Show’s lavish hotel evolves into futuristic fortress

‘Murder’ constructs setting with mix of locations, sets, CGI

- By Emily Zemler

“A Murder at the End of the World” is a complexly constructe­d series, hopping between two timelines and uncovering several mysteries. Its sets, by production designer Alex DiGerlando, were equally complicate­d.

The FX on Hulu series follows author, hacker and amateur investigat­or Darby Hart (Emma Corrin) to a remote hotel in Iceland, where tech billionair­e

Andy Ronson (Clive Owen) has gathered a group of elite thinkers to discuss the impacts of the climate crisis. The retreat turns deadly when Darby’s old flame and fellow sleuth Bill Farrah (Harris Dickinson) is murdered. She sets out to find the killer as dangerous weather closes in, traversing the frozen landscape and discoverin­g hidden secrets of the hotel in the process. Creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij conceived the hotel, constructe­d by Andy and his wife, Lee (Marling), to survive the end of the world, early on when writing the series. Marling explains there were “a lot of written constraint­s” to the structure.

“There were things that it had to be able to do and achieve as it moves from being a luxury, boutique hotel to feeling more like a fortress to then feeling more like a prison,” Marling says. “It had to be able to cycle through all those different identities.”

Originally, the story was set in Norway, but FX suggested they look at Iceland, a popular shooting location due to its tax incentives. Marling, Batmanglij and DiGerlando were immediatel­y intrigued by the Icelandic landscape during a

scouting trip.

“It felt like the beginning of the Earth,” Batmanglij says. “We realized that Andy and Lee’s hotel could be fully off the grid. This thing that looks like a luxury hotel on the surface is actually this palatial bunker. A safe room in a house (is) a thing of the past. The new version is a whole place where you could live for years. That became a really exciting thing to put on screen.”

It quickly became clear that an existing building couldn’t meet all the demands of the story, so the team decided to construct Andy’s retreat from scratch. Marling and Batmanglij wanted a circular hotel where all of the rooms looked outward.

“It felt like the circle in the snow was such an important image,” Marling says. “In part because of how much the story wanted to talk about time and the present sending you back into the past. As you remember the past, you rewrite it and then that carries you into the

present again differentl­y. We thought of the hotel as the hands of time.”

DiGerlando took inspiratio­n from the Chinese walled villages known as Hakka and English castles, as well as Scandinavi­an and Japanese design.

What you see on screen is a combinatio­n of a detailed set built on a New Jersey soundstage over three months, actual locations in Iceland and CGI. The hotel entrance, where Darby arrives in Episode 1, was filmed at Vök Baths in Fellabaer, Iceland, while the swimming pool was shot at Eleven Deplar Farm, a high-end hotel in Olafsfjörd­ur.

“It is a real Frankenste­in,” DiGerlando says. “And we couldn’t afford to build or fit on our soundstage­s the full circle, so we built (the hotel) as a semicircle. Halfway through, we ripped out the bookshelve­s in the library and dressed it as the dining room and we re-numbered the rooms. It was really tricky for the actors and the directors.”

The team looked to

Japanese wabi-sabi for the hotel interiors and used reclaimed wood for many of the finishes. Batmanglij also suggested using Louise Bourgeois paintings throughout the hotel.

While viewers might expect the hotel to be more futuristic, the creators pushed away from the traditiona­l tech guy aesthetic.

“There’s become this idea on screen that a space always has to feel like the inside of an Apple store, where everything is brushed concrete and steel and glass and right angles,” Marling says. “Those spaces feel really cold and clinical. If you’re Andy and Lee Ronson and you have all the money in the world and you’re designing a space that you might be spending the rest of your life living in, what do you actually want?”

Marling adds that, to her, a space where technology is unassuming feels more like the future.

“As technology becomes more developed, the things that will be more precious are the more limited resources, like watercolor Louise Bourgeois painting and old Persian carpets,” Marling says. “Having the technology hidden within that space just felt like a more fresh take on it.”

That aesthetic is especially apparent in Andy and Lee’s undergroun­d living quarters, which are revealed in Episode 5. DiGerlando drew from grand medieval castles and European churches. The sconces on the walls emulate torches and the walls are richly textured. Sunlight arrives via a series of mirrors despite the depth of the bunker.

“I don’t want to make a comment on taste, but when you make a fictional thing sometimes taste has to be more elevated than what the real counterpar­t would be,” DiGerlando says. “We were looking for clues of what one could do if resources weren’t an issue.”

“But even with all that wow factor — the fires, the art — there’s no love in these spaces,” Batmanglij adds. “You realize money is not the answer. You can ship a whole church to Iceland and that’s not going to fill it with love. The relationsh­ips between people are what matter.”

Marling and Batmanglij previously worked with DiGerlando on “The OA” and “The East.” Marling says she writes “NAR” in her script when acting on his sets.

“It’s my abbreviati­on for ‘no acting required,’ ” she says. “When you’re in the space, you can draw so much from how much detail and love and care Alex has put into the storytelli­ng. All you have to do is just absorb that and be present. I really felt that in terms of the Ronson undergroun­d suite.”

The show’s production went to Iceland in the middle of winter and some of the locations were especially challengin­g. Hedinsfjor­dur, located on the Arctic Sea, served as the beach where Darby finds a Zodiac raft, a type of inflatable boat. To get there, the crew had to take snowmobile­s across a frozen lake.

“This was the first day of shooting and, of course, in the very first minutes of the very first day a giant sneak attack wave came and splashed the whole crew in Arctic water,” DiGerlando says. “Brit got hypothermi­a.”

In Episode 3, Darby trails a masked suspect out of the hotel in the dark of night into a canyon and revisits it in Episode 4, looking for clues. The team used Studlagil Canyon.

Due to time constraint­s and an outbreak of COVID19 on set, however, several scenes had to be continued back in New Jersey.

“We ended up building part of that basalt canyon back on the stage in New Jersey,” DiGerlando says.

While the hotel’s interiors were shot safely away from the cold and snow, visual trickery was used to immerse the building into the landscape. A combinatio­n of blue and green screens were set up outside the windows along with practical elements like snow drifts. Rain and snow machines brought texture to the shots, with precipitat­ion hitting the glass. DiGerlando and the visual effects team even considered the orientatio­n of the hotel with the sun.

“If you can create in the beginning a lot of weight in real spaces, then when you do the merger (with sets and VFX) you suddenly believe,” Marling says. “And when you cut to an exterior wide shot of the hotel, which is a CGI hotel in a real valley, it feels true. Yes, the hotel is beautiful. But the story has to work and unfold correctly in those spaces and you have to believe everything is real at the same time.”

 ?? FX ?? Emma Corrin stars as amateur investigat­or Darby Hart in “A Murder at the End of the World.”
FX Emma Corrin stars as amateur investigat­or Darby Hart in “A Murder at the End of the World.”

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