Bringing the ‘80s Back in Style for Lisa Frankenstein’s Decor
An exclusive Q&A with production designer Mark Worthington.
In Lisa Frankenstein, directed by Zelda Williams and written by Diablo Cody, an awkward high schooler, Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton), finds an unexpected connection when a violent thunderstorm in a local cemetery reanimates a romantic young man (Cole Sprouse) from the 19th century. Disconnected from her classmates and her domineering stepmother, Janet (Carla Gugino), Lisa nevertheless finds a purpose and sense of self as she helps her friend pull his new life together, harvesting some additional body parts for him along the way.
To help capture the right tone for this hilarious throwback to the '80s, the filmmakers brought on production designer Mark Worthington. For creating innovative looks with a comic twist for shows like American Horror Story, The Umbrella Academy, and Ugly Betty, Worthington has been nominated for six Emmys, winning for his work on WandaVision. Using a house in the New Orleans suburb of Marrero, Worthington created the perfect retro-kitsch home for Lisa Frankenstein and a spectacular homage to ‘80s design.
We spoke with Worthington about the film’s unique palette, the history of '80s style, and the humor and humanity of teen horror.
How did you get involved in working on Lisa Frankenstein?
My agent sent me the script and told me it was written by Diablo Cody. I love her work, so I was immediately interested. It was the best thing I read in a long time. It was so incredibly fun. After having done five years of American Horror Story, I’m a bit of a horror-genre geek, so this was right up my alley. Then I met Zelda Williams, who is so talented and fun, and things just went from there.
When you read the screenplay, did you have a vision of what the production design should be like?
With anything by Diablo Cody, there's an immediate stylistic quality. Of course, there is a range in her work. Juno is a bit more realistic, and Jennifer’s Body is more in the vein of this movie. Since it’s horror and comic, my initial thought is that we could do a lot with palettes. Being a riff on teen '80s slasher films, the film gave us the license to stylize and do things we wouldn’t do in a realistic film.
The film juggles different genres and tones. How did you find the right balance?
We knew we wanted the look to be stylized, but, at the same time, the DNA of '80s teen-slasher films is a kind of mundane realism. They take place in suburban houses and high schools, locales that usually fade into the background of the film. But here the writing is such that it calls those spaces out; there were opportunities here to focus on and highlight those spaces. Janet’s house, for example, is a symphony of pastels. It’s curated to appear as a kind of visual joke. It’s also a space in which Lisa's character is always uncomfortable, which is significant to this story.
"Mundane realism" is such a great term for the look of that period, like in Spielberg’s suburban homes.
Although Spielberg renders it differently, there is a specificity in something like E.T. or Poltergeist, for which he served as the producer. The mundaneness is something that is carefully curated. I was clearly pulling from that tradition. The other important aspect for me was the palette. I've done a lot of work where the palette is a very important component and comes from an almost visceral response to the script and its comic tone. For me, a lot of the color choices came from detailed conversations with Zelda about who the characters are.
How did you work with the costume designer and cinematographer to craft the film’s palette?
We established the palette really early on. Once I have colors picked out for the set, I give them out immediately. We had a big board in our room in the art department, which contained location photos, my sketches, and palette concepts. Figuring out how the palette would function was an ongoing conversation. I would happily change things in the set design if some aspect of the lighting required it. There was one scene where the costume’s color was incredibly important, so we shifted the production design to support that. At other times, we might want a character to fade into the background, so we would make choices to make that happen. We had very careful conversations about color and light and dark in costumes and set design to make sure that we were in sync in expressing a character. With Janet, for example, her home and her costumes were all of one piece. Lisa starts off rather non-discrete and mundane and then blossoms into a hybrid goth-emo invention, which really pops when she is up against a pink environment.
In using very different palettes for Lisa and Janet’s worlds, you use the production design to great comic effects.
That is something that is kind of intuitive for me. When we were designing Janet’s home, Zelda, Diablo, and I were looking for what might be the worst in '80s design, which turned out to be pretty easy. In a lot of ways, the '80s style is hideous. There is a lot of bad design to choose from. When we were creating Janet’s home, we thought it was pretty extreme, but ironically it was not that different from much of the mainstream '80s style.
Can you talk about the design of the cemetery, which seems more like the 1880s?
The cemetery reflects very much Lisa’s state of mind. It is one of the only places where she is comfortable. Every other space, from home to high school, feels uncomfortable to her. The place is called Bachelor's Grove, which is the name of an actual cemetery outside of Chicago. When I was creating it, I was thinking about the Romantic poets, especially since Cole's character is very Byron-esque. It is a little spooky, but also very beautiful and romantic.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
As funny and shocking as it can be, it's also a story of female empowerment, which is one of the reasons I was interested in working on it. Lisa comes away as this authentic, much more powerful person in the end, regardless of how you judge her for all the murders. That is what genre can do because you're not constrained by the walls of realism. You get to play with all these comic things, but the ideas in the film will last, I hope, long after you have seen it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.