If you've seen Lionsgate's new horror film Cobweb, chances are you noticed quite a few things in the movie—not just the artful direction from Sam Bodin or the music from Drum & Lace, or the strong performances from a cast including Lizzy Caplan and Antony Starr—but hopefully you also caught the dark, rich, Halloween vibes in the production design.

I found myself looking into corners of shots when I could, noticing the magnets covering the old-fashioned fridge, the textures of the wallpapers, the organization of the upstairs bedrooms with the clear eyeline from Peter's room to his parents', and the rundown porch leading to a backyard filled with pumpkins.

It was all built for the film. This is the work of the art department, led by Alan Gilmore, production designer. He's been an art director on multiple Harry Potter films (and even helped design the Wizarding World parks), and recent production design credits include The Pope's Exorcist and Crawl.

Gilmore was kind enough to speak with NFS via Zoom about his work on Cobweb. Go behind the scenes (and into the walls) of this horror film.

Cobweb (2023) Official Trailer – Lizzy Caplan, Woody Norman, Cleopatra Coleman, Antony Starrwww.youtube.com

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NFS: Your body of work is so impressive. I was looking at your IMDb last night and being like, Harry Potter, World War Z, all of these movies that I love.

Alan Gilmore: That's very kind. I have to say, I've been very lucky with the work I've had over the years. I'm Irish. I came from the west of Ireland. I went to Dublin then to study architecture, and then I met some filmmakers in Dublin when I was quite young. And I happened to see a movie set when I was 16 in the west of Ireland. And I was going, what is this thing? It's amazing. I saw a fake building, going, how is this possible?

And that kind of hooked me at that point. So architecture, bye-bye. Hello, movies, I'm coming your way. So I had to be involved in movies. It took a long time to get in, but I eventually broke into some movies in Dublin, in Ireland, some small Irish movies, and then luckily, back in that time, a lot of the movies in Ireland were made by a U.K. film crew from London, and those guys are super experienced, so they make all the amazing movies over there. So I followed them back to London at one point and started to get some work. And I went to London for two weeks, and here I am many, many years later, I haven't gone back.

NFS: It sounds like you had the formal training.

Gilmore: Yeah, my architecture training was perfect, actually. I didn't know it at the time, but I learned all about buildings, history, psychology, light, color. I learned all these things without knowing they were very important to filmmaking. And I always had a background interest in filmmaking, but I didn't really know what it was because when I was young, we didn't really have a formal film industry or movie industry where I'm from, but it's got a lot better now.

So I was in Ireland last year working on a movie called The Pope's Exorcist, and the new crews, the younger crews are just incredible. They are so knowledgeable and so educated. I go, "Wow, this is super exciting." It's really cool. They're kind of world-class at their work. So that was a really good experience for me.

I've been very lucky. I've been traveling the world. I've worked in many different jobs. I have somehow now become the horror guy, so I like that. I do like horror because my country is steeped in history and Gothic religion and history and dark stories, so I feel I fit that world quite well.

'Cobweb''Cobweb'Vlad Cioplea/Courtesy of Lionsgate

NFS: You mentioned in our email that you collaborated closely with director Sam Bodin. What did that look like?

Gilmore: So I'm, like anybody, an avid watcher of streaming shows and Netflix especially, and I'd seen Marianne and I loved Marianne. I thought it was the most amazing show. There are several shows that really jump out to me, Marianne and Dark, from Germany. Those are two of my favorite shows ever and I watch them over and over again. And so I saw Marianne, going, this is incredible. The language and the colors are very Irish in a way. I'm from the Atlantic Ocean, I'm from mountains, I'm from wild places, so Sam's vision in Marianne really resonated with me, and I went, this show's amazing. I want to work with this guy somehow.

So bizarrely, I mentioned the show to my agent in LA and she said, "The director's doing a movie. Do you want to try and go for it?" I said, "Please get me in there." So I interviewed with Sam a few times, and we got on a house on fire. That was Cobweb. And this is literally in the middle of the pandemic, so it was a bizarre time. And so yeah, I landed the job and I talked to the studio, it was Lionsgate, and they said, "Okay, here's the deal, Alan. You're going to have to move to Eastern Europe for six months. You cannot see your family for six months. You have to stay in one apartment for six months. Will you do this?" I said, "You know what? For Sam Bodin? Yes, I will."

So we all did it. A bunch of us jumped on planes, we all landed in Bulgaria, and we made this movie, and it was an amazing journey. Sam is amazing. He's a pure artist, totally different kind of artist, and I knew that from Marianne, but he proves it again in Cobweb.

NFS: So what were those early discussions about how things should look?

Gilmore: Well, early on, my job is to come in and pitch a lookbook. I have to create a lookbook. I create the look of the script. So I read the script and I say, "I think the movie should look like this." I create the house, the environment, the set dressing, the colors, the palette, the shadows, the tone. So I pitch all of that early on. And as I always know, it'll change. It always changes.

But with Sam, I pretty much kind of landed, I say, five out of six of my ideas, you could say, is that weird geometry of numbers there. But we had a lot of meetings to say about, "Alan, I think this should be that and this should be that." So we got deeper into the house, deeper into the world. We built all of this movie. It's all sets. So we were never in America, we were never anywhere else. It's all done in Bulgaria. We had to create Pennsylvania or that kind of environment in Eastern Europe, which is not easy. Not easy at all. But it worked out.

Sam had a very strong vision for the movie, what it should look like. We also worked with Chris Devlin, the writer, but mainly Sam. He is very visual. He understands light, especially in shadow. And I had to teach him a bit about American architecture. I've been very lucky to work on many American movies. I've lived in America for many years, so I know the world quite well. But he helped me twist it. We twisted everything just that strange extra 10 or 15%. And then of course, I started to feed off that energy so I started to propose weird colors, weird patterns.

When you see the movie, there are shapes hidden everywhere. Octagons. There are octagons throughout the movie. The reason for Octagons is eight, and eight is how many legs a spider has. I tend to drop in a very small detail like that and then use it everywhere. So throughout the movie, there are octagon shapes, 45-degree angles, all the wallpapers, the windows. It's all about spiders. It's all about this kind of underlying theme of this movie. And we wanted the world to feel, again, a little bit off. The scale of the sets were bigger, the colors were bigger, and stranger, everything was just a little bit weird. We had to make it that bit more weird, and I really enjoyed that journey with Sam.

'Cobweb''Cobweb' Vlad Cioplea/Courtesy of Lionsgate

NFS: I love those details. That's what I'm obsessed with. I also love that script. I think that script is amazing.

Gilmore: It's a really good script, and it is very different. And I think for some people, maybe it's too much. I think some people need to see the movie a few times to understand it, but to me it's a very powerful story and very powerful storytelling. It's different. It's not your formulaic filmmaking journey. It doesn't exactly have a start, middle and end. It kind of leaves you going, what is going on here? Why is this happening? That's important. You don't want to know what's going on sometimes. You have to let your own mind create that journey.

NFS: I also was going to bring up the exteriors. So all of that, the street, was—

Gilmore: Yeah, one giant set. We built a big set in Bulgaria. The whole thing. So all the exterior was a big set. We built two different houses externally, a front house and a back house, and then all the inside is a bunch of sets, 10 or 12 sets.

NFS: I love the feeling of that street, how nobody's there, it feels very desolate.

Gilmore: Yeah, we're very lucky. The studio we worked in in Bulgaria is an old ex Russians studio, ex-communist studio, and it's got lots of debris, lots of remnants, and I could borrow from that. So in a way, I know it's really strange at this moment in time politically, but I could borrow from Eastern ideas, eastern design. So for example, you know the refrigerator they pull from the wall, and you see that secret door? That was a Russian refrigerator. I made it American. So I restyled it as an American refrigerator.

So I had this great set decorator who's local to Bulgaria, and she was like, "Alan, can we use this thing?" And I said, "Yes, but we have to make a new color, we have to make new graphics."

So I took a lot of their world and I manipulated it back into our world. And that gives Cobweb a slightly strange feeling because it's familiar, because again, American design, especially mid-century and older American houses, have a certain aesthetic to them.

They're very different to European. So I had to be very careful not to be European at all. I had to avoid European. So I was very specific with my team in Bulgaria that, no, we can't have that thing. It's too European looking. And they go, "What do you mean, Alan? It's perfect." "No, no, it looks European. We can't have that."

So I became hated sometimes because I'm so specific about things and details and colors. Here's another example. The wallpaper in Peter's bedroom, the balloons, I worked on that for weeks with Sam and the DP, Philip Lozano. We worked for so long on that, on the colors, the tone, the design, the texture. That wallpaper told a story. It was all about Peter and his fantasy of being in the world, and yet, he's a boy trapped in a small room.

'Cobweb''Cobweb'Courtesy of Lionsgate

NFS: I do feel like I noticed that there were anachronistic things in the house, like the washing machine and the fridge. So it did have that sense of being just a little bit off, but it still felt lived in.

Gilmore: Well, it's a journey to go on because, again, when you design a movie, you're given a script, and it's a moment in time. So we're given a moment in time when Peter is a certain age, the parents are a certain age. We only cover a short time period, a few weeks maybe, a few days, but you still have to go backwards and forwards from that moment so you have to get backstory going. So with Sam, I spoke a lot about, "Tell me about Peter when he was a baby. Tell me about the parents when they were married. Where did they come from?" And Sam's going, "Well, I don't know because I didn't create that story." I said, "Well, you need to create it now because I have to create that world that they came from. I need to know if the dad is a construction guy. Is he good at DIY? Can he fix things?" So we learn all about him with hand tools and fixing things in the house. He's the one that created the hidden room, that strange little door, that strange room where the sister's living. We had to work out why are those things there? What's the logic here? That's my architect's head. I want a bit of logic, but I want strange logic. I want it to be weird.

NFS: With Peter's room, what did you create there in terms of his backstory?

Gilmore: Well, we were trying to do in Peter's room is that his mother, Carol, she's still mothers him like a baby, and he's a young boy. He's eight or nine. He's starting to become, not a young adult yet, but he's starting to become more aware. So really, he is starting to see the world in a very different way, and that's why he's starting to recognize the strange noises and the strange happenings, his parents strange behavior, but yet, his parents are still treating him like a little tiny child, like a four-year-old. And his bedroom kind of tells that story where very much the toys, the rug, the bed dressing, they're all very much of a smaller child. And behind his bed, there's little hanging detail of little planets and little details. They want to keep him small, but they can't hold him back. He's growing, and that's what that room's all about.

'Cobweb''Cobweb' Vlad Cioplea/Courtesy of Lionsgate

NFS: A lot of times with beginning filmmakers, you'll see very sparse sets. It's either that maybe they don't have a production designer or they don't have the money.

Gilmore: Well, again, you have to look at real life. You have to look at how you live and how real people live. Look at your parents, look at your friends. Look around you. How does the real world exist? People are messy. Things happen there. Things get left lying around. It shouldn't be perfect. It has to tell reality because we all, as humans, are conditioned to understand where we are, and we subliminally pick up on little details.

Again, I'm looking where I'm sitting right now, I'm at a desk, and it's messy. Things should be messy. They should not be perfectly tidy.

If they're working on a movie that says we want an exactly perfect symmetric world, that's fine. You go for that. But if you're trying to tell some sense of reality, you should try and reflect reality so when people watch the show, it should feel so real. They should go, "Oh my God, that's absolutely, totally real. I believe I'm in this house in Pennsylvania right now," even though you're actually in a box, in a sound stage in Sofia, in Bulgaria.

You just never know. And that's the journey you have to sell. You have to sell the fake worlds that you're trying to create. But real world, small details are so important. I think set dressing is so, so important. Colors, graphics, and patina. Make things look old and used. That's so important as well.

NFS: Would you have any advice for people maybe wanting to get started in production design or the art department?

Gilmore: I learned in the U.K., European system where you basically start at the bottom. And how we do it over here is, even though I had a degree in architecture, I went back in literally at the bottom. I started out helping copy on a copying machine, making coffee, talking to people, and then I was given more jobs, bigger jobs. Over years, I earned bigger, bigger. And then I was eventually given my own movie set to design. Then I got to do two sets to design. Then they said, "Alan, do you want to go to North Africa and run the North African part of this movie?" So it gets bigger and bigger, and eventually, you don't even realize it's happening, but it's all seeping into you as knowledge. And then the day comes when you do a whole movie and go, I can do this. It's like jumping off a bridge. You just jump. You go for it. Or a bungee jump. Something like that.

'Cobweb''Cobweb'Courtesy of Lionsgate

NFS: You already mentioned a couple of things, Dark, Marianne. I love Dark. Do you have any other recommendations or favorites?

Gilmore: Gosh, I'm really big into Ari Aster, the filmmaker. Amazing. I've got a buddy who's been working with Robert Eggers, so I'm a big Robert Eggers fan. I'm generally into the darker stuff. These guys are great filmmakers. They're all very young, they're very new, but their ideas are amazing. Their use of all the skills of filmmaking, light, set design, color tone, costume, you name it, they're all fantastic. I'm also really big into camera work, DPs, directors of photography. I've tried to follow as many as I can. I think it's a very valuable lesson for production designers to learn as much as they can from photography, because really, at the end of the day, you can design a beautiful set, but it has to be lit. And if you're good, you can actually influence that lighting.

So for me, I tend to place things like windows where I want the light to be. So I will come in with a set design and I'll tell the director of photography, "This is where I want the light to be." And most times they agree, sometimes they don't, but I've been lucky so far. But yeah, you want to try and be part of that creative process. There's always a shifting dynamic. Many years ago, a production designer was the main creative. Now, it's more of a trinity of production designer, director of photography, and director. And that that'll shift again. There'll be other creatives who get involved, the producers, the writers. Everybody has strong ideas and we all have to work together. So it's a very interesting journey. It's like a bunch of people in the boat together all rowing in one direction, or trying to.

NFS: What advice would you have for collaborating effectively?

Gilmore: I think just be a good listener. And really, when you get a script, learn the script, memorize it, try and get deep into it. Try and, again, like I said, get the backstory. If something's missing, just ask. Why is this person doing this thing at this moment? Don't be afraid to ask.

Filmmaking is not a tablet and set in stone. It's not a permanent detail. Scriptwriting is not permanent. It's open to interpretation, and often, the filmmaking creatives are open to your ideas as well. If you can help improve that moment, they'll absolutely buy into that.

'Cobweb''Cobweb' Vlad Cioplea/Courtesy of Lionsgate

NFS: Is there anything that I didn't ask that you wanted to bring up?

Gilmore: I'm just thinking back because we made it two years ago, two and a half years ago, so I'm just trying to think back to what other the things we had. It was just a very interesting time because we were working with a team in Bulgaria who are more Eastern European in their nature, and they're not so educated on the U.S. or Western stories, so we had to try and help them understand where horror comes from.

Horror is quite new to these people, the whole genre of horror making, and horror films have become much bigger in the last few years. It's become a much more bigger art form, I would say. It's not just about scares. It's more subliminal, more theoretical. Sam Bodin is an amazing new energy in horror filmmaking I think. I think his ideas are quite different, and they're not quite fully understood yet, I would say, but they will be. I think he's a pioneer.

NFS: I think it kind of got lost in the Barbie/Oppenheimer weekend.

Gilmore: Yeah. It's super frustrating because I've done a few movies the last couple of years and they've all had the same journey where they kind of disappeared. And they're all really good movies, but it's almost like the studios are afraid to show them to people because they're going, "These are different and we're not sure if the general audience will accept these."

I seek out this kind of movie. That's what I want to do. Yes, I have Harry Potter as a background experience, but I want to take what I learned off Harry Potter and bring that into this new world of much more artistic filmmaking.

I'm a huge fan of A24, of their filmmaking. Absolutely love what they do. They're brilliant. I want to work with them someday. I think they are a pioneer at this point. With the world being so commercial, they're digging a different path in a way, they're going another way, and all their movies are fantastic.

NFS: I think this will definitely be a movie I revisit, especially around Halloween.

Gilmore: We actually reference John Carpenter a lot. You can probably see it in the movie. We spend a lot of time going back into classic horror. What should it be? We watched all the John Carpenter movies hundreds of times, borrowing, like the pumpkins, all of that.

Sam wanted this movie to feel familiar. It had to feel somewhat familiar, but then it has to feel very different and very strange.