Production design of “Briarpatch” – interview with Richard Bloom

May 21st, 2020

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome Richard Bloom. In this interview he talks about his path through the various positions in the art department in his career so far, the changes in the world of episodic productions in the last few years, differences between feature films and episodic television, and what stays with him after a production is over . Around these topics and more, Richard dives deep into creating the worlds of the beautifully crafted “Briarpatch”.

Richard Bloom scouting the dunes for Episode 9 of “Briarpatch” with location manager Dennis Muscari behind left shoulder.

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

Richard: I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee. I discovered my love for theatre in high school, and then went to college in Virginia where I double majored in theater and business.

I knew I loved theatre and design. But right after I graduated from college, I got an opportunity to intern on a film in Los Angeles. So I got in my car and drove from Williamsburg to Hollywood. Then the next day I showed up at the production office of “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”.

Within a couple of weeks that internship turned into my first PA job. And at the end of physical production I had come to meet Mike Myers, and he asked me to be his post-production assistant. So what I thought was going to just be a summer in LA turned into a much longer stay. I ended up working for Mike for a few years as a writer’s assistant. I learned a ton. It was a master class in Hollywood.

Ultimately, I knew that I didn’t want to be an assistant. I wanted to get back into design, so once I left that job, I picked up the crew list from “Austin Powers” and called the art director. As luck would have it, he said that he was going to start a project that week. I showed up, not really knowing what I was getting into.

That project was a small movie called “Donnie Darko.” And Alec Hammond, the designer, asked me if I wanted to be the art department coordinator. I jumped at that offer and then that project went union. It was pretty lucky. I owe a lot to Alec.

Soon after, I met Bo Welch and worked as his art coordinator for many years on many projects. Then slowly I became an assistant art director (thanks to Bo and Maya Shimoguchi), then an art director, and then many years later a designer. I’ve had design opportunities over the years, but “Briarpatch” was the first project that really felt right. It’s also the first series for the showrunner, Andy Greenwald. He’s a fantastic writer and a fantastic guy. I was excited about collaborating with him, and so I said “yes”.

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

Kirill: If I take you back 20 years ago, and then from that time jump straight to “Briarpatch”, would you say that the changes the art department has undergone through this time have been gradual or drastic?

Richard: I think it’s been fairly gradual over the years, but for the particular jump from “Men in Black 2” to “Briarpatch” it would be pretty drastic. If making a blockbuster is like running a marathon, making a TV show is like running a marathon of sprints. You have new scripts coming in all the time and a new director showing up every week. You are opening 3 sets a day and prepping 3 more and scouting the next episode. It’s a non-stop cycle. It’s pretty intense.

On “Briarpatch” we were shooting each episode in 8 days, which is quite lean in terms of shooting days. But the appetite is of course to compete with the shows that have bigger budgets and more resources. We had a small crew running at full steam for the episodes. But luckily, the crew was top notch.

I was really blessed to able to bring an art director from LA, Callie Andreadis. She is amazing, and we really have the same shorthand. Our propmaster Jonathan Buchanan also came from LA, and he was fantastic. He was off and running on his own. And then, of course, we had a really strong team in New Mexico lead by our set decorator, Kevin Pierce, and location manager, Dennis Muscari, and our construction coordinator, Robert Fritz. We all had to be on the same page early on, because once we started going, there was really no stopping. And luckily, all the departments worked really well together.

Sketches, plans and set photos of “Briarpatch”, courtesy of Richard Bloom.

Kirill: Did it help for the continuity of the show that you were the art director on the pilot, and then some months later you started doing the whole series?

Richard: Definitely. We had shot the pilot earlier, in the fall of 2018. Brandon Tonner-Connolly designed it and I art directed it. It was a really good taste of what was to come and I got a feel for all that Albuquerque has to offer. The writers’ room hadn’t started when the pilot was shot, and although Andy had a lot of ideas where the show was going there was still a lot to be imagined.

We didn’t build any sets on the pilot. It was all location based. So one thing that I knew coming back for the series is that we were going to build the hotel hallway and the hotel room, and we probably weren’t going to be able to afford to go to the lobby of the hotel in many of the episodes.

So I wanted to redesign that hotel hallway to bring in some of the architectural elements of the lobby. That way, every time you’re up on the 9th floor, you also have that feeling of that hotel lobby down below. Taura Rivera, the set designer on that set really nailed it and our construction team did such a nice job with all the wood and tile details and the fake elevators. I was pleased with all the changes we made. It shot really well.

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

Kirill: You worked with the same cinematographer, Zachary Galler, on the rest of the series after the pilot. Is that something that you feel helps to maintain visual continuity throughout the season, even as different directors come in on different episodes?

Richard: Absolutely. I loved working with Zack. He really anchored the show. He showcased the sets and without fail made them better. Over the run, we found a nice rhythm. And very quickly came to trust each other.

But when I first got to Albuquerque to prep about 10 weeks out of shooting, he hadn’t been hired yet. I knew we needed to start building the stages right away, and I knew we needed to start locking the locations pretty quickly. For instance, we built the interior of the police station, and I needed to find that location right away so we could build the stage set to match the exterior.

So when Zack was hired, construction was already pretty far along. At the same time, our two co-producers came on board, Steven Piet who also directed episodes 2 and 3 and the finale, as well as Erik Crary. These three guys had all worked together before so I was pretty nervous about how it was going to go. But they came in and really absorbed everything so quickly. They were so supportive of the process and really pushed the show to the next level.

Kirill: Specifically on “Briarpatch”, you have some everyday locations like the taqueria or Allegra’s hotel room (even though this one is a bit fancy). And then you have Jake’s safety room that is not something that most people see in their everyday life. Where would you place the show on this spectrum of highly-stylized vs everyday?

Richard: It’s a heightened, stylized, quirky, color controlled world. We knew we were doing something that wasn’t an everyday show. You can see that in Andy’s dialogue. There’s a lot of dark comedy and quippiness to it, and we wanted the world to support that. We wanted to be just a little off-center from the norm.

When we all got together, tone was something that everybody talked about a lot – in terms of trying to strike that balance between something heightened but still something that’s grounded in the reality of Felicity’s tragic death. And hopefully we achieved it.

Sketches, plans and set photos of “Briarpatch”, courtesy of Richard Bloom.

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

Kirill: As you read the script, what is your process of taking these words which are probably more about the story and the dialogue, and building the worlds around the characters?

Richard: San Bonifacio is a town of corruption. You have a lot of bad people. And there’s a power struggle going on between generations. And it’s really, really hot. Literally.

It’s a strange town for sure. There’s a nine-story hotel. There’s a breached zoo with animals running wild. So San Bonifacio had to be a certain scale to support those things, yet we were always looking for the eccentric small town shops to add to the tone.

So I tried to build a town with a restricted palette where reds and browns symbolized old money and corruption. Raytek and Jake are the counterpoint to that and represent a new order so we tried to detail their environments in greens and pastels. We utilized a few recurring motifs in the set dressing: taxidermy to represent the old, plants both dead and alive, and dusty arid locations to heighten the sense of heat. Our decorator Kevin had a ball with it.

Though it’s a modern story I wanted the feeling that this strange town was stuck in time. I devised a backstory to guide our search for locations. The towns heyday was in the 1930s when the hotel was built. Then it had another boom in the ’60s, and we used a lot of the houses from the mid-century era. We also had an anamorphic aspect ratio, and I wanted to do take advantage to that and have the only two story house be Jake’s. The police station was also was built in the late ’50s. And then I imagined there was another pop in the ’80s and ’90s where some of the interiors were remodeled. But since then the town had hit hard times.

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

Kirill: You have the recurring sets, such as the hotel hallway, the hotel room, the police station and Jake’s house. And then you have the one-off sets like the inside of the taqueria or the little shack in the desert. How do you approach finding the balance on where your attention goes?

Richard: Early on, I was getting outlines for all of the drafts, so Dennis and I had a clear sense of what was coming. For instance, Raytek’s house is not featured until later in the season, but we knew when we were scouting for Colder’s house and Singe’s house that Raytek’s would also be needed in the future.

So in prep, we started putting pins in locations that I felt were right for the show. Ultimately, until you get a one-line schedule, you have to be a little fluid. And it’s always good to have back-up choices because inevitably you will lose a location or two along the way. Although some location may be perfect, if it isn’t a full day of work you may need to pass. If there’s three company moves in a day, it may not be practical to have the perfect location for a quarter of a page scene. But if you know you’re going to be in a location for more than a day of shooting, then you’re pretty sure you can have your first choice.

The taco shop specifically was tricky, because Felicity’s secret apartment is above it. So we looked for quite some time and ultimately found the A-frame Taco shop where we could build out a staircase and a false door on the backside. Then we designed and built the secret apartment on stage to match the architecture of the restaurant. That was a pretty important one. But something like the Chinese restaurant that had a quarter of a day? We had several options that could work based on how the one-line worked out and what other scenes we paired with it.

Sketches, plans and set photos of “Briarpatch”, courtesy of Richard Bloom.

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

Kirill: You talked about having 8 days to shoot each episode, and you mentioned that the show lives in this highly stylized world. Is there such a thing that you had enough time and enough resources to do exactly what you wanted?

Richard: We got to do most of everything that we wanted. Sure, I would have loved more time, I would have loved a bigger budget. Everyone would have. But we were blessed with a really supportive producing team and writers who would tailor the pages to what we could offer. And luckily, one of the best and fastest graphic designers in the business, Joanna Maes Corlew. She really brought a joy and a sense of humor to all the graphics and props. She saved us in set after set.

And Andy was so great in revising the pages for the locations. For instance, early on I scouted that bowling alley. I called Andy and told him it was the most amazing time capsule. I sent him a bunch of photos. He loved it too and wrote the scene for it. Likewise in Episode 7, I knew the Senator was coming to town to hold a rally. But the setting wasn’t described so I pitched Andy on having that sequence take place at a cattle auctioneer site on the edge of town. Turned out really cool, despite the unpleasant odors. That was a hard one on the crew. Those flies you see in those sequences are real.

The whole tiki scene in episode 3 was originally a pool party, but the house that was chosen in the pilot didn’t have a pool. We didn’t have the funds to put a pool in, and we scouted Albuquerque for pools with enough area that we could make it feel like it was still part of the property. But ultimately we decided we’d get more bang for the buck by tieing the party into the back of the house and changing it to a tiki extravaganza.

Kirill: Having these highly stylized sets, how much of it did you want to be captured in camera and not be postponed until post-production?

Richard: We didn’t have a lot of visual effects in terms of the way we designed it. We captured everything in camera that we could. We never relied on the idea that we were going to have a set extension or anything like that. It was not conceived as that kind of show.

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

Sketches, plans and set photos of “Briarpatch”, courtesy of Richard Bloom.

Kirill: How much work went into creating Jake’s safety room?

Richard: I had known that we were going to be doing some version of the Panic Room from the outlines that Andy had given me in early prep. But because of where it played in the season, it was one of the last stage sets we designed and built, so there were a lot of different versions of it before we landed on the final design.

Being from Memphis, I’ve likened Jake’s Mansion to Graceland. Just like Elvis, Jake has bought this house that represents his new status but which isn’t actually that huge by today’s standards, and he hasn’t done a lot of renovation to the house other than to add his own furnishings.

I knew that I wanted the Panic Room to feel like the Jungle Room, a sort of swinger bunker lounge. We looked at a lot of various 1970s research, and then Jimmy Hendrix, our set designer, went through several versions. It was all done digitally.

I still wanted it to feel like the rest of the house with the same level changes as in the office. But it also needed to feel like his secret hideaway. That’s where the board-formed concrete walls came in. Then we also get a window into Jake’s end of the world priorities– handles of cheap vodka, cheese balls, video game consoles, etc.

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

Kirill: What about the warehouse where we first see the drones? How much of that set has been augmented digitally?

Richard: We had two or three drones flying, and the rest of the drones were put in in post. The warehouse itself is a non-functional part of the Albuquerque Rail Yards. It’s a pretty spectacular location. It’s shot frequently but there’s a reason for that. It’s got so much character.

Kirill: I have these fond memories of watching “Pimp My Ride”, and Clyde Brattle’s van brought them back every time it was in the show. What went into creating the interior of it?

Richard: We did some custom drapes for the interior and Set Dec reupholstered a few things. But that van was in a pretty great shape. We didn’t own the van, so we couldn’t cut it apart to make camera portals. So it was pretty tricky for the directors to shoot inside that tiny van. I think they made it look pretty great.

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

Kirill: One of my favorite locations was when Allegra and Jake get out of the desert and stumble into this controlled chaos of the survivalist radio guy. How much planning went into creating that set?

Richard: Our amazing location scout, Cyndy McCrossen, came back one day with a big smile on her face. We all knew the second we saw that location it was perfect. The problem was it had not been shot before and was in pretty bad shape. All the decay was pretty extreme. There were a lot of nails. There were wild animals living in the abandoned buildings. A pretty massive cleanup had to be done before we could come in and dress.

When I first scouted with the director of that episode, Arkasha Stevenson, she fell in love with it too – which was a huge relief. She wanted to shoot all over, but ultimately we had to pick just three exterior areas that we could afford to make safe and dress out in the time frame.

Set Dec brought in truck after truck of dressing. Our greens department made paths for crew safety. They also removed a lot of the greens to make a more gestural shape when you first reveal the pool. It was a real fun one to do.

Kirill: How hectic was it with the animals around?

Richard: Well, it wasn’t hectic exactly. The same animal wranglers were on for the run of the show and they require a very controlled set to get the performances from each animal. Throughout the season we had a recurring zebra, a turtle, and even some ants.

On the pilot, we filmed the alligator and the giraffes and they were a real joy to watch. We didn’t film the tiger on the pilot. They were brought in at the very end of production. We actually had two tigers that specialized in different actions and they were both beautiful. The trainers locked down the stage and the tigers rehearsed for a week – first just getting used to the set and walking onto the stage and going through the hallway.

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

Kirill: Do you leave details such as where to procure A.D.’s grandma’s dolls to your department, or do you get involved in the process?

Richard: That was a long process, as we had clearance issues for legal reasons. We were having a pretty difficult time, but ultimately our art department coordinator, Kellie Lockhart, and our set dec coordinator, Stephnie Ballard, in conjunction with our clearances department got the line of toys cleared that we could use. It was a real relief as we were up against time and it was such an important aspect to the character.

Kirill: You said that you wanted to do production design on the whole season. On the scale from 0 to 100, where 0 is never going to do this ever again, and 100 is the best thing ever, where do you find yourself now that you’re on the other side of it?

Richard: It’s a dream job. I mean, don’t get me wrong, TV is grueling at times. But if you don’t create a sense of fun throughout the show, then the whole crew burns out. We try to laugh a little every day. Sometimes a lot. It’s the only way to make it through to the end of the season [laughs].

Kirill: Is there such a thing as your favorite set or perhaps the most challenging set?

Richard: I try and find something I like about every set, and there’s always something that I wish could have been better. Ultimately you work and you work and you work, and then at some point, the crew shows up to shoot that work. I always hope the shooting crew is able to see what I see in it. Zack did that throughout the whole show. I was lucky. He always really featured and elevated our work.

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

Kirill: The last episode aired four weeks ago. Is it surreal or crazy to be watching these everyday interactions like eating at a taco place or going to a garden party during this quarantine?

Richard: It’s a weird time right now. But it’s also the perfect time to get lost in a fun story. There are some great shows out there right now and so many ways to consume content. I hope that people find “Briarpatch.” It’s a quirky, wild ride. It deserves eyeballs.

Kirill: On a more general level, do you feel that it’s hard to stand out? Does it feel that it’s sometimes almost random what captures that zeitgeist wave with the viewers?

Richard: I try not to get caught up in the wave. You do the best you can on the project you’re on, and then the rest is up to the universe… and the marketing teams [laughs]. Of course, I’m always hoping for the work to be well-received.

Kirill: As you look back at your earlier productions, what stays with you? Do you remember the good days, the bad ones, or a mix of the two?

Richard: Definitely a mix of the two. I try not to dwell on things that didn’t come out the way that I wanted them to. I try and learn from it, and not repeat the same mistake the next day [laughs].

But mostly, I remember the crews. We spend so many hours working, collaborating together. It is a real family of craftspeople.

Kirill: It’s a bit weird to be asking this last question right now because of the forced break on all the productions, but what keeps you going in this field? Are you itching to go back on set?

Richard: I cannot wait.

There are so many stories to be told. There are so many places to experience. There are so many worlds to be built. Yeah, I can’t wait to get back to it. And hopefully we will, sooner than later. Covid be damned. [laughs].

Production design of “Briarpatch” by Richard Bloom.

And here I’d like to thank Richard Bloom for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design, and for sharing the supporting images. The first season of “Briarpatch” is available for streaming on a variety of digital platforms. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.