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SYFY WIRE Features

'SICK' production's design was inspired by 'World War Z' and 'A Quiet Place'

Those early days of the pandemic felt pretty post-apocalyptic, didn't they?

By Josh Weiss
SICK (2023)

It's crazy to think how we're about to hit the 3-year anniversary of when the novel coronavirus completely changed our world forever. Those early months of lockdown — the fear, the uncertainty, the panicky hoarding of toilet paper — felt like humanity's number was finally up; that the fabled end of days had finally arrived on our collective doorstep, four horsemen in tow.

Most of us would probably like to have the memory of that existential dread wiped from our brains, but production designer Jenny Möller (Happily) found herself relying on it for Kevin Williamson's pandemic-inspired slasher flick, SICK (exclusively streaming on Peacock right now).

"At the time, we didn't know anything about the disease and we didn't know how it was transmitted," she explains over a Zoom call with SYFY WIRE. "We were all wearing masks and standing five feet apart and wiping absolutely everything down."

RELATED: The bizarre M3GAN scene that director Gerard Johnstone fought to keep in the final cut

***WARNING! The following contains major spoilers for the entire film!***

Clocking in at a brisk 83 minutes, the of-the-moment horror film (helmed by John Hyams, director of Alone) doesn't waste a modicum of its runtime, immediately turning the clock back to April 2020 when a cavalier college student named Tyler (played by Super 8's Joel Courtney) shops at a grocery store that's been picked clean.

"We were trying to convey what it felt like at the time to be in that situation. The shelves were bare with the plastic sheeting. That was [us] trying to make it feel scarier than it really was," Möller explains. The grocery store really lent itself to that. We've seen [that] in other post-apocalyptic movies ... I think I had watched World War Z pretty close to shooting [this movie]. There are always grocery store scenes that are just messed up, [like in] A Quiet Place. Those were some references I took, which I really liked."

Clearly not too worried about the global health crisis unfolding around him, Tyler begins to receive threatening text messages from an unknown number and returns home to a cluttered apartment that reflects his flippant attitude towards COVID and life in general.

"The idea was just to fill the space and make it feel like someone lived here and that he wasn't a super clean dude. So it's not as if he would know that something was out of the ordinary or if something got moved," Möller adds, referring to the fact that a mystery assassin breaks into the messy abode before murdering the young man. "It speaks to that kind of person as well. He’s a distracted college kid [and] he's not taking life too seriously. So he's not necessarily taking the shutdown and the COVID precautions that seriously, either."

Interestingly, Möller and set decorator Gabriel Jessup did consider including a little nod to Williamson with a Scream poster hanging somewhere in the apartment, but ultimately decided against the Easter egg impulse. "I think if we were making the movie now, we might have a different take on it because the latest Scream movies have come out," admits the production designer. "At the time we were making it, they hadn't, so it was sort of like, ‘Would he really have a Scream poster from 1998?’ I didn't think so."

Sick (2022) Art Department Presentation

The story then shifts over to a pair of best friends, Parker (Gideon Adlon) and Miri (Bethlehem Million), who decide to weather out the national lockdown at the lakeside cabin owned by Parker's family. While not mentioned in the final cut, the original script by Williamson and Katelyn Crabb did make touch on the fact that Parker had been traumatized by the death of a younger sister prior to the events of the movie.

"There's no family photos in the house. There's no children's art, there's nothing to make it look like they were ever there as a family and happy and cozy. We made a very conscious effort to make it look beautiful, but not super cozy," Möller reveals. "We just wanted to highlight that there was sort of a disconnect between Parker and her parents."

With the exception of the attic, which was its own set, the house where the film takes place was an actual family residence in Utah that Möller and her team remodeled ahead of principal photography. "We made the decision not to use their belongings," the production designer says. "It’s a horror movie [so] the likelihood of destroying something was high. Also, I just don't particularly like using [existing items] when I work in a location. I like to have my own canvas to work from. So we removed all of the homeowners’ personal things and brought everything in that you saw."

The goal was to achieve an aesthetic made up of "modern" and "aspirational" sensibilities in order to lull the viewer into a false sense of comfort before a number of killers break inside and kick off a tense game of cat and mouse. "We wanted it to feel really cool, like anybody would feel like they were lucky to be able to stay there ... If it looks kind of scary going into it, you know what's happening and I definitely didn't want it to feel that way at all. I wanted it to feel very modern and rich and lush."

Sick (2022) Art Department Presentation

In the end, we learn that the villains are a family revenge-driven contact tracers, killing their way down the chain of infected people leading to their son, who died a lonely COVID-related death in the ICU after hooking up with an asymptomatic Parker at a party weeks before.

"I guess it’s a little bit meta at that time that we hadn’t really considered," Möller concludes when we ask if it felt surreal to make a movie about the COVID-19 crisis while observing all of the safety precautions laid out by the entertainment industry. "And we're still doing that in my industry … so it just feels normal ... But yeah, now that you bring it up, that’s funny. I hadn’t thought about it like that."

SICK is now streaming on Peacock.