‘Only Murders in the Building’: Crafting a Marriage of Old and New, Comedic and Dramatic

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Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with Hulu, for this edition we look at how production designer Curt Beech, composer Siddhartha Khosla, and costume designer Dana Covarrubias created the world of “Only Murders in the Building.”

A huge part of the success of “Only Murders in the Building” is its ability to nail a distinct tone and world. It’s a comedy mixed with a murder mystery. It’s in some respects a throwback, but with a self-referential “let’s make a podcast” edge. It’s grounded in specific physical architecture and culture of New York City, but it’s also a self-contained story world with its own internal logic and fictional addition to the covetable real estate of the Upper West Side: the Arconia. It’s part Steve Martin, part Selena Gomez.

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The show is able to effortlessly maintain this balance in large part due to its masterful craft. As you will see in the videos below, the production design, score, and costumes are remarkably precise in how interprets Martin’s and co-creator John Hoffman’s vision for the hit Hulu series.

The Production Design of “Only Murders in the Building”

Although “Only Murders in the Building” takes place largely in the apartments, hallways, and elevators of the Arconia, it is unmistakably a show that could only take place in New York City — and that was part of the fun for production designer Curt Beech. “You do get this cross-section of society in New York that you don’t get in a lot of other places,” he told IndieWire. “You get all of these people stacked on top of one another, and in a building like this that’s 120 years old, you don’t know when these things changed hands. The apartments may have been in families for a very, very long time.”

When designing the individual apartments, Beech thought about their histories and used the residences to convey something about the socioeconomic status of the characters living in them. Steve Martin’s Charles, for example, has the newest furnishings and most tasteful artwork because he invested wisely and has kept his apartment up to date; Martin Short’s Oliver once had money, but it’s been a while, so his upgrades are frozen in another time. Mabel, played by Selena Gomez, is the youngest and least well off of the group, staying in her aunt’s place, so the apartment — like Mabel herself — is in a state of transition.

The Score of “Only Murders in the Building”

The music of “Only Murders in the Building” is as eclectic a mix of elements as the show itself. Composer Siddhartha Khosla needed to craft a sound that balanced the intrigue and playful comedy of the show’s tone, the classic grandeur of the Arconia,  and the modern sharpness of a true crime podcast, yet still be cohesive — to still sound like itself. Luckily, Khosla already had some modern classical music running through his head when he began collaborating with Hoffman. In one of their phone calls, Khosla riffed on an idea that grew into the track “Vantage”; the comedy, romance, drama, and mystery within the piece moved Hoffman to declare, “That’s my show right there.”

A theme quickly followed, which Khosla also played for Hoffman over the phone and proved to be such an earworm that it turned into the main title track for the entire series. Much of Khosla’s work crystallized around that thematic core of “old and new, reflective of Steve [Martin] and Martin [Short] and Selena, and the multigenerational aspect of the show.” Khosla took pleasure in modulating and varying the main theme so that, much like “Only Murders in the Building” itself, sometimes it’s bouncier and more playful, sometimes more plaintive, intriguing, or mysterious. The theme is also grounded in the setting in more ways than one. Khosla added percussion on Home Depot buckets to give the score a propulsive spirit that’s as lively and diverse as New York City, and seeded in double-reed variations to reflect the presence of bassoonist Jan (Amy Ryan) and how she fits into the show and into the investigations of the three main characters.

Throughout his work on the score, Khosla always tried evoke the landscape of the show’s main setting, making music that is “almost part of the architecture of the building.” “It feels almost like there could be somebody in a window just playing that [music],” he said. “When you’re in the elevator, I have my little elevator theme — that theme feels like it’s playing on a speaker inside the elevator or something. The music of the show is what’s inside the walls of the Arconia.”

The Costumes of “Only Murders in the Building”

Costume designer Dana Covarrubias says she was as inspired and influenced by the personal styles of the show’s three stars as she was by the characters they were playing. She told IndieWire that her initial conversations with Steve Martin, for example, were helpful because “we basically decided that Charles was a version of Steve. Steve wears those hats a lot, though with a slightly different brim.”

For Martin Short’s character, Oliver, the concern was conveying a sense of showmanship without going over the top. “Every time we tried an outfit on Marty we had a discussion of whether it was the right balance — showy but still grounded in reality enough where you’re not taken out of the story,” Covarrubias said. And for Selena Gomez, the key was transforming her from a pop icon into the more unadorned character of Mabel in a way that felt comfortable for the actress. “We wanted to create a character that [she] could step into, starting with the shoes and going from there. Her clothes are loose and a bit bohemian; it’s a totally different style from what Selena wears in real life. We wanted to define the character as separate from Selena.”

The end result for all three characters was what Covarrubias described as a psychology-based approach to costumes, in which each outfit and each change told the audience something about not only how the characters saw themselves, but how they hoped to be seen by others.— Sarah Shachat and Jim Hemphill

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