How “Morbius” Production Designer Stefania Cella Creates a Brooding Vibe
Stefania Cella has suddenly become one of Marvel’s favorite production designers, more than happy to sink her teeth into Jared Leto’s much anticipated rogue scientist saga Morbius (opening April 1). She also designed the studio’s Moon Knight (March 30) and, at the moment, Cella’s in Atlanta working on Marvel’s much-anticipated Blade reboot.
Immersing herself in comic book IP has been “challenging,” says Cella, who’s quick to acknowledge a complete lack of experience in the superhero genre when director Daniel Espinosa first approached her about working on Morbius. “I was coming into a territory I did not know but after a little while, my fear — ‘Oh my God, do I have to do a superhero?’ — went away. No. I need to do a man. It’s like when Christopher Nolan did Batman Begins, he made him very human.”
Before catching on with Marvel nearly four years ago, Cella studied acting in her native Milan, honed her design skills alongside director Paolo Sorrentino in his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty, moved to Los Angeles, put her stamp on Johnny Depp period Mafia thriller Black Mass and took a big swing with Alexander Payne’s high concept Downsizing, which had her overseeing the construction of humongous microwave oven that made Matt Damon look like he’s ten inches tall.
It’s a wide range of work filled with flawed characters and in that sense, Cella sees Morbius as sharing common ground with her previous films. She explains, “In making Morbius, Daniel wanted to be surrounded by people who understood what it meant for our Michael Morbius character to have doubts, to make mistakes, to be someone who’s anchored in the real world.”
Speaking from Atlanta, Cella goes deep on scouting London for New York, putting together Morbius’ spooky container ship laboratory and looking at “The Great Gatsby” as inspiration for the villain Milo (Matt Smith)’s stupendous Manhattan brownstone.
You’ve designed some terrific movies but nothing on the scale of Morbius. Did you feel well-suited to the superhero genre?
The reason I was chosen to do Morbius was exactly that I had never done this before. Daniel wanted someone who wasn’t familiar with the comic book world and could be a more realistic world. Movies like Black Mass and White Boy Rick were dark in a certain way, very underground, and certainly, the films I’ve made with Paolo Sorrentino can be surreal, but they’re also very real. I think that’s why Daniel thought of me for Morbius. He wanted it to be dark but also very real.
Unlike superhero franchises that have been around for a while, this is the first Morbius movie. Did you find that appealing?
Oh yes, because it’s a new character coming to the screen, which meant everything was going to be built [from scratch]. His place in society and where he lives, where he operates, and why – – it was all very open. I came in six months early to visualize stuff when the studio was still figuring out: “How bad is he? How dark is he?” It wasn’t like “This is it.” It was “Let’s figure it out together.”
You put together a presentation, Daniel liked it, Marvel hired you and then you wind up scouting locations in England. What was that like?
At first, it was supposed to be [filmed] somewhere in the United States. Then the producers were like “Can you please go and see if we could do it in England?” The first time I went to London in July 2018, I saw this new building near the Barbican. I fell in love with one detail in that building which carried through to the entire idea of Morbius’ lab.
It was the tile, a very modern use of timeless old material. I didn’t want to use it without asking permission, so I went to the architect’s firm and said I want to use this detail in our movie and he went “Oh my god, I’ll give you all the pieces you want!” That’s how it works sometimes with production design. You don’t know what you’re looking for until you see it.
You found UK locations to swap in for New York City. Where did you shoot those those scenes?
We went to Manchester, which looks very much like DUMBO [Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass]. We also found a neo-classical house in England pretending to be in Greece because thank God English colonialism architecture was everywhere in Europe, including the Mediterranean, where Morbius lives as a child. Most of the time for me, going around and scouting is what makes me understand what something should look like.
That container ship where Morbius conducts his experiments looks like an intriguing environment. How did you put that together?
I went to Liverpool and asked to go inside one of these gigantic container ships. I took pictures and we built it like that at Pinewood Studios, but a little bit smaller. And for the corridor [sequences], we shot that in an old World War II battleship docked on the River Thames.
Morbius’ rival Milo, played by Matt Smith, has a whole villain vibe going on in his Upper East Side apartment. What did you want to express about Milo through your design?
That Milo is bored, he’s sophisticated, he collects a lot of stuff without any particular interest. He’s the Great Gatsby of our time. It’s also about this fear of dying. SPOILER ALERT: Having a terminal disease, Milo’s going around the world collecting things before he doesn’t know when he is going to die.
What inspired the décor in Milo’s home?
One day early in prep I went to the Tate Modern in London and there was this fantastic painting. It was a pink wall as if somebody took a painting away there was a faded area, but it was actually a proper art installation. So we did the walls of Milo’s apartment with all these faded areas, you might not even notice, and then we gave him this chic, go-around-the-world type of house with African pieces.
Did you have any other references?
I looked at The Book of Chic by the famous interior designer Miles Redd, who collected all these pictures around New York. I just mashed them all together. And also, Elaine’s, the famous Manhattan restaurant, had black and red zebra [patterned] wallpaper. I used that but different colors.
Very much a one-percenter environment.
One percenter, yes. I went fully Vanderbilt—Anderson Cooper Vanderbilt—New York.
Your production design helps sell that dramatic showdown at the end. What was your approach there?
We went from above the city down into the belly of the city. There had been talk early on about having the ending take place at Central Park. Daniel and I were like: “What?” It just wouldn’t make sense because we wanted it well-defined, to be at night, and very dirty.
In an era when green screen backgrounds play such a big role, it’s great to see so many real locations and built sets. Is that kind of physical foundation important to you as a designer?
I feel very strongly that there needs to be a balance between building things on a backlot that you can intercut with good locations. Twenty percent of the production design is about finding the right places to balance everything out. On Downsizing, we built everything, so that was my first big one, and I built a lot for Paolo. Then last year I did Moon Knight in Budapest for Marvel, which was probably the biggest [build]. But I still push to shoot on locations. We went to Jordan for Moon Knight because I don’t want to confine myself to just the soundstage.
Working on Morbius, did you get a chance to spend time with Jared Leto?
He’s fantastic. We talked a couple of times when we were prepping but once filming begins Jared stays in character so you just need to stay away and leave him alone. I’m not the type to go over and chit-chat.
You’re in Atlanta now working on the Blade reboot. Can you talk about what you’re going for as far as the general spirit of the project?
I don’t think I can. I don’t think I can say anything. I can’t. Except, you know, it’s Mahershala Ali. He’s going to be the coolest of the cool.
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Featured image: Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) in Columbia Pictures’ MORBIUS.