SPOILER ALERT: This contains spoilers from “The Changeling”, now streaming on AppleTV+
“The Changeling’s” latest episode steps back in time to New York — in 1982, to be precise.
For production designer Lester Cohen, he needed to find a place where he could build his red-light area and seedy hotel.
The episode begins with Lillian (Adina Porter) walking through the red-light district in New York where peep shows cost 25 cents. She is still trying to get hold of Apollo (LaKeith Stanfield), leaving him messages. It has been three weeks since he went missing. She enters the Elk Hotel, a seedy joint. Narrator Victor LaValle, who also penned the book of the same name, describes it as “the shittiest hotel in the world.”
As it turns out, the hotel is 100 years old. The lobby decor is just as seedy — red and rancid. An old TV with the news is on when she walks in and the anchor announces that Mozart’s lost symphony has been found in the Bavaria State Library. Lillian is back in 1982.
Cohen describes the episode as “Lilian’s fever dream,” as she confronts her past self and comes to terms with everything that has happened and all she has done – the deal she made many years prior. Through flashback, it is revealed that Lilian, a new immigrant to America, murdered a white male cop and made a deal with a higher power to let her walk away free.
When reading the scripts, this was the episode Cohen was most excited to work on. His approach was to make this episode reflect what was going on in her head. Says Lester, “The red of the lobby reflects the rage she’s in when she gets there.” He continues, “The crazy blue-green hallway is indicative of her state of mind, and so we decided to push that.”
While the bulk of the episode was shot in a studio, Cohen looked for a building that had an entrance with stairs leading up. The street she walks down was found on location in London, Ontario. Says Cohen, “The architecture was good, and we could make it into 1981. Although we had to touch every storefront on the block and you see that narrow staircase.”
The idea was that it would be an SRO (Single Room Occupancy) space that no longer exists. “It’s where people who are on the edge of existing or crashing and burning could go. We wanted it to feel that maybe at one time, it was decent, around the Second World War, and people who were single after the war could live there, and it wasn’t horrible. But now, in 1981, it was horrible.”
Cohen created a lighting palette within the spaces that would help enhance that approach. So, when Lillian is in her room and she’s thinking of her grandmother in Uganda, she’s thinking of warm scenes and the lighting would follow.
When it came to the hotel room, Cohen’s color of choice was green. He says, “There’s a theme throughout the series where we keep hinting and giving clues that this thing is going to end up in the forest.” The wallpaper designs feature botanical aspectss.
In building the set, Cohen built a 3D diorama model with flyaway walls of her different recollections. In this case, he had three. One is for the scene where Lillian is having a picnic surrounded by cherry blossoms, another at an awards ceremony, and the third is the room itself. He says, “That helped predetermine where the camera was going to go and what how the lighting needed to change.”
The episode also allowed Cohen to add in some easter eggs. One that showrunner Kelly Marcel inserted was naming the man on the front desk Lester in a nod to Cohen.
“We learn what the suitcase is about,” Cohen says. In an earlier episode, Lillian is seen tossing it into a river. Halfway through episode seven, someone delivers a red suitcase to her with a gold dress inside. She later performs in it. Whether she’s imagining that or if it really happened remains to be seen.
The rest of the easter eggs come toward the end. “Years later when the hotel is abandoned, you see the registration book being blown around. And you find out that she did really come to the hotel with her boss. So, Brian’s jealousy wasn’t completely insane, even though his reaction was.”
Cohen also played around with patient zero of the AIDS epidemic, whom Lillian encounters. Says Cohen, “He was in Room 200. So, we knocked off the 2 and 0 so it just says 0 on the door.”
He adds that there are plenty more moments planted not just in the episode but the series. “It’s one of the things that you can watch multiple times and discover different things each time you watch. Victor’s novels are like that, and so is the show.”
The Changeling airs on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping weekly on Fridays.