Why ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Sets Are Even More Elaborate Than You Think

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Photo Source: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

In its three seasons, Amazon Prime’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” has become shorthand for delectable visuals, which start and end with its sets—which means they start and end with production designer Bill Groom. And though Groom is a design veteran who has extensive experience on period pieces, including HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” (which earned him four Emmys), he’d never worked on the scrumptious 1950s we see on “Maisel” before. The era, however, is also rife with pitfalls, as Groom describes here, in addition to discussing what it’s like working with series creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Dan Palladino and the little things he does to make his sets come to life for actors.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is a gorgeous show to look at. What’s unique about it compared to the other projects you’ve designed for?
I’ve had the opportunity to do a lot of period projects and I’ve always loved the process and the discovery and the research, the things that shed light on what you’re seeing in the scripts. But I’d never worked on this period, which is why it’s different in a way. I think this period—the ’50s and early ’60s—is filled with a lot of traps, and people can fall into them. This period was just as layered as it is today, but often you don’t see it on screens. Everything is sort of “of the moment,” with the diners and things like that. That was a challenge I set up for myself: don’t fall into that trap of everything being of that one moment, but, rather, create a world. It’s New York, and our characters live in this building that was built in 1919— that was what we used as our example and that’s still true today, and it was true in the 1920, ’30s, ’40s. We get good responses from older people, interestingly, who grew up on the Upper West Side during that time. We have a crew member whose mom cries every time she sees the show because it reminds her of her life on the Upper West Side.

Do you ever veer from the time period for the sake of storytelling?
There are moments where, just for emotional reasons, you’ll choose something that’s very particular that may be more characteristic of the scene you’re doing than was common for the time. There are ways of playing with the period to express character, as well. It’s not a documentary about a particular period’s architecture. It’s all about the world that our characters live in and what best expresses that. What are the best parts of that period to express what the characters are experiencing?

Does production design, when done well, help actors get more rooted in their characters’ world?
I was just talking to a friend about how I’ve always tried to create a four-wall set, for instance. We have a responsibility to the budget so we’re not stupid about doing more than we need to, but when it works for the scene, I try to create a full environment. Sometimes, I fill the desk drawers with paperwork and things like that, because I think that really helps the actors. I did “Milk” with Sean Penn [in which he played Harvey Milk] and Sean had asked for the drawers in Harvey’s desk to be dressed. As an actor, I’m sure that can either take you out of the scene or keep you immersed in the scene, if the drawer’s got stuff in it from real life. I try to be aware of how it helps the actors—which then helps the direction and the whole scene. This work is very collaborative. It’s every department working together to create a world that the actors inhabit. Everything I do is based on story and character. We’re telling the story about a real person that we’re creating and we’re trying to create a real environment for the actor and the camera.

Can you expand on the ways you collaborate with actors?
A series is a little different from a film. A lot of what you do for a film is exploring all these ideas in the beginning, and I always tried to make that part of the process on a film, just have one meeting with the actor to hear what they’re thinking and make sure I’m expressing the right environment so it’s all cohesive. We had a lot of meetings and presentations for the pilot of “Mrs. Maisel,” but once everybody is on the same track and working together, you kind of figure out what the language is that you’re using with different people. [Costume designer] Donna Zakowska, she and I sort of joke about how well-coordinated the wardrobe and sets are and how little we talk. Sometimes stuff just shows up and we haven’t had a conversation at all and it’s just perfect. It’s coordinated when it needs to be, but we don’t talk that much; we both just speak the same language. It’s basically all on the page. Amy and Dan don’t say, “Make it all pink.” But it’s how you express what they’ve written. Amy and Dan and I talk enough, but we don’t talk too much. They walk in and usually like what I’ve done; I check with them when I feel like I really have to. They have a lot on their minds. Most directors I’ve worked with are not interested in dozens of meetings to talk about what we’re doing; they’d rather just [have] you do it and have it be right. They’re always available to us if we have questions, they’re very collaborative, and that creates a great workplace for everybody, for me working with the DP, with the costume designers. It’s a very good team.

I’m sure it changes, but how would you describe a typical day on set as the production designer?
It starts early and finishes late. It’s a lot of work. When we’re shooting, I always check in on the set. That’s part of my job, to be there and to make sure everything’s right before the camera rolls. Once they’re shooting and everything’s been established and it can’t be changed, then I’m free to go on and start working on the next day or the next week. We work at a bit of a different pace because we’re looking ahead. Certain things that shoot two or three weeks down the road need to be started now or need to have been started a month ago. We work on a different timeline than the shooting crew who show up in the morning and unload the truck. I have to be present on the day we’re shooting and then leave and be present for what we’re shooting next week or the week after. There’s a lot of research, scouting locations; that’s a big part of my job, working with the locations department. A lot of us worked on “Boardwalk Empire,” so there are some people working on this show whom I’ve been working with for 10 years. It’s a nice group of people, and that makes all the difference in the world, because the hours are long and there’s just a lot of pieces. There are thousands and thousands of pieces that go into one episode.

In the general sense, how would you describe what a production designer does?
I’m in charge of the physical look of the show—not the photographic look, but the physical look. My agent used to say I am responsible for anything the actor stands in front of or touches. I create the environment for the show, the physical environment. We have a wonderful director of photography [on “Maisel] and he’s responsible for the photographic look, whether it’s light or dark or soft or somber; all the photographic elements that appear on the screen.

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How did you get into this line of work?
In college, I did theater, not film work. I was an art major at a little college in southern Oklahoma. At some point, I helped work on a set my freshman year of college and I told the head of the theater department, “I’d like to help you with the sets sometimes,” and he said, “You can just have ’em.”... I went on to graduate school, then I started teaching theater, and from there I moved into working in the professional theater in New York. And then I got a job at “Saturday Night Live.”... I moved into film from there. This is all a long way of saying these careers are not linear. Some people start out thinking they want to direct movies and then they end up being successful in some other aspect of the business, things they never would have expected. One thing happens and then another. I never dreamed when I was in college that I would be doing this, but here I am at 69 years old, doing the same thing.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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