Production Designer John Paino Snags Dual Emmy Noms for “The Morning Show” and “Big Little Lies”

They might be rich and powerful, but that doesn’t mean the women of Big Little Lies and The Morning Show are content. Production designer John Paino made it his mission to create sleek environments that counterpoint the characters’ well-concealed inner turmoil.  His efforts for each series have nabbed him two Emmy nominations this year. “My contribution is mood and atmosphere and continuity,” says Paino. “A lot of design is about finding this sweet spot where something’s so realistic you don’t even bat an eye, but it still has a bit of dazzle and maybe hints at the theme of the show.”

Teamed with art director James Truesdale and set decorator Amy Well over the past five years, Paino knows his way around prestige dramas, having previously designed HBO shows The Leftovers and Sharp Objects. Speaking from his book-filled Brooklyn home, Paino details Big Little Lies’ character-driven architecture and explains how a visit to Good Morning America informed the fully-functioning set he created for The Morning Show.

Big Little Lies feels at times almost like so-called “shelter porn” because the characters have such beautiful homes. How do these sumptuous houses figure into the story? 

That’s one of the themes of the show. You have people living in these exquisite surroundings where it looks like they’re living the dream in Monterey, but internally, they’re not.

eason 2, episode 3, debut 6/23/19: Laura Dern, Jeffrey Nordling. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/HBO
Season 2, episode 3, debut 6/23/19: Laura Dern, Jeffrey Nordling. Photo: Jennifer Clasen/HBO

Each house seems to reflect the personality of its owner. How did you conceptualize Laura Dern’s spectacular beachfront mansion?

What you have with Laura’s character Renata is over the top flamboyance, especially with her staircase. This architect in the 1950s named Morris Lapidus designed the Flamingo Hotel and built a staircase that went nowhere. Tourists loved to walk down this grand staircase and have their picture taken. That’s what I loved about Renata’s house – it’s a bit tacky in a grandiose way.

Nicole Kidman’s Celeste also has a gorgeous home overlooking the ocean but like her character, it feels kind of isolated. Where did you find that house?

In Monterey, there are two or three miles along the coast they call the Champagne area, where the rich people live. Most of them don’t want you there, or else the houses are vacation rentals and they’re booked. But Nicole’s house was great because it felt secluded and had its own cove. Being close to the water, it has a sense of nature and history.

Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman)’s house in ‘Big Little Lies.’ Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline character has a nice Spanish Colonial-style home, but it’s not oceanfront property.

Reese is more conventional, like Martha Stewart, and she’s chasing the other two. With Renata’s house, you don’t even know where the family eats, whereas with Reese it’s all about family and having big dinners at the kitchen table, even though her family couldn’t be more divided.

Big Little Lies. Courtesy HBO
L-r: Kathryn Newton, Darby Camp, Adam Scott, and Reese Witherspoon in ‘Big Little Lies.’ Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie character lives in this gorgeous glass-walled cottage in the forest that I imagine all yoga teachers would love if they could afford it.

Bonnie’s amazing house in the woods is very much a reflection of her being a yoga teacher and being more spiritual than the rest of the folks. It has a bit of a hippie vibe. We found Bonnie’s place in Topanga Canyon [in Los Angeles County], which is kind of a hotbed of earth mothers. The houses for Laura and Reese we found in Malibu, and we built the interiors on the Sony lot in L.A.

Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz)’s house in ‘Big Little Lies.’ Photo: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

After Big Little Lies season two, you designed The Morning Show, which is all about this workplace populated by career-obsessed TV talents. How did you research the world of early morning network infotainment?

I went with Mimi Leder and a couple of producers on a tour of The Today Show and Good Morning America as they were putting on a live broadcast and there was such incredible pressure it was like being on a submarine. “Which story do we do, the bear coming out of the manhole cover, or the plane crash? What is NBC doing?” The people are intense. There’s a lot of angst and creativity involved and also technical prowess. We wanted our show to be based in reality so we built all of that – – the control booth, the hallways, the set – – on the Sony lot in L.A. It was all fully functional. We didn’t use any green screen.

L-r: Jennifer Aniston and Mark Duplass. Courtesy Apple.
L-r: Jennifer Aniston and Mark Duplass. Courtesy Apple.

The super-bright Morning Show graphics seems very much in line with actual TV morning fare. How did you arrive at your peppy palette?

We wanted the logo and the set to look as if you could be flicking the channel and see this and think “Oh yeah, it’s some morning show.” Morning. Sunrise. Yellow. Blue. Again? Maybe a rooster! Now I understand why these shows all follow the same [formula].

L-r: Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston in 'The Morning Show.' Courtesy Apple.
L-r: Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston in ‘The Morning Show.’ Courtesy Apple.

Jennifer Aniston stars as Morning Show co-anchor Alex and her dressing room looks very lived in. How did you personalize what might otherwise be a generic space? 

For Jen’s dressing room, we put a lot of ephemeral history up on the wall. I had someone make caricatures of the hosts. We made fan art. We visited The Today Show when Hoda was the host, and she had a couple of books, so we made a couple of books that Jen’s character had written when she was a journalist. We even had coffee cups with their caricatures. That stuff helps the actors because it helps the space feel real.

And the corridor connecting everything together?

I asked the writers to create a history for the UBA Network and created this timeline of milestones which we mounted on placards, behind Plexiglas, in this rather drab hallway. The Morning Show people are supposed to be America’s family but they haven’t been transparent at all., so the plexiglass is a little nod to this idea of so-called transparency.

The centerpiece of the broadcast is that podium desk-like thing where Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon stand. What’s that called?

The Teacup. It’s all curved Plexiglas shaped like a cup with a top. The only fabricators we could find to make the teacup are these people who build canopies for jet airplanes and space shuttles. We showed them the design, they did a mock-up and it worked.

The teacup on 'The Morning Show.' Courtesy Apple
The teacup on ‘The Morning Show.’ Courtesy Apple

Most of the action happens at the studio, but we occasionally see characters at home. How did you come up with that posh loft where Jennifer Aniston’s Alex lives?

We became enthralled with this Richard Meier skyscraper on the Hudson River in Manhattan. Alex’s home is her castle of solitude, all glass. We wanted to show that New York feel of living in a vertical city so we gave Alex 30-foot ceilings and built the interior on a soundstage in L.A.

Reese Witherspoon’s character Bradley Jackson rises from guest host to break-out star on The Morning Show. How did you mirror that trajectory in the hotel rooms where she stays?

We built Reese a business hotel room where the network sticks her for one night when she first gets to town. But then to seduce her [into staying] later, we put her in this fabulous boudoir-like space like you’d find in a NoMad Hotel. To me, that suite was like an opium den that should have Reese’s character saying, “Wow, I could get used to this!”

Featured image: Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston in ‘The Morning Show.’ Courtesy Apple


Hugh Hart

Hugh Hart has covered movies, television and design for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wired and Fast Company. Formerly a Chicago musician, he now lives in Los Angeles with his dog-rescuing wife Marla and their Afghan Hound.

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