Charlie Cale (Natasha Lyonne) travels everywhere from the New Mexico desert to Kenosha dive bars in "Poker Face," capturing an unparalleled ability to spot a lie to solve the murders she encounters every week. That left Judy Rhee, the producer who had to split the Hudson Valley into different states.
Rhee conjures up compelling representations of the Southwest, the Rockies, the Midwest, and beyond, but she had little time to spare. “We were shooting a new episode every ten days, and for many of the locations, we had to modify and build them out to suit the scripts.”
Each script is set squarely in a specific environment that we see once and then never again, leaving Rhee constantly scouting and prepping new locations within the Hudson Valley.
Rhee said his team built a few stage sets early on and then continuously throughout the series. Depending on what we needed, we were constantly changing our builds between two different stages. "We also took over a nearby empty event space we turned into a sort of third stage we used regularly to build sets that spatially fit."
Rhee was assigned to design sets and locations that matched a particular need. Not only does wherever Charlie travel feel like a corner of America hidden just off the interstate, but the series' production design supports its slightly vintage vibes, evoking the detective and murder mystery series of old. The places Charlie travels to are neither starkly modern nor deliberately period.
According to Rhee, this temporality in the production process adds authenticity. "While traveling, I'm sure everyone has experienced certain places that appear to be frozen in time," Rhee said. "A lot of the places and the environments Charlie Cale finds herself in have a timelessness quality about them, because in reality a lot of small towns and any other places that aren't metropolitan cities have remained in different periods depending on their economic history."
Rhee and her team worked hard to make small pockets of America for Charlie to explore, whether it was a matter of spooking suspense through the sight-lines of the convenience strip in Episode 2, or constructing a secluded dressing room in Episode 6 for Charlie to keep the camera hidden until each episode is ready to reveal its whodunit.
"You can begin with a general direction of a color palette for each location as a visual cue for the journey, but then you have to exemplify the particular place she's traveled to, like New Mexico, Texas, or upstate New York, which all have different landscapes, architecture, vehicles, and foliage," said Rhee. "We had great decorators who were alternating episodes, and they brought a lot to the table for each of the new characters."
Rhee's distinct color palettes, regional brands, and building structures all play a role in New York state's distinctive mix of rolling hills, farms, and lakes. During our initial conversation, I discovered that we both liked Italian Neorealists like Antonioni, so I borrowed a lot of 'The Last Picture Show' inspiration for several episodes.
"Poker Face" achieved what the episode desired by using stages rather than existing locations. Episode 6, "Exit Stage Death," looks like a typical dinner theater venue that would exist in many sections of the country, but it was actually built entirely on soundstages that Rhee transformed into so many different locations. "We built the theater stage, dressing rooms, and hallways in the same space we built the casino and crow's nest in Episode 1."
Rhee's rapid and efficient design work ensured that nothing was wasted as she and her team transformed spaces over and over again. "You're constantly changing as you go along in the process, like what kind of materials can you get in time and what the crew can accomplish for all the episodes we're working on simultaneously," Rhee added.