Set decorator Ellen Brill shares what inspired the look of AHS's Hotel Cortez, how the show references horror classics like The Shining, and whether or not she thinks hotels are creepy.
What does a set decorator do, exactly?
A set decorator is like the interior designer on a project. If you’re doing a home, the architect will do the structure and the interior designer will supply the furnishings. That’s pretty much what the set decorator’s job is. I’m responsible for the soft goods, the drapery, the carpeting, the furniture, the tables, chairs, and what have you. And in film and television, there’s also a prop master, and the prop master would be in charge of items that the actor may hold. For example, they’ll be responsible for let’s say the keys that open the door or the glasses that they may drink from; however, the set decorator may also want to be involved in choosing the glasses. It's a working hand-in-hand relationship.
How did you approach this season of American Horror Story?
We started with a lot of research, a massive amount of research, which was pulled together from a massive amount of sources. It was decided that we were going to go for a Deco hotel, and I don't think Deco is particularly en vogue right now. There aren’t that many places that you can go to and walk through a complete Deco space, especially not in Los Angeles, so to really hone in on the look that we wanted, we did a lot of research. Starting with going to the library, getting books, going to the bookstore, getting books. Because I’m more concerned with the furnishings, I tend to start looking at Pinterest and 1stdibs and getting an overview of what kind of Deco we’re going for.
Were there specific hotels that you looked at for inspiration?
I think, interestingly enough, when I go on Pinterest or start Googling, a lot of times I’m not sure I even know where a lot of those hotels are, but I would just say ‘Oh, I like the look of that’ or maybe it’s a bar in New York that has the right feel, or maybe a spot in Paris. We’ll do a collage of all the images of things that we like, and I’m not even sure we’ll know where they came from. So it becomes an amalgam of the images and some of the details, rather than taking something and copying it exactly.
In some of the past seasons of American Horror Story, the setting has really been its own character.
Would you say that's a part of the plot this season? And does that influence how you work?
Yes, I would say even more so that the set has become a character because so much happens in this hotel, and the season is really about the hotel. It’s like The Shining, for example. That was really about that hotel or Psycho, that was really about that motel. This is the same kind of situation where there are other stories that happen, but the setting is the heartbeat of the story. In that way, it’s a funny kind of situation in that I want the hotel to be recognized and noticed, but at the same time it needs to be supportive of the action, and you want the action to be in the forefront.
You just want to support the actors and support the characters along with trying to be a character. It’s a slippery slope. You don’t want to take too much away from that, and I’ve worked with Ryan Murphy before, and one thing that he always says to me is, ‘I don’t really like a lot of stuff behind their head.’
Sometimes when you watch a show you’ll see lots of paintings and lots of things and so much business that your eye is going everywhere. When he’s in the editing room, he likes to really be able to focus on the action and on the actors. In that case, I’ve really learned a sense of minimalism with how I decorate for his shows.
I couldn't help but notice in some of these photos (the lobby, hallways) the carpet looks a bit like the Shining carpet.
Yes, that was actually a nod!
Will we see references to other hotel horror or mystery films in the season?
Yeah, they’re subtle, but I think you will. I know that sometimes a director will come in, and he’ll reference a shot in a movie or the whole movie or something like that, but in the design process when we were starting to show Ryan ideas for carpet, he landed on this, and even though this is supposed to be a 1930s hotel, and I think that pattern might be a bit more 1970s, he would not let it go. So we decided okay! So that’s it. That is a custom carpet—I made it, and it’s all cut with templates and pieced together. It’s like a work of art. And then in the hallways, the runners are a variation on the same theme.
Do you have a favorite detail of the set this season?
Well, I think the light fixtures are really quite extraordinary in the lobby. The production designer and I discussed finding really big chandeliers, and I started looking and finding three matching chandeliers that are that scale are just beyond, beyond beyond our budget, and finding them, it was just impossible. So I finally said, okay, I think we’re going to have to make them. So we ended up making them—they weigh about 250 pounds each.
The name of the hotel in the show is Hotel Cortez. Does the name influence the hotel, in terms of design?
The element of the skylight that runs across the whole ceiling, and then dives down the wall and is the framework and grillwork from an elevator is an image of Cortez. It's a full-body portrait. Originally they didn’t know if they wanted to go with a Spanish colonial-looking hotel, but somehow the name stuck. I think also because he’s sometimes called Cortez the Killer. It is a horror show, after all.
Do you think there’s something inherently creepy about hotels?
I never really thought so, but when we built the hallways for the set, they run in a square. When you walk in the hallway, it is so confusing that you never know where you are. It’s even scripted that there are hallways that lead to nowhere. It took me a month to get my bearings, and then I started thinking about how it is pretty scary if things are underlit. I guess I’ve been in creepy hotels before—I try not to—but there’s something to it. Some of the things that go bump in the night, some of the story lines, you think that couldn’t happen, but the next time I go to a hotel, I might think about it.
We are using an exterior location to match our exterior set, and that is the Oviatt Building. It houses the restaurant Cicada, and it used to be a haberdashery—it is Deco, and we’ve matched the doors, and it was never a hotel, but I would imagine there’s some really interesting stories that might have happened at that place, too.
How has working on this season been different from other seasons?
The availability of materials. Deco is really a rich man’s sport—it’s beyond. So I had to do some real fancy dancing, going to Craigslist and eBay and vintage stores, and reupholstering and redoing to bring it up to the place where we felt it was the right look.
So I think that was the most challenging thing for me. It was also really hard to find multiples. With hotels, you have to have a lot of the same thing. There’s not a monotony, but there’s a rhythm to what you see. And if you go to one floor, and you go to another floor, it’s the same lighting, and the same entry hall tables. When you’re dealing with a space this large—the amount of sconces that I needed—I needed a massive amount. If you’re doing just a normal show, a lot of times you don’t have these challenges.
Anything else about the new season that you can share?
Well, I think it’s just nice to be back in L.A., and it’s always very interesting to see the actors and their characters, especially when you’ve worked with the same actors and they take on such different roles. It’ll be fun for everyone to start hearing the comments about the new season.
American Horror Story: Hotel premieres Wednesday, October 7 at 10 p.m. on FX.
Caroline Hallemann is the associate digital editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @challemann.