In Expert Witness, The A.V. Club talks to insiders about the entertainment business to shed light on how the pop-culture sausage gets made.
You can tell a lot about TV characters by where they live, and therein lies the challenge for production designers like Michael Wylie. As the person who shapes the look of a show’s sets, a production designer has to balance the creative needs of the script with the constraints of the budget and a tight shooting schedule. Wylie won an Emmy in 2009 for his work on the ABC cult favorite Pushing Daisies; his resumé also includes Californication, Grimm, and Marvel’s Agent Carter. The A.V. Club spoke to Wylie primarily about his contributions to Masters Of Sex. While Wylie wasn’t part of Masters’ just-completed third season, he designed the show’s most important spaces, including Bill Masters’ home (which Wylie says is purposely inaccurate for the era) and the clinic where Masters and Johnson conduct groundbreaking sex studies (“the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Wylie recalls). The busy designer called us during a break from location scouting for an upcoming series.
The A.V. Club: What are you scouting?
MW: I’m just starting a new David E. Kelley series with Billy Bob Thornton and William Hurt. It’s like a lawyer show. It’s going to be pretty good.
AVC: And what kind of locations are you looking at today?
MW: We’re downtown looking at the criminal court buildings and where lawyers’ offices are—and what lawyer’s offices look like in the digital age now that they don’t use law books anymore.
AVC: Oh yeah, you don’t have the easy go-to backdrop of the bookcase filled with legal tomes anymore.
MW: Nope! No more.
AVC: What does a production designer’s job entail?
MW: I think that technically speaking, you’re meant to read the script and provide sets that are called for in the script. And then give them specific attributes for specific characters and for specific scenes in the show. My addition to that would be that I, sort of as a writer, make up backstories for people. I make up lives for people that aren’t on the page to give you visual clues to some of these inner worlds.
AVC: You probably have to build that backstory because those objects are going to tell a story no matter what, right? You might as well have a story in mind.
MW: The most simple things that you add—that a viewer may never really notice—are just building blocks on top of building blocks of character. [Viewers] don’t ever go, “Oh, look, there’s an Inuit statue. They must be a traveler.” You don’t really get that kind of vibe. It’s all subliminal. And what’s worse is that if something’s wrong, you don’t know why something’s wrong, but it takes you so much out of the story because you’re thinking about something being wrong and then you’re like, “Oh, wait, somebody just got hit by a car!” and you have to re-watch.
AVC: How did you get into this line of work?
MW: It went back to the ’70s, when I was a kid. My parents—we used to go to Mackinac Island, Michigan, a lot. And in ’76, I think it was, Hollywood came to town, and they shot a movie called Somewhere In Time. From the time I was a little kid, there’s never been a car on this island, and all these trucks and people showed up. I was just fascinated by it from the beginning.
AVC: So you saw the production design job firsthand. You saw a space that you, presumably, were already familiar with and watched it become something totally different.
MW: That’s right. There’s a really famous hotel on Mackinac Island called the Grand Hotel. It’s enormous. They just transformed the whole thing into the 1860s [actually the 1890s —ed.] over a week’s period. They turned this big hotel into a hundred-year-earlier version, a current version, and a slightly older version—all before our eyes. It was fascinating.
Then after I got out of school, my brother moved out to Los Angeles and was working in a scenery shop, telling me about what it was like. So I came out here to try to see if I could get into the movie business.
AVC: At what point in the overall process of making a TV episode does your work begin? In your sort of dictionary description of the job, you said you look at the completed script and decide what might be needed. But are you involved earlier than that?
MW: Usually I’m the first person hired on the job. I get the script—sometimes there’s just an outline—and I start doing visual research on the computer, in old design books, things like that. I come up with ideas that are pitched to the producers and directors [to] see what everybody likes. Then [I] create the world for each character and stick with that look for them throughout the entire show.
AVC: When you’re pitching, are you giving them sketches, a mood board? How do you pitch?
MW: I don’t really sketch. I don’t know how to draw, which has been “fun” for my job. What I do is, I create these boards out of pictures from research, and I’ll circle things or just do an inset of a window, or a couch, or a lamp. Things that I like. I’ll say, “Imagine a room where all these things would come together.” Sometimes I’ll hire an illustrator that will illustrate the whole room, the whole office, the whole environment so that people can see. It’s always better to have somebody see something that looks almost real than to imagine what it is, because there’s nothing more pervasive in this business than people being disappointed by things not being what they thought they were going to be.
AVC: When you have that concept developed, where do the actual props and furniture come from? Are you doing your own shopping for this?
MW: No, there’s a set decorator who has a whole crew of people. They buy things from regular stores, and there are prop houses all over town that rent to us. And now in the computer age, there are great things like Etsy and eBay—stuff like that, where you can kind of find anything you’re looking for.
AVC: So it’s gotten easier in recent years, then.
MW: Yeah! You used to have to go to flea markets to find things. Certain people would be shopping all over the country. Now it’s much easier. Everything’s at your fingertips.
AVC: Do you have, like, a database of items in your head? On a given job, would you have a particular couch in mind, where you say, “Go get this couch”? Or are you just looking for a more general feel, and the set decorator can use their judgment?
MW: I used to try to be really specific. Wherever I go, I take pictures, and I create folders on my computer of things that I’ve seen that I just like. I used to try to go, “See if you can find something like this.” But as a general rule, that puts the set decorator in a real bind. If you have to find something that specific, it makes their job harder. So now I’ll just go, “Well, it needs to look sort of like this. See what you can find.” And they’ll bring me back seven things, and I’ll choose from those seven. I try to be less specific because it makes things easier for everyone.
AVC: Are all great production designers also going to be good interior designers for real-world homes? Or does it take a different set of skills to design an on-camera space?
MW: It’s a really different set of skills. I think you could walk into any number of production designers’ homes and go, “Oh, this isn’t so great!” Because you have to know what things look like on camera. You have to know proportions that look really good on camera, and that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to look good in real life. Sometimes, an actor or actress is really great-looking on camera, and they’re just not that great-looking in real life; the same is true about rooms. You can’t really design a room for real living like you can for a TV set. The camera sees things in a whole different way.
I also think a lot of production designers are so bored with the idea of having to do another day of shopping that their own homes fall by the wayside because they’re so tired from doing it [at work].
AVC: Can we talk about Masters Of Sex specifically? What does Bill Masters’ home on the show say to us about the character in your mind?
MW: Our original idea was—in real life, Bill and Libby Masters lived in a colonial home in a golf-course community in St. Louis. Kind of like when [I Love Lucy’s] Lucy and Ricky moved to Connecticut. That’s how they lived. We wanted to make Bill Masters look like he was cold and in control of everything. So we switched over to this mid-century modern look that’s very sparse. Made sure that it was very manly and didn’t look like a woman even lived there, because he’s so in control of everything that he wouldn’t even let her be involved in picking out a couch.
AVC: It comes across. Libby often seems to be floating in this space like she doesn’t quite belong.
MW: It’s a function of being a woman in the ’50s. She was never allowed to do anything, so that’s the sad place [where] she lives.
AVC: Same question for Virginia. How did Virginia’s character inform the home where she lives?
MW: My pitch to the writers, the executive producer on that was, her life is so filled with chaos, and she’s pinging off walls like a pinball. She found an apartment that was furnished—somebody had just taken their granny out, feet-first out the front door, and [Virginia] came in with her suitcase right behind her. Virginia’s world is very catch-as-catch-can. You’ll see now in season three that—now that seven years have passed—the space is becoming more personalized. But still, her whole life exists outside of her home, so it’s almost like she’s just squatting.
AVC: When you say it’s become more personalized, can you give us examples of a few details we might be able to notice on screen?
MW: I didn’t do season three; there’s a new production designer. They changed a lot of the wallpapers in the house to be less “granny” and more calm and collected. More like Virginia’s character, a very calm, commanding demeanor. They took away a lot of the ’50s granny feeling from that apartment. There used to be one of those gray phone tables in the hallway, and that’s gone. It’s just a lot less frilly and more down-to-business, like Virginia is in her work.
AVC: Is it tough to see another production designer take over your show?
MW: No, because she [Elizabeth Hershberger Gray] was the art director for the last two seasons, so it was a really natural progression. She knows the show as well as anybody. It was a logical progression for her, and it was a really easy fit for the producers, who trusted her implicitly and knew she was talented and capable. It was the easiest way for me to leave because I was doing a movie in Montreal and couldn’t come back in time.
AVC: The show has jumped ahead in time more than once. How do you confront the challenge of maintaining these aesthetics as the time changes?
MW: It was really, really hard. In the second season, they jumped a couple of years, and Bill and Virginia moved from the hospital into the clinic. We only had the stage space that we had, so we had to—and I mean this literally—take down walls of the hospital bit by bit as we were putting up walls of the clinic and shoot half-things half the time. We built that clinic in two weeks while we were still shooting on that same stage because Dr. Langham still had a storyline that was happening at the Washington University hospital. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
AVC: So it looks cohesive to us on screen, but it’s just a shambles on the actual stage?
AVC: Once the show moved into the ’60s, the comparisons to Mad Men’s look became hard to resist. But Mad Men has this Manhattan style, and on Masters Of Sex, you’re rendering the ’60s as they looked in the Midwest. How do you make your work specific not just to the time but also to that place?
MW: It was on our minds from the very beginning that Mad Men is one of the most beautiful shows that’s ever been on television. They [had] a gigantic budget to spend every week. We’re not going to compete with them, and we shouldn’t try because 1957 in St. Louis was 1945 in New York City. So we consciously stayed 10 years behind, and the only real change that we made was Bill’s house, which didn’t really exist in St. Louis at all, at that time. But, you know, you’ve got to make things pretty for TV.
It was a very, very, very conscious decision to not be up-to-date with anybody. The wardrobes were old-fashioned. The cars were all seven years old—no one had a brand-new car. It was built into the storyline that they were behind the times, and they were not living in a big city. Which makes the story work because none of us can imagine, in 2015, how incredibly brave it was for them to do this work in that timeframe. So my job as a designer was to make sure that you knew you were in—almost the South, in a world that’s very uncompromising when it comes to morality. That was supposed to help you understand how brave these two people were to do any of the work that they did.
AVC: In season two, Libby spends time in some more run-down parts of St. Louis, too. Is it hard to design convincing shabbiness?
MW: That sort of relates to your other question about designing for real life and designing for television. If you really do shabby like shabby would be in real life, it’s just too sad. At the end of the day, you’re inviting people to watch something, and you don’t really want to make them depressed. So we would never go as far as we could have gone. The slums of St. Louis when this was supposed to take place—we had books full of pictures of it. It was just more sad than you can imagine. It’s too hard for anybody to imagine a woman—a blond woman in a poodle skirt, driving a convertible—going to that place. We had to elevate it a little bit to make it more believable.
AVC: How would you modify the set to get that grunge without totally making people sad?
MW: We built all those sets, so we make it as sad or happy as we wanted. Almost everything on that show was built on a soundstage at Sony.
AVC: Have you worked on shows where you would do more on-location work?
MW: I don’t get many of those jobs. I get a lot of work in television where we build entire worlds. I just seem to be the guy who does those kind of jobs. Last year, I did Marvel’s Agent Carter which was a world—a period New York City with superheroes and things, so we built every bit of that as well. I tend to work on shows where we build everything.
AVC: You’ve worked on a number of shows with more fantastical elements than Masters—Agent Carter, Grimm, and of course, you won an Emmy for your work on Pushing Daisies. Does your approach differ on those shows as opposed to a more grounded story like Masters?
MW: Yes, because I want to make sure that people are entertained, and I try to convince my bosses to not take it all so seriously—no one’s watching these shows as a documentary. They’re watching them as entertainment. My stupid mantra that I keep saying to people is, “There is no reality other than the one that you create.” Even “reality” shows on television, the Real Housewives of wherever, have full hair and makeup teams and wardrobe stylists that dress them up to go to the supermarket. If they’re doing that, then I’m doing whatever I want for a superhero set. I’m trying to entertain as well as introduce characters’ backgrounds.
So I like to push the limits of reality a lot. On Masters Of Sex, there’s cheeky stuff that I did with—just, like, abundant amounts of wallpaper that clash. Things like that are my little subversive nod to being a little more showy than being a documentarian.