Mild spoilers for Don't Worry Darling ahead. While all the alleged drama surrounding the Don’t Worry Darling set may have left a sour taste in your mouth, the film's set design itself is sure to leave your palate feeling cleansed—and give you a renewed sense of appreciation for the movie's message.
The film, which premiered on September 23, 2022, takes place in the fictional town of Victory, a California desert retreat home to the mysterious and mighty "Victory Project." But the real-life setting is Palm Springs, a cinematic goldmine of dramatic mountains, cloudless skies, and neatly arranged palm trees. The locale is defined by its many mid-century modern masterpieces and is the birthplace of Desert Modernism style, making it the perfect backdrop for the film's vision. The chance to shoot in the West Coast hot spot, production designer Katie Byron tells Marie Claire, was a “pipe dream”-turned reality. “Olivia [Wilde] and [screenwriter] Katie Silberman always thought that Palm Springs would be where the film would take place,” she says.
Central to Don’t Worry Darling’s visual identity is the Richard Neutra-designed Kaufmann Desert House—the home immortalized in Slim Aarons’s iconic “Poolside Gossip” photograph—where Victory Project's passionate creator, Frank (Chris Pine), lives with his wife (Gemma Chan). “We saw a variety of ostentatious big mid-century homes and nothing was really working,” Byron says. “And then we got a call from [location manager] Chris Baugh that our dream [of using the Kaufmann House] was actually going to work. We threw all of our eggs in that basket and ran with it.”
Frank maintains his power through mystique, defining Victory as “freedom from society's arbitrary regulations” without ever revealing to the female residents the blueprints to his own master plan. And despite being the community's leader, we rarely see him in his own home. “Frank is kind of like [Richard] Neutra in the sense that he's a meticulous, self-involved designer,” Byron explains. “He knows exactly what he loves in his world-building,” she adds, pointing to the osmosis between storyline and set.
During early discussions of the movie's production design, Bryon kept referencing the words “dark and surreal.” Ultimately that led to the idea of a “hedonistic, debaucherous approach to a utopic 1950s society.” In her work, she referenced that decade's TV shows and ads, but knew she needed to push the inspiration to the extremes to have more of an on-screen impact. “I think that those images, although they were successful in the '50s, wouldn't work on our consciousness now,” Byron says.
That's best represented through the home of Alice (Florence Pugh) and Jack (Harry Styles). But the home also proved the most tricky of sets—Byron and set decorator Rachael Ferrara had to create a U-shaped glass replica of the house, owing to its low, not-so-camera-friendly ceilings. Filming in the replica altered Byron’s original vision, she says, but it ended up creating a more intimate, voyeuristic feel. “Who's watching you?” she describes of the vibe. “Is it your partner from the other room? Are you seeing him from across the atrium?”
Audiences spend most of their time in the set because Alice spends much of her day at home, cooking elaborate meals, scrubbing surfaces, and hanging laundry to dry. Her home is the grounding space for her entire arc to build—being seduced by her charming and handsome husband, plays hostess at boozy dinner parties for fellow Victory residents—and is also where her arc unravels.
Living in a home of glass and mirrors, she’s constantly followed by her own reflection. As she grows more isolated, her home is the only thing that validates a feeling she can’t shake. “She's still good at cleaning, she's still good at cooking,” Byron says, “but she’s starting to lose track of what reality is.”
Alice grapples with mounting distortions of time and space—waking up in her bed without any memory of falling asleep, bearing sole witness to a mysterious plane crash—while her distress is ignored by everyone around her. As she wipes and wipes her glass house clean, the walls literally close in on her.
Then, of course, there’s the big, capital-T Twist, which reveals The Victory Project’s reality. While it’s unclear whether Alice’s revelation led to Victory’s collapse, the patriarchal paradise only ever existed because women were given certain comforts, too. “Victory is a simulation designed for men,” Byron says, “But it also had to keep women there. You have to play on a sense of intrigue and consciousness.”
It explains the simple, playful details throughout Alice’s home—small statues, ceramic birds—which bring an unexpected levity to disrupt the movie's dark underbelly. “There's a lot of sweetness; a lot of cute things, odd things,” Byron says. It’s something, she adds, is often missing from psychological thrillers: a chance to infuse a space with flourishes that speak to the housewife’s own version of her femininity. The architecture's masculine stone and concrete is softened by curtains and high pile rugs. Even Alice's own wardrobe parallels the textiles layered throughout her living spaces. “I've never seen that done in a thriller, so we really wanted to push that feeling,” Byron says. “We threw a lot of Alice in there,” Ferrara adds.
Even if the film itself leaves something to be desired, the design of Don’t Worry Darling deserves a close look—if only to marvel at its domestic beauty. Because the film was shot at the height of pandemic lockdowns, it came to represent “a dream of what real life could be,” Byron says. “Inviting people over and drinking cocktails sounded so fun.”
Lucia Tonelli is the Social Media Editor at Marie Claire, where she oversees and creates content across the magazine’s social platforms. In addition to her work on social, Lucia writes about fashion, interior design, royals, and culture. Prior to Marie Claire, Lucia held positions at Town & Country and ELLE Decor. When she’s not sleuthing the internet, she can be found tending to her sourdough starter or placing bids on vintage furniture she doesn’t need.
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