The films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have gone all kinds of odd places—from outer space to the halls of the Norse gods, fictional Eastern European and African nations, and, well, Miami, Florida. But in creating Loki, Marvel decided to take Tom Hiddleston’s popular god of mischief on a ride through time itself.
He begins at the ’60s-inspired, orange-hued offices of the Time Variance Authority, then travels through an eccentrically cluttered void littered with the universe’s refuse, and ends at the edge of the known universe. In order to sell audiences on both the eerily bureaucratic TVA and the unknowable edges of time, Marvel tapped Kasra Farahani to shape the show’s aesthetics—even though he had more experience as a concept artist (he’d done work in that department for the studio since 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy sequel) than as a production designer.
Farahani wound up being the perfect person for the job, turning out intricately detailed and visually astonishing sets for Loki’s first season. The Marvel franchise is typically reliant on CG-heavy locations; Loki instead opted for real and bizarre details, like the TVA’s tile work and vaguely anachronistic tech, to give audiences an unsettling, otherworldly vibe.
The first season’s final location, the Citadel at the End of Time, is a particular stunner that ties together themes and character work, and reveals some extra layers behind Jonathan Majors’s mesmerizing new character—known, thus far, only as He Who Remains. According to Farahani, He Who Remains hasn’t left that building in a long, long time and Marvel fans may want to wonder why. Farahani took Vanity Fair behind the scenes of this location, including sharing some exclusive imagery, to explain just what, exactly, He Who Remains is all about.
Vanity Fair: How was this location initially described to you? What were the writers looking for?
Kasra Farahani: This is one of those things we were designing, at least in a preliminary way, in the absence of a script. When we started, we had scripts for the first couple of episodes, but the others were just an outline. We knew it was the Citadel at the End of Time where He Who Remained was. There’s some precedent imagery in the comics. It was basically a fortress on top of a tiny asteroid. So much of the goal of the show was to have the visual and narrative anchor of the TVA, but then to have to have this big universe with all these different locations that span a broad visual spectrum. We knew [the Citadel] was going to be the last location, so we wanted it to be particularly spectacular.
We came up with the idea of doing something inspired by Petra in Jordan—so this notion that the architecture was carved in situ from the asteroid itself as opposed to being erected by bringing in different building materials. Everything was going to be literally hewn from the asteroid itself. This is kind of a big commitment, looks-wise, because in order for it to work, there couldn’t be [anything else] brought it. It would have been strange to have the architecture carved from this asteroid—which we pitched as black with a gold vein of an unknowable element moving through it—and then bring in wood and carpets and painting. It’s such a flamboyant choice to carve the whole building out of this stuff, and the style, being inspired by Gothic revival, was going to be flashy. So we needed to commit to this idea that there are no other finishes in there.
I’ve had a few people ask me if I thought that black rock shot through with gold was an homage to the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, which involves using gold or other metallic materials to repair broken ceramics in a way that shows all the cracks.
I became aware of [Kintsugi] throughout the process of figuring out what the paint finish was going to be for this material, but it wasn’t a conceptual inspiration for us. The inspiration was just this idea that, as science is showing more and more, there’s this unfathomable cache of precious metals and rare elements on these asteroids. Also the gold represented an unknowable kind of technology. Either science-based technology as we understand technology to be, or some sort of metaphysical system by which this place gets its significance.
Who built this place?
I believe He Who Remains built it. The biggest influence was probably Xanadu from Citizen Kane, and Hearst Castle as a result. This eccentric person rattling around this big Citadel. I pitched this idea that he’d retreated to the office at the time. The atrium, [where] you see the 13-foot-tall Sentinels of Time statues and the hall with the giant timepiece and the Timekeeper statues…there would be a sense that he had retreated from these places and they’re in disrepair. In terms of architectural style, we also took inspiration from Hearst Castle, [which] is this composite of different pieces of European architecture.
We wanted the sense that [He Who Remains] had architecturally cherry-picked from assorted grand architectural styles. Some stuff, like the tessellated surfacing on some of the columns, is more unknowable and fantasy, to create this atmosphere of a self-edifying and grandiose space that is almost a project he got bored with.
Speaking of those Timekeeper statues, obviously we’re intrigued by the fourth figure that’s smashed on the floor. What can you say about that?
I can’t say anything about it, unfortunately, but the answers will be forthcoming.
Looking closely at some of these set photos, there is a lot of detailing on the flooring that we don’t really get to see in the episode. There’s Latin inscribed there, like the word Epistulus— which I have to assume is a reference to a Roman chancellor’s office—or the TVA slogan of “Omnia Tempus Enim Semper.” What else is down there?
The other visually important theme of this place that ties into what you’re describing is that it has to have a functional quality, as a Temple to Time. In addition to being this architectural monument to his own vanity, it also had to demonstrate this singular focus on the study and understanding and monitoring and manipulation of time. So all of the Latin, assorted lunar calendars, astrolabes, and the little obscura on his desk, all of those radiate from horology—timekeeping. Those are the sort of the things that we were looking for to create this other more functional, technical reference. Basically, you have this grand fantasy space of a black asteroid inside of a nebula, and then you have Gothic Revival architecture and multicultural horology. And he collides these things together.
I know in an earlier version of the finale, our heroes Loki and Sylvie were meant to be battling “a series of the greatest warriors across the timeline.”Is that why a section of the Citadel is called the Hall of Heroes in your plans?
That was leftover from that version. It ended up being more about this grand antechamber to the elevator, which has this huge elaborate astrolabe on the floor and the timepiece in the ceiling. And they are connected [through] the movements of the gears.
I have a sort of philosophical production design question for you. There are some fireplaces around this castle, and on the heath you see the same things I’ve got on the hearth of my fireplace—a little shovel and broom, etc. When you’re putting something like that there in the Citadel at the End of Time, are you imagining He Who Remains cleaning out his own fireplace? Or do you put it there because it looks odd to have a fireplace without those tools there?
It can be either or both! That set was actually quite hard, though. Not the office, [which] will have traces of a life being lived. It was harder in the hall because there’s two giant fireplaces there and no other set dressing. To answer your question, it’s about characterization and, like you’re saying, what is this person doing in this space? Sometimes it’s about just making it not be distracting that something isn’t there. In the case of the office, I think it’s the former. I don’t know; somebody that’s beamed up from the TVA—Casey from the TVA is beamed up to clean out his fireplace. Does Casey do his errands for him? Somebody has to do it, because he’s living in this space.
Let me ask you a little more about that office. There’s an image here of shelves packed with artifacts, and there’s also ephemera strewn around the desk. What can you tell me about those items?
I would be remiss not to mention Claudia Bonfe, our brilliant set decorator, who scoured Atlanta and the internet—eBay and Etsy and 1stDibs—to find a unique cocktail of this obscure time-related and philosophy-related obscura. So there’s all kinds of little things from Western philosophy, but there’s also an I Ching on [his desk]. There’s tons of different texts in so many different languages. We brought those specifically to the desk because we wanted Jonathan Majors to see those and be able to riff off of them, if it was helpful to his process, to demonstrate the breadth of philosophy informing He Who Remains’s worldview.
We hoped to demonstrate that he’s been here a long time, and had a lot of time to read and make notes. One of the things we were trying to do visually is that there’s a level of decay and roughness to the other spaces, whereas there’s an additional layer of polish inside his office. The asteroid rock surfaces of the floor and walls are just slightly shinier. There were literally piles and piles of things that we wanted to collect around his desk, creating this idea that there might be stretches of time where he doesn’t leave the desk for a thousand years or something.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the Eternals trailer, but there’s a spaceship in that footage that is made of similar black rock shot through with gold. Is that an intentional connection?
It is not from my end, at least. I think it’s just a coincidence, because they are in production in the U.K. and we were in Atlanta.
We do see that black and gold material being used as almost alien or “metaphysical,” to use your term, technology in the Loki finale.
The Citadel stone started in the art department as a pitch for this, but it ended up propagating itself far beyond that—like [He Whom Remains’s] temp pad. If you go back and look through the TVA, you can see that there are other things, like statues in Renslayer’s office and the dais in the Time Court, also hewn from this stone. There are few other places where this rock that just looks like a beautiful or strange stone is actually like this link between He Who Remains and the TVA.
What can you tell me about those 13-foot statues you mentioned, with the clockfaces that look like even more ominous versions of Miss Minutes?
They’re meant to be these imposing sentinels of the Citadel, and they’re a pair. If you look closely, you can see they’re each holding half of an hourglass. One is holding it palm up as if he’s collecting time, and the other is holding his palm down as if time is being dispersed. The idea was to demonstrate the intimidating and unknowable quality of the place, and also make some comment about time beginning and ending here.