Sharp objects: Live from the Dollhouse
The production designer of this chilling HBO series spent over $100 000 getting Amma’s dollhouse just right. Here’s why it’s the perfect prop for a show set in a house of horrors.
A dollhouse is a world where a child can reinterpret reality and dictate what happens. She can punish and reward as she pleases, with all the violence and caprice of a god.
So from episode 1 of the chilling thriller Sharp Objects (, now on Showmax), we’ve been fascinated by Amma Crellin’s (Eliza Scanlen) dollhouse. It’s a meticulous miniature recreation of her family’s Victorian mansion – a perfect vision of the perfect world created with obsessive attention to detail by her tightly wound mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson).
“It’s such a beautiful metaphor for trying to control the world around you,” says series showrunner Marti Noxon. Director Jean-Marc Vallée adds, “They pay for their daughter to play with this giant dollhouse because they’re so in love with the world they’re creating without realising that this is a horror film. It is a horror house.”
Don’t go there
It’s also a vital part of the plot, and anyone who’s creeped out by the thought of dolls secretly living out their dead-eyed imitations of our lives will be thoroughly justified by the end of the series.
Novelist Gillian Flynn, who wrote the Sharp Objects novel in 2006, reveals that seeing this object that she had created in her imagination come to life on screen was deeply unsettling. “I felt queasy, frightened. I was the audience member going, ‘Don’t look in the dollhouse! Don’t look in the dollhouse! And also at the same time, ‘Look in the dollhouse! Look in the dollhouse!’”
Tiny time scale
Sharp Objects’ production designer John Paino put a lot of time and money (over $100 000 dollars, or R13.4 million) into getting the dollhouse just right. The prop was constructed at the same time as the mansion’s full-size interiors were being constructed on the studio sound stage.
“In this case, it was doubly hard because we were creating all of these things while also having to build the same for a dollhouse,” says John. “We went to people who make dollhouses outside the industry and usually it takes two to three years to build something like that. We had two-and-a-half to three months.”
It’s a huge prop too – 1.5 metres wide and 91cm tall – that would be seen in fine detail onscreen. But the scale they built in, three quarter-inch (so 0.75 inches in the model equals 1 foot in the real world; in metric, 1.9 cm on the model = 30.5 cm in the real world), while it was perfect for filming, is not a standard dollhouse scale.
The prop team couldn’t use any pre-made elements. Everything had to be hand-made, from the 1 000 hand-cut shingles on the roof to each stick of furniture that was cut and built by about four prop makers.
“The person making the dollhouse was asking things like, ‘When are you going to tell me what the couch looks like?’ And it’s one of those things where you say, ‘Well, we’re figuring it out’. This was a very complicated prop from that perspective,” explains John.
The state of the dollhouse also reflects Amma’s feelings toward her family. No room in the house is more lovingly recreated than mother Adora’s bedroom. But Amma’s estranged half-sister Camille’s (Amy Adams) room stands empty and neglected.
“Jean-Marc may have taken a few pieces of furniture out to emphasise that Camille is not on her sister’s radar and Adora has very mixed feelings about Camille. Adora helped her make the house so perhaps they didn’t spend as much time on that,” reveals John.
There’s one more detail that’s an eerie reflection of reality… that ivory floor in Adora’s bedroom. “I couldn’t find an ivory floor in existence. Not even the Sultan Of Brunei has one. So, that was incredibly challenging and fun: How can we design a floor so that when you look at it, it looks like tusks from elephants and tusks from walruses and tusks from whales?” asks John, who eventually wound up using a custom-made printed linoleum that he had embossed (we can feel Adora shuddering in revulsion).
But for the dollhouse itself, a more sinister ivory substitute was found – plastic dental replicas of human teeth that were cut down on the top and base a little.
The green floral wallpaper in the mansion is De Gournay’s Earlham Chinoiserie. “It has all these beautiful hand-painted flowers, but they’re on top of this poisonous shade of green. It’s the colour of arsenic,” says John.