In our ongoing series Screening Room, we go behind the scenes with the talented production designers and set decorators of today’s most visually alluring TV shows and movies for a deep dive on how they whipped up such indelible backdrops. This week: set decorator Glen Johnson, the creative genius behind the luxe (and uber sinister) wellness resort featured in Nine Perfect Strangers—Hulu’s newest must-watch drama starring Nicole Kidman and Melissa McCarthy.
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The secret is in the smoothies. There’s something strange about the drinks served each morning at breakfast to the titular Nine Perfect Strangers in Hulu’s new drama, set at Tranquillium House, a luxurious (if off-kilter) wellness resort in the fictional town of Cabrillo, California, run by a Goop-era-Willy Wonka named Masha (played by Nicole Kidman). Masha—spoiler alert—has her staff secretly spike the guests’ drinks with hallucinogens, booster style. And that isn’t the only thing they’re hiding. Look closely at the color of the smoothies, and you’ll see that they differ for each guest—a deliberate choice, confides the show’s set decorator Glen Johnson. “The color was part of their chakra; each person’s problem had to do with that color,” he says. Writer Lars, played by Luke Evans, drinks a green one, for example, a nudge to viewers that the transformation he’ll likely undergo centers on his heart chakra, or love.
This eight-part limited series—based on the book of the same title by Big Little Lies scribe Liane Moriarity—is littered with more of those same playful, thoughtful details that were cooked up by Johnson and his colleague Colin Gibson, the Oscar-winning production designer of Mad Max: Fury Road. Take the linens’ artfully frayed edges: “It’s a motif that everything is unraveling,” Johnson says. He hired Baz Luhrmann’s go-to florist to festoon the resort with lavish bouquets, which change throughout the series in yet another nod to the illicit substances ingested at the spa. “As we got further into the episodes, the flowers become trippier—you’ll start noticing lots of weird sticks, for example,” Johnson notes. “They get more and more mad as the show goes on.”
Working on this show, produced by same creative team as Big Little Lies, was a thrilling, if unexpected, gig for Johnson. Nine Perfect Strangers was earmarked to shoot in the U.S. before the pandemic prompted producers to relocate to Australia where filming would be easier. Barely two months before that shoot began, Johnson came on board to help create the world of an ultra-luxe spa.
The main shoot location was the real-life Soma hotel—temporarily mothballed by the suspension of tourism—in Byron Bay, New South Wales, which provided around 60 percent of the settings. Because the hotel only had standard rooms instead of the suites required for many of the characters, like Melissa McCarthy’s Francis, the production team also used a nearby estate, Lune de Sang, whose vast grounds were littered with barns that were rebooted as Tranquillum’s best rooms. Designing hotels on screen is often tricky, as they can’t be used to shade in character—these are commercial spaces, after all, not personal bedrooms. Johnson and his team found a canny workaround to this problem. “We didn’t want all the suites to be boring and the same, so we decided that Masha is so rich, she would have curated the suites for each character,” he says, “Her religion is to manipulate people.”
As a result, each room received personalized details, like the masculine touches and leather accents on the headboard in the suite where Lars stays, and the honeymoon-like bed in the suite occupied by a young lottery-winning couple (played by Samara Weaving and Melvin Gregg). “They’re so superficial, and our thinking was that a Florida-style honeymoon hotel is the ultimate in superficial luxury,” Johnson says. The white bed linens used in their suite are a rarity on most movie and TV sets: According to Johnson, white sheets are notoriously hard to light as they flare too readily; worse still, they can be ruined by the actors’ makeup. “You always have to get more and more sheets, especially white ones,” Johnson explains; it’s a costly gesture (luckily, Nine Perfect Strangers had a hefty budget) that can also provide insight into the characters on-screen.
Almost the entire series takes place at the retreat, but interspersed throughout, there are flashbacks and flash-forwards that illuminate the characters. These allowed Johnson to insert a playfully knowing gesture or two. He and his team sketched in backstories for each character, then built out sets that underscored those ideas. Carmel (Regina Hall) tells fellow guests on a hike that she’s a make-up artist for Broadway shows; when pandemic changes stymied plans to have Patti LuPone make a cameo, Johnson managed to incorporate the musical legend via a framed playbill featuring her turn in Gypsy.
Writer Lars also has a Broadway connection: his boyfriend writes musicals. In flashbacks to the home they share, atop a grand piano, Johnson placed a holder filled with blackwing pencils—the same brand favored by Stephen Sondheim. Leaning against the wall is a giant pair of iron wings, salvaged from a bank and snapped up by Johnson at a local junk store: “They’re gay New Yorkers, and a gay couple would have seen Angels in America. That’s my tribute to it, and it tells a story about them straightaway.” So, of course, does Lars’s smoothie, which suggests the couple’s love story has hit a rocky patch (as does their testy communication). Will it be healed under Masha’s control? Keep an eye on the color of that drink to find out.