“Fatal Attraction” Production Designer Nina Ruscio on Creating Design With an Edge
The famed 1987 film Fatal Attraction, starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, made its way to the small screen with Joshua Jackson and Lizzy Caplan as the unfaithful couple tearing each other’s lives apart. Reinvigorated by Alexandra Cunningham (Physical), the psychological thriller unravels over eight gripping episodes, taking place 15 years after Dan (Jackson) is paroled from prison for the murder of Alex (Caplan). The story dips between the past and present as Dan tries to prove his innocence and reconnect with his family and wife, Beth (Amanda Peet). Its slow burn shares similar erotic tones to the original but weaves in modern commentary on privilege, mental health, and family dynamics.
In creating the visual style, production designer Nina Ruscio (Animal Kingdom, The Flight Attendant) curated a tantalizing look that paired moody tones and contemporary offerings which subliminal subdue you into the story. Here, the production designer talks about what went into detailing the visual flair with show creators, director Silver Tree (ep 1-5), and cinematographer Cort Fey (The Flight Attendant).
For any new series, establishing the look is always the challenge. What were the conversations early on with show creators in creating the palette?
I have had the honor and privilege of working with Silver Tree on three different series, and collaborating with Cort Fey is a joy. The palette of the series was born from our goal to differentiate the past, 2005, from the present, 2023. We felt it was essential to navigate time subtly with a palette change rather than a cinematically aggressive applied technique. For 2008, we chose a palette inspired by the seventies – golds, greens, chocolates, khakis, creams, and butter yellow, with pops of teal and red sparingly used to heighten emotional beats. Audiences are predisposed to think of these colors as the past. For 2023, we used cooler tones of blue, grey, neutrals, mushroom, and aquas with careful orchestration of pink and yellow to pop visual moments. It was marvelous to have this aesthetic spine to make choices together.
There is the original film’s source material, but the series has its own look. I’m curious if you hinted at any motifs in the series based on the 1987 thriller?
The series stands on its own, and yet, I hope that the design Easter Eggs pay homage to the original film. Alex’s personal space, the loft, is a seminal thread that connects the film and series. Placing her in a downtown loft echoes the film’s original choice of the meat market area of NYC. The seedy hallways and elevator we built resonate in a timeless, noir-like way. Using a blanched palette, 50 shades of white, felt like a tribute and also a metaphor for her psychological state – moving from Seattle to present her life as a world she has under control, a clean slate. By juxtaposition, placing her in a space of romance and escapist fantasy above a downtown Los Angeles movie theater expresses the heartbreak of this character. She tries and always fails to succeed emotionally. Also, I could not resist a clawfoot tub in her bathroom as a subtextual specter of the horror of the original film.
Did you have a guiding light in how you approached the series?
It felt very important to understand the differences and similarities between Dan and Alex’s lives. Their lives are both at powerful moments of promise. We root for Alex to start fresh in a promising new world for her to grow out and away from the bitter aspects and traps of her past. Dan’s life is on an upswing. As king of the hill, he presumes the judgeship is his. The family is upgrading from a starter home to an idyllic forever home. A few terribly wrong choices set off an avalanche of tragic events that ruins both of their lives.
Dan and Beth’s home is this safe haven until it’s not. Was there any thought in changing its look as the story progresses into its darker themes?
The moments of collapse are far more poignant when everything is cloaked in the idealism and perfection of an aspirational life. Setting Dan, Beth, and Ellen in the beautiful life becomes contrapuntal to what really happens. Even the pool – a playful symbol of the good life – becomes the larger bathtub of horror.
Can you talk about how the design of the courtroom?
Many people don’t know that the courtroom, court hallways, and elevators were all a full build. It’s a sprawling set with a lot of real estate, and we wanted to make it from scratch to control blocking geographies and upgrade the look. It was essential to set Dan within the grandeur and normalcy of the municipal world. The timeless midcentury aesthetic was to feel both universal in its appeal and groundingly common. We created hallways of marble and a frieze throughout all the court corridors embedded with tiles in the palette defining our 2008 world. You’ve been in this world, and it should feel familiar. When Dan risks all—jeopardizing his work, his life, and his family—starting from such a high place intensifies the tragic downward spiral.
Another set that carries a unique style is the deposition room that opens the pilot. It casts a striking bluish-gray monotone color palette. Was there any intention behind it?
The color was extremely intentional. It becomes the flagship for the colder palette shift we plant in everyone’s mind for 2023. Dan and his dishonest confession are the most important elements in the room. It is an institutional, municipal world void of the colors and mid-century warmth of the court world we associate with the younger Dan.
Can you talk about distinguishing the design of Alex’s home from the rest of the series?
I spoke of many of the hyper-real aspects of Alex’s world. She lives in romanticized perfection with a space reflecting her inner state of mind. The backdrop has an amazing view of downtown Los Angeles—the city of dreamers—that sets her in the optimistic future of her life. It would have been the coolest place anyone could live in those affordable days of the resuscitation of this city’s heart. Toggling between noir cinematic romanticism and gritty realism, every choice in that full build was made to evoke in the viewer a sense of place and her psychological state.
In the episode Medial Woman (S1E5), Alex and Dan have an intense altercation. During it, the surroundings subliminal immerse further into the moment. How did you DP Julio Macat collaborate to get the most out of that scene?
After Dan’s ultimatum at night, in the light of day, there is a pan that lyrically explores the loft space in a quiet, unsettling way—beginning on the bathtub with the psychic weight of the 1987 film echoing, moving to views of the city of dreams, through the kitchen and bedroom with nothing out of place, and the camera finally rests on the disturbing specter on the steps. No Alex. Design-wise, this moment is the epitome of horror and the disease of the series. One small harrowing stain, a tragically rotten center of uncertainty surrounded by what could have been a great life for everyone.
You’ve worked on a number of films and great television shows. For those entering your field, or even your peers, what’s something you’ve learned to never leave home without?
An inquisitive mind and a willingness to see, really see, everything you are looking at. Every moment of your life is a learning opportunity to enrich the library of your mind. From the seediest of dive bar bathrooms to the glory of the most exquisite cathedral to the experience of how a natural environment makes you feel—all of these are resources for you to draw upon in your future when you are designing. Life is a constant feast. I want all the authenticity, details, oddities, beauties, and uglies at my mind’s disposal at all times. To set anything in place, into a world that visually evokes what is happening for the characters and the story, is my unique privilege as a production designer.
Fatal Attraction is available to stream on Paramount+.
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Featured image: Joshua Jackson and Lizzy Caplan in “Fatal Attraction.” Courtesy Paramount Plus.