Just in time for the spooky season, Hulu has debuted a unique new anthology series, Into the Dark. We’ve already discussed the ambitious task the series has undertaken — to transform every conceivable holiday into something truly horrifying. The first episode in the series is appropriately Halloween-themed, of course. Titled “The Body,” the hour and a half premiere episode follow a fastidious hitman trying to dispose of his latest victim on Halloween night, and the unlucky young group of friends he encounters along the way.
One thing which stands out throughout this inciting chapter is the elaborate production design and tone throughout. I spoke with the series’ production designer, Cecil Gentry, who has been in the business since the late 90s. His creative eye is clear as he sets out to tell the story of “The Body” through a striking visual narrative. Gentry’s insight proves there is a lot more that goes on artistically behind the scenes, and ultimately at the forefront of the camera, to establish the exact mood of a series like Into the Dark.
The entire episode is quite an adventure for everyone involved. When it came down to handling all of the unique locations these characters find themselves in, Gentry maintains that it all stems from careful planning. It hinged on having a solid structure in place, and by following the shooting schedule to a tee. Otherwise, he said, “you’re having to re-shoot and pick up shots. The only way to successfully do it is to show up with a specific plan, and to have it all shot-listed.” Working with 7 to 10 page days as they could have been especially problematic for an inexperienced director, he explained. Gentry praises their “fantastic art director” who put the whole schedule together. He emphasized that it was quite an involved process, with all the teams collaborating.
What’s crucial is understanding exactly how a production designer sets out to create, or emphasize, the desired tone of a film or series. For instance, “The Body” has a great sense of spookiness as well as humor throughout the episode. Gentry says that the director and production designer come up with these moments together, which can originate off the page. They “talk about what sort of elements they’d like to inject” or about the easter egg they plan on hiding on set to best evoke a particular emotion. In this case, they wanted to effectively “introduce that irony” — as anyone who’s seen the episode can attest to the ironic themes throughout its runtime.
Whatever is on the page, I’m there to tell that visually.
Cecil Gentry goes on to highlight every aspect involved with the creative process, “from props, to set dressing, to construction. I have an amazing department: my set decorator is amazing, and my art director and I are a pretty strong team together. I’m only as good as my team — it’s important to have a team that supports you.” He emphasized the importance of structure again, saying a team should be dialed in and focused, understanding “the designer’s needs and [his] eye.” A truly cohesive and effective team is one that “puts stuff in front of you that they know you’ll vibe with.” This cohesion is especially crucial considering the shortness of time involved with shooting such episodes.
As previously mentioned in earlier articles, this episode is adapted from an original horror short by the same title. Regarding how this more previous film influenced Gentry’s tackling of the overall visual look of this episode, there were some exciting challenges involved with the adaptation. The original was shot in the UK, with its opening scene being appropriately “baroque and old English-style.” It was a “completely different aesthetic, so this [“The Body”] being an American tale, we wanted to sexy it up a bit and take it away from all that.” Following this revelation, Cecil told the episode’s director that “we could do it that way if we wanted to go in that direction,” but that the much “younger and [more] enthusiastic cast” gave him as the production designer some pretty transformative ideas about a potential new direction.
One of the most distinct differences in the original short and the episode regarding their opening acts came as a result of Gentry’s idea that they should paint the hitman’s victim as wealthy, still, but with a “minimalistic yet expensive” aesthetic. The production designer argues that the story is pretty much the same, but that the design is entirely different. It’s also important to consider who’s watching, and in this case, viewers tuning into Hulu’s streaming service are likely from the same generation as the characters portrayed in “The Body.”
I asked if horror films and thrillers, in particular, brought about the most inspiration for someone in such a creative seat. For Gentry, it’s all an inspiration. “It’s all art — I pulled from literature and photography and visual art.” However, he says that he does in fact “really like this genre” as it gives him an extra special added inspiration, something that speaks to the core of his being as an artist. “This genre inspires inspiration… I just watched a Picasso documentary as well, and that’s mad inspiration for me. I love geometry and cubism — there’s a lot to pull from. There is a lot to pull from, in fact, that’s been around for a long time. I’m a bit of a shutterbug as well, and will often pull out my Nikon and go around town to shoot.”
Into the Dark, in particular, being a non-episodic series, allows for the production designer to create from scratch each time. Cecil Gentry revealed that he designed 10 of the 12 episodes in the year-long anthology series. Going further into the kind of creative freedom an anthology series provides, as opposed to a more typical television show, Gentry explains how this can be both a blessing and a challenge. “Other shows you get to pick up where you left off. Each episode [in Into the Dark] centers around a holiday, and we’ve gotten more creative with that.” Gentry let us in on the upcoming holidays the show will feature, saying there will be an April Fools Day and even a Back to School Day episode. He also wanted to emphasize that not every holiday’s chapter will feature the same comedic elements as did “The Body,” so we shouldn’t expect the same tone throughout the series.
“The one we’re about to shoot now is the April Fools. The only challenge is that you don’t get the ability to crossboard. If you’re in episode one and episode six and episode twelve, then you’re going back to the same location. But on this kind of series you don’t, you go to the location and shoot it out, but you’re not going back. It’s quite costly to go back to the location.” He said that the shooting for “The Body” spanned 18 days, while the forthcoming New Year’s day shoot was about 15.
Gentry’s final details about the project, and about the series in general, set up a pretty optimistic outlook for fans of this initial episode. “This is the first one out of the gate, and everybody from Blumhouse is amazing.” He goes on to say that he and the rest of the team continue to have incredible support from Hulu, as well. “When you’re being produced by one of the best horror houses in town, for Hulu, you’ve got a couple of levels to go through. They all have to be happy. It all has to be signed off on and improved. And they seem happy with the work I’ve turned in.”