When I found out there would be a Big Little Lies Season 2, I was very excited. The first season was initially created as a mini-series, adapted from Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel of the same name, so a second season came as a pleasant surprise. There is no doubt that Big Little Lies production design will give me something to look forward to every television season. I always love the work of production designer John Paino and set decorator Amy Wells.
Upon watching the first season of Big Little Lies, I was particularly taken with the world of Monterey, California with its stunning vistas and idyllic homes that struggled to hide the bubbling insecurities and secrets of the families who inhabited them. I felt Big Little Lies production designer John Paino and set decorator Amy Wells very successfully balanced the look and tone of a haunting murder mystery in an elegant yet quaint seaside town. Each home told us everything we needed to know about the characters, their ‘class,’ who they were, and how they wanted to be perceived.
Recently I was able to catch up with production designer John Paino to discuss his work on the show, his design process, and what we can expect to see on Big Little Lies, Season 2.Catch up with production designer John Paino as he discusses his design process and what's new on Big Little Lies Season 2. Click To Tweet
Q&A with Big Little Lies Production Designer John Paino
How would you describe the new season?
It’s a fugue-y miasma. It has a dream gauze over it.
On season two of Big Little Lies, you had a new director, Andrea Arnold come on board this go around. Was Andrea different in approach and style than Jean-Marc Vallée was in season one?
I think that Andrea’s style was different, but she’s similar in the sense that she’s natural and doesn’t like artifice, so there were similarities in how Andrea and Jean-Marc approached things. We had all recurring characters except for one new addition, so things stayed pretty much the same. Even her style to use natural light and to work with the actors was similar to Jean-Marc’s so there was a continuity throughout. If I can think of any difference, I think it’s just that she liked to linger on things on the set a bit more.
Jane’s New Apartment
As you said, coming back for season two, you still have all the same characters, so I can imagine they’re all living in the same spaces for the most part?
They are. Jane has moved, and there is a new character, Mary-Louise played by Meryl Streep who is now on the scene and has new digs. We also have a new coffee shop, but for the most part, it would be accurate to say not a lot has changed.
One of the big new changes is that we have a new café that we built called ‘The Blissful Drip’ which is new at Lover’s Point which is right on the tip of a very popular, bucolic point in Monterey with cypress trees and it’s where everyone goes and gets their wedding pictures taken. It has a beautiful view of the ocean and beautiful trees. So we built a café there in the California rustic style that is indoor/outdoor, which was a lot of fun. And it’s in the style, in Carmel, which is a very posh town in Monterey where there is a certain kind of style of houses, a storybook-style almost like an English village. A lot of bent wood and wisteria. Things are made out of trees, and that’s what we patterned the coffee shop out of.
Amy found this great furniture maker who makes furniture out of logs and then he’ll take saplings and steam them and bend them into the shapes for the backs of the chairs and loveseats and things like that. The place looks a little like a storybook place, but it also looks kind of like a witch’s place, like a house in the woods. It’s still another cafe where the women can go and talk without being bothered or eavesdropped because this season the knives are out for everybody.
So having said that, it certainly is bucolic in the style of things in Carmel, but I like that it also has a sense of a witch’s house.
The New Coffee Shop: ‘The Blissful Drip’ Café Design Process
Before The Blissful Drip, you had a different coffee shop, The Blues Blue, that you had built on a soundstage, correct? How was that decided to change over to a new coffee shop?
Andrea wanted something that was actually on a location. She wanted to have something that we could walk to, from along the sea to the coffee shop. Where we put this new coffee shop is right on the harbour. It’s not where the wharves are, where the kind of touristy area is, it’s in a park. She wanted something that was more with nature and not on a wharf.
So you built the exterior on the beach?
No, the whole thing is on location. We built the interior and the exterior on location rather than building the interior on a stage. It’s all right there on location, which was a lot of fun. And actually, we gave it to the town, and they’re going to set it up and sell coffee. Once the show comes out, we’ll see. I know we packed it up and gave it to them because they were so lovely and helpful to us.
Celeste’s Mother-in-law Comes to Town: Mary-Louise’s New Apartment
How did you decide on Meryl Streep’s space? Was a lot written into the script?
I don’t know how much I can say, but Mary-Lou comes to town because her son has died and she doesn’t quite believe the story that she has been told about what happened. She also wants to be near her grandchildren. She is a part of their lives. She’s Celeste’s children’s grandmother and wants to be closer to them, so she gets a place in town. We made it conventional. We talked to Meryl a little bit about it, but she was pretty open about what it would look like.
I would have to say I use the words Connecticut, conservative, and protestant ethos to describe her furniture style of what [set decorator] Amy [Wells] came up with her decor. She’s wealthy and educated but conservative. Her furniture conveys that in her home.
So was Mary-Louise’s home built on a stage or was that a location?
No, that was a location. There’s a seaside complex that was built in the seventies that looks like Sea Ranch which is a Californian modern raw, cypress, bark on everything, a place that when it was built in the seventies was condos or apartments that you could rent, and now, of course, they sell for millions of dollars. It’s the kind of place where if you wanted to move tomorrow and you didn’t know how long you were going to be there you could just move into one of these things.
Celeste’s Living Room
Given the finale of season one, has Celeste changed her space much?
No, Celeste is still in the same place. The way she keeps it, because of what she’s going through changes. A lot of what we did in the second season was people, for the most part, are in the same spaces but things happen to their lives. Some of their lives are more stable, some of what’s going on with the characters are less stable so that is reflected in the decor and how the decor looks.
We built some other sets that are plot points that I’m not allowed to reveal yet, but they were so much fun to build.
You shot a lot of the first season on location, yes?
It was about a 60/40 split. We did build. A lot of the interiors were built. Jane’s was built, Celeste’s was built, the exteriors were not built. We also had a thing like the Blue Blues coffee shop which everyone swears is on the wharf and it’s not on the wharf. In fact, there’s a restaurant on the wharf that I patterned the exterior of the Blue Blue’s on because if Jean-Marc just wanted to show them walking from somewhere, I would just change the signs on it. But there’s a plaque there with a photo saying that it was shot there on the wharf which is always funny.
Renata’s Living Room
With the large beautiful homes, are these rental spaces or are these people’s homes that you were permitted to alter?
Renata’s house is someone’s home who rented it to us. Celeste’s is a home that’s owned by a family, but it’s mostly a rental for people who want to stay in Monterey, but the interior for that was completely unsuitable for shooting so we built it on a stage.
The homeowners were actually really happy to see us. At Celeste’s, since the show had aired and been so popular, they actually had a plaque put up in the house with photographs of us shooting in there.
At Celeste’s, we built the bedrooms and bathrooms, and a little bit of the downstairs. We redid the interior of the location because we provide the lighting, so we had to go in and add quite a few fixtures. What we’ll do is put dimmer boards, we’ll make the whole lighting system dimmable. We added a lot of practical lighting too. We treated the locations like we would a stage set where we could program the lighting with practical lights very easily rather than using big lights outside the windows and other movie lighting.
Celeste’s House Upstairs
Big Little Lies season one was a Mini-Series and not originally intended to have another season, so you guys had to recreate these spaces that you didn’t think you need again. I’m guessing you guys didn’t hold onto anything, right?
No, we did not. And again, kudos to Amy [Wells] for being able to find everything again, or if it was gone completely, remake it.
That, in and of itself, must have been really hard.
It was. It was hard. It was time-consuming. Also, because season one was a one-er, when we wanted to do wrap, we wanted to do it the right way, [logging, filing, archiving, wrap binder] and production pushed back saying, ‘Well, we’re never going to have to do this again. Why do you want to go through the trouble of marking everything down and all of that stuff?’ All I can say now is I am so glad we did it. We did it because we said we really should do it, but people really didn’t think it was worth it.
Bonnie’s House and Madeline’s House
Have you been working with the same art department since Big Little Lies Season 1?
I have mostly the same crew. Amy and her incredible lead person, dressers, our construction coordinator, scenic department, my art director James Truesdale who was with us on Big Little Lies season one. Pretty much, everyone was the same. I’m very fortunate to have this incredible crew.
I can only imagine it’s been quite a ride since the first season.
It was because we’ve gone from one to the other with very little time. Practically no downtime. Luckily I’m home now having a bit of a break before Jean-Marc’s next film.
Big Little Lies Season 2 Official Trailer
Have you seen Big Little Lies yet? If you have had the pleasure of seeing the first season you simply must watch the second season starting tonight on HBO at 9pm EST. You won’t regret it. Big Little Lies set design and set decoration is once again a cut above the rest.
We look forward to catching up with production designer John Paino and the set design as the plot thickens on Big Little Lies.