In the first season of American Horror Stories, fans got to experience individual stories set within the larger American Horror Story universe. While some had some very concrete ties to American Horror Story — the series’ first two episodes, as well as its season finale, were all tied to the iconic Murder House first introduced in American Horror Story‘s first season — others were unique, standalone tales that brought new terror. But, even though American Horror Stories offered something new for fans, like the main series, a major part of Stories is the look and feel of each episode, where no detail is too small in helping to bring the terror to life.
Creating the look and feel of those episodes is the job of Eve McCarney. From bringing the Murder House into the hands of new owners in “Rubber(wo)Man Part One” and “Rubber(wo)Man Part Two to building a light and airy nightmare in “Ba’al”. McCarney helped bring the series to life in her multifaceted role as production designer for the series.
“The creative side of it, which is my favorite part is, I create the vision for the project. So whether it’s a film or a series, I’m the one that comes up with what it’s going to look like, what it should look like, what types of colors we want to use, what types of colors we want to avoid, creating the palette, creating a story for the characters through the use of visuals, colors, textures, their spaces, delving into a character to really flesh out the environments so that they reflect the character, reflect the story and tie it all together cohesively,” McCarney told ComicBook.com. “And then, I do a lot of that, obviously working with the director within his or her vision. And then I work with the director of photography to light these environments and how we’re going to light them, how we’re going to move through them. So we work together with how certain things are laid out, what types of practicals that they want from us, whether we’re doing any built-in lighting in the set. And we delve into all of that together. And then also, utilizing color, enhancing the color palette, staying within the color palette. And we did a lot of that on Horror Stories, the color palette.”
She also explained that there are quite a few things on the “business side” that fall under her responsibilities as well.
“So I’m usually one of the first ones brought onto a project before the DP. Obviously, the director is on at that point, but I tend to be one of the first ones brought on,” she said. “And so I hire everybody in the art department. So that includes construction, paint, props, set deck… So I hire all of those keys and then they hire their teams below. And then I manage all of those departments throughout the process, throughout the season or the film, whatever the project is. And I do that through budgetary means, through logistical challenges that arise. So that’s the business side of it.”
We sat down with McCarney and had her walk us through some of the creative processes behind the production design of American Horror Stories, from what it was like creating new worlds for each episode while staying true to the larger universe as well as some specific details about the episode “Ba’al” and some of her favorite sets from the season overall.
ComicBook.com: The American Horror Story universe, in general, is so popular and so very iconic in a lot of ways. There are a lot of things that are automatically identifiable for fans, but also American Horror Stories is kind of its own interesting things. Each episode of the regular universe is set in one place so you have a continuous feel, theme, look, palette. American Horror Stories is different each episode. How do you approach a project like American Horror Stories where it’s part of something so iconic, but also will be different at every turn?
Eve McCarney: Good question. What was nice about the series is that we started tying into the main series. So our first two episodes were Murder House and it was really a throwback to season one. So that gave us a template to work from. We have the house, we have the location. We wanted to stay true to season one. Our first look in the house when the family first moved in was these sort of things that were very similar to what the Harmons had, as though the house hadn’t been touched in 10 years since the Harmons had moved out. That was the working theory. So that gave us a nice baseline for what that first beat should look like. And then the fun part was coming up with, how does the house evolve under this new family and what is their style and their decor? And so that’s how we move through it with that.
And then the teenage daughter being our main character in this budding psychopathic. It was really enabled me to have fun and play with how her room changed from Violet to her and what that looked like and how I could play with metaphor and character development and alluding to that within her space and how that would transform it. So that was a lot of fun. So for the first two, we had this template to follow and we were leaning heavily on the nostalgia of season one. Once we hit episode three, it was a new ball game. So three, four, five, six were completely different stories. Seven, we actually went back, but we still had some additional stuff in there too.
Luckily, I had done an anthology series before this so I was used to the different story every episode so I knew how to manage it. You just delve into the story. I would do my mood boards. I would come up with ideas. “Drive In” episode, we were heavily leaning into the eighties. So I did a primary palette. We had the drive-in, so we really leaned on a lot of eighties nostalgia in that with the horror memorabilia in Larry’s trailer and the Rabbit Rabbit poster that I made and all of these kinds of things.
Then we get into “The Naughty List” and that was, you know, a Christmas Story. And that was about a house and it was about TikTok users and Santa so we had a tie in the holidays. We had to find the house, which took a while because it was such a big part of the story that it had to be perfect. We did find it. And Ryan approved it so that was great.
And then “Ba’al”, 105, was a completely different story, a little more mature, about fertility, and obviously the demon. So it was in a very different palette. Everything was tone on tone so that was completely different. And then “Feral”, national park, missing people, a missing kid, a little bit of Big Foot lore, you have these cannibals. So the bone totem was my favorite thing I designed in that. That was super fun to make. So usually I take my cues from scripts. I read the script and I come up with ideas and then we have a concept meeting with Ryan. And he’ll give us his ideas for how he sees it. And that’s really our guide. He has specific ideas about, not everything, it’ll just be a couple of things, but he’ll give you a very specific directive and then you play within that in talking with the executive producer, John Gray, and then also the director of the episode. So Ryan is involved in how the vision shapes up from the beginning, which is really helpful.
One of the things that I really loved in general about all the episodes, but specifically “Ba’al” was sometimes the look and the feel of the episode doesn’t quite visually align right away with the story. Especially in “Ba’al”, it was almost a false sense of security, visually speaking. That storyline gets dark, but there’s such a beautiful light and airy palette to it. How do you look at a script for something with that dark fertility, demons storyline, and come back with light and airy?
Well, they’re a young couple and with means, and she’s an heiress, was basically the premise. It’s kind of alluded to. So the idea was, what is a young thirties couple, what does their house look like? We decided early on, we did not want… We looked at old Spanish-style mansions, like Hummingbird Ranch, where there’s a lot of dark wood and you’ve got the terracotta floors. And he instantly said, “We’re not going to do that. We’ve seen that a million times. She’s not moving into her grandfather’s place. This is her place. She has the money that she has cultivated this space.”
So right away, we were looking at trends in decor and fashion for this time and what we came up with was tone on tone and lots of creams and beiges. And it was a thing that Ryan really wanted and it really lends itself well to a contrast, whenever you see the demon or the totem. It really stood out and the scene with the ritual. So we played around with a couple of different things and landed on the tone on tone. And it was a group thing between John Gray and Ryan and myself and our director so it wasn’t the obvious choice. And we did consider what you would expect, which would be the darker wood, paneled rooms, and shadow. And we decided to do something different.
Yeah. I wouldn’t have guessed giant demon with all the light and airy and the Crate & Barrel of it all.
Exactly. That was a fun one to play around with because you’re right, it doesn’t lend itself to what you would expect. And I think that’s the goal a lot of times with this series and I think with the Ryan Murphy world in general. He’s always looking to push boundaries, and design is so important to that world. It is at the front of the line, it’s so paramount. It’s really about design kind of above all else to a point. Obviously, the story’s very important as well. But you see it in American Horror Story as well, where everything is just very beautiful. So one of my biggest challenges was just staying true to the flagship series and trying to keep that level of design active through each episode, even though each episode was its own episode with different locations to build. And we were supposed to shoot in eight days and we shot one in eight days. The rest were between nine and 15. So it gave me only about 10 days to prep in between.
I know this is going to be like asking you to pick between your children, and I always hate when I have to ask a creative person to do this, but looking at your work on American Horror Stories and all of it just being so detailed and so incredible, is there any one thing that if I had to say, “Eve, I need you to pick a favorite and you need to do it now.” What would you say your favorite piece or set that you worked on for the series would be?
The Halloween carnival from the second episode.
And what makes that your favorite?
So it was very challenging. It was very difficult, but we pulled it off, so there’s an accomplishment there. I would say, we were supposed to do a Halloween dance at a school. That’s how it was scripted. About three weeks out, we found out that it was changing to the best Halloween attraction in Los Angeles. That’s a pretty big pivot for what that is. And so we built the maze. Within the Halloween carnival, I’m including the maze as well, which we built on stage.
So we built the maze on stage, then we used the rock features at the old zoo to incorporate the entrance and exit so it all tied it together. And then I had designed this big skull head to be an entrance for our maze. But since the maze is now at Griffith Park at the old zoo, we have this skull that was sculpted. So I used that and made a hayride entrance, and it was a perfect bookend for the event. We had three days to set it up. Actually, two days, if you’re talking about all the staging and stuff. So it was a big push for everybody on our team. But it just exactly matched the concept art I did. I designed these pre-show vignettes.
It’s interesting, because, in the final cut of episode two, you actually don’t see nearly as much of it as I did in the dailies or as was actually there. So it’s always a little heartbreaking when that happens, but I was just so happy with the scale, the way it looked, the freak show performance that we were able to cultivate, the environment that I created for that. We had a 30-foot cage with fire breathers in it. We had some food stuff, we had the freak show vignette. We had the skull at the end. We had the rock faces. The DP did all this really cool lighting in the rock faces. So I was very happy with it.
And then the maze itself was really fun. And the very last scene where Ruby and Scarlet are together in that doctor’s office, that’s a throwback to season one, the 1929 doctor’s office at the Murder House. So it’s just a little subtle tie-in. And I know that. Most people probably don’t know that, but it was just really fun to create and design.
I also really love Scarlett’s second look to her room. The wallpaper I chose has these little faces and these silver circles, but it was black and it had this texture and the silver circle felt very bonded to like, and the faces felt like they could hide her victims. And so I felt there was some really cool layering there. And then we did a whole thing with butterflies because she’s transforming and it’s a metamorphosis. Because she had this thing with butterflies and we carried that into the seventh episode. When she moves into the condo, she attacks a butterfly.
Just those little types of things. There were lots of cuts. The drive-in was such a big job to transform that drive-in. If you saw what it looked like before, you’d be like, “Oh, my God.” I’m putting stuff up on my site now to be able to show a lot of the transformation, but what it looked like… And I remember John Gray saying to me, “It looks like a prison, like we can’t come up with a concept that we can show to Ryan.” And I did and we pulled it off and it really played and felt and looked very good. And the projection room we built on stage and I was very happy with how that came out. So I was fortunate, I did a lot of really great work on this and I had a really good team. Everybody worked really hard and we all were just in it together, which just made such a difference.
American Horror Stories is now streaming on FX on Hulu.