How “Leave the World Behind” Production Designer Anastasia White Built a House for the End of the World
Leave the World Behind has five main characters. Four are human, and the other is the house where they find themselves holed up together as an apocalyptic event rages outside.
In the acclaimed 2020 novel by Rumaan Alam, the house has colorful interiors and a white picket fence. Not anymore. Sam Esmail, who wrote and directed the film, got Alam’s approval to use something more foreboding, according to production designer Anastasia White. The stately Long Island home that art director Amanda Sandford (Julia Roberts) rents for a getaway with her professor husband Clay (Ethan Hawke) and their two moody teenagers (Charlie Evans and Farrah Mackenzie) has the cold elegance of an Airbnb whose owners have eschewed any personal mementos. If the proprietor, G.H. “George” Scott (Mahershala Ali), hoped to remain unidentifiable, he’s out of luck. Not long after Amanda and Clay settle in, George and his daughter (Myha’la of Dumb Money and HBO’s Industry) show up in the dark of night, requesting to share his home with the Sandfords. The pair has fled a New York City blackout that augurs some sort of nationwide technological meltdown.
To amplify the tension that mounts among the four adults straining to build trust as news sources malfunction, Esmail decided the house should feel a bit frosty. That required modern architecture, an open floor plan, beige walls, and a large backyard with no visible neighbors. “We wanted something that was grand and definitely a departure from the Sandfords’ apartment in New York,” White explains. “But it also had to be something where they could imagine themselves living there. It wasn’t a mansion. It was something they could actually relate to, but it’s also a fantasy for them.”
The house’s floor plan was key. The downstairs portion needed large windows that looked out on the lawn so the Sandfords and the Scotts could observe what was happening outside as more global systems deteriorated. And because Esmail loves long tracking shots that snake through multiple rooms or rotate 360 degrees, the house’s walls and ceilings needed flexibility.
What couldn’t be filmed on location in Long Island was built on a soundstage. White, who also worked on Mr. Robot and Homecoming, knows Esmail’s projects require more elaborate sets than the typical film or TV show because he likes to shoot from a variety of angles. For example, a wide shot positioning the two pairs on either side of the doorway needed to show the facade that divides them, physically and metaphorically, before the Sandfords reluctantly let the Scotts enter. That’s impossible in an actual house with immobile walls.
The Scotts’ art collection also tells a story. George’s wife, who is traveling overseas, is a curator, so set decorator David Schlesinger (Knives Out) enlisted real-life curator Racquel Chevremont to find paintings that evoked a sense of collapse without revealing much about the family who’d bought them. (Chevremont has also contributed to And Just Like That… and Empire.) Since the Scotts are Black, Chevremont chose works by artists of color. Most of them have muted tones — lots of white, black, and soft golds — and none feature human faces. An existential conversation between Amanda and George, whose icy relationship slowly thaws as the movie unfolds, takes place in front of a painting in which the ink looks like it’s dripping down the canvas.
The trickiest space to design was the basement of the neighboring home that concludes the film. The world is indeed collapsing, but Amanda and Clay’s daughter has found resources that could sustain everyone. She’s also discovered a way to watch her beloved Friends now that there’s no Wi-Fi. The room needed to feel like a sophisticated underground bunker, comfortable and bountiful. White and Esmail scouted real basements, but none were evocative enough. Instead, they built one from scratch. “It was the last scene of the movie, so it had to be really special,” White says.
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Featured image: LEAVE THE WORLD BEHIND (2023) Julia Roberts as Amanda, Ethan Hawke as Clay, Myha’la as Ruth and Mahershala Ali as G.H. CR: Courtesy NETFLIX