INTERVIEW: Production Designer Cynthia Charette And The Mysterious Benedict Society on Disney+
The Mysterious Benedict Society is a Disney+ series based on a quartet of children’s books by Trenton Lee Stewart, in which four children unite to save the world. Now wrapping up its second season, the show brought in production designer Cynthia Charette (Pumpkin head, You) to continue the unique, stylized vibe.
In the series, four children, Reynard (Mystic Inscho), “Sticky” (Seth Carr), Kate (Emmy DeOliveira) and Constance (Marta Kessler), are either orphans or outcasts recruited by Nicholas Benedict (Tony Hale). The children are chosen because they have innovative, intelligent minds and unique, complementary skills. For example, Reynard is super smart, Sticky remembers everything he reads, Kate is a clever creator with a bucket of tricks, and Constance is a force of nature even though she is the youngest member. The kids learn to be a team in season one as they save the world. In season two, they do a bit of globetrotting.
PopAxiom spoke with Cynthia Charette about her career and becoming a part of The Mysterious Benedict Society.
Cynthia’s story begins in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was “the artist at school and knew I didn’t want to sit behind a desk.” But Cynthia “found theater. So I went to Syracuse University and majored in Theater Design which I love. You get to create worlds on stage for the story.”
“I moved to New York and soon found out that it was hard to make a living in theater,” she laughs, “I had a friend who was a director from USC. He was raising money for his first film, a low-budget horror film. budget called The Offspring. We had a budget of $250,000 and it was an anthology.”
At this point, Cynthia was ready to work on anything she could get her hands on. “So I went to Georgia to make the movie.”
“For my first film out, we had an anthology that included the Civil War, the 1930s carnival, the 1950s and the 1970s.” A wild mix of eras that require very different details. No pressure. “I was the designer, costume designer and set painter, and my crew were free kids from high school. I loved it. It hooked me. I knew I wanted to do it. I have to be creative and practical.”
Now hooked on production design, Cynthia moved to Los Angeles and “after about six months I got my next job.” Her budding career took her into two projects – Shock and Another nightmare — with horror legend Wes Craven. “I loved Wes. He was a good mentor for me.”
Cynthia also worked with Stan Winston on his directorial debut Pumpkin head. “You know, Stan Winston and Wes Craven let me come to them with stories and ideas. Like the graveyard in Pumpkin head, it wasn’t even in the script. They wanted me to take the visuals to another level.”
About The Mysterious Benedict Society
“I knew nothing about the show or the story. But my agent called me and said they were interested, she says of the path to becoming a part of The Mysterious Benedict Society. “So I watched season one and was like, ‘No, you’re kidding!’ I’ve been training for this show my whole life.”
“I reflected [recently] that some of these projects I did were called a Trust Beatrice and another called Trade mother with Sissy Spacek, they let me be so creative. I have to build worlds, and I mean every handstand, everything you see. These projects were similar to what I am doing now Mysterious Benedict Society.”
In the interview, Cynthia, who has an extensive portfolio, “put together all the creative things I had done for other similar productions.”
The Mysterious Benedict Society is a show for tweens or early teens, and the production immerses viewers in a vivid, detailed and stylized world. Each scene looks like a flavor of ice cream. “It certainly makes sense. It’s a plan. It’s not random. We care about every detail.”
“I have to keep the crew on the same page, but keep it fun and creative for them to keep them engaged,” she says of her day-to-day work. “If we all work together, it will work, and you can tell the shows where they’re just overshadowing certain things.”
It’s not blue
The Mysterious Benedict Society is a show full of vibrant, complimentary colors. Each character is distinct in attitude and motivation, and appearance. So how do they make such rich colors play together? “Colour is a gift I have. I’m known for it. People say ‘blue’ and I say, ‘No, that’s HC150, or that’s HC153’, I can tell the difference.”
“They didn’t have the color pronounced like me, but I studied season one,” she says of taking the production design reigns for season two. Michael Wylie (Pushing Daisies) was a production designer on season one of the series, so what information did Cynthia receive? “I love Michael. The tone was set. We studied it and looked at where we had to go. We travel across Europe, so wherever we go, as I create these different worlds, tonally, they ebb.”
The interplay between colors taken from the production and the costumes is worth seeing The Mysterious Benedict Society. Especially for cinephiles. How do Cynthia and costume designer Chris Karvonides work together? “I set a specific palette and then I work with Chris and props and decorate to match things.”
“But sometimes Chris had to make a costume before a set even started,” she continues, reminding us that film and television productions are in constant motion. “Her trailer was right next to my trailer. I ran over there many times, looked at her fabric, held my palette up to it, and that’s the care we put into it. Especially when it comes to color, it works. We both cared so much.”
“When you get a show like Benedict where you can make a storybook come alive, we won’t let it down. We raise the bar and keep it as high as it needs to stay.”
Production designers create worlds around the actors we know and love to help tell the stories we can’t get enough of. Season two of The Mysterious Benedict Society takes things up a level, including vehicles, which takes up an important aspect of production. “The vehicles emerged from the junkyard. I have to design all of these. The VFX team would get designs. It’s also important for production and visual FX to work together early on.”
“The first time I try to read it through,” she says of reading the script and the start of the process. “It’s hard; my mind goes into visualization immediately. Then, the second pass, I start breaking it down to figure out all the sets.”
What does breaking it down mean for Cynthia? “We look at the number of pages. If there are five pages in one set, we know they want to spend more money, or it’s a bigger set. If I get an eighth of a page in a big set, I talk to the producer about how we want to get it done, or will it be cut.”
“Our show has a lot of sets,” she adds, “and unfortunately the budget takes priority. Sometimes you have to fight for a set because you feel it’s important.”
Cynthia’s influences include films such as “Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bangthereafter Beetle juice and Lemony Snicket’s, only creative worlds. But also films from the 30s, Art Deco and glamour. I either love fantasy, like joyful fantasy, or absolute beauty. All beautifully designed.”
“It’s not in my DNA to blow up and kill,” she laughs, “but to design beauty and worlds. Never Ending Story is another favorite of mine. I would like to make a period piece that Pride and Prejudice. I love too Succession. But I would like to do a remake of something glamorous from the 30s or 40s.
Season two of The Mysterious Benedict Society is now available on Disney+. So, what’s next for Cynthia? “I’m busy with other projects until we hear about season three Benedict.”
Is The Mysterious Benedict Society on your watch list?
Thanks to Cynthia Charette and Metro PR
to make this interview possible.
Find more interviews from Ruben R. Diaz!