The first season of Syfy’s 12 Monkeys kept things simple—well, as “simple” as a show about preventing the apocalypse via time travel can be. For the most part we witnessed traveling between the post-plague future and pre-outbreak present, give or take a few years. But when the show finally made good on an early tease about protagonist James Cole (Aaron Stanford) showing up in the ‘80s by the end of Season One, it was a hint of things to come.
Now, in Season Two, the show’s been ripping through decades like it’s been collecting stamps towards a free sub (and maybe a captain’s hat), jumping back from 2044 to the 1940s, ‘70s, ‘60s, 2016 and 2020, all in an attempt to save the present, the future, and time itself. That’s all great for sci-fi fans, who’ve come to love 12 Monkeys for its time-traveling mind warp and the way it plays with genre conventions.
It’s also a lot more demanding for the people tasked with pulling it all off week in and week out—people like production designer John Mott is no stranger to transporting viewers back to the past. He helped develop The Americans’ signature Cold War-era look in the series’ first and second seasons. But 12 Monkeys’ sets pose an added degree of difficulty. Mott can’t simply focus on one moment in time, he has to keep track as the show pinballs through various decades, often in the course of a single episode. Which is, in a word, “challenging.”
The trick for Mott, whether he’s designing a set for the show’s post-apocalyptic future or its recent past, is to find “some kind of anchor, in terms of time and space.” He says it would be far more difficult to be asked to design something that wasn’t based on any existing architecture, like an alien planet. In Season One, Mott used the exterior of an old power plant in Toronto (where the show films) as inspiration for the show’s underground headquarters in 2044.
This season though, Aaron Sanford’s Cole also has a home base in the past: the Emerson Hotel. A throwback to classic turn-of-the-century elegance, the luxe accommodations are a welcome departure from the show’s grim and gritty post-apocalyptic aesthetic, as much for Mott as it is for Cole. Mott says he modeled the Emerson after many of New York City’s historic hotels, from the Algonquin to the Waldorf Astoria. “One I particularly liked, which is no longer in existence, is the Hotel Astor in New York City,” says Mott.
We first see the Emerson in its 2016 incarnation though, more rundown boarding house than grand old hotel, before traveling back to the 1940s to see it in all its glory, revisiting it again each time Cole’s zapped back. And having a designated constant in the past helped reduce the load on both the production team and the show’s writers, says 12 Monkeys co-creator/showrunner Terry Matalas, sparing them from having to introduce audiences to a brand-new location each week. “Just from a production standpoint, you want a standing set that you can go to on your soundstage all the time, as opposed to the logistics of them having to find a place in each time period,” he explains. Plus, as a bonus, seeing the hotel change over the years is “a great way to demonstrate the passage of time,” Matalas says.
All told, the Emerson set—which includes the double-high foyer and mezzanine, Cole’s suite and the connecting hallways—took about six weeks to build. Or, around the same amount of time it took Mott and his team to create Season One’s big build, the time machine and its accompanying compound.
Mott tells Paste that designing the hotel was equal parts form and function, as much about the logistics of shooting in the space as the look of it. That big, expansive foyer doesn’t just look impressive all done up, it also gives the characters and cameras ample room to maneuver. Hence, the Emerson’s open second level, an unusual design feature for a hotel from that era. “It’s not like no hotels have that. But not many have that combination of the big front with the light coming through the front and the mezzanine,” explains Mott.
“If you have a big set, you want to get up and see down into it, and you want to be able to use it, rather than always looking up from the bottom,” he continues. “In the hotel’s case, you can actually have a scene up there. It’s big enough to have a scene on the mezzanine.”
It also helps save the show money, removing the need for expensive crane shots. “It’s very nice to be able to have sort of pre-existing camera platforms that are not something that you have to bring in every time you want to get the camera up there,” he says. This is not an insignificant consideration on a show that moves around as much as 12 Monkeys does.
Because, unlike the world of the post-apocalypse, the Emerson has to constantly be flipped over to reflect each new decade the show is traveling to. And that’s tricky to do on a TV budget, especially since each episode shoots very close to one another, with little time to turn around the soundstage and sets. “Basically, the show shoots all the time,” says Mott. “It may not shoot on the stages all the time, but there can be a point where this director in episode four, say, will shoot on stages, and episode five will shoot right after that. And it’s also sometimes true that they shoot on the same day!”
That kind of juggling act requires creative scheduling, sometimes shooting pieces of different episodes in one big chunk, like they would on a show with multiple distinct settings, like Game of Thrones. “That’s a way of helping get better production value out of your sets, because you can maximize them. And then split it up between different episodes,” he says.
Or, they’d simply have to come up with somewhere new to set a scene. Hint: they’re not always meeting up in the Emerson’s bar, just because Cole has a thing for whiskey sours.
“If we didn’t have much time or money, we would try and shrink the amount that we had to do. So we would maybe set it in the bar, for instance,” laughs Mott. “Those are the unfortunate realities of television time and money.”
Still, he thinks that the on-the-fly problem-solving ultimately adds to the finished product. “You have to dig a little deeper into what that scene is about,” he explains, saying it forces them to really focus on which setting provides the most emotional impact for each scene.
Visiting the Emerson at different points throughout history also allows the show to hide little easter eggs for eagle-eyed fans to catch: each seemingly out-of-place prop can be a telling hint at adventures to come. And that kind of attention to detail is what makes a good set, in Mott’s mind. Every set consists of multiple layers, he explains.
“There’s the basic furniture, and then there’s some odds and ends, and then even more odds and end.” Each subsequent layer adds something more, making a set feel lived-in and realistic. “It’s really about that extra layer,” Mott says. “That’s one of the reasons I do this. Not necessarily for easter eggs, per se,” he laughs. “But for the detail.”
And when it comes to recreating the past for any given episode—whether that’s New York in the ‘70s or Berlin as the Wall is going up±historical accuracy is paramount. “We definitely try to be as accurate as we can,” Mott says. “We try not to include items that wouldn’t have been made at that time.” So if you catch something that looks a few decades out of place, chances are, it’s been left there on purpose. But it’s also important not to lose sight of the forest for the trees, he says. “One of the things that we do is we try to get a feel of the place, rather than necessarily being absolutely, completely accurate with every little thing.”
And it appears that Mott isn’t the only who appreciates the show’s attention to detail. When asked if he’d heard of fans pausing the show to obsessively pour over his sets for clues to 12 Monkeys’ central mystery, Mott replies in the affirmative. He says he spoke about the show at a production design panel at Comic Con last summer and was surprised by the number of fans who came up to him afterwards wanting to talk about the show. And he was more than happy to oblige.
Mott says that he thinks expectations have risen since the show’s first season, and he’s hoping to be able to build on those in Season Three. If/when it happens, Mott already has a few ideas. “I personally would like to see the hotel in the future as a crazy ruin,” he says. “We’ve discussed that option.” He’d also like to go back even further in time to the beginning of the 20th century: “Just as horses and carriages turned into cars, gas turns into electricity. That contrast really is a lot of fun.”
But no matter where (or when) Cole travels in his quest to stop the Army of the 12 Monkeys, Mott is game. “The fact that it’s a time travel show is exciting, because it means I get to do sets and environments that are throughout time and space, all over the world and then all through different time periods,” he says.
He readily admits that answering the tough questions and finding solutions can be incredibly challenging. But that’s also part of the fun.
“I guess it’s just the bit I like.” So for now, and the foreseeable future, he’s up for the challenge.
The 12 Monkeys finale airs Monday, July 18 on Syfy.