Set decorator Brandi Kalish (Dead To Me; Emmy nominee for Silicon Valley) has an affinity for horror.
It’s kind of a thread that runs through her multi genre-spanning career. Even the films and television shows that aren’t outright horror projects boast an undercurrent of the macabre within them. Wilfred. Dead To Me. Teen Wolf — all series that step into the darker side of life.
“It’s something that I really love. The house that I live in is from circa 1915. We call it a ‘witch house,’ ” Kalish laughs. “It’s filled with all the things collected from projects that I’ve done, and we have a large curio cabinet filled with different artifacts. I love doing horror for sure. It’s been a running theme.”
Her latest project puts her squarely within the world of horror: Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story: Double Feature. But perhaps even more terrifying than the content itself was the fact that Kalish faced set decorating tasks associated with the two completely different halves of the tenth season. Part One, “Red Tide,” hails from Provincetown, Massachusetts, while Part Two, “Death Valley,” spans multiple locations across the United States including Roswell, New Mexico, the White House, and Area 51 among others.
It’s as ambitious a project on which she’s perhaps ever worked.
That doesn’t mean Kalish abandoned the core practices of a set decorator. She and her team religiously studied the region and references within the script to accurately decorate the right environment for each half of Double Feature and its various characters. Each item placed, each color chosen all influence the audience’s reaction to the material whether on a conscious or subconscious level.
“We certainly do push tones, colors, and different pieces of set dressing that invoke the character or that kind of mood. For instance, in the Gardener House [in “Red Tide”], we found this incredible antique Newton’s cradle. The whole intensity of the Newton’s cradle in itself, just that it’s going back and forth and creating this tension. It was something that was featured in the set often,” Kalish explains. “We found it at an antique store and thought it was cool. John Gray, the showrunner, absolutely loved it. He actually directed some of the episodes and shot it in detail. Every little detail is deeply thought about to provoke something in the audience.”
One particular challenge associated with “Red Tide” came in the occupation of one of its main characters, Lily Rabe’s Doris Gardner. Doris’s hobby/budding profession centers around interior design. Later in the series, the audience discovers that Doris has zero talent for interior design, a fact made readily apparent when she takes the infamous black pill. Designed to exponentially heighten inherent talent, the black pill holds unfortunate side effects if no talent exists, turning a human into a horrifying “pale person.” It’s a whole American Horror Story thing, trust me.
But dressing the set to reflect someone without a talent for interior design meant that Kalish and team had to fight every single natural instinct they had.
“It was interesting that when we were picking out items for her mood boards she was pulling together, we were given the reference of flowers, blush colors, and ‘greige.’ Tones that are the total opposite of what, in the story, was what people think interior design should be,” Kalish explains. “Her character was really shaky with confidence throughout the whole section. The production designer, Chloe Arbiture, and I wondered how to truly portray bad interior design. Ryan Murphy and John Gray gave us direction on what they felt it should be by putting it in the script. Beige on beige and all these colors that were very off skew of what a talented interior designer would select.”
Of the Providence-set production, Belle Noir’s house (played by Frances Conroy) proved the most fun and creatively challenging set to dress for Kalish. The house decor selection process fell into place once Kalish and team found the Belle’s chandelier at a vendor (Olde Good Things) in downtown Los Angeles. The chandelier was suspended via a rope and pulley system, and the team used dozens of real beeswax candles as lighting. That required the arduous process of pulling down the chandelier and replacing partially burned candles from shot to shot to maintain the continuity of the burn and wax dripping.
But nothing could have prepared Kalish for the work to come on the “Death Valley” side of the Double Feature.
“‘Red Tide’ was six episodes, ‘Death Valley’ four. When we got the scripts for ‘Death Valley,’ we all just kind of looked at each other and thought this would be a ride. We dressed three historically accurate Oval Offices amongst dozens of other various White House rooms, all period: Eisenhower’s, Nixon’s, and JFK’s. That stuff does not exist out in the world,” Kalish recalls.
Plus, the “Death Valley” sequences were to be shot in black and white, which meant that Kalish and team needed to not only find period-specific objects to use during set dressing but they also needed to come in a color that would translate into the black and white lensing.
The decor of each Oval Office completely differed from president to president. Fortunately, the team was able to leverage the Oval Office set from another Ryan Murphy production: Impeachment: American Crime Story. The team uncovered some furniture to dress the three periods including a resolute desk, but a good amount needed to be built from scratch including Eisenhower’s desk. But all details were fully fact-checked because there are a lot of history buffs who would be quick to point out anything that did not align with the president’s tenure.
Another extremely challenging but fun set to dress proved to be the Roswell crash site.
“We were sending multiple five ton trucks to scrap yards plus rented rocket parts from NASA that are now at specific prop houses here in Los Angeles. We were looking at the reference photos that are from Roswell and then recreating those pieces of metal to be built into a mountainside in Lancaster in 111 degree weather. So that was really intense.”
Finally, what would any Roswell story be without an alien autopsy sequence?
Yes, Kalish and team needed to dress the set for the lab sequence featured in “Death Valley,” which was another personal favorite of hers. The team researched period medical equipment, often finding devices that needed to reflect the exact year of the scene. Kalish explains that slight variations in curvature or edges would date a medical device to a specific year. Prop houses and vintage medical instrument collectors provided most of the required pieces.
“My talented buyers and I go deep with sourcing set dressing that no one has ever seen before. It’s really interesting to me to create a place like that where experiments are being done. It’s obviously historically accurate, but then we’re adding our twist to it. Alien babies floating in these incubator vats. We custom make all the medical drapery and a lot of really cool, different tables and medical beds. That stuff is really important to me and one of the most rewarding parts of being a Set Decorator.”
Spoken like someone with a true affinity for horror.
You can see more of Brandi Kalish’s work on her Instagram feed.
“Red Tide” Set Photos
Photos provided by Brandi Kalish