Bill Groom has four Primetime Emmy awards for production design, all for his work on “Boardwalk Empire.” Now, Groom looks to add a fifth trophy to his collection, this time for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”
In addition to these two critically acclaimed series, Groom has also worked in film, with productions that include “Milk,” “A League of Their Own,” and “The Preacher’s Wife.”
I recently had the chance to speak with the designer about his work on Amazon’s hit comedy series. For the second season, the production left the confines of Manhattan for adventures in Paris, the Catskills, and a few neighboring states as Midge Maisel set out to make a name for herself. Groom discusses some of the challenges and excitement of working in new locations, as well as what keeps him coming back. Please enjoy our conversation.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is such a fun show. You got to work on season 1 and season 2. What was it about “Mrs. Maisel” that made you excited to come back?
Bill Groom: It was great fun, season 1. Season 2 is even more fun. The writing is great for the show. That’s what I like the most. It’s always good to be part of something like that. One thing that can happen in this business is things like production design and costumes and photography and all that is around to support a not very good script. That’s not the case with us. It starts with the scripts, and they’re really wonderful. And then we’re there to support that. It’s always much more enjoyable than struggling to make something better. It starts with that, and that’s what got me interested in the show to begin with.
I had a few scripts, maybe two or three in the beginning, for various pilots and this was just the best one. I met with Amy [Sherman-Palladino] and Dan [Palladino] and we hit it off right away. They’re a pleasure to work with. It’s very hard work and we do a lot. We do some of the sets and a lot of big stuff, and it seems to get bigger every year. We’re working on season 3 now and it’s even bigger than season 2. It’s challenging on that level and it’s very satisfying too.
KP: What’s something about it that, for you personally, is really satisfying?
BG: For me, it’s a period. I’ve done quite a bit of period work, but never this period. That’s a lot of fun. It was a very hopeful period. Our DP has created the photographic look that’s really great and he once said he was trying to create an optimistic look. And I think that was kind of the feeling of the period at the end of the 50s. It’s fun to embrace that and work on that and create it for the audience.
KP: It is such a fun time period and I love the overall look of the show. What are some inspirations you had in deciding how your version of the 1950s would look?
BG: It’s been important for me to keep the feel of New York in the show. New York has been a layered environment for many, many years. It was a layered environment in the 50s. Sometimes you see this period done in the movies and television and everything in it is sort of frozen in a kind of 50s time frame and, of course, that wasn’t true. There are all these periods that go before and that was never truer than in New York. The apartment for Midge in the first season, and then for the parents in the first, second, and now third season, is based on an apartment building that was built in something like 1919, I believe. It may have even been earlier. But that’s always been true in New York. There have always been these environments that people work and live in that were created decades earlier, but where the look is informed by the period that the show is set in. I tried to sort of keep a 50s look in a much earlier environment, which is very typical of New York. And that’s true today and it was true then.
KP: Where do you go to find your inspiration, your research, that kind of thing?
BG: Everywhere. We have magazines from the period in our office. We have books that have been written about the period. What I like more than anything are artifacts. Things like electrical catalogs, plumbing catalogs, furniture catalogs and brochures from hotels and all of that sort of stuff. We have that. We use the Library of Congress, any sort we can find. Occasionally you’ll find somebody with photographs, personal photographs that work. Old fabric samples, for instance, are great. Remnants of wallpaper and that sort of thing. In the example of wallpapers, sometimes we’ll use rolls of paper that have been salvaged from the period and never used, and we’ll use them as surfaces. Or times we reproduce them. Many, many different places.
KP: In season 2, Midge and her parents travel to Paris. Can you talk a little about designing 1950s Paris?
BG: It was great fun. It’s not very different from working in New York. Paris is a very modern city today and there’s some beautiful old buildings there but with very modern store fronts on the street level and we basically did what we did here or anyplace else. We took away the non-period things to the extent that we could, or cover them up. In the case of the street where Rose is living when they arrive in that episode, we actually built period store fronts that stood in front of the non-period storefronts. We installed a dozen or more storefronts for that one scene.
And then the visual effects department helped us with everything above the street level. Any signage or modern additions to buildings we did in the computer and then at the street level where the actors are interacting with the backgrounds, we actually physically built that. We had a full art department, a full staff in Paris. A construction department, set direction department and set decorator, assistant art director, a location department, all of that. It was a full crew in Paris doing pretty much the same thing we do in New York. And they were great.
KP: It was so fun to see a bit of a change of scenery. But you’re right. It’s not that much different in terms of looking at what life is like.
BG: “What life is like” is a key phrase, because one thing I was careful about was not focusing too much on monuments in Paris and all the things like the Eiffel Tower. We certainly see it in the episode, but it’s easy to make the mistake of going there and just shooting the postcard shots. And that’s not what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to see daily life in Paris as compared to daily life in New York. And Rose’s experience there as opposed to her daily life on the street here. That’s what we tried to accomplish and I think we were successful.
KP: You definitely were, yeah.
BG: We just tried to create the right feel for life there.
KP: It really does give it the feeling of a city people live in, not just visit. And New York is that way too.
BG: Absolutely. And we don’t do that in New York. We’re not having Rose pass by the Empire State Building in every episode just to prove that we’re in New York. Sometimes the simplest little places can tell a lot about a city or a place. Like Rose’s apartment in Paris, we were very lucky to find. I guess lucky. We worked hard to find the right place and turned down a lot of the places that were too over-the-top Parisienne. Things that felt comfortable and natural, true life appearance.
KP: You’ve done a lot of film and television for the past couple of years. You worked on “Boardwalk Empire,” “Vinyl,” some other things.
BG: I think that’s more like ten years, not a couple of years! “Boardwalk Empire” was there for four years. Then over the course of about two years we did “Vinyl,” one season and then this came along after I did a limited season for ABC in Vancouver called “When We Rise,” with Linus Black and Gus Van Sant. I’d worked with him before on a movie called “Milk.” It just so happened that that fit perfectly between “Vinyl,” which was not renewed, and “Maisel,” which was a new show. So yeah, after I came back from Vancouver, shooting that in San Francisco, we started “Maisel.”
KP: What is it that you really enjoy about working in television as opposed to film?
BG: It’s faster, which can be very satisfying. There’s two different kinds of television. There’s the sort of high end, well-budgeted, well supported kind of television, which is all that I’ve done since I’ve not designed a film. I’ve just been lucky. “Boardwalk Empire” and “Vinyl” were both for HBO and those are very well supported productions. Now Amazon has been really great to work with. There’s no structure with them about having enough resources to do what we need to do. So that’s pretty satisfying.
There’s certain things in television you can do in part because you can be a little more experimental. At least that’s been my experience. Because if it doesn’t work in this episode, there’s always the next episode not to do that again. You can play a little bit in television and find some new, creative solutions in a way that’s a little harder in film because once the film is locked it doesn’t evolve beyond that. So there’s a little more fluidity in television.
KP: There’s something really exciting about all the different networks and streaming services. It’s a really fun time for TV.
BG: It is, yes.
KP: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is such a great show because it’s something we really need right now. We need shows about awesome women that aren’t perfect but are forging their paths.
BG: I agree. It’s very good in that way.
KP: What’s a way you feel this show inspires you personally?
BG: In every project, it’s about what it asks for. Dan and Amy ask for a lot from everyone around them, but no more than they ask from themselves. They’re some of the hardest working people I’ve ever met in this business and they expect that from everybody else. Sometimes the inspiration comes from just the hard work that you put into accomplishing what the obligations are for a given episode. You know? You just put your head down and keep working. I’ve always felt that’s the most important part of all of this. Being talented and inspired is focused on a lot, but the truth is, you show up every day and you do the work and sometimes you look back and you say, “Wow! That really worked. That was a good solution.” But at the time, all you’re doing is pushing ahead and doing the best you can for what you’re putting on the screen.