The period surrounding World War I, Prohibition and the Great Depression has been skillfully and realistically reflected in such shows as PBS’ Downton Abbey, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Lifetime’s Bonnie & Clyde. While each program’s storyline illustrates how world events shaped the lives of their characters, the physical surroundings—rendered in minute detail—really drive the narrative home. Such is the work of a production designer. The old Hindu saying, “The world is like the impression left by the telling of a story,” is analogous to the role of his craft, says production designer Bill Groom, who has won two Emmys for his work on HBO’s Prohibition-era drama Boardwalk Empire. “As designers, we leave the evidence behind of a person’s life, and we do it in advance—it’s captured in film and then told back to the audience. We create rooms where a person sometimes has lived for 40 years,” he says.
One episode from last season illustrates the level of detail to which Groom adheres. He and set decorator Carol Silverman were trying to decide what kind of flowers to put on set. “We saw that there was a protea in one of the (research) pictures. But we found out (the flower) actually didn’t arrive (in the U.S.) until 40 years later,” Groom says. “(Art department coordinator) Miriam Schapiro walked in with a florist card from the 1920s and on the back of it was a list of all the flowers they sold. We research everything.”
Having 30 or more sets for one episode is not atypical, Groom adds. “The room that I am most proud of was in a historic building (shot) in episode five of last year, when Eddie Kessler (Anthony Laciura) was being interrogated. We turned it into an old music room. We put together this huge stack of gold ballroom chairs that hid some modern plumbing work. And we took an old piano, took the legs off, threw it in the corner and covered it in dust.” The episode is Groom’s Emmy submission this year.
“In some ways, part of the struggle of what we do is more often poetry than it is prose,” Groom says. “We try to say in 60 words or six what a novelist would do in 6,000. We’re trying to tell the story with objects—a light through the window, the furniture they have. It’s said the poet sees the world in a doorknob . . . in such a small area, a poet can say so much. I think we are charged with something similar—we have a few moments in time to tell the story.”
For Lifetime’s miniseries Bonnie & Clyde, production designer Derek Hill immersed himself in the 1930s, similarly taking pains to create sets that were as realistic as possible. Hill went through reels and reels of newspaper clippings on microfiche in order to accurately re-create scenes of crimes committed by bank robbers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. But historical accuracy wasn’t the biggest challenge. Initially, Hill was asked to design and build 189 sets in 42 days. “I said, ‘Do you realize the math on that?’ ” he says. “So we ended up getting it down to 137 sets in 44 days. I found an old bar that was a general store at one time and we gutted it and built a set within that space. We found an abandoned sugar cane plantation (warehouse) that we gutted and made the prison, and then, using photos from the Huntsville, Texas prison (where Barrow spent time), re-created the bunk room,” he says, adding that he built motor court sets from scratch.
Hill printed all the photos he could find from newspaper clippings of Bonnie and Clyde, their families, the banks and the stores and gave them to everyone on the film to use as references. As the fugitives rob their way across the country in the miniseries, great attention was paid to the cars that were used, particularly the police cars, which Hill dressed with the appropriate roofs and doors, as well as 12 different sets of period city and state law enforcement emblems. He even used the famous car that Bonnie and Clyde were in when they were killed. “In one of the scenes, we only saw the left side of the car because the right side was shot up already,” Hill says. “We shot out of sequence so we made sure only the left side was showing.”
Whole New Worlds
Donal Woods, the production designer of Downton Abbey, was tasked with creating two worlds—the one inhabited by an elite English family, who live upstairs in an aristocratic castle, and one for their servants, who live and toil in the castle’s underbelly. The award-winning PBS series is shot in three main locations in the U.K.: London’s Ealing Film Studios, where several interior sets were built; Highclere Castle, about an hour west of London, where some interior and exterior scenes are shot; and Bampton Village, in Oxfordshire, for exterior scenes. Sheer scale is a challenge since the castle alone, built in 1878, has upward of 50 bedrooms and sits on a tract of land larger than New York’s Central Park. “It was a remodeled house, but we wanted to push it to the end of that century,” Woods says. “All the rooms were different with a different theme to them, and that was appealing to us. As we all said when we first started the whole journey, the house is also a big character.”
For the scenes shot inside Highclere, Woods and his team changed about 40 percent of the props and lights in the rooms to match the time period of the series, from 1912 to 1924. “We tried to make it true and honest and real. You are venturing back in time, so you want to make it believable without being theatrical,” Woods says. “What we tried to do is make it reality based.
“Below stairs, we built everything because none of these houses ever have the areas as they were,” says Woods. “They are also very hard to light . . . It was really a factory underneath the house. Below is black and white and above, colorful (with) lavish silks and beautiful fabrics . . . The trick is to combine these two visual experiences into one television show.”