Years ago, writer-director Dee Rees (“Mudbound,” “Pariah”) had tried her hand at adapting author Philip K. Dick with “Martian Times.” Although the project never came together, she established a strong working relationship the sci-fi writer’s daughter, producer Isa Hackett. When Hackett was setting up “Electric Dreams” – an anthology series based on Dick’s short stories – at Amazon, she offered Rees her pick of stories to adapt. Rees gravitated to “The Hanging Stranger,” the 1953 story of a store owner who discovers a dead body hanging from lamp-post and realizes that he seems to be the only one in town bothered by an apparent lynching.
“I was interested in how to take the body and really make it a metaphor,” said Rees in an interview with IndieWire. “What if it wasn’t about a body, what if it’s about an idea that was in the public square?”
While Rees was writing the script, she found herself amazed by what she described as “society’s collective unconscious” during the 2016 presidential election and the rise of Donald Trump. She was glued to her TV – not unlike her protagonist Philbert (Mel Rodriguez) – waiting for someone to ask Trump the obvious question that would bring him down.
“When Trump was talking about making America great again, why was nobody asking ‘When was that again?,’” said Rees. “Get him to name just one decade when it was great, and then his whole premise is unraveled. People, smart people, people who are supposed to be thought leaders — no one asked what for me was the central question that would have un-did everything.”
Rees found herself filled with her character’s paranoia over being the only person awake in the face of madness. Current events and her sci-fi story became one when Louisiana Congressman Clay Higgins wrote on Facebook that the United States needed to identify and hunt every radicalized Islamic suspect “and identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.” Rees now had the idea her fictional presidential candidate – played by Vera Farmiga, and modeled like an androgynous David Bowie type – could inject into the public square: “Kill all others.”
Elizabeth Sisson/Courtesy of Son
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, like [my story] isn’t even hyperbole anymore,’” said Rees. “[These] things are being said out loud.” In Rees’ version, Philbert just assumes the candidate’s statement during a televised event will bring her down, but finds himself shocked that people are either completely tuned out by technology or asking the wrong question: “Who are ‘the others?’”
Rees didn’t want to have to explain to her audience how her futuristic sci-fi world had evolved from today. Instead, she wanted her visual world to embody the causes and paranoia driving the narrative.
“One of my attractions to sci-fi is a chance for world creation,” said Rees. “I think the audience is smart. I always believe the more things are just matter-of-fact, matter-of-course, people understand how the world works through very, kind of small details.”
In Rees’ future, automation has eliminated even more jobs, smart home devices have mixed with advertising, and data collection through technology has become even more Orwellian. To root these developments in the setting, production designer Julie Berghoff had to create visual spaces that served as the exposition for the writer-director’s narrative ideas.
Berghoff’s approach with each location was to embrace the sharp contrast that fueled the story’s paranoia. The production designer added layers of Big Brother-like technology ironically juxtaposed against a colorful palette. Berghoff told IndieWire her favorite example of this approach was the set she built for the interrogation scene.
Elizabeth Sisson/Courtesy of Son
“Dee didn’t want the interrogation room to feel like an interrogation room,” said Berghoff. “I dug into these vid screens — high tech screens with smaller pixelation – and made one wall of the interrogation filled with scenes from nature – snow fall, falling water – so he felt comfortable. There wasn’t enough money for more screens, so the other walls were this tile that reflected the screens and I used these comfortable chairs you’d find in the lobby of the hotel.”
The arc of the scene was Philbert’s feeling – pulled Rees’ experiences during the election – like the only one who was awake. The same approach came into play for the protagonist’s place of work. Philbert is one of the rare factory workers to have a job outside the field of artificial intelligence. Berghoff, with the budget constraints of a one-hour TV show, needed to find a functioning car parts factory that looked high-tech automated and she needed to give it the same comforting duality of the interrogation room.
“The factory was really difficult, because she wanted to do it practical, and how many high tech factories are going to let you in, especially when most car factories are in Detroit?” said Berghoff. The solution was use a warehouse, build some of the equipment, but do the rest with visual effects.
Photo by Elizabeth Sisson © 2017 Sony Pictures Television
“Dee’s vision was technology and A.I. has taken over our society, and there is even less jobs available, which creates more poverty,” said Berghoff. “The factory had this philosophy if we make it colorful and cheerful we’re almost tricking you that you are at this awesome job, which is why it has those peach uniforms and comforting blue color palette.”
While writing, Rees envisioned a large abandoned city like parts of Detroit, but based on show’s constraints she would be limited to Chicago. Berghoff helped Rees see how to embrace elements of the city as cornerstones of her world building.
“Julie introduced me to brutalist architecture, which I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is it,’” said Rees. “It’s about everything having a sameness, or having a functionality where the form is a little bit severe. So then you can feel, ‘OK, they have this apartment that looks like every other apartment, and the palate is muted in a way. It’s all like tofu, it’s all like an adaptable thing that’s ready for flavoring. The windows are small, there’s not a lot of natural light and the living spaces could conform to our moods, to our wants with the technology that can be integrated.”
Meanwhile, Berghoff knew she could contrast the brutalist architecture with Chicago’s welcoming brick neighborhoods, grass and parks, which embody the ideals of urban living.
“While he’s traveling to work on the elevated train, he passes all this very classic middle class architecture, along with the ‘Kill All Others’ digital signs popping up,” said Berghoff. “Mixed with the very 60s-looking trains – Chicago hasn’t switched trains in decades – we’d put in all this technology with screens, and the fellow passengers are oblivious to what’s making him upset. Then, there he is, in his happy peach jumpsuit. It’s all this contrast of color, materials, and what he sees that embodies his paranoia.”