In the age of prestige television, storytellers are constantly finding new ways to relay narratives to their audiences. One such unique show is “The Romanoffs,” an eight-episode series that plays more like eight short films than an episodic show.
“The Romanoffs” peeks into the lives of people around the globe. Most of them don’t know each other and will never meet, but they share one thing in common: they are all supposed descendants of the Russian royal family. Created by Matthew Weiner of “Mad Men,” this series crosses continents and genres to tell a collection of intriguing, dramatic, and mysterious stories.
Henry Dunn and Christopher L. Brown worked as production designers for the show. Each worked on separate episodes with very little overlap, but they still found ways to collaborate on this large-scale, daring project. I recently had the opportunity to speak with both Dunn and Brown. We spoke separately, but because there were so many common threads, these interviews are being shared here together.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: “The Romanoffs” is such an interesting and unique show. How did you first get involved?
Henry Dunn: I had known Matthew Weiner from back when we did “The Sopranos.” I was an art director on “Sopranos.” And then we did the pilot of “Mad Men” together. The “Mad Men” pilot was shot in New York and then it moved to LA, so we had a little bit of a history together. And when I heard he was doing this through a friend of mine who was going to be producing it, I said, “Look, what do I gotta do? Get me in the room.”
It was great because even though it had been a few years, we had this common understanding of good ways and bad ways of doing things. And we talked about everything except the script. We got along and the next thing you know we were booking flights to Paris. It was fun. But it was mainly from having known each other from before and having that mutual bond. Producer Kathy Ciric was instrumental in even getting me in there.
Christopher Brown: I had worked with Matthew [Weiner] and Blake [McCormick], one of the producers on “Mad Men,” so I had pre-existing relationships with some of the folks involved. I had a call from Blake asking me what my current availability was and if I was interested in a project that he really couldn’t tell me much about because it was still sort of shrouded in secrecy and development and I don’t think they had officially decided what their final approach was going to be to executing the work. And I said, “Yes, I’d love to talk about it.” We had a conversation and the stars aligned a little bit. They didn’t quite align as much as I would have liked because I was engaged on something else and wasn’t available to jump in right at the start. But with the model where folks were flipping back and forth in terms of design teams, Henry got the extra burden or bonus of taking on two episodes right at the top of the production calendar while I was still busy somewhere else.
KP: When you finally did get to learn really what the show was going to be, what were you most excited about?
CB: It’s rare in traditional television series that you get to go and shoot in spaces that are where the stories are being told. Location for location. And getting a chance to embrace the local color and local details to help inform story. So on a design level, the chance to have that be available as a tool to help shape the world of the story I thought was going to be super fun.
When things were just being started, there was not a “we’re gonna go here and here and here.” It was like, “Well, I think we’re going to these places.” And then seeing what the global distribution turned out to be like was pretty intriguing.
HD: The opportunity of working in so many different places. Can we make high end television series in Paris, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, England, Mexico? The idea of meeting all those crews, working with all those people. The way that the schedule worked, I couldn’t adapt the local system to my way of doing things. I had to be the guy who adapted. I basically was the first one in from the episode. I would basically be parachuted into whatever country, set up camp and start to scout and start to look at locations, and it was terrific. We had to wing it and be self-reliant and come up with a common language of work and aesthetic. Always in contact with Matthew and the producers who were, at that point, shooting one of the other episodes on a different continent, frequently. So there was this barrage of back and forth information, but also a level of trust that we developed very quickly.
There’s only so much information I can gather about a castle in the Czech Republic and say this is the right castle or the wrong castle, and get it down to the three that might work for whichever part of the script called for that particular type of setting. The exciting part was really working in other countries. Working with their systems and trying to do the best level of TV that we could. And I was amazed at how incredibly sophisticated and brilliant the crews were in all those countries.
KP: Chris, you worked on three of the episodes that are set in three different countries. What was that like for you in the prepping and planning stages?
CB: It was a little bit of a challenge. I got thrown a little bit of a curve ball. The episode that was eventually shot and set in greater Los Angeles was not supposed to be here. It was supposed to be in the Bay Area. But the Northern California fire season happened in the fall before production and part of the production model for making the show was that the principles would go into a location and we would round out a team based on local crew and local talent. The fires pushed the calendars of stuff that was happening up in the bay pretty substantially. The idea of a local crew base was suddenly off the table. Folks that had been lined up to come on board and be part of the show were no longer available to us.
So due to that and I think due to a mid-season we could do this in Los Angeles and everybody could be at home for a little while, we ended up shooting “The Bright and High Circle” in LA. For me, that was sort of the middle piece between the bookends that were distant and global. Which was great because I got to come home and see the family a little bit and work with folks that I knew and had relationships with. Some from “Mad Men,” some from other projects in LA for that one. As far as the distant work, I had a nice chunk of time to prep was what broadcast as episode two, was actually the third episode in production. “The Royal We.” That was a split between Toronto and time spent in an airplane and on a cruise ship, flying back and forth to Miami to scout and to prep and to look at options for the tourism section of that episode.
“The End of the Line,” set in Vladivostok was actually produced in Romania. There was scout and travel to Eastern Europe to see what those spaces looked like. First at a time when there were still leaves on the trees and then afterwards in the winter when we got a sense of how, with grey skies and snow and ice it might look like a bleak, frozen landscape.
So I would say there’s a healthy enough lead time, knowing where we were going and what we were looking for, that the prep let us take advantage of the geography and the locations.
KP: Henry, you have some really great locations. That apartment in Paris particularly stood out to me. How much research did you do preparing for these locations?
HD: Tons! There were a lot of very long airplane rides and I would spend every moment on the airplane doing the research, getting the photographs down, trying to put together look books for every location in each country. Some of them were specific and some of them were more just mood photographs of how I thought that an apartment should look. In terms of that Paris apartment, it was funny. It was almost like auditioning an actor for a role to find that apartment. Which ended up – here’s a secret – it ended up actually being two apartments. One upstairs and one downstairs from the other one. There’s a scene where [Anushka] is giving Hajar a tour through the unused parts of the apartment, and that was another apartment that we redressed to look like it was an extension. But that was a nice little camera trick.
It’s tricky. I had never been to Mexico City and to go into a real apartment of a journalist in his 20s, Mexico City native, I did a lot of research with the locations department. Going into peoples’ houses, photographing things, photographing details…and then kind of winging it because we didn’t really have time to do massive dresses and redresses. We sort of had one shot because that was how the timing would work out. We got very lucky and our decorators were unbelievably fast and very good at pivoting with me.
And then there were other things like the medical building where the guy goes to get all the tests in Mexico City, which was pure research. Looking at labs and marrying it to a sort of classical hacienda type setting. Which was fun. I keep saying that. It was fun!
KP: Which was the most fun for you?
HD: Ooh. It’s impossible to choose! Prague, the Czech Republic was such a great crew and the locations we had were so, you know, you’re walking into castles from the 1700s that are exactly the way that they had been then or were last updated in the 1880s or something like that. And we had the run of them, and that was thrilling. To be on top of the pyramids outside Mexico City was astounding. At sunrise to shoot those scenes with nobody else up there. It’s completely empty and the sun is coming up and there are hot air balloons. It was sort of astounding. And magical.
When we were in Hong Kong at dusk shooting across the harbor as the sun goes down was remarkable as well. Hong Kong, wow. Hong Kong was amazing. The place where we did the karaoke scene at the end was this giant floating restaurant in the harbor, accessible only by boat. It was like a scene from a dream, and we tried to sell that on the screen as much as possible.
There were a lot of moments. Riding a bicycle in Paris to set every day. We shot outside the Cathédral de Notre Dame and when the Notre Dame fire happened, we were all texting one another. I texted Matt and said, “It’s really small, but I’m really glad we got it on film before this happened.” This was in the moment while it was burning and we thought there wouldn’t be anything left.
KP: That was heartbreaking, watching it happen.
HD: Heartbreaking. But this was just an amazing project that just kept on giving.
KP: One of the things I found interesting about the way it comes together is that it really is like eight films instead of eight episodes of a series. How much did you and Henry talk?
CB: It’s funny. We talked not as much as I expected. But that was sort of part and parcel of geography. When you’re six, eight time zones different from somebody most of the time, there’s not like let’s get on the phone and chat. There are some pieces of the story which dropped or crossed over from episode to episode. The Daniel character shows up a couple of different times. John Slattery’s character. He writes a book, the book’s in a couple different episodes. There were some functional logistics of “Hey, you created this book that now I need in my episode. Where is it, what does it look like, and how do I find it?” But that’s sort of the functionary part of it.
Production episodes three and four, “The Royal We” and “Expectation,” part of that was shot in Toronto and we had a little bit in the same city at the same time working on the same project. We shot the third episode, the Toronto portion of “The Royal We” first and then they had I think four or five days of photography for “Expectation” right after the third episode completed. So I saw Henry a little bit then and we talked about how it was going and what it was like and what was working for folks in terms of prepping across time and space with Matthew.
The biggest challenge is often you like to have the director’s attention and put things in front of them and have conversations after you’ve spent a little bit of initial time in spaces. And Matthew was not necessarily as available as we would’ve liked because he was directing every episode. So there was a little bit of a bump where you’ve had initial conversations and you go out and you work in a vacuum and then you come back. For Henry and I, the conversations were, how are you getting information? Or response to things that you’re seeing wherever you are so that you can move forward in a way which is going to serve the story best. So we had some of those conversations, but that was pretty much it.
HD: It’s funny. I don’t know how he talks about it, but knowing he was out there and how good he is at what he does, we would talk from time to time. Not very much, but shoot each other emails because we were in different time zones. He’d be prepping when it was the middle of the night. It was fun to know he was out there doing the same thing somewhere and that we were sort of in tandem doing the work.
But yeah, the producers told us who was doing what. They made it easy on us so there was no rock/paper/scissors about it. I think we only really were physically in the same place twice. Once in Paris and then once in Canada for a few minutes, and that was it. It was incredible work, though. I know this isn’t supposed to be about the producers, but it was amazing work by the producers to be able to pull off that kind of logistical scenario where they were constantly filming or about to film. Wherever they were, wherever the director landed they were within a week of being able to shoot. It was great to be part of that whole machine.
KP: How did working on “The Romanoffs” help you grow professionally?
HD: Professionally it was, I have two kids and my wife and I live in New York and I’ve done all of my work here in New York except for one movie that I did in Boston and that’s close. But to do this and to be able to go to all of these places and work with all of these crews at such a high end project where everybody was amazing… We figured out our visual language very quickly. The Mexican crew works differently than the English crew than the Hong Kong crew. It was amazing to work with them, so I come away from that with the feeling like I can go anywhere and try and fit myself into anything. And that there is just a world of talent out there that is so exciting, just brimming with ideas, and I was open to everybody’s input. You’ve got a good idea? Put it on the table. Let’s use it. And that was exciting.
CB: The production model was to rely on the resources on the ground. As a designer, this was a project where I was forced to operate in a way that is not typical for me. You drop in, you land, and you take stock of what is available to you and you work with those pieces. Usually, when you start a project you’re gathering parts and shaping a team that is, at least for me, that I try and match to the needs of the story. And that was not necessarily what I was in a position to do this time around.
It was a really, really fun and interesting and challenging experience.