“My job is building the world of the show,” said Michael Bricker, production designer for Russian Doll. And so he did — with aplomb.
The clever, twisty, darkly humorous series stars Natasha Lyonne as Nadia, a New York City game designer who, on her 36th birthday, becomes caught in a recurring lifecycle in which she is killed only to reawaken inside the bathroom of her friend’s loft during her birthday soiree. Bricker brilliantly wove the real-life grit of New York with nuanced fantastical design, which worked synergistically with the direction and script to convey mood and ambiance. In recognition of his work, Bricker and his team won an Emmy for Outstanding Production Design for a Comedy or Drama Series (Half Hour) and Animation.
Santa Barbarans have the opportunity to see several episodes of Russian Doll followed by a Q&A with Bricker on Thursday, November 14, as part of Carsey-Wolf’s Special Effects series, which runs through December 5. I spoke over the phone with Bricker ahead of his Emmy win about his career and Russian Doll.
Tell me a bit about the Russian Doll set and why you decided to use a bathroom as the door between the lifecycles. That was all scripted. Nadia [Natasha Lyonne] was scripted to reset in the bathroom in front of a mirror, and the door was scripted as some sort of art piece — it wasn’t specific. And the revolver door handle was in the script as well. There was also some sort of indication that as Nadia passed through that threshold — i.e., the door — there was a kind of party that had a Wonderland feel. That made me think that the bathroom was basically the rabbit hole, and that is also why I wanted the mirror to be round, to feel like a hole.
How did you get into film production design? I was earning my master’s at the University of Texas at Austin, a master’s in architecture, and at the time, the university was making feature films combining professionals in the industry with students. They were written by students but made with somewhat known actors and a real director — and the department heads were [film] professionals. I applied to be a PA in the art department, but because I could draft, they hired me to be a set designer.
My first movie was a half-million-dollar feature. I was 22 and I had four sets being built onstage and on studios. They were small, but I was hand drafting at the time. Then they fired the designer, and the prop master and I got promoted to art directors. It was just this of crazy trial by fire, and those are the moments in life where you sink or swim, and we swam and did really well. I was like, “Wow, this is what this is — this is fun.”
I continued to do student work and small independent stuff while I was finishing up my master’s. Then, over the years, I have continued to do a feature here and there; I have always been on the hunt for really interesting, quality projects. I got lucky that I was able to pitch for Russian Doll, which has transformed my career already.
As the set producer, you’re creating the brick-and-mortar tone of the film. Yeah, my job is building the world of the show. Then the decorator and the draftsmen and the prop people come in — all those different departments report to me — and so I’m guiding their different decisions by establishing color palettes and times of year, times of day, and giving them the broad design strokes of the world, and then guiding the set designers on how I want the layout of the set to be.
That sounds like a massive job. Yeah, it’s overseeing all the locations, all the decorating, all the drafting. I don’t do that work myself, but I’m the one that is directing all of those people on what to do. The layout of the loft is on a sketch in my notebook, like, here’s where I want the bathroom, here’s where I want the hallway, here’s where I want the kitchen. Literally, it’s a tiny little sketch, and the set designer puts that into dimensions and flats and real construction. Then I review that and say, “I want this kind of molding or this kind of baseboard or this kind of color on the wall or this wallpaper.”
Did you learn all of that in architecture school? You learn how buildings go together; you learn design generally. Then I watched a ton of shows, so I learned what looks good on camera and what doesn’t. In school, you learn a lot about the different periods of design, so I have a pretty deep bench of, like the curve of the sofa, what era that comes from. I generally have enough of that knowledge to just barely be smart about it. I know carpentry and paint and how those things work, so I know the practical, and then architecture school taught me the high-level bits.
Is set production what you intended to do as a career? I actually went to grad school for architecture more because I was interested in operating at that scale; I wanted to design at a big scale. Then I realized in some ways [in film], you design on an even bigger scale, and much faster. A building takes forever to design and build, and ultimately, you end up making a lot of creative concessions. In film, you have constraints, but it’s all about [your imagination]; it’s not about reality.
What are some of the things you’ve learned during your career? I almost always paint a wall a shade darker than what I want it to be, because when the camera lights come in, it’s always brighter than you think. And to always put texture on walls, because the camera really does flatten it out. The paint department is so important, because that’s to me where a space really comes to life. They paint the color and then add washes and wear and tear and scuff marks, and all that stuff that, in my mind, makes the set not look fake. I’ve learned a lot from painters.
Russian Doll feels visually more cinematic than many TV shows, and there is seamlessness between the sets and the New York City location. That was the challenge. The loft space we built, but everything else was a location. We had to make sure that when she moved in and out of that space, it felt seamless between the front door and the stairwell. The stairs are our location, and the front of the apartment is stage, and we basically build part of each in each place. You build a little part, you bring a little part of the loft set to the location, and you recreate a little bit of the location on the stage.
Are these techniques you learned on the job, or from your architectural schooling? Both. And I’m fortunate enough to work with some really smart people. It’s always a constant dialogue with the DP and the director and understanding where the camera’s going to be and how it’s going to move, and where they want to cut and where they want things to be contiguous. All those things get folded into the drawing of the space itself, and how it needs to function. It needs to look believable on camera, but it also has to have enough room for the camera, and so that’s the trick.
Each week, you get a new script with new locations, etc. How do you keep ahead of the filming? It’s a constant turnover. You’re planning, you’re scouting for locations; I review things that the location manager is finding, and narrow those down to my top two picks, and then share those with the director and the cinematographer. We go visit, we learn the restrictions and realities, we pick our favorites, and then that becomes that place. Then I do another round with my department, with the set decorator, and the art director; it gets drafted. Then I say, “These are all the things I want to change.”
It’s usually [shooting in] someone’s home, so you’re moving all their furniture out and then bringing in all new furniture, repainting the whole thing, wallpapering the whole shebang. That takes anywhere from a day to a week to two weeks, depending on how much work there is, and it has to be done by the time the camera arrives, and then they have to put it all back.
You must have a massive team. On Russian Doll, the team was not huge, but they were excellent.
That sounds endlessly interesting and engaging and tiring. Exactly. It’s so much fun … but it’s like 12- to 16-, 18-hour days. It’s just insane.
Will you be working on season two? We’re just starting to get little bits of information about season two, so it depends on scripts and schedules and all that kind of stuff.
Is there a particular type of series or film that you would like to work on? It’s perhaps a cliché — I would love to do a Bond movie. I’ll put that out there. But I’m just grateful to be working in the industry at all, honestly, and I’m super thankful that I’ve been working on a couple of different shows that are really different from each other. I’m helping set up the look for the whole vibe of the show. That’s been just the best.
How do you feel about being nominated for an Emmy? It’s totally cool. Production design in general is not something that is really talked about — it’s usually the acting, the cinematography, and the directing. I cannot believe that so many people have just loved the design of [Russian Doll]. … I think it’s cool to, in a small way, to educate people on how all that stuff really does influence how you perceive a character or a story or a tone, or whether you laugh or not. It’s all there and it’s all thought through.
4•1•1| Special Effects: Russian Doll, a Q&A with Production Designer Michael Bricker takes place Thursday, November 14. Don’t miss the last two events in the series, They Shall Not Grow Old, with assistant editor Elliot Travers, Wednesday, November 20; and Beetlejuice, with award-winning makeup artist Ve Neill, Thursday, December 5. All shows are at 7 p.m. at UCSB’s Pollock Theatre. See carseywolf.ucsb.edu/cwc-presents.