great rooms

A Padded Cell to Call Home

How did they make that disturbing foam-and-felt apartment on Search Party?

The felt apartment, which is slightly smaller than the non-felt apartment set. Photo: Jon Pack/Courtesy of HBO Max
The felt apartment, which is slightly smaller than the non-felt apartment set. Photo: Jon Pack/Courtesy of HBO Max

Search Party has always been a deliberately off-kilter TV show. But in season four, which premiered this past January on HBO Max, the dark comedy was at its most surreal when Alia Shawkat’s character, Dory Sief, is kidnapped by Cole Escola’s delusional, obsessive Chip, as part of a plot to convince her he was her best friend. First, he chains her in the basement and shaves her head to use her hair for a Barbie doll in her likeness. But he also wants to make her feel at home, so he re-creates her apartment entirely in … felt and foam.

Got that? You kind of have to see the show. But the re-creation was an interesting challenge to production designer Danica Pantic, who, along with set designer Casey Adams and art director Cara Alpert, had to make the stuffed world come alive.

The Living Room: “There’s this one centerpiece on the coffee table, a little boat; it’s a cookie jar in her real apartment and that alone ended up taking a full week to make and the person who made it did an amazing job to scale the replica.” Photo: Jon Pack/Courtesy of HBO Max
Dory’s non-felt original apartment. Photo: Mark Schafer
The Record: “The record is an important element of the story. Chip keeps playing ‘Groove Is in the Heart’ over and over again throughout the season, and I thought that he’d definitely make a copy for Dory, since her record player is a prominent setpiece in her real apartment. It’s a little Easter egg.” Photo: Jon Pack/Courtesy of HBO Max

“It was just one apartment with four rooms,” Pantic says of the felt set. “It took us three months. There were 20 people in our office making stuff in foam. I started in October and we shot it after Christmas.”

They took the job, and the rules of its world, very seriously. “In the script it said that the felted apartment was an exact replica of Dory’s actual apartment, and because Dory eventually uses a chicken bone to escape, it was very important to Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss,” the show’s creators and showrunners, “that absolutely nothing in the apartment have anything hard in it,” says Pantic. “If any of the objects had wire or anything besides foam and felt, Dory could have used it to escape.”

The Kitchen: “We ended up cheating by using cardboard in some places to make skeletons of some of the bigger pieces like the kitchen appliances, but because we knew we’d have a scene where Dory tries to tear the apartment up (and not enough money or labor to make doubles of everything), most of the set really was felt and foam,” Pantic says. Photo: Jon Pack/Courtesy of HBO Max
The Kitchen: “It’s really hard to make a fridge that is entirely soft but stands!” Pantic says, laughing. Photo: Jon Pack/Courtesy of HBO Max.
The Kitchen: “It’s really hard to make a fridge that is entirely soft but stands!” Pantic says, laughing. Photo: Jon Pack/Courtesy of HBO Max.
Alia Shawkat and John Reynolds in the original apartment. Photo: HBO Max

They were very exact, right down to the felt food inside the fridge. She credits art director Cara Alpert because “she is also a seamstress and costume designer, so she understands how fabric works.” But “all the construction guys, when we handed them the plans, they were like, ‘What the fuck is this?’ They just know how to use wood and sheetrock.”

Pantic, an artist and textile designer, is a native of Belgrade, Serbia, and fled the country with her mother during the war, first to Paris, then arriving in New York right before 9/11 at the age of 14. “I could speak English,” she says, “but not completely fluently. Kind of the only place I fit in was with theater kids.” She got a job building sets at a theater, The Duke on 42nd Street, during high school, and polished up her English watching movies and listening to song lyrics. After graduating in 2009 from Wesleyan, where she studied theater, she got a job at an architecture firm. “The thing that appealed to me about theater and architecture is that you get to create an entirely new world,” she says.

The Bedroom: “Dory’s apartment had a lot of sleek mid-century pieces, which means that the seating is all free-standing with no sturdy base. For both the bed and the couch, we ended up putting one thick piece of foam that we covered in black felt to hold up the mattress and the couch seat. I got the idea from my theater days, where dressing something in black signifies to the audience that it doesn’t exist in the world of the story, and the trick luckily worked on camera as well.” Photo: Jon Pack/Courtesy of HBO Max

But theater was her true love, and she came to the conclusion that a life in any creative field was going to be risky. A few of her friends had started careers in film and TV, so she decided to switch to that and found her home. “I just started feeding myself into the New York City crew meat grinder and got addicted to it.” She met Charles Rogers after a friend of hers who had worked on the show for the first two seasons left, and got the job as production designer for seasons three and four.

For all the wacky things the show lets her do, this project was her favorite — so far. “A lot of the foam apartment was a challenge,” Pantic says, “but once we got started, things just kept coming to life. The most difficult thing about this season was honestly dipping into the foam world and then having to come out of it to work on the rest of the season, because I loved being in the foam universe so much.”

The View: “The cityscape was another layer in the onion — the light changes as the show progresses, and in the logic of the story, Chip has a way to control day and night for Dory. We were originally going to make a quilted cityscape backdrop for that element, but Jonathan Furmanski, the director of photography, and I thought it might be fun to make the space three-dimensional, and to give it a little twinkle.” Photo: Jon Pack/Courtesy of HBO Max
The Bathroom: She wanted to give props to her hardworking felting team: Abby Manock, Kevin Cabello, Shelby Tuper, Morgan Mein, Lex Blake, Dennis Thomas, and Eric O’Casio. Photo: Jon Pack/Courtesy of HBO Max
How Search Party’s All-Foam-and-Felt Apartment Was Made