‘Griselda’ Production Designer + Set Decorator on Transforming L.A. Into Miami’s Cocaine Era

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Photo Source: Courtesy Netflix

The Netflix limited series “Griselda” follows real-life cartel leader Griselda Blanco (Sofía Vergara) as she builds her cocaine empire from the 1970s to the present day. And the task of recreating these times and places largely fell to production designer Knut Loewe and set decorator Kimberly Leonard. 

Across six episodes, the pair designed 287 sets, using, according to Leonard, “actual goods, actual objects, and actual spaces” to build out Blanco’s layered world. Here, she and Loewe explain how they used authentic materials to recreate both 1970s and ’80s Miami in present-day Los Angeles.  

What was your starting point for “Griselda”? 

Knut Loewe: I wanted to focus on: What is the world Griselda lives in? What does that world feel like? I wasn’t so interested in doing a perfect replica of Miami at the time, because Miami looks completely different today. We have seen Miami [on] “Miami Vice,” “CSI: Miami,” and all of these shows. What I wanted to create—I call it a “Florida feeling.” 

I researched a lot of period photography from the 1960s and 1970s, and…picked the photographs that were a bit murky. I refer to the photography of Stephen Shore, who has depicted the epitome of American life: people at the beach, people in their big American cars. That was the kind of vibe.

Why does Los Angeles work as a great double for Miami during this period?

Loewe: A lot of people refer to a color scheme [to represent] Florida that involves a lot of pink, and I thought that wasn’t so important. To me, the main difference between Florida and Southern California is the amount of greenery you have everywhere. The climate in Florida is very humid, and, hence, it looks a little bit like a jungle. I never did a show with that much greenery. 

The greenery department was on every set. We had six greenspeople working—bringing in truckloads of palm trees and banana leaves and everything that made it look more like a jungle. Then that color scheme was used for interiors as well. If you look at the show, you might see there’s a lot of turquoise, yellows, and light-blue waves. We use pinks very rarely. 

The rundown mansion Blanco uses as a safehouse wasn’t in the best state in real life. What did you require to build this setting?  

Loewe: The location we [used] in [L.A.’s] Benedict Canyon [was] basically in the state…that the script was suggesting. That house [belongs to] people that used to be well-off, and maybe they ran out of money. In the script, [the house is] owned by a family from the East Coast, and [Blanco] rents the house because she needs a big estate surrounded by a fence and a wall. That is the place where she built [her] army. 

To highlight this, I wanted to have the corrugated iron on the front gate and the barbed wire and everything. Kim brought in all this beautiful furniture that was from bygone [eras]. This was one of those collaborations where I threw a piece of wallpaper on Kim’s desk when she wasn’t there, and I put a Post-it note on it: “We’re going to use this wallpaper. It will be peeling off in the living room, and it will get a lot of patina. Talk about it when we see each other next.”

Griselda

Credit: Elizabeth Morris/Netflix

When you read a note like that, do you know which direction you’re going to go in? 

Kimberly Leonard: For me, when I walked in there—pre-wallpaper, pre-conversation, pre-anything—I had a feeling about what the story needed to be. Then seeing the wallpaper, I knew obviously that [Knut and I] were on the same page and [what] the backstory was. Oftentimes in film and television, you don’t get any backstory—so it’s our responsibility to create the backstory with objects. Knut and I can create a backstory in two minutes. 

Also on Episode 4, the shootout scene at the Crown Liquors store is based on a true event, the 1979 Dadeland Mall massacre. What are the challenges of recreating a real space? 

Leonard: I grew up in Los Angeles, and a liquor store for me is an “everything store.” It’s a convenience store. I can get laundry detergent, a lotto ticket, Ding Dongs, chips, a newspaper, a magazine, and cigarettes at the same place. But in Florida, that’s not the case. This was the battle that Knut and I had with everyone else. When you have effects involved…there are fun and easy things that you can throw in [the scene], like loaves of bread and cartons of milk, which create such a big reaction. But they’re not accurate, and that’s not what was at Crown Liquors when [the shootout] happened. We don’t want to be called out for being inaccurate, because it’s not going to be everyone else [who is held responsible]; it’s going to be me and Knut. 

Did you use magazines and ads from the period? 

Leonard: If you go back to that [scene at the] liquor store, all of the ads were real ads. Midori had just come out, and everybody was drinking Midori Sours, Midori Melon Balls—anything they could get green with a piece of fruit in it. These were the drinks and cocktails [of the time that] they would be serving at the Mutiny [Hotel]. I had friends who went to that club, so they were a great point of reference: “Oh, I was drinking whiskey sours or Tom Collins.” 

We need the sweet-and-sour mix, and it can’t be this brand because this brand didn’t come out till 1984; it has to be in a glass bottle. Those are the types of details that Knut and I love because you can maybe cheat one, but they start adding up, and you can’t cheat them all.

Do you have any advice for people who want to break into production design?

Leonard: I was always fortunate before I became a set decorator to work with my mentors, Jim Mees and Laura Richarz, who are legends. Jim did 18 seasons of “Star Trek”; Laura was one of the first female decorators to do sci-fi. They did all the Norman Lear stuff. I’ve had the gift of that exposure. [With] everyone that I work with and work for, like Knut, I try to be open and be a sponge. 

Learn something every day. Be open to thinking about and visualizing things differently, working differently, and experiencing things differently.

This story originally appeared in the June 20 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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