The craft of art direction – interview with Adam Rowe

September 6th, 2019  |  Film · Interviews

It starts as an idea on a piece of paper, a figment of an imaginary world, a sketch in a notebook. A tender, fragile seed with just an inkling to how beautiful its blossom might be. It takes dozens, if not hundreds of hands of skilled craftsmen to cultivate, grow and nurture that idea over a period of long weeks and months. This is the craft of an art director – take that sliver of a fantasy and create a physical manifestation of it that is believable for the director, for the actors and, most importantly, for the audience – be it a music video, an awards show performance, a theatrical play, a feature film or an episodic TV production.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Adam Rowe. In this interview he talks about what art direction is, the glamour and the grunge of Hollywood, the evolution of storytelling in episodic and streaming productions in the last few years, and what keeps him going . Around these topics and more, Adam dives into his work on “Rizzoli and Isles”, “Mad Men”, “Parks and Recreation”, “Forever”, “Criminal Minds”, “The Good Place” and his most recent “Rent: Live” for which he has received the Emmy nomination for outstanding production design for a variety special.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and the path that took you to where you are today.

Adam: First of all, I’m excited that you do these interviews. I do think it’s pretty exciting to hear everyone’s story. I hosted an event a couple years ago for the Emmys where we talked with several production designers and set decorators to hear their story, and how they made certain shows. It was fascinating. So many times there is emphasis on producers, directors, writers and actors, and it’s not that they’re not worth emphasizing, but it is so great to hear how things are made. Makers often have wonderful stories.

I was looking at some of the other people you’ve interviewed and it seemed like there’s a theme often that people see something, at an early age, and get inspired. I was the same. I saw “The Who’s Tommy” musical that toured in Chicago. That was definitely influential. For me a spark came from the stage, and I thought about whether I become someone in the theatre. Or, do I become an engineer.

My grandfather designed the air-conditioning for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction in Disneyland, and that’s the closest to the entertainment industry my heritage comes [laughs]. My mom worked for an engineering firm. My dad had an excavation company that did a lot of roadway and water mains. He was also a farmer. I grew up in the middle of Illinois and access to the arts wasn’t necessarily a number one priority, especially at that time in the early ’80s.

Our library closed at my grade school. We were also without a music program for quite a while. There certainly wasn’t any kind of dramatic arts program at Grand Ridge, Illinois. A tiny little town of 200-300 people. It took, you know, a lot of effort in my high school and college days to explore working in the theatre and arts.


Art direction of “Rent: Live”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

I was a scenic artist first. I painted opera floors for the Santa Fe Opera and backdrops for the beloved Seaside Music Theater in Florida, which no longer exists. Then I traveled around, living out of my car for quite a while. It was difficult, with family, community and just life, because I was moving around so much. I decided to give Los Angeles a try based on a friend’s recommendation. I moved here in 2006 and I haven’t really looked back.

Television kind of absorbed me at that point, mostly because of the quickness and the excitement. The idea of a TV show as a rising phoenix. These things come together. There’s so many people and so many ideas. We make something and then there’s that idea of letting it go. I actually enjoy that.

Of course I’ve become attached to certain shows, sets, people, stories and characters. But there is something beautiful about the end of something. A set or whole world going away and then making something else completely new. But, it’s on film you can always return it if you wanted. If I didn’t enjoy that sense of quick renew, I think that it would be a better place to be working in theme parks, or architecture or interior design where they have projects that last longer.

Committing to television is more of a recent development in my psychology. Getting my career started was the focus, and I didn’t really care what I was working on necessarily. I’ve had a unique career and I’ve bounced around a lot. I’ve done still print for advertisement in the early days of my career. I’ve done game shows, one-hour drama, half-hour comedy, live events and even a night parade for Universal Studios Japan. It has been circuitous, and I’m curious to know people think about that.

Some people ask me “How do you do that,” meaning bounce around. For me it’s all quite similar in the sense that you’re making something for an audience. You just have to figure out what that something is, and what would excite that audience.

Kirill: Thinking back to your earliest TV productions, how glamourous did you think it would be, and how perhaps less glamourous it ended up being behind the scenes?

Adam: I didn’t know or think a lot about that when I first started. I came up through the theater world, and it’s very dirty. Theaters often put their artists in closets, basements and hallways, and in the case of the Seaside Music Theater, in an airplane hangar in the middle of Daytona Beach Florida, without air conditioning. We used to spray the ceiling with a garden hose so that it would drip down on us, so that we could stay cool while we painted. There was no glamour in that, but then all of a sudden you get close to opening night and you get invited to an opening night party, and you have to quickly scrub all the paint off your fingernails and go get dressed up. That was the extent of it.


Art direction of “Parks and Recreation”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

My first television job that I have such strong memories of was the first season of “Mad Men”. I worked in the art department, and the thing that struck me that was just so glamourous was that they had lunch every day [laughs]. The stars of the show were not super-stars yet. Elisabeth Moss, Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks became famous on that show, and they obviously had names before. But I remember that on season one we sat around the tables together, and you sat next to Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks and it was really cool.

Dan Bishop the production designer is an incredible teacher, and Christopher Brown the art director helped me grow and learn a lot on that show. As far as the glamour was concerned, that show looked it. It was very glamourous. The sets were beautiful, and it was a clean, friendly, wonderful work environment. Matthew Weiner created a compelling show and Scott Hornbacher, a producer, kept a tight, organized ship. It was such a wonderful place to work.

It grew into its glamour. When that show came out and it started to get famous and continued into the total of seven seasons. It developed with its glamour. Go back to its delicious first episode and see how it grew.

For me the most glamourous was the surprise that they would have lobster and steak catered for the final dinner. I’m not sure they did that every season, but I would guess they did.

There’s something fun about the television and movie industry having a lot of celebrations. I’m nominated for an Emmy this year, and I’m super-pumped and excited about it. There’s a party for the Emmy nominees. There’s a party that the set decorators are putting on. And then there’s of course the creative Emmys, and they all require different outfits [laughs].

That’s a pretty high, glamourous thing and the underside of that is you can still work on shows where they put the art department behind a pawn shop in Hollywood. So it hasn’t changed that much from an airplane hangar [laughs]. It depends on the show, and it depends on who’s running it.


Art direction of “Rizzoli and Isles”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Kirill: Do you feel that the level of expectations from the production side keeps on rising in the last few years? Does most of it come from streaming networks and services, in your opinion?

Adam: There definitely is a sensationalism right now in the writing. Taking the art department out of the equation for a second, what I feel I’m noticing as a viewer is that there’s so many interesting stories out there. Some are truncating timelines, where you’re jumping forward and backward, telling the same story over and over again in a different way – such as “Russian Doll”. Some are happening in different countries happening simultaneously – such as “Sense8”. You have altered history – such as “The Man in the High Castle”. There’s “Outlander” that goes back in time, there’s space travel and so much more.

I’m not saying that these devices didn’t exist 25 years ago. But if you go back in your mind as a viewer to what we were watching in 2005 and what we are watching now, and a lot of people probably are going to disagree with me, but I can’t just credit streaming services. Network television is still going strong. You have shows like “This Is Us”.

Networks and streaming services are making shows that interest an audience base, and from the art department standpoint, we as artist have to react to that. Computer technology, camera technology and video games are what people are exposed to in their everyday entertainment lives, and it’s influencing what’s being put on television.

So you have to have these quicker, richer, deeper, complicated stories set in complicated worlds. “Stranger Things” is a great example of something that felt like it was unearthed from ’80s, but yet, it’s so much more detailed. “The Goonies” was a very detailed movie. It had beautiful scenery, but then you look at “Stranger Things” and it’s that much deeper. It’s like seeing a dream, and then focusing on it and being able to see 100 feet deeper in that dream.

Going back to your question, I think the shows are more complicated, but I can’t just credit the streaming services. HBO, Showtime and AMC were such good forerunners, influencing and pushing the envelope. Before that networks were trying to out do each other too. Then we jumped to the streaming services. All of these services are trying to compete with each other. You have Hulu, Amazon, Netflix and all the others trying to grab a viewer.

Not every show needs sensationalism or to be complex. They are really beautiful stories that are very simple and don’t need complicated sets. I just haven’t worked on that in a while.

But yes, production expectation is rising, because audiences expectation is rising. The bar just keeps getting set higher. That can make things more complicated. There’s more money now for certain scenery. If you think about the budget, every zero has a certain amount of decisions and people behind it. More money means more decisions and that many more people.


Art direction of “Forever”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

I worked on Amazon’s “Forever”, and it was a gorgeous show with an interesting strategy. I wasn’t a producer, but I can imagine that it only had a few people as cast, there was more money to put it in the art department and other things (like visual effects).

There was a fantastic effect in that show pitched by Amy Williams the production designer. She wanted a cookie-cutter style subdivision. Oftentimes a subdivision only has a few ground plans that a homeowner can choose from. You go into subdivisions that were built in the ’50s, ’60s or ’70s, and you run into the same house happening over and over again. Maybe it’s a different color. Maybe they flip the direction and the garage is on your left instead of on your right.

We didn’t want to build a second living room set, so it was Amy’s idea to flip the camera. They called it a mirror flip. You were watching all of the visuals on the camera backwards from what was happening in real life. The actors had to wear buttons on the other side. Flipping hair parts, moles, wedding rings and all the other things that could give the trick away. We had to change all the text on the book spines and all the text in the kitchen. Think about your stove and your microwave – we had to swap the text all out so they would read correctly in the mirror flip.

So it doesn’t always have to be more expensive and more challenging, but it has become that way. There’s definitely been a higher bar and higher mark. Every year another incredible show comes out and then that’s the new mark of what people aspire to be. “Game of Thrones” pops up all the time as a show that has such a high caliber of art department. It is beautiful, but they have a lot of travel and a lot of support. I imagine it’s a whole different regime over there than most TV shows.


Art direction of “Rent: Live”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Kirill: What has been the most intense production for you so far?

Adam: I’ve had a few challenging, complicated shows. Certainly the most complicated yet rewarding was the musical “Rent” on Fox. It was such a hybrid of different kinds of projects that I’ve worked on before. It was a musical being brought to stage in 360 degrees. One of the challenges was that the rehearsals were embedded on the set long before the air date.

Generally speaking, on most TV shows rehearsals either happen outside of the set or very briefly before the camera preps. On “The Good Place” rehearsals happen in like 30 minutes or so before they set up camera. So when you take a project like “Rent”, you have to have the set ready 20 or 30 days before the actual shoot date. But it’s still being worked on, changed and developed. It’s like an amoeba every day. There’s something that’s changing, or something that’s altered because it wasn’t ready yet, or the dance floor needed to go down, or who knows what. There were so many things to track and keep in mind.

And through it all you have to remember the director’s vision and the production designer’s vision. You have to make sure the actors are safe. You have to make sure that timelines are being made. There was an endless list of things to mentally keep track of. We had a really nice staff on that show in the art department which helped complete those things. But I would say that “Rent” was high on the challenge and reward.

Every show has its challenging moments. I find it’s often based on schedule and availability of the talent. I worked briefly on a show that brought in different celebrities for smaller roles, and it had lots of different storylines. The look of that show was quite inspiring and rich, but it was hard to keep track of things when the schedule would change on the day we were supposed to film, because they had an actor availability issue. They might really want that talent and they get booked on something else. Or the story gets rewritten and the days that they had the actor booked needs to change. There’s a million reasons why, and there’s not ever a person to blame. It’s just something that the art department on every show has to work with. The schedule will always change.

I would say that every show that I have worked on has had some moments like that.


Art direction of “Rent: Live”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Kirill: When you meet somebody at a party and they ask what you do for a living, how do you describe it?

Adam: There are two sides to it. When I talk with colleagues, it depends on what genre they’re from. Most production designers and art directors can do a myriad of different things, but there’s a dramatic difference between video games, advertising and TV shows.

It helps to talk about what they do, and that helps relate to what I do. If they understand what an art director or production designer’s role is, then it’s easy to talk about how I spend my day.

When I talk to my mom or my dad who heard me talk about my job for a long time, they get it. But a lot of people don’t. One of my easiest breakdowns is to tell someone that an art director is a person who manages time, money and space, and often Human Resource / the staffing. How much time do you have? How long do you have the space? How long do you have to build it? How much money do you have left? Where are you going to put it? Is it going to be out on the streets, is it going to be on a location, is it going to be on a soundstage in LA or a soundstage in Atlanta? What’s the staffing situation? Once you break it down that way, I think people start to understand that’s what the art director is doing.

A production designer is generally the vision, and that is such an all-encompassing word. They are interpreting the words and vision of a writer, the thoughts of a producer, or the vision of any creative person. For example, when you do a musical event, oftentimes the singer has a creative person who works for them. They come to the art department for the show and they say this is the vision that they want for this moment on a musical award show. The production designer may help influence and develop the idea so it works for that specific awards show. The art director then helps solve how to get it through the door during a commercial break, or how it’s ultimately going to look on stage. They estimate, design, build, fabricate and make sure it is affordable. And in the end delivered something special for the audience. It sometimes takes lots and lots of people to get something on stage from just an idea.

I have found it challenging to talk about my job to people who don’t know what it takes. One time someone asked me if just come out of a box.

Sometimes it’s challenging to talk to producers about it, because some producers don’t necessarily know the differences in the roles. That’s just them not knowing how the process can work. Some producers understand it very well, and you love them for it. They get that if you have a production designer who’s incredibly whimsical or maybe doesn’t always understand the constraints of that particular show, a strong art director then becomes an important person to be able take an innovative design and try to fit it in a box, in a certain timeline with the amount of money the producers have.


Art direction of “Rent: Live”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Kirill: Do you want people to know this complexity?

Adam: It’s incredible how much influence Twitter, Facebook and social media have. When I first started, that wasn’t around. Then there was a period of about 5 years where you would sign non-disclosures that you couldn’t put anything on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Still, every once a while you’ll get a warning to not share something specific. But now most shows want you to post stuff.

I think it’s because the psychological context of an audience is changing, and they want to see. There’s something beautiful about sitting in the first five rows of a theater show, and you’re allowed to peek through the wings. You can see up and you can see the lights. There’s a titillation that happens. We know we’re watching something that’s fake, but we also enjoy seeing something that is complete fantasy. I would always want audiences to believe in fantasy.

With all of the sensational storytelling, in some ways, it’s getting harder for audiences to accept escapism. I’m guilty of it too. Watching a show and you find yourself yelling COME ON, or WHY out loud and getting mad at the TV. Mad that they did something you thought was crazy. Just like that, you’re removed from the show. But, when the show is really good, you dive in, and that’s how you know it’s good. I celebrate “Downton Abbey” a lot, because that show has done such a good job of bear-hugging you into that world. You almost forget you’re watching something fantasy, because you just love to believe it. That’s how I experienced that show.

The more behind the scenes that we show doesn’t necessarily diminish the product.

Showing people how things are made is important. By showing behind the scenes I definitely hope to inspire new artists to come to television, make opera, make dance, make music videos. There’s definitely talent out there. I think the competition is healthy. New ideas bring new products to the entertainment industry and that is very good. That’s how you get glow-in-the-dark stuff, that’s how you get new LED products, or new ways to build things, more sensational sets. It’s how you get new balloons! I know that sounds silly, but for a long time you couldn’t get a round balloon. It took an inspired engineer somewhere in the world to decide to do that, and now Disneyland has a round balloon they sell in the parks.

You need competition and wonder. You need that stimulation. And the more that you pull up the curtain, the more you’ll get people excited and bring potentially new ideas to the table.


Art direction of “The Good Place”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Kirill: You’ve worked on the number of modern-day productions – “Rizzoli and Isles”, “Criminal Minds” and “Parks and Recreation”. How challenging is it to create environments that look believable for me as the viewer today?

Adam: I get a kick out of trying to trick the audience and making something look authentic. It’s very challenging actually to do good crime scenes. There’s so many good crime scenes and crime dramas out there, but the reason why it’s challenging is because they’re messy. I’m talking fantasy crime scenes. I haven’t been to that many real ones [laughs], but I’ve seen a lot of crime scene footage.

The shooting crew is about 30 people on average, so you have 30 people behind the camera who need to go out to the actor to fix their hair, fix their makeup and help them with a particularly blocking moment. It’s hard to have a lot of stuff on a set that isn’t going to get trampled or in the way, unless you have a particularly good crew and first AD [assistant director] who’s managing that. We certainly tried hard on “Criminal Minds”.

There’s always a crime board where a visual catalogue helps the audience and characters in the story try to solve the crime. It usually has evidence, behavior analysis or clues. The art director and props runs the crime scene photos on a show like that. So those are staged ahead of time, generally a couple of days before the episode starts shooting. You get to be incredibly particular about those, because it’s a lot less people and you’re making a still image. You can move things a couple of inches to make a better composition. You can have actors laying on their stomach, even though generally most people on TV die face-up [laughs] so you can see their face. It’s very rare to have a dead person on TV face down, even though I think that’s how most people pass away actually.


Art direction of “Rizzoli and Isles”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Then you jump to something like “Parks and Recreation”, and even though you’re making something real, you’re always making something that’s supposed to be funny. You’re making something that’s a little bit turned up to 11. The volume on that show is just slightly up. Kimberly Wannop, the set decorator, did such a great job on that show for years. You have little trinkets and things that were sight-gags here and there. If you look at Leslie Knope’s office, especially in seasons 6 and 7, you’ll see a lot of really fun details.

I find decorating and set designing for reality to be a great challenge. If you do it right, it feels at ease. It’s hard to stop people from straightening things or fixing bedsheets. That’s another challenge. A lot of people don’t make their bed every day, or if they do, they don’t make it great. I’ve ran into situations where I desperately want to have the bed unmade, because that’s how I think this character lives. And you better believe it – you get people on stage and they just have to make the bed [laughs].

Kirill: Getting closer to “The Good Place”, do you have a preference to join a show in the middle of it, or to start on it from the beginning?

Adam: On that show it would have been so great to be on at the beginning. The production designer and the art director on the first two seasons did a fantastic job, and I was so happy to pick up the torch and run with it.

There were so many reboots of The Good Place village and so many different times to track. They were in the same place, but in a different timeline. In season 3 we had a little less anxiety about making sure the village was right, because that season was on the road. We were in Australia, we were in Budapest, we were all over the world scenery-wise, even though we were always in LA in the real world. We were also in afterlife, and we were in between, and it was hard to mentally track it.

I try to remember what is that character’s name, what’s the name of the actor who plays that character, what does their front door look like, what are some of the objects in their house, so that at any moment I can recall what those things are if that comes up in a meeting. It can be hard to know that when you come into a show in the middle of their season. There was a benefit about coming in half way. I got to watch and enjoy the show and walk in a fan. I knew what was in season 1 & 2 and came bright eyed and eager.

It would have been so much fun to have been a part of the pilot because of the creation of the backlot, The Village. That part of Universal Studios is still there, of course. We’ve refreshed it. Before it was Little Europe. One building was Swiss, and one building was from Amsterdam, one building could be from Paris. It was as if you took an apartment and you had 25 tenants over the last 5 years, and everyone left a thing in the apartment. Imagine what that apartment would look like, and that’s how the backlot looked before “The Good Place” came in and made it one big statement. And we’ve heard that people are using it a lot more for commercial shoots and similar things.

So you might see little tidbits of “The Good Place” on other projects, because it’s going to live on the Universal backlot for a while. If you go on a Universal backlot tour, you’ll see it.


Art direction of “The Good Place”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Kirill: Was it more hectic than usual because you had all those places and timelines to keep track of?

Adam: It was hectic for a couple of reasons. One, there’s only 5-7 days of prep. We do it in groups of three episodes on that show, and sometimes only in two episodes. You get a prep week and you’d probably have a script or two, and you’d have some foreshadow. Morgan or David the producers would say that a certain thing is coming, and we would look to make sure that we either had it in storage or start designing it and prepare to build it from scratch.

Michael Schur (show’s creator, writer and producer) has a great vision. He knows what he wants, and you focus on getting that right. And sometimes we’d find something really great.

The door to the Bad Place was such a fun invention by Ian Phillips the production designer. He drew something up, and I think we had a couple of different choices. And that Bad Place door and the door to Earth became such great icons for the rest of the season. We had something similar happen in season 4, but I don’t want to give anything away because nothing’s come out yet. But there was a particular moment early in the season where Ian and I created this environment that then became a piece of something that was a nice token for the season. We think NBC will use it in advertising.

As far as pacing on the show, it was a blitzkrieg. Even though we would know something was coming, maybe the schedule would shift or that set could get cut as the story developed. We had to bring a lot of ideas and it was definitely a breakneck pace. That show always had that feeling. If you just look at one episode in season 3 you’ll see how many places the story goes knowing that every time they went somewhere that was a new place for the art department, you can see it.

The timeline of making that show was like a French Press. You let it steep for a minute then you squeeze the goodness right down to the bottom, you pour it out and you get a great product. It was fun. I think the pace was able to be that way because you had such great producers and a great showrunner who always knew the thing that they wanted. And if they didn’t we brought options to the table. Gay Perello, the prop master always had lots of options.


Art direction of “The Good Place”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Kirill: Is there a part of your job that you would gladly see gone?

Adam: Early mornings [laughs]. I would say that that would be one thing that I would trade out, especially when you try to have a social life outside of television. Oftentimes our scene shops, paint shops and sign shops start at 6:00 AM, and we’re talking right now early in the morning before people start to come in to the office.

I wouldn’t say that I’m an organized person. I try to live my life organized, but if I had my druthers I’d have all of my clothes out of the drawers. It wouldn’t be a dresser, and paper work would be stacked on tables so that I can see it. But still there’s something incredibly therapeutic and important to the process of making scenery that requires one to organize a calendar, organize budgets, putting things in certain spaces digitally so that you know where pieces of hardware research live. I do enjoy the organization side of it so I guess that can stay.

I really enjoy the people. You can think of television as a factory line. People don’t necessarily think of it in these industrial terms, like an oil refinery or an automotive production line. But it is. It’s a conveyor belt of people, and one of the best joys of the show is finding all those people and helping put them together in a room so that we can make a great thing, whatever that thing is. I wouldn’t trade that.

I like the pace as I said earlier. There really isn’t that much annoying other than the early hours. I know that everybody says that, but it is something that people have to consider when they think about working in this industry. It can be challenging on a personal lives, but you make up for it with all that glamour we talked about earlier [laughs]. I don’t think I would trade it for anything. I basically dedicated my entire life to the entertainment industry, and I don’t know what else I would do if I did something different.


Art direction of “Rent: Live”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Kirill: Speaking of glamour, congratulations on your Emmy nomination. In this area, do you have the definition of what success is for you? Is it the acceptance of critics, of your peers in the industry, of the audience, or perhaps the longevity of the shows?

Adam: The show “Rent” is definitely up there. If I had to say that I could tap out right now, even though that’s not the fantasy that I had my whole life, I would say that it was pretty damn close to feeling successful as a creator in making that world. Jason designed a set that was 360 degrees and solved a lot of the issues of how you could do that show in one space three-dimensionally.

When you see the show on stage, it’s happening in front of you linearly, even though there’s dimension to the proscenium. It’s happening in a three sided box. You’re going to take that box, you’re going to widen it and you’re going to stretch it, and then you’re going to put a bunch of people in it. And there are going to be people all over and add that 4th wall. And then you have to dance. And then you have to put cameras in it.

The creation of that was so different from anything I had done before. Even meeting with the fire department was exciting to me. Meeting with the different elements of engineering was exciting to me. There was a lot of weight on the stage, and below the stage was a pool that was put there back who knows when. We were getting pretty far along in the design process, and all of a sudden somebody says that there’s a pool down there. And now you’re going to have to worry about the weight above that pool [laughs].

I loved “Rent” in high school, and I was signing along with all the music. And then I had the chance to work on it, bringing that love of art and theater full circle into television. It was a magical thing, and it was such a great tribute to my high school drama teacher. She loved that show too. She wrote about it in a theater program for my senior year. We didn’t have any theater, drama or music in grade school, so when I got into speech and drama in high school and then finally into theater, that was what really manicured all the interest. I owe that success to her.

As far as success for me, I think it’s a curse and a beautiful thing that a lot of artists that you’ve interviewed probably share. Success is doing the next thing, whatever that is. It’s continuing to work on things that excite you. Success is such a tricky thing in this business, especially in LA. You see it on billboards, you see people rising and you see your friends who have done one thing and then in two years they’re doing something completely different.

Talent moves as a wall. It’s moving this way and then that way. People think of talent as a comet or as a shooting star, but I don’t necessarily see it that way. People are marching and moving together. Some are a little bit ahead and some are catching up. Success is such a tricky thing to define. But as far as current success, I could say that “Rent” is a great crown jewel for me.


Art direction of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Kirill: Every once in a while I catch an episode of one of the HGTV remodeling shows, and I love the part when they get into an old house and they take a sledgehammer to the wall. You mentioned that you don’t have any problem with the impermanence of the sets that you build, so my question is there ever was a time when you took a sledgehammer to one of your sets?

Adam: Not in a long time, but I have done it. The first thing that comes to mind is the opposite of a sledgehammer on “The Assassination of Gianni Versace”. We built a house boat that floated on a garbage scow, and we took a bottle of champagne and we smashed across the front of the boat house before it sets sail down the inter-coastal waterways to go to its location. That was the last smashing I did.

As far as the demolishing, it’s been a very long time. I think that that does come from the world of theater for me. You go through all this joy and celebration of making a show, and then you’re literally at midnight the last night inside a dumpster with sledgehammers, goggles and a hat breaking everything and destroying it so you can smash it all into a dumpster. It’s a lot less therapeutic when you see it under a tarp, rolling away in a truck [laughs] which is a lot of what happens now for TV show set storage.

“The Good Place” was interesting because it was coming down while we were still shooting. You would go into a set, and then the next day you come back and that set would be gone. It was such a weird thing. It’s like that Harry Potter staircase that is turning while you’re trying to go up it. A little bit more ghostly. Things were just disappearing. It was definitely not the therapy you get from smashing a sledgehammer through a hole in a wall [laughs]. I’m not even sure Will Thayer our awesome construction coordinator took a sledge to anything. I should ask him.

Kirill: What do you remember when you look at shows you did 5-10 years ago?

Adam: If I put myself mentally back in 2014, the first thing that comes to my mind is the people and the laughter on “Criminal Minds” and “Rizzoli and Isles”. Both shows were generally dark in tone, although “Rizzoli and Isles” had humor. We laughed a lot. The production meetings had a lot of laughter, especially on “Criminal Minds”.

I sat in production meetings with Vincent Jefferds the production designer on my right and Andre Ellingson the special effects coordinator on my left, and Harry Bring the executive producer would get into these giggle fits and we would just laugh our brains out. It was such a weird context if you think about that show. To even be a UNSUB [un identified subject], character on “Criminal Minds” you’ve had to murder at least three people to even be on the show. So we’re talking about somebody like that, and we’re laughing our way through the creation of it. I guess that’s how you combat the dark tone.


Art direction of “Criminal Minds”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

The knowledge television has gained about how a camera can capture things definitely stands out. It’s always changing. People are trying new things. I know I’m late to the game, but I just watched “The Star is Born”. It was so beautifully shot and so different. I felt like I was circuitously watching everything, serpentining around all the time with Steadicam. If you go back to 2014 and “Mad Men”, they definitely had the static camera at long shots, and you could enjoy the room.

You see how that has changed, and how people watch things, frenetically in some ways. People watch YouTube, and then they switch to Netflix, and then they put on iTunes, and then they go to their Spotify list. We’ve changed how we enjoy entertainment, and that sticks with me.

Of course there’s some sadness. I feel proud of the fact that I haven’t missed that many things. If a wedding comes up, you’re taking a red-eye or you’re quickly packing up your stuff on a Friday night to get to the airport to get home for an event. There is definitely a connection to home. But when you live in LA and you’re away from family and friends, there is definitely a La La Land syndrome.

You have this environment that doesn’t have dramatic seasons. We live in a world of beautiful vanity. We just inherently do because our billboards are always selling television and movies. You go to other cities and billboards are different, but LA billboards are always all the same thing, especially in Hollywood and Burbank. They’re always advertising the next movie, so you kind of live in it. Your friends are in the industry. You’re seeing it all the time and you’re making it all the time. You live in this entertainment cycle. That’s something that is very rewarding and fun, even if the real world is just outside sometimes. Getting into the entertainment world could be tough. People ask that a lot.

I look back on five years ago with great admiration to the people who taught me how to be what I am and what I do, as well as the people that I work with. There’s certainly highlights with the shows I’ve worked on, and I have affection for certain ones. But in some ways it’s the people that made them, including the producers and actors, that are most exciting to me. I had a great connection with Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander on “Rizzoli and Isles”. The show ended in 2016, and they both directed that last season, and that was such a great connection because now I know who they are better. It was such a human connection to work not just with the actor who’s leading this great show, but also to work with somebody that I can have a conversation with.


Art direction of “Rizzoli and Isles”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

Kirill: Would you still be in this industry if you won one of those big lottery prizes tomorrow?

Adam: Believe it or not, I think about that all the time. I’m a lottery addict. I play the lottery as many times as I can.

As somebody who thinks about the lottery every day, I could say it changes. You’re asking me this today, and I would say that I would probably still work. I would still do the creation of artwork, but there’s a lot of different avenues of art that I’ve wanted to explore. I think about orchestra, I think about music theater live – as opposed to movie or film, I think about the creation of plays like the Laramie Project. That was a community-driven project that came out of the hate crime that happened in Laramie, Wyoming.

There’s so much gun violence going on right now, and I don’t know where’s the plays that speak about that and who can help bring it home. The play “Come From Away” did such a magical job. It’s such a great experience of looking back on September 11, and if I were to win the lottery, I would hope that I could focus my attention in television, film or other art medium on an important topic such as these. There’s certainly TV shows that are helping people look at certain things, but I don’t find there’s that many of them. Of course you have documentaries, but I personally haven’t found that many TV shows that are shining the light on social injustices or beautiful moments of humanity.

So not if, but when I win the lottery, I would still work in the entertainment industry, but I would either probably change career paths a little bit, or I would be doing what I’m doing and try to focus on shows that I feel like have a purpose or a point.


Art direction of “The Assassination of Gianni Versace”. Courtesy of Adam Rowe.

And here I’d like to thank Adam Rowe for taking the time to talk with me about the craft of art direction, and for sharing the supporting materials. I’d also like to thank Andrea Resnick for making this interview happen. Finally, if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.