How ‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’ Production Designer Found Artistic Triumphs Despite COVID Challenges

When working on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, you are always taking one step at a time. The show kind of unfolds as you make choices. I’ve quoted our director of photography a couple of times as having said he wanted to give the show an optimistic look because of its historical setting. This period after World War II and going into the 1950s was a very optimistic period. My job was just a matter of trying to reflect that to the audience with what I see in the writing and in our characters.

The biggest challenge for us last year, of course, was COVID-19 and how to do what we do with all the new safety protocols. We were very limited at the beginning of the season on what we could do in New York City.

It put more pressure on us to do shoots in the studio and onstage than we had in the past. COVID-19 was just one of the various elements that we dealt with. We had a task ahead of us based on the script, the period, the characters — COVID-19 was just another element that we had to consider when we were making choices looking ahead at season four.

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Shooting in a New York theater — specifically, a Broadway theater — proved to be impossible at the beginning of last season. So we built that theater onstage, and that was a big challenge in terms of construction and its costs.

In addition to building the theater on a soundstage, there was another set that we had shot the year before, a house in Forest Hills, Queens, that we needed to return to. We didn’t feel that we would be able to go back to Forest Hills with all our trucks and the crew, so we reproduced that house on a stage as well — including the front yard, the street and the backing with the photographs of all the houses that surrounded it. Working onstage and building exteriors and interiors is kind of a different vocabulary than working in a real situation, in a real house, or in a real neighborhood.

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The goal is to always make it real for the audience onscreen. If one didn’t know that we had reproduced that house for the last season, I don’t think you would know the difference between what we shot in season three and what we shot in season four. Depending on the obligations placed on us by the script, sometimes locations make more sense for us — I don’t prefer one over the other, except as it serves the story and the script.

We have very experienced crews and have from the beginning, which included a great paint crew working on the Wolford Theater. They did wonderful aging and textures that seem very real, and the theater felt like it has been sitting there for over 100 years.

The team does our research and incorporates everything that is available to us. That includes old film clips and clips of television shows. The research process is pretty much the same regardless of whether it’s a period project or contemporary. It’s always based on a certain level of research that includes not just period decor and colors, but also the way people behaved.

In this particular case, we considered live performance — what it was like at the time Maisel is set and what it is like now. We always have to keep in mind how elements from the past relate to the audience’s experience today and try to make sure that we don’t do something that is in any way obscure to the audience unless that is what’s needed.

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Every project is different and every scene is different in its own way, and that is one thing that I really like about this work. As comfortable as one becomes with it, you begin to do it and learn the techniques and processes — it’s almost always different in some way. That experience of learning something new on a project is always exciting.

We have a library of books about the period. By that I mean we have things like product brochures, catalogs and books that have been written about the era. We have those pages assembled in binders — hundreds of thousands of pages at this point, in the fifth season of the show, of research on the period and comic performances.

I have a library in my office, and occasionally when I’m reading a script, I’ll jump up and grab one of the many books I’ve collected over 40 years. I do this to relate to what I’m reading in the script, and it helps move the process along to be able to immediately see something that I’m reading in the script for the first time.

Whether it’s a film or TV show, I’ve always said that the most exciting part of the process for me is the discovery phase of the project. Sometimes, you read one script and you kind of have the show in mind, but you don’t necessarily have a clear picture until you start seeing objects and locations.

I will be 72 in about three weeks. It is great to be able to feel that I’m being successful in my career at this age, and that it isn’t all something that was in the past. I’m as vital, if not more so, than ever in my work. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel has been a part of that in the past five years of my life, and still I’m enjoying it.

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This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

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