In Stefania Cella’s over twenty-year career as a production designer, she has often dealt with more grounded, realistic projects. However, recently, she has entered the MCU as go-to PD for multiple Marvel productions. Along with Moon Knight, Cella also worked on Morbius and is in pre-production for the upcoming Blade reboot starring Mahershala Ali. In our conversation, we discuss her taking on more FX heavy projects for Marvel, and, of course, all the challenges that came with mixing the real with the surreal for the Moon Knight limited series on Disney+.
Awards Daily: How did you come to Moon Knight?
Stefania Cella: I’ve wanted to work with Marvel for a long time. I was doing a different type of movie before, and then I started to explore a little bit different scenarios with Downsizing and Morbius. With Morbius I had a lot of fun exploring superheroes and surrealism, so I let my agent know I wanted to try to work with them—and there was a project that was there. It just seemed right.
Awards Daily: Working with both Marvel and Disney is a pretty big deal. Some of the things you worked on before were a little more Indie—or like Black Mass, which was more down to earth. What drew you to down the superhero route?
Stefania Cella: I think I needed to find something that would challenge me. Something that I haven’t done. I come from theater, I studied theater in Italy. So I always found surrealism—I don’t want to use the word cartoon—the animation of characters very similar in a way to creating a world for theater. Because they are symbolic in a way and surreal but at the same time you need to express on a set what the symbol is. So I found that this ground, now that I’ve been working for a few years on it, is very similar. I found a similarity in creating these worlds that are full of symbolism. The comics were a big green button for me to take things the way I took it. The way they move seamlessly through surreal landscaping with such a nonchalance. To me it is almost theater because everything is possible.
Awards Daily: You implied too that there’s a very unusual nature to this show. It’s not the Marvel that I think a lot of people expect.
Stefania Cella: Absolutely. I think that is why I was able to get the job, because my background is not necessarily a lot of visual effects. I think the nature of this wanted to be more adventurous and more the type of Indiana Jones adventure than all blue-screen. So, I approached the movie as I have done with others, like Downsizing, even if it was all surreal, with a very realistic standpoint and with a very basic location on camera desire. I think that’s what I try to achieve on every job that I do. I love visual effects, but I think there is a time and there is a space in the frame for visual effects and the rest, to me, needs to be on camera.
Awards Daily: I talked to May Calamawy recently and we also spoke about the influence of Indiana Jones—the artifacts and the museum aesthetic. Was that in your mind before you started the project or did it develop as you went along?
Stefania Cella: There was a level of the museum already in the script, and the tomb episode was already in the script. I knew then that there was going to be a very high demand for production of realistic artifacts. One thing that was really important for me was that those statues did not look like cheap props. It was a very long process. It was around four months in the making where we had plasterers and sculptors from Budapest, which is a country that has a very strong tradition in arts and crafts. And I brought fifteen or sixteen people from Italy—people that did big movies in the past in Rome and Gangs of New York. These are guys that work in real plaster and real sculptures.
Awards Daily: There’s a fantastical nature to Moon Knight. When you’re watching, you don’t always know what’s real and what is only happening inside of a character’s brain. What challenge does that create for you in terms of design?
Stefania Cella: To answer your question is a question with many questions. [Laughs.] The first challenge was how to separate the Egyptian archaeology world with the superhero part of the world. And then the superhero part of the world is a multi-personality character. The mirroring of things was something that was very interesting and important to the approach for Steven’s or Marc’s personality—the contraposition of the two, when they are mirroring each other and finding each other. There was a challenge, but it’s also very seamless in the original comics to me, the way that they’re going through both reality and surreality. I read some of the comics to give myself an education before I started. It was really an open door to approach that challenge and that’s the way we did it.
Awards Daily: That mirror sequence where Marc tells Steven “I can save us” is really a thing of beauty. When you were setting that up did you think it would come off as well as it did?
Stefania Cella: That first one is in the museum bathroom. When we were designing the set, I did love the idea that it was in infinite images, as if also to kind of confuse the audience as to how many are in there. The multiplicity of them. To me the biggest challenge and the one that I was the most careful with was trying not to have mirroring surfaces opportunistically there. I wanted to find places where it made sense to have a reflection. Like when he enters into the chambers of the god, instead of putting mirrors I lined the walls with brass. Or when he’s in Cairo, we were looking for how to find a reflection here and I thought, maybe there is a street sign that has the back side that is very shiny. So as long as we never get lazy about where he was finding his connection with the other, that to me was very important. I didn’t want the audience to ever think: “Ok suddenly there’s a mirror there? Why?”
Awards Daily: When you have a lot of special effects and a lot of physical artifacts, how do you blend those things to look seamless? I imagine it gets complicated between greenscreen and actual physical artifacts.
Stefania Cella: Your starting point is the set design. Then you add the visual effects through collaboration with the visual effect supervisor. The ultimate goal for both of you is to be both grand and grounded in reality. Greg Middleton, the director of photography, lit the scenes to make them gritty. When we design in key frame or when we design in set, we design the whole set. Then we decide how much is going to be built and how much is going to be visual effects. Then we are all on the same page and we are all doing the same movie. It was the result of very close collaboration.
Awards Daily: When you were reading the script and setting out what the design will be, and you realized you have talking hippos and alligators—I can’t imagine what your thoughts might have been.
Stefania Cella: First of all I loved Ammit. I know she’s mean, but to me she’s just so cool. And when I read it I didn’t think “oh wow, what is happening.” I didn’t think that at all. Maybe because some of the movies that I’ve done with Paolo Sorrentino have pushed the reality of a situation in life and pushed it to this extreme aesthetic where something that you wouldn’t think would be possible is actually possible. When I read it I thought, “okay, fine that’s cool.” I thought more about how to make them appealing and for me it was like, great, bring it on. I have to tell you, doing Egypt is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a designer. Recreating this world in Egypt, and also Marc’s visions that he has, the barge that goes through the sands—those things obviously come once in a lifetime.
Awards Daily: At the end of episode four you have the asylum reveal, and that transition was the most jaw dropping moment for me when I was watching it. Can you talk about going from the surreal to this more stark and realistic background?
Stefania Cella: We needed to bring him into a place that was immediately recognizable as a mental hospital or facility. You mentioned the realism of a hospital but to me there also was a part of surreality in there. Again to keep up the “are we in a real place or are we in his mind” feeling, for me the key was to use the most symbolic coloring. White is the most associated color with a hospital. I know you have blue and green in hospitals but those are mostly scrubs. If you have somebody in white, from 300 years ago to now, it’s a doctor. So, that was the first thing—white. I didn’t think doing a light green or a light blue hospital was enough. Also white is also very much associated with paradise or after-life, so I was very strong about it being white. You need to have a very supportive director of photography for that, because white is not easy. Also the tiles were the other symbol of being in a hospital, and not necessarily a very friendly hospital because tiles are cold. They are very reflective so there is this coolness to them. Also I guess it worked for this shocking moment, which was something that we wanted to do.
Awards Daily: One of the things that I was surprised by is the lack of in-costume appearances of Moon Knight in the show. Was that surprising to you? Did you ever think “there’s not a lot of superhero in here?”
Stefania Cella: I think the story evolved while we were doing it, so there is stuff that we were exploring that didn’t come in and others that didn’t make it even to become a set. I think that ultimately I agree with you, but the story between the two of them, Marc and Steven, is almost more important than necessarily the superhero factor. I think the double personality of Marc almost outshines the other.
Awards Daily: I think most people thought the gold standard of Marvel outliers was Wanda/Vision. This goes pretty far beyond even that. Did you realize when you took on the show that you were taking some real chances as to whether it was going to work?
Stefania Cella: Certainly! I thought “who knows how this is going to go?” But we were so well supported by the studio. I am amazed how supportive they are of their creative talent. You have your pocket of things to create and they believe in you and they trust you. They have such incredible intellectual property that you would think that you need to subscribe to some very specific regulations as if you are entering into another franchise. I was amazed actually. I guess because Moon Knight was never filmed before, we were the first, so we were able to create our own look. The core group of us wanted to do this in a very palpable and tactical way in terms of textures and sets and environment. We were all on the same page. There was never “this set should be fifty percent or seventy percent visual effects.” It was very clear. It was a human scale. It was not like a superhero that can fly in the sky. It was a human scale texture that had to be created around him before creating the superhero texture. I was trying to stay focused on that and wanted it to be realistic.
Awards Daily: The show overall, despite the chances it takes, has been received very well. Are you happy with the reception of the show and are you open to whatever might come next?
Stefania Cella: Yes, I am very happy with the show. I think Oscar was an amazing part of it. And Ethan, and May. I loved May, she’s fantastic. Overall it was a blessing on every level. I know what happens in the comics, but if something ever develops, it is going to be probably completely different from the comic and that’s why it’s so great. I don’t think it’s going to be the same thing and I can’t wait.