Last spring, Malcolm & Marie production designer Michael Grasley found himself house hunting in Carmel, California, on the lookout for “something contemporary and upscale with roots in the midcentury movement and an open-floor plan.” He wasn’t in the market. He wasn’t even supposed to be in Northern California. He was supposed to be in Los Angeles, knee-deep in the creation and execution of the suburban wasteland populated by the teens of the HBO hit Euphoria. But like millions of other Americans in 2020, Grasley had pivoted to stay employed after the COVID-19 pandemic caused an indefinite delay in shooting.
In the wake of the sudden free time, writer/director Sam Levinson proposed a whole new project. It would become Malcolm & Marie, the new Netflix drama starring Zendaya and John David Washington as the titular couple in distress, and it would be written, cast, designed, shot, edited, and sold between April and September 2020.
“You might watch and think, ‘It’s just one house decorated in a nice way.’ And in the grand scheme of things, you wouldn’t be wrong,” Grasley says. “It wasn’t a very complicated design. But it’s deceptively simple.”
Although it’s the fourth project of Levinson’s Grasley has worked on, it may as well have been the first, given how much they had to rethink and rejigger to get their jobs done in the face of a global pandemic and all the new rules and safety measures that came with it.
“We decided to do this very early in the shutdown, when the culture of the moment was washing all your packaging and not seeing anyone in person,” Grasley says. “There were constraints on time, resources, locations…things we take for granted on other productions. We had to figure out a new shorthand.”