The visual artistry for which Lana and Lily Wachowski are known has often been brought about, in part, by Set Decorator Peter Walpole SDSA and his teams...that stepping up of the look one notch, or many! The series SENSE8 offered them a new format to explore, stretch and captivate.
We asked Walpole to give us an insider account of this literal journey, which he generously does with great wit and charm...
...from Set Decorator Peter Walpole SDSA...
55 flights in 45 weeks!
Fifty-five flights in 45 weeks is how Season 2 of SENSE8 finished for me. One of the directors, James McTeigue, mentioned that we all had accumulated so many air miles, it was a pity no one wanted to get back on an aeroplane for a vacation any time soon. We all thought the first season of SENSE8 was an adventure – 9 cities in 8 countries – but the second season knocked that into a Cocked Hat!
Created by J. Michael Stracznski and the Wachowskis, with whom I’ve been privileged to work on several projects, the story of SENSE8 begins when the psychic connection of eight strangers from different cultures and parts of the world is "birthed" by a woman called Angelica
. She then kills herself to avoid capture by a man she refers to as Whispers
, a member of the BPO, Biologic Preservation Organization
, which hunts down and neutralizes “sensates”. The eight eventually discover they now form a cluster of "sensates”: human beings who are mentally and emotionally linked, can sense and communicate with each other, and can share their knowledge, language, and skills. They end up working together to deflect the BPO
I teamed up with Production Designer Hugh Bateup on Season 1.*
We set up Art Departments in eight cities: San Francisco, Chicago, London, Reykjavik, Seoul, Mexico City, Mumbai and Berlin. It was a whirlwind season!
*[Editor’s note: Walpole & Bateup had previously worked together on the Wachowskis’ feature films CLOUD ATLAS and JUPITER ASCENDING]
We then teamed up again for Season 2, thinking it would be an easier passage as we had already set a template for Art Departments around the world. However, as we received the scripts, we suddenly realized that the 8 Art Departments had grown to 14, now covering: Berlin Winter Shoot, Amsterdam, Chicago, Italy, Los Angeles, Mumbai, Malta, Mexico, Nairobi, San Francisco, São Paulo, Seoul, UK [London & Scotland], and the Berlin Summer Shoot.
Any self-respecting production company would base themselves in one country, do all the necessary interiors and then travel to the locations for exteriors, perhaps even cheating the odd country to make two or three locations work for somewhere else. Not SENSE8. We travelled to each country in turn, as it was felt that the spirit and essence of each city would be reflected in the series.
And that’s what made it an amazing adventure.
The few times Hugh and I actually spent together were during the world scout [literally, the world] at the beginning of the show and then at the end for the Berlin Summer shoot. Most of the time we passed silently, like ships in the night, usually at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet.
It soon became apparent that we needed a little more help this time. Trish Forman joined us again as our travelling co-ordinator. We also enlisted the help of Katherina Klugue, who was our German based Art Department PA, Dominic Hyman, who supervised the European locations, and Damian Drew, who looked after Seoul. Meanwhile, Hugh and I covered all the different locations at different times, setting up new departments or encouraging old departments from Season 1 to join us!
The sets were exciting and varied and we had many wonderful Set Decorators around the world collaborating with Hugh and myself: Katherina Birkenfeld [Berlin], Martha Camarillo [Mexico City], Lisa Wolf [Chicago], Christopher Marsteller [San Francisco & LA] and Raffaella Giovannetti SDSA in Naples. These are just a few of the team—apologies to the others not listed. Everyone did a fantastic job, as we burst into a city like a small hurricane shoot for anything between 12 and 20 days, then left just as quickly,
One trip I won’t be doing again in a hurry is Mumbai, India to Mexico City! The first leg being over 16 hours in the air and the overall trip being 30 hours, staying for 4 days then travelling back to Mumbai.
One of our biggest challenges was the New Year’s Eve
episode, which was split between the dates of January and March, due to filming permits in Berlin limited over the 31st
of December, which meant re-creating New Year’s Eve
again to match crowd shots from the actual New Year’s Eve 2015/6.
We started Season 2 on November the 23rd
, 2015, based and planning in Berlin, with a prep period of approximately 14 weeks. Right.
Little did we know at this point that we would have a pre-shoot in Berlin within a month, over Christmas and New Year’s, and a 3-day shoot in Chicago...and then the actual Berlin Winter Shoot also became a pre-shoot...and somehow we shoehorned in the world scout, ready to shoot in Mumbai around the 1st of March!
So it was...with John Toll [Director of Photography], Michael Salven [1st AD] Lindsay Pugh [Costume Designer] Alessandro Bertollazi [Make Up & Hair], and very many more international travelling crew...we set off around the world enlisting the help, in all departments, from the countries we visited.
Do I have stories to tell?
...Hugh Bateup, the rough tough Australian, wearing a feather boa, pink glasses and makeup, so he would blend in on the Sao Paulo Gay Parade float...
...Lana Wachowski wanting to re-create the Berlin New Year’s celebration in March on a 250-meter stretch of road in another part of Berlin, because we could not let our own fireworks off on the 31st of December...
...The Car Chase
in Seoul that took months to prepare...
...The Political Rally and Riot
in Nairobi with over 3000 extras, shot in one day...a very long day…
...Being told I was in a Somalian-controlled area in Nairobi that the Foreign Office had declared a No Go Zone – and this was where we were having an elaborate pimped-bus built...
And so the list goes on…
During Season 2, I managed to get back to the UK for approximately 4 weeks during the 45 weeks away, the most important being a long weekend for my daughter’s wedding!!
It was with much excitement and expectation that I attended, with others of the team, the Season 2 Premiere in New York. At that time Season 3 was the topic of conversation. Although we all realize not everything is a done deal, there seemed some confidence in another season.
We all waved each other goodbye at JFK, expecting to be reunited at some point in the not too distant future...and then the bombshell. SENSE8 Season 3 was not to happen. Netflix determined that although it was a successful show, it did not reach enough audiences to justify a third season.
These things happen. We are all freelance and we move on, and so we did. Then slowly but surely, fans started to rebel, and a movement started for a Season 3. It grew and grew, gathering pace on Twitter and Facebook and other social media. It was extraordinary to watch.
Then the unprecedented happened: Netflix agreed to let the series have closure and gave the go ahead for a two-hour special winding the show up.
The story this time was set in Europe, with a bid to free Wolfgang
from the clutches of the BPO,
and a chase ending in Naples, Italy with a cataclysmic climax.
For this 2-hour special, we were based in Berlin, from whence we operated, starting the 6-week shoot with some studio work there, then moving to Paris, via Belgium, for a one day shoot in the Chapel at Villers-Ville Monastery, then on to Naples, and afterwards returning to Berlin for additional stage work and locations.
However, a new Production Designer has appeared, as Hugh Bateup was unavailable, working on a project in Australia. A guy named Peter Walpole. Usually known as a Set Decorator for the Wachowskis, he seemed a pretty good guy, and I thought a great choice.
I was fortunate enough to have many of the Season 2 Berlin team available: Set Decorator Katherina Birkenfeld, Propmaster David Hoffman and Art Director Stephanie Rass.
We were also joined by Roberto Caruso and Tamara Marini, two great Art Directors from Italy, and the Italian Set Decorator Raffaella Giovannetti SDSA.
I had a great solid team behind me for another exciting Roller Coaster Ride.
So the story starts with a few BPO
flashbacks to bring everyone up to speed, and explains Angelica’s
involvement with Whispers
and the BPO
. These were locations and set builds in Berlin.
The story really starts from the end of Season 2, in Paris, where Kala
has gone. We had a great time scouting many apartments in Paris, trying at first to find one that had a rooftop that would allow all Sense8
s to meet and exercise, and to show off Paris, but this was not to be. Like most productions, we ended up splitting locations.
The interior of Kala’s
apartment was completely redressed to accommodate her more modern tastes.
After being rumbled by the BPO,
team escapes and moves to the Paris Squat
, where they continue to plan in depth how to rescue Wolfgang
. This was a built set at Babelsberg Studios Berlin.
Then, another escape, this time with Wolfgang,
to the French countryside where we shot in a most beautiful Chateau – again a redress and a wonderful Sense8
They then find themselves in Naples, which is a beautiful, vibrant city, whose inhabitants welcomed us all very generously, especially the SENSE8 fans, who followed Lana Wachowski and the shooting unit every where they went.
After the demise of several characters, our heroes return to Paris for the Wedding of the Year,
which was all shot in the Eifel Tower, Paris. As you can imagine the logistics of dressing a wedding on the first floor section of the tower was challenging. Access by the one elevator available to us became an interesting competition between departments, Grip and Electrics trying to strong arm their way in, Set Decoration winning the day, with charm and a little bribery.
We then built the Honeymoon Suite
and all the other Sense8s’ Paris
hotel rooms on the Berlin stages. For this we built two sets, with interchangeable wall panels and dressing all on one stage, Over a day and a half, the filming crew came in, shot a bedroom or two, then went away, whilst we turned the set around and re-dressed it. These were the last two days of the shoot, and there was a great end-of-term atmosphere. Everything was kept on the stage for easy access and by the time we dressed the last room, it had the feeling of some bizarre game show: stop watches ready, GO! Furniture, smalls, mirrors down, drapes out, deep breath, furniture, smalls, mirrors up, drapes in and up, close the door...Finish!
And as soon as we started, it was over. I made a few new friends along the way and the old friends became closer. Lana Wachowski has this amazing ability to create a very tight team who all get on and become very close solving the everyday crises we have on all projects. We became, as she described, a family.
I will miss this family.
– Peter Walpole June 8th
Walpole’s American team wisely chose to work with several SDSA Business Members, including:
Hollywood Studio Gallery
Omega | Cinema Props
Sandy Rose Florals
Town and Country Event Rentals
Warner Bros. Property