‘AHS’ Architect Mark Worthington on His Brilliant Hotel Cortez

Mark Worthington

Emmy-nominated production designer Mark Worthington’s American Horror Story swan song is an art deco nightmare dream come true.

American Horror Story: Hotel‘s Hotel Cortez as realized by Emmy-nominated production designer Mark Worthington is more than just an art deco fantasia.

Mark Worthington

It’s a physical manifestation of the many moods, periods, and ghosts within its walls. It’s also something of a human Roach Motel: people check in, but they don’t check out. Relatively hidden within the splendor, though, is an elaborate nod to the hotel’s Spanish namesake, the conquistador Hernán Cortés. He makes an appearance in the hotel’s elevator on an ironwork design of Cortés’s arrival in the New World. A sun rises and sets behind his head, depending on your vantage point. Brilliant gold rays emit from the sun and stream across the lobby, later transforming into moonbeams. Over a glass bar, the moonbeams resolve into a moon over the head of La Malinche, Cortés South American native translator and consort.

None of that detail appeared in the script. Those choices represent the contributions of Mark Worthington’s Emmy-worthy design. And it’s an entirely bad ass design choice.

“My time on American Horror Story has provided me with literally what would otherwise be a career’s worth of production design. Many people are not fortunate enough to not have that level of variety within their whole career, much less inside of one show,” Worthington said. “It is unusual and very exciting to work on a show like that for that reason alone… There’s a DNA to the show that I think is very demonstrable and recognizable. You go from doing an old, beautiful haunted house in L.A. then to this 1960s mental asylum then to New Orleans in the Garden district in an Antebellum mansion to a circus.”

A bloody great career in Ryan Murphy’s Horror

Ironically, Mark Worthington wasn’t the first American Horror Story production designer.

Oscar-nominee Beth Rubino (The Cider House RulesAmerican Gangster) provided the original design for the famed Season 1’s Murder House, but scheduling conflicts prevented Rubino’s further involvement in the series. At the same time, Worthington’s continuing work on the Once Upon a Time pilot proved challenging  given Vancouver’s higher cost of living expenses.

Enter Ryan Murphy.

After a brief audition process, Murphy and Worthington immediately gravitated toward each other. Worthington appreciates Murphy’s creative process, starting without a script but with very strong kernels of the story and character notions. Over time, Murphy and Worthington worked together to hone those ideas through research, sketches, and lots of conversation.

“He has a kind of notion of central space, a central visual idea. Usually, it’s in the form of a space or a building,” Worthington said. “So you’re starting with that iconic anchor to the whole thing. He sees those sets as characters themselves, but you’re starting with that strength of an idea and passion for it.”

Worthington also admired Murphy’s autonomy over the final product. Studio heads didn’t bring notes or helpful suggestions for the series’s direction. It was just Ryan and Mark, working out the look and feel of the horror.

“In every other show I’ve ever done, there were ‘tone meetings’ where you show things to the executives. I’ve never had to do that on Horror Story… The creative center of the show is where it should be. There’s no meddling,” Worthington said.

Mark Worthington
(Photo: Ellen J. Brill/FX)

Designing the Hotel Cortez

The primary design concept for the Hotel Cortez is deeply rooted in art deco. Worthington absorbed as much art deco inspiration as he could, looking to examples from San Francisco to France to the Chrysler Building to the Empire State Building. Art deco thematically heralds scientific progress, modernity, and opulence. Its sharp angles and cold resonance feel perfectly suited for Hotel‘s ghastly, tormented inhabitants.

But the Hotel Cortez ultimately becomes more than its infamous and extravagant lobby. Each space of the hotel personifies the characters that inhabit it.

Take the hotel’s fictitious architect, Mr. March (Evan Peters). His space combines what Worthington calls a “fussy, meticulous” aesthetic with his more hardcore, steely, and torturous side. It’s a combination that echoes the popular Steampunk design movement. Those design elements wildly differ from those that represent Hypodermic Sally (Emmy-nominee Sarah Paulson), a “great, sprawling mess” of a character according to Worthington. Her design elements offered a softer touch to convey the broad, eclectic sense of her character.

“There were touches of Stevie Nicks in her character. Not obvious, deliberate ones,” Worthington said. “But it’s the music that she might listen to, the cultural, or pop influences she might have listened to when she died.”

Worthington also works directly with actors to develop the space in which they create their performance. One design goal, among many, is to take feedback and try and incorporate the interpretations of their characters into the design. He doesn’t shut himself off from inspiration whether from actors or real-world examples of art.

“The ideas can come from anywhere. The idea is to be open when they do arrive, so you’re not precluding things based on your own biases,” Worthington said.

Mark Worthington
(Photo: Ellen J. Brill/FX)

Lucky number seven?

American Horror Story: Hotel marks Mark Worthington’s seventh Emmy nomination. ABC’s Ugly Betty account for two and the rest hail from the AHS series. Shockingly, he has yet to win for his memorable designs. Not for the haunting and cavernous interiors of Asylum. Not for the brilliant Antebellum designs of Coven. Perhaps Hotel‘s exciting opulence will be lucky number seven.

“This one was very special because of the reaction. People were so bowled over by it, especially when they came to see it in person,” Worthington said. “I try to create 360 degree environments as much as possible. I want the actors to feel when they walk on a set that they’re in a space that’s complete. You feel in a way that you’re helping them do their job in creating the character. That set, you really did feel like you’re in an actual hotel.”

Aside from potential Emmy glory, Worthington is now working on CBS’s upcoming Star Trek: Discovery. He ceded production design duties on American Horror Story‘s sixth season in search of something different. Chances are, it’ll be a while yet before Murphy’s horror anthology series hits deep space.

Until then, Worthington has a date at L.A. LIVE’s Microsoft Theater for the Creative Arts Emmy Awards. He’s been there before, but the experience never gets old. The competition, though, remains incredibly stiff. Much like the above-the-line acting and series categories, the crafts categories are filled with the best examples of what television offers today. Worthington’s Hotel designs will compete against those from House of CardsPenny DreadfulThe Man in the High Castle, and a little plucky Emmy upstart.

“We’re up against Game of Thrones, and we all know what the outcome’s going to be there,” Worthington laughs.

Maybe, but does Game of Thrones have venus flytraps? Did I mention that the columns in the Cortez’s lobby are topped with venus flytraps?

Mark Worthington’s fantastic little design Easter egg is worth an Emmy all on its own.

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