic. She called me one day and said that she was working with prints. I was, too. And for a brief moment, I thought we were going to clash because at that point we hadn’t seen one another’s fabrics. But by the time we got to the hotel, it just melded together.
I loved the moment in the locker room because we got to see the machinations of housekeeping, too.
It’s interesting because by living at the hotel, you really understood the story better. You would see the housekeepers coming through a gate and climbing up these stairs into the crummy part at the back. It wasn’t glamorous back there at all, and so, having access to everything gave a whole different perspective.
What was it like shooting during the pandemic?
The whole thing was magical, from being in a bubble from the first week there. It was just seven people at this resort and it felt like “The Shining” in Hawaii. I was grateful to be out of our house after six months [of being in lockdown] and just working with Mike. And the whole process was so unique that it really added to everything.
“The White Lotus” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.