Stefania Cella’s career is growing along with the size and scope of the projects she has been working on as a production designer. Her early credits include fairly straightforward films and television shows such as Once and Again, John Q, Maniac, The Great Beauty, and Black Mass, but somewhere along the way, she got a taste of working on an ambitious, VFX-heavy show with Threshold, which ran for one season way back in 2005. Lately, Cella has been plying her craft in star-studded studio movies such as Downsizing, Lucy in the Sky, and Morbius, not to mention the just-concluded Disney+ series Moon Knight.
“Downsizing was very big,” Cella said during a recent Zoom call with Below the Line. “[Moon Knight] was very big. The scale was amazing and the style of opportunity was amazing. So I would say it was right up there with Downsizing.”
Moon Knight, of course, is Marvel’s six-part limited series based on the comic book of the same name from writer Doug Moench and artist Don Perlin. Oscar Isaac starred as Marc Spector/Moon Knight and Steven Grant/Mr. Knight, who must contend with dissociative identity disorder while he serves as the human avatar for Khonshu, the Egyptian moon god. Oh, and he’s chased all over by Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), the powerful leader of a cult-like group who metes out punishment before crimes are committed and covets a scarab that he believes Steven/Marc possesses.
The show’s action unfolds all over the world, notably in London and Cairo, though production took place primarily in Hungary, with additional filming in Slovenia, Jordan, and Atlanta, Georgia. Cella oversaw the creation of several remarkable sets, among them a Chamber of Gods, a burial chamber, apartment blocks, and more. Here, Cella addresses how she pulled it off:
Below the Line: Prior to production, did you read the comic books, or did you just go by the scripts?
Stefania Cella: I did read the comics immediately, before I had the interview, to try and understand what was the ground. When you interview, you don’t have a script. I did read the comic. It’s a very collaborative ground when you’re working with Marvel. It’s very inclusive. It’s refreshing, in a way, because we don’t feel that we are just being given marching orders. It’s your input. It’s taken into consideration and important. So, that’s why I love to work with the studio, because it is a completely different experience from others.
BTL: Moon Knight is part historical and part fantastical. When you were looking for places to shoot and building sets, how did you balance being historically accurate with creating something otherworldly?
Cella: The comics were a big inspiration because in the comics, the crossing of the two worlds — of reality to surreality — so easily, with… nonchalance. They’re stepping out of the subway, and they are in a tomb. There is a pyramid in the middle of Fifth Avenue, with a mountain of sand. So, we really did it instinctively. I did try to have Cairo and London be very realistic. Then, in progress with the story, you start to have a twist. So, you start to add the details of this reality here and there, but the starting point is certainly the ground.
BTL: Mohamed Diab, who directed most of the episodes that you worked on, is Egyptian. How well did he know his history? What did he want to see from you? I’m sure he must have said, ‘No, that’s not what it looks like,’ or ‘Yes, you nailed it.’
Cella: He said I nailed it [laughs]. We went to Egypt together. Immediately, we went for a week to Egypt. He was there at the time. I went to visit him and we went around. Sometimes, there were certain things that needed to be driven, no matter how realistic they were, and that’s where our collaboration [happened]. I was saying, ‘Okay, that’s the way it is, but if we do it this way, we’re now losing this and we can accomplish that.’
BTL: A show like Moon Knight requires so much communication between departments because there’s so much going on and so many elements are integrated, especially production design, cinematography, and visual effects. How closely did you work with the other department heads to make sure you were all on the same page?
Cella: The studio is intentionally extremely inclusive. Every conversation is being shared by everybody. So, we are always together to make a decision. During the pandemic, we were on Zoom all together a lot. It was a process there. It’s a very inclusive process. Meghan [Kasperlik, costume designer], Greg [Middleton, director of photography] Sean [Andrew Faden, production visual effects supervisor], because of the pandemic, and being a foreigner, and being in Hungary, we [all] became very good friends. The relationship was solid.
BTL: How hard is it to watch a set, something like the Chamber of the Gods, that you’ve spent such a long time designing and building, be torn down and vanish at the end of production?
Cella: Oh, please. It’s heartbreaking. They’re my babies. It’s heartbreaking. Also, what’s more heartbreaking is the speed at which they take it down. It’s amazing. It takes three or four months to build it and it takes 10 days to take it down. And the waste… We tried to reuse a lot. We tried to be very green-friendly and we reused a lot of wood, scaffolding, [and] platforms. We also saved a lot of statues. A lot of the statues are somewhere in storage for who knows. But they are. So, we are not always tearing down.
BTL: Tell me about your team. Who could you not have done your job on this show without?
Cella: All of them. No one is spared. I’m serious. Especially painters and plasterers. There was heavy paint and plaster. The sculptures, every single statue in the museum, every single face in the Chamber of the Gods… Cairo was plastered, too. All the art directors designed this with me. Veronique Melery is the best set decorator on the planet. She gave life to every set. So, certainly my crew.
BTL: What’s next for you, Stefania? Any more Marvel projects on the horizon or are you going to switch things up?
Cella: I can’t say.
BTL: People seem to think it will be another MCU project…
Cella: I hope they keep me forever.
Moon Knight is now streaming in its entirety on Disney+.