Celebrated director Tim Burton is as known for his unique visual style as he is for his affection for misfits. Given both aspects of his directorial style, it’s surprising that Netflix’s Wednesday marks the very first time Burton stepped into the world of the Addams Family. Originally asked to direct the original 1991 film and later a stop-motion animation film, Burton’s prior commitments kept him from putting his stamp on the classic Charles Addams characters.
But with Wednesday, Burton corrects that egregious oversight. His vision centers primarily on Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) as she enters her parents’ alma mater Nevermore Academy. There, she encounters all sorts of outcasts and misfits as well as the occasional brutal murder. It’s a very Tim Burton world.
Translating that world from its primary residence in Burton’s mind largely fell to production designer Mark Scruton. Scruton’s gorgeous gothic creations throughout the series immediately helped orient viewers within the Addams world while expanding that world to include the Addams-adjacent Nevermore Academy as well as the too-perfect town of Jericho.
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Scruton shares what it’s like working with Tim Burton (the two will re-team on a future project), how he settled on the exterior design for Nevermore Academy, how challenging it was to build an entire town, and much more!
Awards Daily: I believe this is your first time working with Tim Burton. Tell me what your collaboration was like.
Mark Scruton: Actually, I’d worked with him as an art director on Miss Peregrine a few years ago, which is obviously a different proposition, but it was interesting working with him in this role because it is a different proposition. You do have to navigate that style of working that he has, which is very collaborative. You find your way through design ideas, rather than being presented with ‘Here’s how it’s gonna be.’ It’s much more exploring things, trying different ideas, and trying to get to a point where he feels comfortable with what you’re giving. Sometimes that can be you give him your ideas, and they sit with him for quite a long time before you get any feedback from him because he has to take them in, think about it. You’ll pin them on the wall, look at them, and there’s quite a long process to get to where you want to be. It might be exactly where you started, but there’s quite a long way to go before you get to all agreeing on what it’s going to look like.
Awards Daily: I can’t imagine being in the position to have to visually translate what he sees in his head.
Mark Scruton: Yes, it can be intimidating. Initially, it was very intimidating. I think, once you get into his head as much as he lets you, you find out there is a process. It was a nice process to be part of. We had the luxury of jumping straight in with Wednesday’s dorm and tried to figure that out. What’s the approach going to be? How are we going to dig into those characters? That became then the jumping off point for everything else. So once we had that nailed and we understood each other a bit better, then we could dig into the rest of the world and take it from there without the time pressures you would normally have.
Awards Daily: I want to talk about a few set pieces within the series. Whenever I’m looking at an Addams Family Project, the one thing that you absolutely have to get right is the house. I know it’s only briefly seen in the pilot episode, but talk to me about how you recreated their famous mansion.
Mark Scruton: So that was interesting one, because — yes, you’re right — it is seen so briefly, but because it was the only time we saw it, we had to spend a while exploring it and just getting to it. We went back to the source material, back to the Charles Addams cartoons, and studied that. We literally took the cartoon illustrations and worked them up into architectural plans. Is that the house? If the cartoon was a real house? Is that what it would have looked like? At that point, we knew we wanted the roof lines of Nevermore to have that Addams family feel, so we worked back and forward with those rooflines to get the exact shape of those roofs on point.
VFX weren’t keen on doing it as a CG build, and since we had model makers on our team, we took it back into our world. We built that little foreground, pet cemetery and everything else on the stage. We built the house as a miniature, which very much was in our favor because Tim loves his miniatures. So we got a couple of model makers and put them in a shed on their own with the drawings. They just went slightly mental cutting out little tiny tiles and little tiny bits, and we ended up with this absolutely beautiful model of the house, which appeared on screen for two seconds but it was a great thing to explore.
Awards Daily: Talk to me about constructing the exterior of Nevermore Academy, which is very Addams adjacent.
Mark Scruton: That was very tricky to get it right. We spent ages looking for the perfect castle, and we looked at lots of castles and lots of buildings. Some of them were amazing and really alluring in their Gothic grander, but they actually weren’t really right for us. Tim kept telling us ‘Simpler, simpler. Pare it back, pare it back.’ We eventually looked at Cantacuzino, and what it had was this amazing front turret, which was very Addams. Then, it had a real estate, but it wasn’t really developed. So it meant that we had a really good ground floor and a really good turret, and then lots of space that we could build on and design our own Nevermore, which was kind of perfect for us. It was like having a back lot build that we didn’t build.
Once we had the location, we then worked on it, and we literally worked in black and white as in silhouette. We would draw the roof lines onto the photos, and we’d sort of blacking them all up and just turn them into big black silhouettes until we got that iconic shape that we wanted to be recognizable. Even though it has that silhouette, the actual building is not a replica of the Addams Family house anyway, but it does, as you say, exist in that world. That was the premise of everything else that followed on behind it, to be honest.
Awards Daily: You mentioned one of the first spaces that you started to work on was Wednesday’s dorm room. It has that fantastic stained glass window as a main focal point. Talk to me about her dorm room, and why place that massive window there?
Mark Scruton: Well, it always said that there was a big window that dominated the room in the script. That was always a good direction to have. It’s great when you get those nods, especially when it’s something like a dorm room because there have been a million dorm rooms in different shows. It can be a very dull space. We knew we wanted to put them at the top of the building, and we wanted Enid [Wednesday’s roommate] to already be up there, not not in isolation but on her own and kicking around this huge space that she’s taken over. We knew the room had to withstand eight episodes, and we were gonna go there a lot. So, it couldn’t be some pokey little space, but at the same time, we needed to feel human for the two characters. We came up with a central space that was very airy, had lots of height, a big window in it, and then fell away to more cozier corners. And then we had the cloister desk behind it where Wednesday has her desk and everything, which was even more intimate and smaller again. We wanted to go from big spaces to small spaces.
Then the window is obviously colored on one side and black and white on the other, and there’s a big line in the middle separating the two. I wanted it to be all stained glass and then magic drains out the color on one side. Everyone was like don’t be stupid. No one’s magic, and they can’t do that. So we came with this idea that actually Enid stuck all the colors on herself. She designed it, and that was great because then Wednesday could come along with a really nasty sharp instrument and scrape it all off in a very symbolic way. That became yet another reinforcement of that relationship, which was a really good way to carry their relationship visually.
Awards Daily: Nevermore has all kinds of fantastic interiors, but the one that really struck me was the Versailles-esqe fencing rooms. Where was that filmed?
Mark Scruton: You’re the first person to ask me about that. We spent ages trying to find a space for it. We knew it had to be grand, and we didn’t have the time or the money to build it as a set even though I’d love to have gotten into it. It was just too big, and it didn’t feature heavily enough at that point. So we looked at sorts of places. In the end, we found this place that was actually part of, I think, a military academy in Bucharest. It’s their grand conference space. It had these amazing statues. Tim and I walked in, and we were like here it is. The statues at the ends was so extraordinary and the great length of it and the huge windows on one side. Once we found that place, nothing else would.
Awards Daily: Your designs for Wednesday don’t all fall within the macabre or the Gothic. There is the town of Jericho as well. Tell me about designing that.
Mark Scruton: Originally, we were shooting in Toronto, and we were looking at locations for Jericho. None of them were really working. They all had the benefit of being sort of American-esque, but they weren’t really quite right. We looked at a lot of towns and then we pivoted to Bucharest. Then, it was pause where we went, ‘Ah, yes, American towns, not so many in Bucharest.’ I kind of had an inkling that this might be coming — that we needed to build the town. The script provided the locations, and we sat down and connected the dots. By the time we finished it, there’s the town, and then we built on it and came up with the design for the whole town quite quickly. We did have to build everything from the ground up, so we found this big area of scrub land on the outskirts of the city in Bucharest and started from the ground up. It gave us that opportunity to dig into what we were trying to explore which was the contrast of it all. We had free rein, so there was absolutely no black in the town whatsoever. There are grays in there and everything else, but there’s no hard black colors. Everything is vibrant, colorful, slightly amped up, slightly too perfect and a little bit creepy at the same time. It really gave us a nice palette to set off against Nevermore, which is the opposite. Actually, it was the same with all the characters. The characters at Nevermore are more diverse and eclectic and interesting. In Jericho, they’re all a bit more clipped and unfriendly. It was a nice trade off to get and a nice thing to do. We built the town right up to the tip of the steeple because there was no CG really. We went there so often that we didn’t want to have to top it up all the time. So we built as much as we could. So most of it was in camera, which was very rare to get the chance to do that on such a scale.
Awards Daily: Did you have to strike the town when you were done?
Mark Scruton: It’s still there. You can see it on Google. I think that when we finished season one everything was slightly in flux. No one quite knew whether or not it was gonna be a hit, so the town remains there. You can have a wedding there apparently.
Wednesday season one streams in its entirety exclusively on Netflix.