James Gunn’s Peacemaker has kicked, punched, and danced his way into our hearts – whether we like it or not! Now that we are halfway through the hilarious first season, we had a chance to speak with production designer Lisa Soper (Pretty Little Liars, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) about what her collaboration process was like with director James Gunn, her love of comics, and how she came up with the look of Peacemaker’s red, white, and blue Americana trailer.
Warning: May Contain Mild Spoilers
Nerds and Beyond: Just to jump right into it, I was curious about what the research process was like for Peacemaker. Did you read any of the comics, and what did you do to immerse yourself in the world of this specific version of Peacemaker?
Lisa Soper: I’m a huge comic book fan, which is mostly why I was attracted to the show anyhow. And I started digging through my cabinets trying to find comics. Because I knew that I used to have some Peacemaker comics, and when I couldn’t find them I started ordering them. I got everything that I could, and I found some of the old Vigilante comics, that kind of thing. And, that’s for me, first and foremost, where I like to start. Especially before we get the script process room. Just so that we know who these characters are, and who the rest of the world knows them as. So that we have that kind of baseline to start from.
Nerds and Beyond: So this is, you could say, a very, um, specific version of these characters, but they feel very whole – if that makes sense. Like even the minor characters feel like they have very full and present backstories that motivate them. So I was wondering what was the process like with James Gunn to achieve that feeling that everyone inhabiting the world feels like a complex and complete character?
Lisa Soper: It was very complex and very detailed. James likes to put together these meetings every week. We called them the “visual development meetings” where basically we all get together, and I put together a presentation which includes everything from what color pencils do these guys have? Do they use them? What’s their favorite drink? How do they lay out their drawers in their kitchen? What type of vehicle do they drive? Where did they get it from? Why did they buy that vehicle?
And if we’re going to build a ship, how does it work? How does it operate? How does it actually physically unfold? Like practically, how to do that with something – even though we know that we’re going to animate with CG, we want to make sure that these things actually physically work in the world. And make sense so that they can be relatable.
So that the characters are relatable, and they all have their own backstory, they all have their own spot, right? Like even the stuff that we collected for the big shoot-out, it was things that all made sense. From where Vigilante would have found everything, to how long it would have been sitting there for. There’s a heck of a lot that goes into all of that for the 60 minutes that we end up seeing every episode.
Nerds and Beyond: Awesome. I was also wondering if you could discuss some of the details and the thought process behind Peacemaker’s trailer because it really walks that line between going over the top and staying grounded in the reality and humanity of the guy who lives there that I think is really incredible.
Lisa Soper: You literally just said it right there. This is what James is as a filmmaker. Everything starts with being grounded and then pushes that boundary of being over the top. It’s very, very important to James to have a world that felt like we could live in. So you could walk down the street, turn a corner and you could be there in Evergreen. You can “see” Peacemaker’s trailer, a trailer that doesn’t exist at all. There’s no trailer like it. It’s a bastardization of what we thought Peacemaker’s trailer would be.
For his character, there are the things like the drawer that I mentioned earlier, where when you open the drawer and it’s actually laid out like you would see in a mechanic’s shop, where all the foam is there and then little tendrils, and everything is slid into these spots, almost like a gun cage.
Because we are bringing these characters to life, and creating an illusion of life. Trying to make it as believable as possible within all of these ridiculous, unbelievable scenarios, and characters, creatures, what have you. And the closer we can keep that to reality, that was always kind of the main push point for us.
So when we looked at the trailer specifically, I was going around and looking at classic Americana, looking at the small towns in rural America, driving around looking at things and getting as much reference as possible for the people and what a lot of these trailer parks look like. And then taking it and merging it with the story and helping to motivate the characters.
Nerds and Beyond: Will we also potentially get a look into the homes of some of the other characters, like perhaps Vigilante – and what his space might look like?
Lisa Soper: I have a picture of it in my mind, just based on who he is, and what that character is. When we put together a lot of these, we make a character palette – we call them a moodboard – which is: “Who is the character? Where do they live? What do they do?”
Things can change, all these things can change, but I think it was purposefully dodged like this for two reasons: 1. Something that could potentially be revealed in the future, and 2. Also to keep his character mysterious. We don’t want to water it down by giving too much upfront. We want to be able to make sure that they’re looking at what we want them to look at, and to have those elements help move other characters forward.
Nerds and Beyond: So what are some of the things that are on Vigilante’s moodboard?
Lisa Soper: (Laughing) it’s all very inappropriate. He draws pictures of him and Peacemaker – very badly by the way – him and Peacemaker fighting crime, and hanging out together. And he paints himself this whole kind of world, this visual history for himself. He plays Dungeons and Dragons, and that’s a key point for this character that I fell in love with. He doesn’t live in our reality. He has Dungeon and Dragons books. He’s got Acquisitions Incorporated. He watches it and he makes sure that he watches the “C Team” every week, and never misses an episode, even if he’s got to go and do a killing.
He’s got the latest Razer headphones, and next to it he’s got cans of cat food that he eats because he doesn’t have enough money because he works at Fennel Fields. All of the money that he makes goes into his gaming world which is in his mind, and then also stuff like having his weapons and his gear all up to snuff. Because to him that is what he lives and breathes and what’s most important to him. Because he has created himself into this vigilante.
Nerds and Beyond: I love it. I was curious, because you’d mentioned being a fan of the comics, are there any little subtle easter eggs for people who also love the comics that made it into the design of the show?
Lisa Soper: I think for now, it is mostly the big ones. I think James wanted to really make something that was original here. There are little things that we kind of put in there that are more global: like Henenlotter Video, Henenlotter was the director of Basket Case so that’s why we did that. So it’s a little bit more for a global fan base more than like the actual individual elements themselves. Everything else is kind of pretty straightforward. And I think that we’ve done more for design, and this is me speaking for James here, because he wanted to recreate these characters and really give them all the things that we love about them, but also create them in the same way that he did with The Guardians.
Nerds and Beyond: Amazing. Because we’ve been talking so much about the complex details of the world, what’s one of your favorite details that you’ve gotten to include in the show so far?
Lisa Soper: Um… favorite details… there’s so many. I don’t like to pick favorites. Wow. I’ll give you a couple of little things. So the quantum unfolding storage chamber… The whole thing is made out of junk. When I say junk, I mean literally junk. I sent the guy these shapes based off of the Hoberman sphere. But he didn’t know what that was. And I came up with this 20 page document that was very dense and heavy about how the physics worked for this chamber and how it could possibly exist even though it can’t really exist.
And then when we started putting it together, we had these basic shapes and I sent people down to IKEA to go get cutlery trays. I said:
“Give me as many cutlery trays as you possibly can. We’re going to flip them upside down and we’re going to put them on here and those are going to look like the processing panels for this. And let’s get some air filters that you put in your basement furnace. And we’ll put them up top so that those can be filtration units for all the cooling tubes that are in the center of these boxes.”
And we did these little tiny animations of how they unfolded as well. The ship that you see in episode three, I designed that off of a Jamaican rum cake box. Over Christmas, I came home and my mom loves to get these Jamaican rum cakes and I was holding a box to throw it out. And I was thinking about the spaceship and how we need to design it. And when I collapsed the box it had this kind of shape to it. And it gave me this idea to start folding it. I went upstairs and with a lot of tape, and cardboard, and desperation put together, I made a stop motion video for James. And we were like “Okay, this is how we can make the ship up into a box that unfolds again.”
Nerds and Beyond: That’s incredible. I have one final question. Because you’re a director as well, I was curious if you’re approach to directing and to designing – do you bring your directorial eye to designing and vice versa? Is that part of how you achieve such rich, detailed worlds?
Lisa Soper: Well, thank you for asking that. Because, yes, I do believe so very much. I started in animation to become a production designer. And the reason why I did that was because you’re hammer, you’re the actress, you’re the lighting, you’re every single part of your process. You’re the set dressing. And if you can understand all of that together and how everything affects each other you realize we’re all one department when it really comes down to it. We might say, “Okay, that’s the prop department. That’s the special effects department. That’s the camera department. That’s the lighting department.” But really, when it comes down to it, we’re all servicing one thing, which is the story.
And if we can all work together to achieve that, then that’s the best thing that we can do. And then when I started shifting into directing from that point, – a very good friend of mine, Jerry Wanek, who’s a designer that I look up to, he told me to take my first directing gig. After I was offered it by Rob Seidenglanz, I was nervous. I was really cautious about it. I thought to myself, “I don’t know if I’m good enough, if I’m ready.” And they both told me I am. And what Jerry told me was, “at least do this to become a better designer, because you’ll understand what it’s like being on set as a director and how your designs are going to impact them.” And I’m so grateful for that.
That I had the opportunity to have that conversation. We can go into the spotlight of directing with that information and with all the tools in my toolbox. And I do use everything I can, and I call myself a filmmaker because that’s who we all are. So whether I’m designing, whether I’m directing – to me, it’s not a step up, it’s not a step down. It’s just opening a different door. And I really, really appreciate it, and I really enjoy it.
Nerds and Beyond: Thank you so much. We’re really loving Peacemaker right now. We can’t wait to see what happens next.
Lisa Soper: Thank you.
Peacemaker drops on Thursdays on HBO Max.