Awards Daily talks to Adam Rowe, the recent Emmy Award-winning Production Designer, about working across multiple high profile projects, including NBC’s The Good Place.
Adam Rowe has had a huge presence in the industry, and his footprint in production design spans many genres. Adam started his career with an internship on the first season of Mad Men, and then seized the opportunity to take his talents to shows like Dexter, Parks, and Recreation, and the final two season of Parks and Recreation. Adam also has a tremendous passion for creating spaces on the theatrical and live television realm; he won an Emmy for Rent Live and is working on The Prom for Netflix. During our conversation we talked a lot about creating unique spaces, which centered on character in The Good Place, and his transporting people to worlds that feel lived in, check out our conversation below:
Awards Daily: It’s honestly a pleasure to speak with you I have followed your work in television for many years. Watching Dexter, seeing the folks from Pawnee travel to London and back, and of course The Good Place.
Adam Rowe: I am very thankful for your appreciation for behind the scenes work that is done on shows. We work very hard and I take pride in creating an authentic space for characters and viewers.
AD: Tell about your journey to working on Production Design for television and theatrical productions
AR: I did not intend to work in television, grew up outside Chicago. Son of a plumber, who was also a farmer, and my mom worked in a marble factory. I went to college to study engineering, it made sense.
I ended up getting a job at an engineering firm designing waterways. I was putting in a lot of work into the design but I think deep down this was not the direction I wanted to go, well at least I did not know that at the time. The thing that changed my career was when my boss looked at me, and gave me a bit of a look. I think he realized something a great boss should in this one moment while designing. The next day there was a Polaroid picture, on my desk. The picture was of the hallway saying “My view for 30 years” Did I want that life for 30 years? I realized I did not, so I took this and moved in a different direction.
I saw a lot of theatre, was painter set designer art director. Went where things would take me. In 2007 found myself working at Forever 21, was painting white cabinets. As I was doing this I read research that 50 percent of scenic artists die, because they are around all those chemicals. Because of this and the words from my old boss, I realized I wanted to be more than a painter. I was very lucky to be set up on an interview by a friend with Dan Bishop, who was working on Mad Men, he had also done Glitter with Mariah Carey, and Carnevale. I knew this was a big break so I brought everything I could, with me to interview. Dan saw my enthusiasm and ambition, and offered me an internship where I did one season of Mad Men. After this I started working on different variety shows, and excitement for my work started taking me to fantastic places.
After this most of the times jobs my jobs have found me. Three years ago, I was working on Rizzoli and Isles, then for 5 and ½ months kept losing things. Getting these fantastc opportunities is all about timing, and sometimes you have to turn things down because of the commitment you make, but this can open new opportunities, and it’s what made my career so diverse.
AD: You may be one of the first production designers I have seen to really make Miami feel like a genuine character in the show. No disrespect to the beloved Golden Girls. Between your work in Dexter and American Crime Story. Talk to me about your process of bringing the city, and it’s interiors to life.
AR: There are few cities that can be a character. It’s a lot easier to make Miami a character. One of the things in Dexter, which was challenging but cool, they would send Michael C. Hall to Florida, and shoot him coming and going on his boat. Oftentimes had this lush and green background that would be continually be used.
Because the audience got to see a little bit of real Florida, they built out sets that connected to Miami and the scenes they shot.
Water color was another crucial piece to bringing Miami to life. Water color in American Crime Story, highlighted this, and this is something he looks for to build out production design. I wanted to capture the how the water color in this part of the country (which is different from the Pacific ocean) plays a role in helping define the area, and the overall production design for the story.
AD: What is it like switching from the gritty reality of Dexter and American Crime Story to working on The Good Place?
AR: I work with a set designer, an art director, a team in construction design team, and many more folks. They are a great group of people who take this seriously (take comedy seriously) and because of this we are successful. I also came into the show a fan which helped to understand the best way to add to creating the various spaces for The Good Place.
One of the other key elements was the investment from Mike Shur, who was able to meet with when he came in to work on the project in season. Through this meeting I was able to see the fun environment I was going to be a part of. The show was established but with the evolution of the story, It was easy to come in because it had great rules, and had great designs. So it was a great starting point for my work with the team.
AD: The production design in The Good Place lends to the personality of the characters on the show? How were you able to jump in and really continue to make this work?
AR: The team he worked with inherited things, for example the mansion was very Tehani. What was very cool, they got to be on the road more, and we got to create new spaces for the Demons, or of spaces in The Good Place the cast had not been. When we did Chidi’s apartment for season 4, they were able to take the fact that he liked books, and bring that to the design, and flesh out more of Chidi’s apartment through his own living space. Chidi had either lived with Eleanor or you had not seen his own space, so it was fun to create this for the show.
I was able to work with the numerous teams to help expand on things that were established but also create my sets. As a fan of the show I was able to use these characterizations evolve the world of one of the most fun shows on television.
AD: Congratulations on your Emmy win for Rent Live! The production design on that Live show was fantastic. What was it like to bring an iconic Broadway show to live television?
AR: It was a really great experience to get to go back to my theatre roots. Bringing Rent to television was no easy feat, especially since the original set was so bare bones. I wanted to expand on that, which also included adding the live audience. The live audience presence to feel so engaged, helped enhance the experience of the show. Showing the scenery from a wide shot. Was not trying to be a theatre piece. With Rent we wanted to expose as much of the stage to engage the live 360 experience. It was thrilling, and I am excited that we were able to bring this show to audiences in many ways.
I am excited to get to do this again, while it will not be live, I am currently working Prom: The Musical for Ryan Murphy, and I am excited to bring this show, and this world in large form to more audiences. I have a passion for creating spaces that will bring this vibrant and lived experience to audiences.
AD: I have been watching Friends recently, and I think about the role in which production design has evolved for shows on television. How has this challenged you to keep pushing barriers?
AR: Amateur work is influencing what people are doing. Mad Men and The Sopranos were getting wide shots, wide shots at this time were not as popular, but these grand shots started to become more prevalent.
Look at Killing Eve‘s wide long establishing shot, all of this is influencing telling a story. All that is playing into how you portray a set design. When they were doing Versace they wanted to make things feel as real as possible. Art departments use lighting to help create the style of the medium. You are going to see a trend where comedic shows are going to be lit more like Atlanta, and gather realism.
AD: You have worked on so many different types of shows. What is a genre you would like to explore in you future.
AR: Would love to work on a space comedy. Would also love to work on something that is like Mel Brooksian, big sight gags. I have never worked on a western, but would like to work on a western. Would love to work on a story on how the Ringling Brothers came to be, I think that would be interesting.
AD: I would watch all of those things, I think we need more Mel Brooks, and I am glad I got to talk with you and explore the world’s you create on a deeper level
AR: It has been a pleasure to speak with you too!