In the HBO limited series, The Undoing, Nicole Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a successful Manhattan psychologist whose life is turned upside down when the parent of another child at her own kid’s elite school is found dead in the parent’s artist studio and Kidman’s husband, played by Hugh Grant, comes under suspicion for the crime. The miniseries, based on the 2014 novel You Should Have Known, received critical acclaim for the two actors’ performances, as well as for that of Donald Sutherland, who plays Kidman’s imperious father. As the plot may indicate, the lavish setting of most of the series’ six episodes—which includes spacious Manhattan apartments, a preppy school, a beach house, and a courtroom—lends itself to interesting production values that can be expected to be serious contenders when Emmy Nominations are announced next month.
Last week, Below the Line spoke to the show’s Production Designers, Lester Cohen, Doug Huszti, & Keri Lederman, about how they dressed up the various tri-state area locations they used for the shoot. All have significant production design experience, with Cohen collaborating with Lederman on the award-winning TV mini-series The Night Of…, and having worked on other high-octane shows such as White Collar. For his part, Huszti was the Art Director for Woody Allen’s Café Society. This is to say that the trio has a deep resume of experience with designing and decorating the sets of rich Manhattan socialites.
Read on to learn more about how they went about their design work for The Undoing.
Below the Line: How did the three of you divide up your responsibilities for this miniseries?
Lester Cohen: [Laughing] Well. I ask for things and they do it? [Laughing] No, as a set designer, I assembled a team to carry out the vision of the director [Susanne Bier]. I was fortunate to have worked with Keri in the past, which was a great comfort, and Doug has a tremendous amount of experience. The process was seamless for the three of us.
BTL: What was the vision? Was the genesis the novel itself, or something else?
Cohen: The novel is definitely set in the insular, privileged world of Upper East Side in New York. Susanne told me not to read the novel, which is the first thing I then immediately did. But the thrust of the novel is more about Grace Fraser rebuilding her life after the tragedy, whereas our focus was more, as the title suggests, on the undoing itself, so that made it a bit of a different focus in terms of the settings.
BTL: How did you achieve showing that?
Cohen: There were a lot of discussions with [Cinematographer] Anthony [Dod Mantle] about having it be a world that always comes in and out of focus, thematically and visually. So for us, it was about building up certain expectations of the character—especially with Grace’s home, an idyllic house that is perfectly set up, and then it all falls apart. We did not want to show any cracks in that façade too early on, because if we had done it, you would not have gone six episodes without knowing who did it. So we were careful to make sure the house was always very well-manicured and taken care of.
BTL: Keri, what was the favorite set you worked on and why?
Keri Lederman: The Fraser house, because it was warm and cozy. Also, I really liked the work that Lester and Doug did –they transformed it by moving the kitchen into the room that was actually the dining room, from an empty townhouse on East 58th Street. So for me, decorating that was very fun. I also really enjoyed the artist’s studio, it was freer and crazier, so it was fun decorating that, too.
BTL: What about Grace’s father’s setting–was that on location or constructed?
Lederman: That was in two places. Some of it was built on stage, and the other part of it was an actual apartment on 5th Avenue on the Park. We had a great location scout who worked really hard on finding us many options to consider.
BTL: Why did you select the location you did for the Fraser House?
Cohen: The most important thing was that Grace could walk outside and be in the park, that was an important part of her character, and also that she would be able to quickly get to her father’s place, which was on 5th Avenue. The existing residences that we saw did not fit, so the empty one was the best for our purposes.
BTL: So how did you furnish it?
Lederman: We sourced it from the entire tri-state area. The bed was from a local designer in Red Hook, Brooklyn. A lot of the living room was from shops in Hudson, N.Y. The dining area came from Connecticut places, and we also had a lot from Asbury Park, New Jersey. So we really hit all three states. Based on the conversations with Lester, and on the colors that were very important to Lester and Susanna, we had warm tones for the Frasers, mystic gray. The idea was to convey the warmth of their family with wood tones and oranges. That is what guided my search and selection.
BTL: Doug, you have been very quiet–tell us about your work and what you enjoyed the most.
Doug Huszti: It was pretty wonderful working on spaces and locations that Lester found. The best for me was Grace’s father’s apartment and reconstructing it, with the piano, and the fireplace. We developed that over a long period of time–that was a great pleasure because we don’t always have that much time to consider these things–and then moving some of those details to the set. It was also a pleasure to do the opposite of that, and having the story drive the creative process, like the apartment for the artist in her family.
BTL: What about all the police and law stuff–police precinct, courthouse, lawyers’ offices–how did that come from?
Cohen: Well, the police precinct was actually a downtown boys’ and girls’ school. Of course, based on the story, the precinct is supposed to be in a Latin neighborhood uptown, because it’s near to the artist’s apartment, but we found one downtown in another Latin neighborhood.
For the court, we used the courts at 100 Centre Street. Though the courtroom itself and the hallways were done in the studio, we used the exterior of the real courthouses. By the way, I really loved our courtroom sets. We used 100 Centre Street as a point of departure, but the courtrooms there are not very glamorous or visually interesting. The parts that are good like the judge’s benches and rails we of course used. But this was the big stage of our show, so we wanted something as grand as the story to reinforce the stakes of what is going on for those characters. So we designed this very tall and very elegant courtroom, and we dressed it up a bit.
BTL: What about the school? Set or location?
Cohen: A seminary orthodox in the Upper East Side. We really liked the courtyard it had. Even the insides were rooms at the seminary that Keri dressed, including the lobby and the headmaster’s office.
Lederman: We did furniture for those two–the door was really narrow! It was a very old building with weird staircases and narrow staircases. We did a lot of window treatments.
BTL: Let’s end with awards season–what are your expectations and feelings going in?
Huszti: It’s icing on the cake. It’s pretty wonderful. I was lucky just to work with these two on the show.
Lederman: I never thought this show would get this much recognition, but once you see it, you understand why. It was a lot of hard work.
Cohen: Our producing team assembled a fantastic group of people on both sides of the camera. It’s not always that you have the opportunity to do something like this with this level of talent, especially in the technical group. It paid off.
The entirety of The Undoing can be viewed on HBO Max.
All photos courtesy HBO.