Emmy nominee John Paino talks to Awards Daily about studying morning TV and competing against himself in this year’s contemporary production design category where he’s nominated for The Morning Show and Big Little Lies.
Before we as an audience truly meet the disgraced Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) on Apple TV+’s The Morning Show, we sneak into his dressing room with Alex (Jennifer Aniston) in the pilot, where we spot pictures posted on his wall and a blue hue in the room. It’s much different than Alex’s dressing room, which radiates with a golden glow and framed accolades on the walls.
Pilot episodes offer a tough task when it comes to introducing characters, and production designers do some of the leg work by providing little touches like what kind of font is used on the dressing room door. John Paino, who’s nominated for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Contemporary Program, has two nominations this year: One for his work on the Big Little Lies episode “What Have They Done? The Bad Mother, I Want To Know” and the other nomination for the Season 1 pilot of The Morning Show “In the Dark Night of the Soul It’s Always 3:30 in the Morning.”
John and I chatted about the differences between working on the two shows, what we learn about Alex and Mitch through their quarters, and what morning TV formats like The Today Show and Good Morning, America have in common.
Awards Daily: Congratulations on your two nominations! What’s it like to compete against yourself at the Emmys? What were the differences between working on these two shows?
John Paino: I keep expecting to get a phone call saying we counted things wrong. It’s strange. For Big Little Lies, the second season, we had a template of our world established, and so we just expanded on it. The director Andrea [Arnold] (Big Little Lies Season 2 director) wanted to take things out on location more than Jean Marc [Vallee] (Big Little Lies Season 1 director) did. We did do a lot of building, but it was on location, as opposed to on the stage for the first season.
The Morning Show, that to me was exploring and finding a way to present interestingly the world of morning shows, which are a world unto themselves, how they’re done. It’s based on a book roughly about a scandal at The Today Show (Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV by Brian Stelter), but that was just the template for the show. It was interesting because I was really piqued by the opportunity to work on The Morning Show, because I thought this was an opportunity to take a well-worn set—as far as what the shows look like and they have a history from the ’40s—and do something different. But the showrunner and producer still wanted it to be grounded in reality. I think it was really important that if you flipped channels and our Morning Show came on, you’d say, okay, yeah, I believe that’s a morning show. But I also wanted to do something a little more current with it and show the influence of all this new technology we have, with LED screens. I had to think that people would watch this on their phones and not on TV that much. I wanted to feel like the set was for that world and the entertainment aspect for the morning shows, which are a mixture of news and entertainment, but now this is going more into entertainment. But getting a sense of the glow of an LED screen and having a feel for that set was important.
AD: That’s really interesting. How much research did you do on morning television? What did you learn from it?
JP: I actually was fortunate enough to go to The Today Show and Good Morning, America. That was really great. There’s this weird thing about these morning shows. When you see them on TV, they look like Disneyland. Then when you go see them, they’re in tiny buildings. The old Rockefeller Center in Midtown. This is a building built for radio shows. Everything is crammed in. The sets are a bit worn out. They get used a lot. They do a lot of things, which is one of the things that we had to accommodate on our show three times over. One day you’re going to have a marching band in there. The next day you’re going to have a cooking show. You might have an elephant. So those kind of things, I wanted to make sure they were in our set. You can see them through the episodes. All the support people are crammed into these tiny spaces and everything is on top of each other. That really hit home when I visited the shows. And we wanted that in our show. We wanted this dichotomy between the people in the control rooms on top of each other; it’s not glamorous. And then the set itself is the exact opposite. That I got a lot from visiting. But I did a lot of research on what the actual sets from the shows look like in archives. I thought it would be easy to come up with something, but I found it was really hard to come up with something because of all the technology that is built into the show. Especially our version of it, because we’re shooting the show. (Laughs) The broadcast camera crew is shooting the show and the Apple people are shooting them shooting the show. It’s probably the most technically complicated TV show I’ve done as far as that. And we did not use any green screen. Everything in the control room is live or we’re shooting in real time out on the set.
AD: For The Morning Show, you’re nominated for the pilot. I’d imagine it’s quite a challenge for a production designer to work on a pilot and introduce these characters. What kind of things did you do to try to help introduce these characters?
JP: A lot of that is in the dressing rooms. We don’t see Steve Carell’s dressing room that much.
AD: Just a little bit.
JP: Just a little bit. But Jennifer’s dressing room, we wanted to make sure she had a history like Katie Couric, being a journalist, a writer. We made up a lot of ephemeral things in the room. The Morning Show, the one we’re talking about, has been on the air for 25 years. There’s a lot of fan art sent in. Kind of like what they do outside of Rockefeller Center, they stand there with handmade signs. I wanted to make sure that was everywhere. I had our graphics department make caricatures of Jen and Steve together as hosts. I wanted to make sure we had some covers. She would have been on Time magazine and People magazine. We didn’t do People magazine because Jennifer has a history with People. They’re not nice to her. We made up a New York Times bestseller list and printed it framed with a book she would have written. To just give the show history.
The other thing is that I asked the writers to come up with a history of the network, UBA. And we made these Plexiglass history graphs that we put in the hallways, that tracked UBA’s history from the ’20s all the way to present day. How the network covered the moon landing or 9/11, and we sprinkled in some fake hosts from the show maybe in the ’60s and ’70s, and we also had Steve and Jen on a couple of panels and how they covered things.
AD: Obviously, we meet a lot of people in the first episode, but the focus is this relationship between Alex and Mitch. What did you do to differentiate between their houses?
JP: Alex’s set was built, and we wanted to give it a sense that there are books, art. She’s raised a family there. We made the kitchen feel very lived-in, but very luxe. Whereas with Mitch, we found this great location that felt like one of this uber-expensive McMansions in Westchester or out in the Island. Everything was over-the-top in it, but with post-modernism. Big everything. Sterile in a way. We didn’t want that family feel in there because when we end up later in the show in his apartment in New York, there are pictures of his family in there, but it’s much more open and a little emptier. People don’t spend a lot of time there. Luxurious but perhaps the happy family there is a facade a little bit. The kind of place where there’s a maid always walking around sweeping the floor. Jen’s is not like that. Jen’s is a bit more cluttered and a bit more lived-in.
AD: I noticed that even Alex and Mitch’s office doors have vastly different fonts. Alex is black and cursive. Mitch is bold, all caps, and blue. Was there a specific thought process there?
JP: My thought process was I wanted both of them to feel like a sign-writer had done them from the past, even though they were new looking. Alex’s is a little more cheery, and Mitch’s, he’s like the king of the place. And he is deferred to more than Alex, so his is a little more deco-y, which I felt like was good with the building style. And that was it really. Alex’s is what would be called a brush writer’s script, and it kind of went with the pattern of wallpaper in her room. Mitch’s is more of deco, and I hate using gender things, but it’s a bit more masculine.
AD: There’s an important moment in the pilot when Alex ventures into Mitch’s office after learning of his indiscretions. We see taped-up photos on his mirror, he has a lighter. What choices did you make to depict “Work Mitch” before we actually meet “Work Mitch” in a future episode?
JP: He’s very gray, urban. He’s a little bit of a cipher. He’s not what he appears to be. Because a lot of it was done in LA, I really wanted to give him a bit more like his apartment, which is monochromatic and manly, with the whiskey bottles and awards. It’s very much a man cave, but he is a sophisticated guy, so it’s not in sports colors; it’s in very serious monochromatic tones. I had the best crew. [Fellow nominee] Amy Wells, decorator, her department. Fantastic. All of those layers are her digging into the character, too.
Season 1 of The Morning Show is streaming on Apple TV+.