Production design of "Ozark" Season 3, Missouri Belle casino. Courtesy of Netflix.

Production design of “Ozark” – interview with David Bomba

July 2nd, 2020
Production design of "Ozark" Season 3, Missouri Belle casino. Courtesy of Netflix.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my pleasure to welcome David Bomba. In this interview he talks about the first three decades of his career, the importance of research and realism in creating the worlds for his stories, the changes he’s seeing in the world of episodic storytelling, and the collaborative nature of this field.. Around these topics and more, David dives deep into taking over the third season of the hit Netflix show “Ozark”.

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

David: My name is David Bomba and I am a production designer on the third season of “Ozark”. I’ve been in this business since I graduated from college. I studied architecture at Texas A&M graduating with a bachelor’s degree in environmental design, and when I graduated, within months I moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in production design in film.

My mentor was George Jenkins who was an Academy award-winning production designer. He did many films for Alan Pakula – “Sophie’s choice”, “Klute”, “Presumed Innocent”. He won the Academy award for “All the President’s Men”. He was one of my last phone calls on a long list of names that I wanted to contact upon arriving in California. I didn’t know anyone in Los Angeles. I didn’t know anybody in the industry, and I just knew that I wanted to pursue design. George allowed me to audit his production design class at UCLA. He and his wife Phyllis became good friends of mine, and his teaching and support was what kept me in Los Angeles in those early years where I was trying to get any door to open up.

What George emphasized was research and realism in design. Whether his films were period or contemporary, he did extensive research. Back then we were using Polaroids and film when gathering information and researching the old-fashioned way. When you scout, you go into a house and you look at something. For instance, my job on “Ozark” this season was to build the casino and to develop the Missouri Belle. I was familiar with offshore gambling facilities, as I grew up in New Orleans. I knew riverboat or barge style gambling where all of the gaming is on the water – that’s the restriction for gambling in certain states that the actual gaming has to be on the water. They use boats or barges, and the casinos are built on the water.

That’s what we were presenting on “Ozark” on Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri – a floating casino. So I went and researched several different gambling facilities. One of them was in Indiana on the Ohio River, and then I drove with Wes Hagan, the location manager, down to Caruthersville, Missouri and saw another one. We ended up in Memphis where I dropped Wes off, and then went further down into Mississippi to Tunica to see a couple of casinos there. The casino was the key design challenge for me and was one of the reasons that I actually took the job.

Production design of “Ozark” Season 3 by David Bomba, Byrde Foundation gala. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: If you look at the changes that the art department has seen in the last 30 years from the technical perspective, what do you think has been the biggest change?

David: One of the things that is different is the amount of prep time. It seems with many projects that the amount of time that you have to gather information and to develop ideas is becoming shorter. I just remember having more time in the early part of my career.

Speaking of technical differences, back when I started, we were shooting on film. Different types of film stock reacted differently to color, surface, pattern and texture. You tended to have more of a dialogue with cinematographers in developing these aspects of design. For instance, they might choose a particular film stock for night because it holds on to the solid blues or the blacks.

For me there’s been a big difference between film and digital. Digital quality keeps changing and getting better and there are ways to tune things in a different manner. The lighting challenge on the interior of the casino on “Ozark” was different from any other job that I’ve ever experienced.

“Ozark” is the first episodic production that I’ve done where in ten episodes, there were multiple directors and cinematographers. You’re dealing with different personalities, how they work and what they like and dislike. As an artist, you are drawn to certain things and you gravitate towards certain things. What impressed me especially was working with Jason Bateman who is acting, directing and producing the show. He was going to direct the first block or first two episodes. As an executive producer, he had a lot of say on what the entire season was going to be.

Jason and I had an early conversation about tone and color and palette. Then Ben Kutchins and Armando Salas, the cinematographers, came in with their ideas of color and palette. Armando, in particular, was somewhat reticent to go into the reds and golds that I wanted to introduce into the Missouri Belle. It was not the blue-gray look that the show was known for. It wasn’t shadowy or watery. It was a different palette, but Jason specifically wanted to step outside of the lines of that palette and the look that had been established. That was another reason why I came into this third season. The show had established a certain look in the first two seasons, but in conversations with Jason and the showrunner, Chris Mundy, I was assured that I was going to have an opportunity to expand the look of the show- and that proved to be true.

We expanded the palette in this season, and we really opened up some the texture and the scope of the show. It was with the Missouri Belle casino and compound, as well as revealing a whole other world with Omar Navarro’s hacienda in Mexico. We introduced him and his environs, and that was another exciting challenge that I was given.

Another thing that is different on an episodic production is that you don’t have the opportunity for an extensive dialog with your director. I’m used to doing features where the collaboration lets you develop and expand a vocabulary, and it’s different in episodic. I got to do that somewhat with Ben during prep. Armando came in towards the end of the initial prep period to engage with the casino and the set that we were building for that. But overall, the prep dynamic was quite different for me.

Production design of “Ozark” Season 3 by David Bomba, REO Speedwagon concert. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: Netflix has been at the forefront of pushing a more cinematic experience into the world of episodic productions in the last few years. Looking back at this season, does it feel to you that you’ve been working on a longer format movie that happened to be split into multiple parts?

David: That is definitely how I approached it. I didn’t get all the scripts at once at the beginning of the show. But when I was developing the casino and the Navarro real estate, I had image boards that I presented to Chris Mundy and the writers in the writers’ room. That was a wonderful and helpful experience. They showed me what was going to happen in the upcoming season. It was laid out on whiteboards – character arcs and character development. It showed that this character was going to be introduced, and this other character was going to be knocked off in Episode eight. So I knew what was going to happen. I didn’t have the specifics of all the cuts and all the locations, but I knew where the season was going. In that sense, it was like a 10-episode feature.

As for quality, I never want to compromise the product that is delivered. Of course you always have financial or scheduling restrictions – getting into a location or building a set, and you always have to figure out how to fit it into a time frame and a monetary frame, and make all of those pieces work together. But I will not compromise the quality of what is delivered.

It might be a commercial, a feature or a single TV episode. It might be projected in a theater or someone is going to watch it on their phone. People might have a home screening room where they can pause it and pick things apart. I want to make sure that whatever I present in any format can go under the microscope.

Kirill: In the context of a contemporary show like “Ozark” where you’re creating places that can be seen in our daily lives, how do you explain what you do for a living, that everything needs to be designed to make sense in the context of that specific imaginary world?

David: A lot of it is from my own personal experience. I had the opportunity to live in different places. I lived in Los Angeles for 20 years. I lived in different areas in the rural South for several years. I grew up in New Orleans. And I’ve traveled on the world and worked from coast to coast.

When something is presented to me that I am not personally familiar with, or even if I am familiar with it, I want to research it and study it specifically for the project at hand – especially on something that’s contemporary and reality-based. On “Ozark”, we had flashbacks and dream sequences. Marty has a flashback to his childhood in the hospital which is in the early ’80s. I approached that hospital with a sensibility of color and tone that I grew up with. Again, it is personal experience combined with research specific to the material.

You have basements or underground cells scripted in “Ozark”. In Season 2, Wendy was held in the basement of a house, and we went to Mexico in Season 3 where Marty is held in what was scripted as an underground cell. You have Wendy and Ben stopping on the side of the road so they can get something to drink. It was scripted as something else, but as I was thinking about them going across Tennessee on a two-lane road, I imagined them being in an agricultural area, so that’s where the idea of that roadside market came from. It’s personal experience. Sometimes we do things to shake things up a bit or to make things visually different from what might have occurred in previous episodes or seasons.

Or you have Ruth getting abducted during one of the drop-offs and getting thrown in the back of one of the trucks. The emphasis and the energy of that scene is in the back of that truck when we’re designing that sequence. One scene was scripted in a closed rest area. So we found something that was remote and quiet for her to wait for that drop-off.

It was fun. You meet the writers. You have conversations with Chris Mundy. You are in production meetings talking with Jason or Cherien Dabis or Amanda Marsalis, and you have discussions regarding certain ideas that you’re imagining. The Navarro compound was initially scripted as a rural estate. I’ve worked in Mexico extensively, designing a period feature and multiple commercials there, traveling and scouting all over the country. When I read that in the script, I immediately saw that it’s his hacienda. He either inherited it from his family, or acquired it with the drug money. It’s his stronghold, his fortress. And there was some resistance.

So there were discussions about the character of Omar Navarro. He is played by a very strong actor, but Chris Mundy didn’t want the character to become melodramatic or operatic, to get too large. I reassured him that this was not where I was going. The dungeon was going to be something real. The location that we found in Atlanta was a mausoleum built of stone in the gothic style and beautifully detailed. It bore a significant resemblance to some of the haciendas I had seen in Mexico. It had a chapel, and we used that for Navarro’s war room. It was exciting to develop those things. It’s all about conversation and communication within my own department, and the creative elements that are there. Then you engage with the cinematographers, the directors and the writers. It was an exceptionally collaborative experience.

Jason Bateman is a brilliant director, and he’s been in this business for such a long time. Developing that vocabulary with him was exciting.

Kirill: The production spent a lot of its time in Georgia, and I remember reading an interview some time ago where somebody mentioned that one problematic part of shooting in Georgia is the red clay that is not found anywhere else. In general, how do you approach creating an environment in a different geographical location?

David: That’s interesting because I had that experience years ago when I was scouting Georgia, Carolinas and up into Virginia for a movie that was about Richard Petty. It was about race cars in the early years of dirt roads and dirt tracks, and the Georgia clay was going to be something amazing. For “Ozark”, we scouted an abandoned racetrack that was scripted for a money drop-off, and I remember that the dirt was very red. But we ended up choosing a drive-in movie theater instead.

Most of the shooting that we do exterior-wise, including the more rural settings, is up and around Lake Lanier, and there’s not a lot of open dirt there. There might be exposed shoreline, but at that point it’s not prominent. We had poppy field scenes that we shot this year but that was with rich, dark topsoil in a horse pasture.

But the general tone and the look of “Ozark” is about water. It is about green, blue and gray. When we are in exteriors, there’s a great effort to shade the areas where the coverage takes place. In Season 3, at least, we’re not exposing any raw earth, so I didn’t have that challenge to make sure that I wasn’t revealing Georgia when I’m trying to reveal Missouri.

When we filmed downtown Atlanta for downtown Chicago, we were in an area where the street signs and a building had an emblem or a symbol “revealing” the location, such as Emory or one of the local colleges, Jason was quite particular about it He didn’t want any Georgia-specific detailing in title or branding to be revealed.

Production design of “Ozark” Season 3 by David Bomba, Navarro estate. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: Was that Navarro hacienda a location in Mexico?

David: The location wasn’t found in Mexico. I used my experience from Mexico wanting it to be a hacienda. That’s where my brain went.

During the early stages I was looking around and scouting on my own. But then our location manager Wes Hagan took me to the West View Cemetery, which is where Buddy’s mausoleum was set up on Season 2 among the existing tombstones. He showed me that huge structure that is their mausoleum, with several floors of crypts and hallways. And there is a chapel, all within this walled raised area on a hill. When I saw that, that was my hacienda right there in the middle of this cemetery.

We shot around the gravestones and monuments and found exterior angles that work for approaches and reveals. In one of the first episodes, headless bodies are dropped off at a gate at the entrance to the hacienda, and I built the entrance on one of the driveways that lead up to the mausoleum. We built a large iron gate to show that this is the secure perimeter of property with the hacienda visible in the background. That’s how we found Mexico in Atlanta, at this amazing stone and concrete masonry mausoleum that was built in the ’40s, but that had a Gothic 19th century feel to it. Finding that was God-sent. Then we designed and built the underground cell on stage to expand on Navarro’s world.

Kirill: Do you think that your job is well done when you manage to make people believe that something is happening not exactly where it did happen, but where you wanted it to happen – like in this particular case where I thought the Navarro compound was filmed in Mexico?

David: That makes me so happy that I pulled the wool over your eyes [laughs]. For me it’s all about designing something that is real and that makes sense. I scouted all over Mexico, and I wanted the Mexico aspect of the season to contrast with what we had seen before.

The “Ozark” look is cyan, blue, cloudy gray. It’s dark and I wanted Mexico to come up as little more arid – stone, brown, tan, sandy, and just a completely different texture. That’s what we had at West View Cemetery. That’s what the underground cell that we built was about – plaster, masonry, brown and stone. That’s what I brought from my experiences in Mexico to Atlanta.

Production design of “Ozark” Season 3 by David Bomba, Navarro estate dungeon. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: If you do your job well, it is almost invisible and seamlessly blending into the narrative, becoming a supporting character, if you will. Does it sometimes feel disappointing to know that your work isn’t getting much attention from the viewers?

David: I don’t necessarily want my work to call attention to itself. Early in my career I worked with the director John Waters, and he does irreverent, funny movies. In his films, sometimes the scenery is supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to draw attention to itself.

If something is scripted to draw attention to it, then yes, you want it to. But I don’t want to cause a distraction on this particular show. We have amazing actors that come to the set to do intense scenes, to do their job. When Marty gets abducted and goes to Mexico, and they’re going to spend a whole day filming Jason Bateman as Marty Byrde in an underground cell, I want that to be real. I don’t want it to be about the cell. I want it to be about Marty and what he’s going through. And in the sequence where he’s having flashbacks about going back to a hospital in his childhood, I don’t want that hospital to step on the emotion or the scene of what young Marty is experiencing in those scenes.

I want it to be authentic, I want it to be real, I want it to cut together and work. I don’t want it to be about the scenery, unless the script calls for it or a director wants it. My job isn’t about this. I’m supposed to deliver something for these characters and these actors to act, to make it real for them so that they’re not concerned about where they are. I want it to be realistic for them, so that when they walk out of their trailer into the stage onto a set, or across the parking lot into a hospital room that’s supposed to be 1981, that it is real. I want them to be immediately in that space. I don’t want them to have to work themselves or make any additional effort to get a performance.

Kirill: You mentioned that you’ve been working with multiple directors and cinematographers on this season. How chaotic was it to scout, prep, open sets, build sets, juggle multiple episodes at different stages at the same time?

David: That was hard for me to get used to. I started off prepping the entire season with Jason, who was also directing the first two episodes. Then, just when we start shooting, I was introduced to another director. So I wasn’t always able to open up a new set. It was an adjustment. You’re working with the assistant director on scheduling the next block that’s being prepped, and you must scout at the same time as you are needed to open up a set. Sometimes they can figure out that with scheduling, but other times you just can’t be there. I can’t be there for the roadside market or the hospital, but I can be there for the lounge.

That was difficult for me, because you don’t get the final closure of the process with a director. You talk about the prep, you talk about the idea, you show them drawings, you show them samples, you build it, and normally in a feature you’re there to present it. But sometimes on “Ozark” I wasn’t able to be there to present it. So you don’t get the opportunity to hear the feedback. It can be positive, where they tell you that this is exactly what they asked for. Or maybe there’s an issue with it where the door swings the other way and their blocking might not work. If you’re not there, you don’t have the ability to problem-solve if there’s something that needs to be changed the day of. Those things have to be done either my art director or another person in the art department.

It is a different process compared to features. On a feature you get to open up with the shooting company almost every day. If you’re not prepping in another state or another country, you’re able to open up the set and present it. That is the final part of the process. With episodic, you don’t always get to do that, and that was something I had to learn to accept and manage.

Production design of “Ozark” Season 3 by David Bomba, Missouri Belle casino. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: The last question I have about the specific set on the show is for the riverboat casino. Were those machines real?

David: They were as real as we needed them to be. When we were in the pre-production doing screen tests, we rented a dozen slot machines from a slot warehouse in Las Vegas. That was a whole series of red tape to get through, whether it be the Nevada Gaming Commission or the Georgia Gaming Commission to get slot machines as gambling elements across state lines.

When we got the real ones and we camera tested them, there were so many different elements – the lights and the mechanics of them – that didn’t work. So we ended up manufacturing over 140 slot machines that functioned to a certain effect. Each one of the machines had a digital screen that that could roll through the gambling process. Many of them could punch out a receipt for winning. The lights all worked because we had our own lighting elements put into them.

There’s the sequence that happens in both the Missouri Belle and the Big Muddy where Ruth is pulling off a slot machine scam. All of the wheels on those slot machines had to spin correctly. They had to be able to stop on a certain point. The lights had to blink and flash at a specific time. Those were rigged specifically for that scene. The majority of them had generic action and more background capabilities of wheel spinning, digital screens that were animated, lights blinking, receipts popping out sporadically. And we had about two dozen hero slot machines, both digital and analog. The analog ones where the wheels spin around and stop on 7-7-7 or bar-bar-bar or cherry-cherry-cherry.

So a handful of those 100+ were hero, and the rest were rigged and divided for the background. But all of them were manufactured by us. We created the graphics and everything that needed to be done to make the slot machine a slot machine.

Kirill: What happened to them after the season was over?

David: They’re still in Atlanta on stage. As long as the Missouri Belle is in the story line of “Ozark”, they’ll be on that set. And afterwards the production is probably going to want to try and sell them to a prop house. They’re completely suitable and believable, so they’ll probably be sold at some point when “Ozark” is finished with them.

Production design of “Ozark” Season 3 by David Bomba, Navarro estate dungeon. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: At some point your involvement with this season was done, and then after some time has passed, it was made available to the general public. As you sat down to watch it, were you able to enjoy it as a “regular” viewer, or did you get drawn to your part of it?

David: The first time I sat down to view it, I binge-watched the whole season. It was the same way I binge-watched the first two seasons, before I was even involved with it. At the time I was living in Tennessee, and I didn’t even have a television set. I had a monitor that I would use for screeners, or I would stream some shows on my iPad or screen-mirror to get it onto a bigger monitor.

I was on a feature up in Toronto at the end of 2018 in this beautiful condo, with a big television set in the living room and another one in the bedroom. I binge-watched the first two seasons, and that was a year or more before I even was asked to be a part of “Ozark”. And I loved it. So when Season 3 came out in March this year, I binge-watched it.

I was so excited to see it. I have seen bits and pieces in the dailies. Jason screened the first episodes for the crew, but it was incomplete because we didn’t have the Mexican mall sequence in it yet. I had to cross-reference dailies throughout the season to make sure things were lined up correctly, or matched appropriately.

So when it came out, I binge-watched it in two or three days, and I really enjoyed it. And then I went back, re-watched it and studied it. That’s when I started splitting hairs and picking things apart. With any project that I do, I’m not able to be on set while everything’s being filmed. I will look and be ultra-critical of my own composition. There are things that I scrutinize more the second and third times I go and look.

But that is actually the thing that I love about this show. When I was watching it the second and the third time, I loved everything. Julia Garner is so good. Jason and Laura Linney interact really well together. I’m grateful to be a part of this show, because I think it’s really good.

Kirill: Looking back to the first 30 years of your career, have you been ever able to say “No” to a specific request, or is it always “Yes, but”?

David: It was a specific detail on one of the first movies that I designed. This film took place in Mississippi in 1943 during World War II. I grew up in New Orleans and I had spent a lot of time in the South . I know that in Mississippi in the ’40s there wasn’t any air conditioning in any of the homes, so you have screens on the windows.

On this particular film there were some scenes where there was interaction between actors outside, an actor that would be in an upstairs window looking at some kids down below. The director had concerns about being able to see clearly, and so we removed the screens. I lost that particular argument, as he was adamant about taking the screens off the windows. That bothered me because it wasn’t realistic. That was one of those so-called “battles” that I didn’t win.

Sometimes you have a director or someone coming in, and they’ll say that they don’t like some color or some other part of it. You have to work through the dynamics. My choices aren’t always good. I have an opinion, but that’s the thing that I love. When you have a safe collaboration and a trust that’s built between the filmmakers, that’s great.

I had an amazing experience working with Denzel Washington as a director on a period film “The Great Debaters” that took place in the South in the ’30s, with the cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and the costume designer Sharen Davis. The collaboration between the four of us was unbelievable rewarding. We would sit down and literally complete each other’s sentences. I usually start in prep long before the cinematographer joins, but over the years I saw that they started having a more noticeable force in that conversation. When I had my first phone conversation with Philippe on that movie, he was so amazingly humble and collaborative. He told me that he wanted me to put what’s right in front of the camera.

It was that type of a collaboration and a dialogue, started with a vocabulary that then expanded throughout the of course that film. That’s the excitement of it. That’s what I love – collaborating with other people and other departments, the people within my department gathering ideas. You have decorators, prop makers, the construction team – everybody with creative ideas and input. When all of those come together, the final product has more layers and a more cohesive presence than if it was just the director’s or just my idea. When everybody’s ideas come together, sifting together into the final product, it becomes stronger.

Production design of “Ozark” Season 3 by David Bomba, Navarro estate. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: Do you ever see yourself retiring and stepping away from this art of storytelling, or do you want to keep on going until you can’t anymore?

David: I want to continue to be a part of telling stories. I’ve been a bit picky about projects that I have done. There was a phase in my career when I wanted to work on things that my nieces and nephews could watch.

But what I really want to do is create an image and be part of telling a scene that sticks in somebody’s mind. There are sequences in film that I’ve seen when I was growing up, and I can’t erase them. There’s a scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” where Scout is in the back of the car at night while Atticus is going up to the front porch of a house, and a man comes and looks in the window at Scout. That image haunted me, and still haunts me to this day. I don’t necessarily want to create or be a part of a haunting image, and if I do, that’s fine as well. But I want to continue to be a part of storytelling where a cinematic image or television image is engrained in someone’s mind, like a picture at a museum that they’ve seen that they want to keep going back to, to view again. That’s what I hope that I have done with people, and I want to keep doing it until asks me to do it again [laughs].

Kirill: Do you see the light at the end of this Corona tunnel, as far as your professional field goes?

David: I think that we’re going to get back to making movies and working again, but it’s going to be different. We’ll learn to manage with whatever restrictions are put on us.

At one point I had this fear that everything was going to become digital, that we’d be shooting everything against the green screen with digitally manufactured scenery without the need for shooting on location or building something on stage. That was my worst-case scenario. But I don’t feel that way.

I think life will get closer to some sense of normal, and production will get closer to some sense of normal. It’s not going to be as soon as all of us would hope, but they’re going to continue. So much of our work now is streaming. It’s on Netflix or Amazon or Apple or Hulu. For projects that were theatrically released – Covid might change that completely. But we’ll still be telling visual stories in some sense. It’s going to be a different process though than what we were doing last year at this time.

I have read some scripts recently. There’s a director that has engaged me to start talking about a Western. Is that an easier project to do if you’re doing exteriors out in the middle of New Mexico? Is that a safer environment than a soundstage in Burbank? We’ll have to figure it out. But the one thing that I know is that people still want stories. In the last couple of years we’ve see lots of Marvel and superheroes, and that’s not what I’m drawn to as an audience member or as a filmmaker. I’m not necessarily drawn to that type of fantasy. People want stories, and stories are going to be told in some way, shape or form. I just hope I get to keep being a part of that.

Production design of “Ozark” Season 3 by David Bomba, Navarro estate. Courtesy of Netflix.

And here I’d like to thank David Bomba for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design. All three seasons of “Ozark” are available for streaming on Netflix. 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.