Megan McLachlan speaks with Malchus Janocko, production designer on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, about the final season and his favorite iconic set pieces.
One of the hallmarks of Orange is the New Black is how authentic the series feels to viewers. It’s one of the reasons why it became one of the first binge-worthy shows in the modern TV era.
The production design contributes to the success of this authenticity, with production designer Malchus Janocko coming onto the OITNB team in Season 4, just in time for iconic set pieces like the greenhouse, the bunker, and in the final seasons, the introduction of Litchfield Max.
I had a chance to chat with Janocko about the big move from Litchfield to Litchfield Max, how he created a claustrophobic life for Piper outside of prison, and the set piece he took home as a souvenir.
Awards Daily: What’s it like saying goodbye to Orange is the New Black? This was a landmark show for Netflix and streaming in general. I think this was the first show I binged.
Malchus Janocko: It’s sad. I’m very proud of the final season because I think Jenji [Kohan] and Tara [Herrmann] really took on an amazing piece of story, particularly with Blanca’s (Laura Gomez) story line and immigration and also with all of the women who do get out. It’s really sad to let go. I was on this show for four years, and it truly is a family. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.
AD: One of the things I’ve always loved about OITNB is how the production design feels so authentic. What kind of research do you do to make it feel so real? What’s the process like?
MJ: I came on in Season 4, and we inherited the set from Mike Shaw, who was the production designer before us. As we were starting Season 6, my locations manager and myself went to all of the prisons that were close that we knew, that we would potentially be shooting exteriors, and he got us tours of all of them so we could see how visitation worked and how the individual pieces could be made to fit together so we could make an amalgam of all those locations to make our own set. We talked to a bunch of corrections officers about format and little things like stripes on the floor to keep inmates on one side or the other; and the way the officers will walk behind; and the way a sally port works, which is kind of like an air lock where one gate will open and then you go into it and then the second gate will open after the first gate is closed. Making all of the technical issues of incarceration be as correct as we could to work with the story line Jenji wanted to tell.
AD: And it’s one of the few shows that managed to change its central location during the course of the series. What was it like moving away from the original Litchfield location and creating Litchfield Max? Were you intimidated by that?
MJ: We were very, very excited, particularly doing the administrative segregation unit, which was the big triangular set from Season 6 with the red doors. That set was designed very particularly with the first episode in mind, where Suzanne (Uzu Aduba) has her mental breakdown because she’s off of her medication—she’s having hallucinations of all the other inmates in their cells and we get each of those pieces of story through her eyes. Jenji knew how she wanted to play that, where Suzanne would be able to see in everybody’s cells. We did research and found good references on those kind of cell blocks where the inmates are under 24-hour constant supervision because they may be a danger to themselves. We found those windows and doors and built it around that whole first episode, but then made it work for all of the subsequent episodes. It was fantastic to get to tell an additional piece of story from scratch and build a whole new vocabulary for the show.
AD: In Litchfield Max, everything feels cleaner with lots of bright light, sparse spaces. What do you think this says about life in Max for these inmates?
MJ: We had a big discussion with Jenji, Tara, Mark Burley executive producer, and Ludovic Littee our director of photography, and we wanted it to be completely different. So we changed the color from the tan to the grey. Everything is much colder and all of that cold, cold lighting—all of those fixtures are real prison fixtures. We bought all of the stuff from real prison suppliers, and I feel like it has a much harsher tone than the first four seasons. The big dormitories are like a free for all in comparison to the individual cells of Max and the way the lock-down happens.
AD: There are so many iconic set pieces you got to work on over the course of Seasons 4 through 7. The greenhouse, the empty pool/bunker, the dining hall. Which was your favorite one?
MJ: I have two favorite flashbacks. Poussey’s flashback at the end of Season 4. After she dies in episode 12, we get a flashback in episode 13, which still gives me chills to talk about it. It’s her perfect night ever in New York City, and we got to do the art party in Brooklyn from scratch. We built it in a basketball court, and we got a note from Jenji saying, ‘OK, art department, go nuts.’ When she writes that into a script and that’s the note, you know it’s going to be great. We went really deep with that. There were great motion graphics, projections, and lighting. We built the chandeliers from scratch, and we built a lot of it out of recycled scenery from other things. It was pretty amazing. I love that set. I also love Red’s flashback to Moscow, where she’s in the Russian factory and sitting with her girlfriend in front of the giant banner of Lenin.
AD: Piper is out of prison in the final season and living with her brother. But life is just as bleak, if not bleaker, than the slammer. What kind of set details did you try to include to convey this mood for Piper?
MJ: We rented that apartment. That was a real apartment. We knew we were going to keep going back there, and we wanted an interior and exterior, and we didn’t have a lot of space on stage. Our set decorator just went to town with the whole ‘No Waste’ story line of Cal and Neri, how really crazy that can be. And then the idea that Piper was going to actually be in the baby’s soon-to-be room, and I don’t know if you could tell, but the idea was that Neri had started painting that room with stars and a big constellation and she had just failed at it, in the way that you see on Pinterest when somebody says ‘Nailed it’ and totally botches the fancy project. So that was all in there. There’s the lizard in that first episode, all of the baby stuff. The space is really tight.
AD: The kitchen is one of the one’s I noticed. It’s so close-quarters with stuff everywhere. It’s so claustrophobic. She’s still in a sort-of prison, which I think is so fascinating. You did such a great job of showing that. One last question: Did you get to take home any set pieces from the series?
MJ: I did. I took home a lock set, from one of the doors from the administrative segregation unit, and a set of keys. Those keys for those locks are giant and brass and make this amazing sound. They’re huge. That was the one thing I really wanted was the keys—to have the keys to the prison.
All seasons of Orange is the New Black are streaming on Netflix.