‘Billions,’ ‘Succession’ and the Making of Wealth Porn

0
58

Two years ago, Aidan Sleeper needed to find an apartment.

Sleeper, the locations manager for “Billions,” returning Sunday for its fourth season on Showtime, scouted more than 100 places that list for tens of millions of dollars, but he couldn’t find the right one. “It was impossible,” he said.

The apartment wasn’t for his own use — he and his wife rent in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. No, he had to lock down a Manhattan residence for Bobby Axelrod, the “Billions” hedge fund phenom played by Damian Lewis. The space couldn’t be comfortable or cozy. It needed to intimidate, astound, overwhelm, gut punch your breath away.

“We always joke, ‘billionaire, not millionaire,’” Sleeper said on a January morning at the “Billions” production office in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, as he scrolled through a desktop folder of photos. He clicked for a moment on a $65 million triplex that hadn’t impressed him when he toured it: “You walk in there and it’s like, really?” He shrugged and scrolled on.

Months after his initial deadline had passed, as he was viewing a ho-hum TriBeCa penthouse, he saw, from its terrace, another penthouse blocks away. A glass box plunked on top of an old print factory, it had a double-height living room, a wraparound terrace, 270° views of the Hudson and the East River, too. It was urban, masculine, almost stark in its poured concrete floors and severe lines — it said billionaire, not millionaire. He rented it.

When the show was ordered to series, that space was re-created on a small Queens soundstage. To walk into that apartment — assuming you aren’t a billionaire — is to feel overawed and even a little giddy at its reckless proportions. But the furnishings, though extremely tasteful, are subdued, the palette dull.

“You can hear the money, but it’s not screaming at you,” Thompson said.

Still, the various design departments have to put across billionaire style on a thousandaire budget. (O.K., tens or hundreds of thousands, but still.) On each set calculations are made as to what to pay top dollar for and what to beg, borrow or fake.

In Logan Roy’s apartment, the furniture is real as are a few of the antiques. But the paintings are scanned copies or pastiche — even HBO money doesn’t run to real Gauguins — and the tapestries are not exactly priceless. “The audience will never know,” Stephen Carter, the current production designer, said as he walked through the soundstage on a February afternoon.

On another “Succession” soundstage, workers were building a private jet. On television it would look luxurious and the oversized seats were authentic, donated by the aerospace company Embraer. But the opulent interior? Contact paper pasted to plywood.

“Expensive Japanese contact paper,” Carter clarified. “But essentially it’s a sticker.”

One department where you can’t really fake it: Wardrobe. On the same day I met Sleeper, Eric Daman, the “Billions” costume designer, walked me through the labyrinth of clothes. He stopped in front of Bobby Axelrod’s rack, mostly jeans, T-shirts and hoodies. Several of the hoodies come from Loro Piana, an Italian ready-to-wear brand, and retail for around $2,000. But they are cashmere, and anyone acquainted with babies’ bottoms can confirm that these absurdly priced hoodies are, in fact, softer. (The Los-Angeles-based designer Vince is another hoodie go-to.) Somehow the camera notices.

These shows may even provide a perverse comfort to the rest of us, reflecting how great wealth can often produce feelings of alienation, a phenomenon Khan has studied.

“People imagine that it’s going to bring some meaning to them or satisfy some need,” he said. However, “rich people often describe themselves as feeling dead inside.”

The wealthy characters in these shows often choose money over family, community or moral integrity. The design — luxurious, but sometimes cold and unbeautiful — reflects that.

Still, alienation, on the billionaire scale, may have its upsides. On an afternoon in early March, Sleeper walked me through the Bobby Axelrod penthouse. Wood gleamed, metal shone, the winter sun flamed through the living room’s 18-foot windows and Manhattan arrayed itself below.

Sleeper stepped out onto the terrace. “I know I will never have this, and that’s something that doesn’t bother me,” he said.

“But at same time, could I imagine, like, would it be amazing to live in this space?” he added. “Absolutely.”

Source