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.
“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.”
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.
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.”