Valtice castle in the Czech Republic

A Paris apartment

 The Russian Tea Room in New York City

Cruise ship, the MSC Divina, where Kerry Bishé appeared as a participant in a Romanoff family reunion

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Fill 1
November 19, 2018
In The Mix

Royal Flush

For a series packed with would-be Romanoffs, production designers kept their passports close at hand.

Daron James

Abandon any preconceived notions you may have about The Romanoffs, an anthology series from Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner.

The eight episodes, which debuted in October on Amazon Prime, are as dissimilar in story as they are visually — each has its own cast, location and genre. The only throughline is the characters' shared belief that they are descendants of Russia's last imperial dynasty.

"We knew it was going to be an undertaking," says production designer Henry Dunn, who worked on five episodes. Christopher Brown handled the other three. Both are Mad Men alumni, as are actors Christina Hendricks and John Slattery, director of photography Chris Manley and costume designer Janie Bryant, among others.

"The familiarity with Matt allowed for a certain baseline of assumptions," Brown says. "But in a macro sense, it wasn't going to be like the experience on Mad Men, where there were very specific choices about how the show was presented."

In fact, no singular camera style, flavor or ground rule unites The Romanoffs. "Each story was treated as a separate piece, and different texture, color and tonal choices had to be made to enhance each episode," Brown recalls.

The project's scope was enormous, with shoots in Paris, Toronto, New York, Mexico, Romania, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. Each episode took about four weeks of preparation and was filmed in its entirety before the crew moved forward.

The designers hopscotched across continents to secure locations. Dunn zig-zagged between Paris and Prague to prep the first two episodes in production. The series premiere, titled "A Violet Hour" and starring Aaron Eckhart, Marthe Keller and Louise Bourgoin, is set in the City of Lights.

Dunn also prepped Toronto to stand in for Middle America and later found himself in Teotihuacan, an archaeological complex northeast of Mexico City, for "Panorama." There, production reps approached local cultural ministries for permission to film on ancient pyramids. "It was one of those places that made the hair on your arms stand up," Dunn says.

He also worked in New York to prep the landmark Bergdorf Goodman department store, and even staged a train scene on a set in Wembley, near London.

Brown, too, had to think big for episode two, "The Royal We": it called for a cruise ship. He says the vessel "needed to have some character to it, but we also knew a separate set would be built to cover a giant ballroom sequence, complete with horses."

They shot the ballroom scene in September but had to wait till December to access the ship. "The challenge was figuring out how to marry everything seamlessly over several months."

A working shorthand with Weiner allowed Dunn and Brown to make creative assumptions in a hectic schedule. They even found time to add symbolic motifs to bridge episodes; vigilant viewers may be able to spot them.

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 11, 2018

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