Production Designer Lisa Soper On Drawing From Realism For DC’s Peacemaker

The latest DCU series Peacemaker, created by James Gunn, premiered on HBO Max and Crave on January 13 and is already receiving acclaim for its unique aesthetic and sense of humour. Spearheading that unique aesthetic is DGC Ontario Production Designer Lisa Soper, who is responsible for creating the realistic-yet-stylized look and feel of Peacemaker.

Production Designer Lisa Soper

We chatted with Lisa through Zoom about wordbuilding, the importance of attention to detail, designing ugly hotels, the inspiration behind Peacemaker’s car, and more. 

How did you get involved with the production? Where did it all start for you?

I got a call from Patti Cullen, from Warner Brothers. And she asked me straight up, “Do you know who James Gunn is?” And I said, “Yeah, of course I do.” She’s like, “I thought so. Do you know Peacemaker the comic character?” And I was like, “Ah, yeah, it’s some old 60s comic, kind of weird and iconic.” She’s like, “Can you meet with James tomorrow over Zoom?” And I said, “Oh. Yeah. Okay. Can you send me a script or an outline?” She’s like, “No. You just need to get on the phone with him.” 

We had a really wonderful conversation about his approach to film, which is what attracts me to his stuff and why I’m a fan of his work, from the practical approach and attention to detail, with the characters motivating stories forward with the world around him, which is a big part of what inspires me as a designer and filmmaker. I got a call a couple of days later and I said, “Sure, let’s do this.” Everything just turned into this massive, crazy hurricane from that moment, where we were having nonstop meetings, every minute was used and utilized for the betterment of the show. I would go home and have a couple of hours off, and it was like, okay, what can I try to develop right now? What can I try to figure out right now? 

Building a world is a very complex, difficult thing. And it’s hard when you don’t have the right people as well, or if you don’t have people that are going to push with you. With James Gunn’s worlds, every single detail is thought of, which for me was just magic. It was amazing. It was somebody who really gave a shit about why this person chooses to use that pencil or to wear that shirt that day. Or put the keys on that shelf versus in a drawer over here. All those things to me affect the design and affect storytelling and the final product. So it was really a dream come true to be able to be a part of telling that story.

Left to right: Peacemaker’s trailer, the triumphant finale of the opening credits dance number, and Peacemaker’s custom Mercury Comet.

Can you tell us more about some of your design inspirations for the show? It has a very 80s Americana feel, and the opening credits are getting a ton of buzz online. 

Everyday life is really where I get most of my inspiration. Peacemaker’s car was written as a Dodge Aspen originally in the script, and I was like, “God, I don’t know if we’re gonna be able to get that many with what has to happen in the story.” I talked to James about it, and he said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be a Dodge Aspen, it just has to be this cheesy muscle car. I don’t want to be too cool, because that’s not what this is about.” There’s a very specific aesthetic that James has. 

The first vehicle I ever owned personally was a ‘67 Comet, and my friends used to make fun of me and call it a “vomit” because it was a faux muscle car. They break down all the time, I bought mine for $200, and it sat on blocks in my driveway for almost a year. So that’s where I drew the inspiration for Peacemaker’s car. We talked to the picture vehicle guys and they were like, “Oh, no problem, those are a dime a dozen.” I painted up a whole bunch of different renderings of what this could look like, and that led to what we ended up with. The car was probably the second thing that we designed, and that was off the heels of Peacemaker’s trailer, which, again, is the language of the world coming out of the gate. And that’s something that was very important to James, was that this is a world that you could relate to, that people could believe that is a real place. We have ridiculous things happening, but it’s in a very normal, everyday world environment. 

Peacemaker (John Cena) sits down to dinner with Leota Adebayo (Danielle Brooks), Clemson Murn (Chukwudi Iwuji), John Economos (Steve Agee) and Agent Emilia Harcourt (Jennifer Holland).

One of the most challenging things for me, for example, was doing the goddamn hotel. You know, it’s funny, because I think we shot that in the first week. I remember I walked James through the set ahead of time. He looked at it, and he was like, “Wow, this is amazing. This is really great.” I was like, “What? It’s horrible. You’ve sucked the soul out of my body by doing this. Putting a bowl of balls on a fucking table? Who does this? It’s Design Flaw 101.” And he looked at me and he said, “But it’s real. All of us get put into these horrifying hotels when we go and do a job, where some person has gone and put a bowl of balls on the table and a vase of sticks in the corner, and pick these horrifying colours that are void of any characteristics whatsoever.” And then I got it. And I really got it. It was one of those challenging sets, and it’s so basic, and it’s ugly, but it helps so much to motivate and tell the story. The first design that I did looked very similar to what you would see when somebody says “dingy motel”; wood panel walls, 70’s light fixtures that look really amazing. You know, it’s so ugly, it’s cool. That’s not what we wanted. It was about drawing from realism. All the logos, all the places, the streets, the signage, the license plates, everything. We start with somewhere real, and then take it and make it work for what needed to be done for the scene.

With the age of Peacemaker’s character, he loves that 80s hair metal and everything. But it is a modern-day world. And when you drive through middle America and a lot of these small towns, there are these areas that are frozen in time, and just rough and raw. Look at that movie The Florida Project – that looks like it could have been from any time. I think it was different from other shows that I’ve done, where they’re saying, “we’re doing a period piece”, or, “we’re pretending like it’s this era, but it’s not.” I think it just wanted to be what it wanted to be.

Without going into any spoilers, what was your favourite set to work on?

There are sets coming up that I’m obsessed with, and when I read the script I was like, “I have no clue how this is gonna work.” But if I say anything it’s going to give it away to all the DC fans out there. The fans are smart. And viewers are very smart. I can tell you though, one of the things I had the most fun with was Peacemaker’s dad’s storage chamber. Everything was built off of something that’s at least subconsciously recognizable so that it eased the viewer into it and made it more beautiful.

Watch new episodes of Peacemaker every Thursday on Crave or HBO Max.

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