interview: behind the scenes of mad men (w/ adam rowe)

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ever since the first season of mad men came out, i wish i could jump into the past and wear pretty dresses and have perfectly coiffed hair everyday. then i remember that women were treated like far less than equals, and i’m ok that i live in today’s world.  still, the hugely popular show about new york advertising men in the late fifties / early sixties does such an amazing job of recreating another era, after watching each episode, i’m left with just as many “how did they do that” (in the old-school, pre-technology sense) questions as i am invested in the characters and plot lines. so to kick off the new year, i thought it’d be the perfect time to call on my friend adam rowe, who is currently an art assistant on mad men, to give us a very special insider look into how the show comes together from an interior’s point of view.  i can’t thank adam and the folks at amc enough for all their help! enjoy!!  -anne

[all images courtesy of AMCabove: January Jones (Betty Draper) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm)]

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Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in Episode 2, Season 3.

Anne Ditmeyer: Working for Mad Men has to be one of the coolest jobs in town. What’s your background? How did you get there?

Adam Rowe: It is one of the coolest jobs in town that’s for sure.  I feel very lucky and grateful to be included in the art department, three seasons running.  I started as a scene design student, designing sets for theater productions at Southern Illinois University of Illinois Carbondale, after I ran away from two years of civil engineering school.  After undergrad I went straight to graduate school at the University of Illinois to get a masters.  I painted theater and opera sets while I went to school to offset the expense of it.

What is your role on the show?

My role is different every season.  The first season I was the PA for the art department.  As you can image there is a lot that goes into each episode.  But on top of that, our time line is very constricted.  Approximately 9 days prep from when the first draft the script goes out and the first day of shoot.  Of course there is more time given and a lot of “heads up in this episode” but it isn’t a lot of time when you actually pay attention to the amount of places Mad Men takes you each episode.  The PA has no job title, but a long one.  This role is all about multitasking and giving all the members of the art department the support they need.

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The advertising men brainstorm on their next big project

What’s the most glamorous part of your job?

My favorite part is talking to companies, like Jantzen, Zippo, and Arrow/Van Heusen – companies that have a long legacy in this country.  The legal clearances on Mad Men are extensive and time consuming, but I really like it.  I was lucky to collaborate with the company that produced the opening credits to secure a large part of the legal clearance to use the ads.  The Mad Men opening credits won an Emmy two years ago.

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The Draper Kitchen

What’s the least glamorous?

The paper work.  Every time an element is bought for Mad Men sets they need to be traceable in the accounting world and the library, epic library that is Mad Men‘s set bibles.  These bibles record how many times the Drapers got new wallpaper, in what room, how much was used and where we bought it.  That way if new people join the team, we have an episode with a flash back, or have to rebuild something, we know where to get the construction elements.

CLICK HERE to read the rest of the Mad Men interview after the jump!

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Betty Draper (January Jones), Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), and Bobby Draper (Aaron Hart)

What is the timeline in terms of putting a set together?

There’s about a month of prep work that goes into getting our permanent sets up.  Things like the Draper House, the Sterling Cooper Office, and Joan’s Apartment are always up.  But we have to have space to build a lot of what we do.  So many sets are called “swing sets.”  These are the sets that we have limited time to create.  They average  9 days, I mentioned earlier.

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The Sterling Cooper Office

How many sets are there? How permanent are they?

That is a hard thing to say.  There are A LOT!  About 10 locations an episode… The Sterling Cooper Office lives on a stage year round, but everything else gets broken down for storage.  All the furniture too.  The furniture is some of the prettiest you’ve ever seen and having it all in one place when it’s stored is like walking into mid-century antique heaven.

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The Sterling Cooper office watches the 1960 election night results between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

What challenges do you face when shooting on location?

You have to protect the location.  Usually it’s been chosen for it’s unique or distinguishing features.  On Mad Men, that’s usually because something has been successfully been preserved.  Dan Bishop has a very close eye to molding details and design choices of the Mad Men period.  A lot of work goes into keep the location safe from the lights, equipment alterations that happen when a film crew sets up shop.

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Don Draper (Jon Hamm) holds a client meeting with department store chief Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff)

Where does research begin? I’m guessing that the internet isn’t the first place you start.

Actually not usually.  The internet is risky.  Any one can put something on wikipedia… and just because someone says its period, you have no way of knowing if it is.  Mad Men‘s library is pretty big.  It’s full of magazines, catalogs, books, and other things that people have picked up a long the way.  The internet is great, Getty images, and places like that are accurate… the internet is wonderful but it can be misleading.

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Art Assistant Adam Rowe emerges from his “office”

Do you have any favorite or rewarding moments from working on a set?

When Mad Men started out it was an unknown show.  Talking to vendors and other people in the industry… people were not put off, but when something’s new and unfamiliar they seemed almost apprehensive.  Now working on the show with it’s success as an Emmy winning and Art Director’s Guild Award winning, it makes it a whole lot easier.  But my absolute favorite is that I have an office in Sterling Cooper.  Chris Brown got a sign made for me and as far as I know it’s still on set, between Pete and Don’s offices. 

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Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) are secretaries at the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency [Season 1]

What insider tips can you share with us?

I’m not that sure, but I will tell you this: from PA’s to producers the people who work on Mad Men are some of the humblest I’ve worked with.  It is an incredible team and I’m very certain that is why the show has such a great look, great writing, and great cast.  Oh, Jon Hamm (Don Draper) is a very funny guy.  He comes across very serious on Mad Men, but he’s very funny.

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Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in his office

What do you think would surprise us most about how the show comes together?

How much effort is put into very tiny details.  The costume department has a huge job too.  They are fantastic.  Some of my favorite moments are when costume, set decorating, production design, art director, producers and writers are all having lunch together talking about the show.

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The Draper Living Room (Season 2)

When it comes to the set design for Mad Men, how many people are involved? What’s the breakdown of roles?

Well, there is a core group of people that make up the art department, which I will elaborate on later, but it’s essential to include the construction department, full of carpenters, welders, hired in plaster-ers, flooring people, and host of other specialties.  There’s a scenic department for painting and wallpaper.  A set decoration department, Amy Wells, our decorator, heads up that department, which is responsible for the dressing (closely related to the job of an interior designer). There is the props department, which looks over the hand props, things like food, cigarettes (a lot of those), liquor (more of those), etc.  There is a Locations Department, which is responsible for farming out the different locations we go to for many of our sets.  And it’s important to include the collaboration between the producers and writers who create the locations and the script from which everything is lifted.

The Art Department is headed up by the production designer, Dan Bishop.  He is the mastermind behind the visual elements.  An architect, but also a quasi magician who not just designs rooms, but rooms that may become other things in the future.  For instance, the Sterling Cooper Office is big, but it looks a lot bigger on screen.  I don’t want take away the illusion the sets create, but just know there is a lot of alterations, flipping, moving, shaking, shifting, and re-purposing to get all the locations, period accurate locations without blowing up a budget.

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The Draper Bedroom

Chris Brown has a huge handle on making sure the budget does not spin out of control.  He is the Art Director – the task manager and engine behind monitoring the budget and tracking the information, communication between departments, hardware choices, drafting, purchasing, and research.  The art director keeps one eye on the whole production picture and one eye on the details of the design.  One of his main resources for communicating the production designer’s wishes, and the person who works closely with the production designer is Camille Bratkowski.  She is the lead scene designer.  She is not just a drafts person but she implements the wishes of the production designer and art director to create the drafting plates for the construction department.

The art department coordinator is the person who keeps the administrative side or the art department under control.  As you can imagine the amount of research and paperwork which all has to be tracked, recorded, and stored so that future episodes have a level of continuity.   They deal heavily with the accounting department and also take care of the legal correspondence between companies, artists, and brands that Mad Men uses.

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Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Betty Draper (January Jones)

There is an assistant art director who handles placing orders for wallpaper, flooring, etc.  Also is a major part of the research and location of vendors who have that one piece or detail that Mad Men needs.  They also tend to help out a lot on the unique or challenging sets, like period accurate planes and trains.

This season there is a graphic artist who is responsible for the endless stream of signage and artwork created for the show… and last but not least is the PA or production assistant, who is the catch all for anything and everything that needs to be done.

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Anita Olson Respola (Audrey Wasilewski), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), and Katherine Olson (Myra Turley) in Episode 4, Season 3.

What advice can you offer to anyone interested in getting into scenic design? Any suggestions for possible ways to get into the field?

Have another skill :)  If you want to be a designer, be a designer, but you might need other skills to help you get there.  [To get into the field] get a job as PA, it’s low pay and long hours, but what you learn in that job is worth it.  It will open doors if you have the right attitude.

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Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery)

Jennifer

That was an amazing round-up! Thanks for the insider knowledge – as someone who is just half way through Season 1 of Mad Men but who was enamored by the set by the end of the first episode, I love learning all about it!

victoria

amazing interview! i want his job! i heard an interview on NPR with Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men and he is a stickler for the smallest details. and it shows.

JLR

THANK YOU! I am obsessed with this show mostly because of how beautiful it is. I work in the drapery industry and fantasize about creating a Draper-esque drapery treatment for a client one day! What a great interview!

Katie

Thank you for posting this wonderful interview! So enlightening and the photos are stunning. Like time traveling. I want to go into the sets and touch everything! That headboard in the Draper bedroom! Be still my heart!
Well done, Mr. Rowe!

Marty D

Wow, great interview…two things pop out…my maiden name is Draper so obviously a connection there. Also the kitchen has the same woodwook as our present home which we tore out…along with decades of grease. Congrats on a great job to you and Adam for a fun interview!

MartyD

Abby

The sets and details of the show are just as much a part of the cast as the actors. It’s great to get some background information on how they make it all work.

Thanks for sharing with us, Adam!

Alicia

Drool…love all the pics. Thanks for posting this awesome interview! Really enjoyed it. I just can’t get enough of anything midcentury…

Jane

Thanks so much. I love all aspects of Mad Men-both the story line, cloting and the sets. I have a new appreciation of midcentury furniture which is often shown on your site.

Great introduction to the New Year!

kelly.georgette

awesome interview!

i heart mad men.. & its neat to hear about how the incredible sets come together.

i could watch the show on mute and STILL love it…

ilana

the scrutiny of each detail and hard work shows on mad men! thanks to the mad men art dept. for creating a beautiful world to slip into for an hour or so. and thanks for the great interview ds!

Beth

Wow what a great post.
I LOVE Mad Men so much so it is great to see what goes on backstage and all the hard work that people put in.
Amazing photos and I totally agree I wish I could steal Joan’s whole wardrobe, her dresses are gorgeous.
xx

Sasha Muradali

I love Mad Men, and I’m in the PR/AD field, so when I watch the show I’m always looking at the ADs, and how that’s portrayed etc. etc. etc.

But something I’ve always loved is the women’s fashions. I want to raid Betty Draper’s closet! The thing is, until this article, I’ve never really thought about the scenes before. So I’m very happy you published this.

I really enjoyed reading all the insight Adam had to offer. Next time I’m watching my DVDs as I wait for S4 to come on, I’ll surely be looking out for his ‘office’ in Sterling Cooper.

*sadness* You couldn’t get him to say anything about S4 and any new fun things they are preparing in the art department.

Chandi

Mad Men is the most gorgeous TV watching ever and has such a fantastic cast. It is wonderful to hear what goes on behind the scenes…watching the show you can really tell that everyone there is so dedicated and loves what they are doing. Fantastic interview!

PleinJane

As much as I love the show (and have from the beginning) and appreciate the interview, I have to say that the constant use of “it’s” in place of the correct “its” ruined it for me. Yes, I’m one of those people, but a quick edit would make every post so much better. Thanks for a great feature.

Toni Danielson

This rocks!! i just got done with every episode of Mad Men and loved every second of it. Thanks so much for the insight.

(I’m not going to tell you how many days I completed them all in- too embarrassing)

Prêt à Voyager

insider tip: in addition to looking for adam’s “office,” in season 3 during the presentation on the overhead projector with the londoners, look for adam’s name right next to sal’s in the office matrix. sterling may have been left off, but not adam :)

-anne

the clothing menu

i love mad men! i work at an advertising agency and i love seeing how life was like back in the early 1900’s, so watching this show is so much fun.

great interview – thanks for sharing!

Jetsetting Joyce (MEL: HOT OR NOT)

What a great interview! I have been rationing my viewing of the Mad Men box set to 1 episode a day because I could just watch it all at once – the show has such a great attention to detail in its sets and costumes (and of course interesting and engaging characters). Every time I see a lamp I like I yell ‘LAMP’ at the TV!

Jetsetting Joyce

Jetsetting Joyce (MEL: HOT OR NOT)

What a great interview! The show has such a great attention to detail in its sets and costumes (and of course interesting and engaging characters). Every time I see a lamp I like I yell ‘LAMP’ at the TV!

Jetsetting Joyce

Snapdragon Inn

Oh wow–thanks for this. I really enjoy MadMen on all levels and have been curious to get into the heads of these creative people. Makes me really sad that we have to wait until summer for more!

Megan

I LOVED this interview! It was incredibly informative and answered all the questions I’ve had about the workings of this show. I’m even more fascinated now… Any fan should see this interview. Great work!

Brendagail

This was a wonderful article. So informative. I am a super big fan of the writer, show and the actors. Everything on MadMen is done with such feeling that it makes the whole thing work. Best of luck to Adam and l’ll be looking for his signature on future jobs.

michelle

he’s right abt the paperwork. I recently worked on the account side of a network tv show, and the art department needed to give us paperwork of EVERY single purchase they made, including their lunch.

Anissa

thank you so much for this amazing interview! mad men is my favorite show & knowing everything that goes into the set makes me appreciate it that much more.

Anissa

thank you so much for posting this amazing interview! mad men is my favorite show & knowing everything that goes into the set makes me appreciate it that much more.

Alyn

I loved reading this. So wonderful to see how passionate the people are who create this rich, visual MadMen world My dad was an art director in this era and I remember him being just as handsome as Don Draper. Not as many martinis, though.

Christine

This provided such wonderful insight! I am currently in the art department for a student film that shoots in two weeks and it is all wondrous madness!
Reading this is encouraging, challenging and very intriguing! Thank you for posting this!

desiree@lookiloos

By far one of the best shows! My husband is in advertising and we never miss it! I even made a “Mad Men” wreath for his office door….Great read Thanks!

Taylor Marie

Great interview, amazing show. Never thought THAT hard about how much work it would be to recreate every litte detail.

Nicole

Thanks for this! It’s awesome. I love everything about this show and follow any covereage of it, including the aforementioned NPR interview. This is one of the best articles I’ve read about Mad Men!

Beth Lee

What a generous interview. The best description of a specific design career path I have ever read. If there was a way to gather this info for…interior design, textile design, shoe design….etc. it would be so helpful for young people.

Alexandra Duron

Thanks for such an enjoyable interview! It was really interesting to learn about the show from Adam Rowe’s design perspective.

Lydia, Clueless Crafter

Really fascinating. I worked on a talk show set and can vouch that the physical labor can be backbreaking. A lot of respect should be given to the vision and the execution on Mad Men.

Can’t wait for the new season! When does it start??

Kristin

great interview, thanks so much. they put a lot of effort into the authenticity of Mad Man, which is what makes the show so great!

Elizabeth

This is lovely! I have found that this is a stunning show to watch. Thank you for the interview.

Teresa

Great write up! Thanks! But I hate to admit it, I have never seen the show. I will definitely grab the season one DVD to get up to speed. Thanks for sharing!

Jocelyn

One of the best design blogs reporting on a great show = bliss. Thanks.

(p.s. – on the Mad Men site there are some short videos – one of them is about sourcing props).

Analisa

Thank you so much for this interview! I just finished watching Season 2 and all I could think about were the beautiful sets and Bettry’s lingerie.

Seraph

I’ve never seen the show (the only show I reliably watch is Mythbusters, hm) but I love looking at screenshots for the clothes. Even though I would utterly hate to -have- to dress like that every day.

The set, well–kitchens that oogly were, at one point, the height of style! Go figure.

Carol Calder Povey

I was fortunate enough t0 be a pioneer ad-woman and work on many international accounts such as Jantzen, Pendleton, Bumble Bee, U.S. Bank, Liberty House and many others from 1938 to maybe 1998. (I’m old, but wiser). It was such fun to go to work and be creative. I don’t have cable TV, but my children and grandchildren gifted me with two complete series of Mad Men and I can hardly wait to take time off and watch what I’m supposed to have lived. Tell you later. Sounds like they’re having almost as much fun making Mad Men as I had gettin paid to write Jingles for Jantzen.

Helen

Wow, a really good behind the scenes into something that has really interested me about Mad Men. I love it!
thanks!

Barbara Wochholz

Yes, yes, I lived it. We had VanLuet wallpaper, pricillia curtains, a whistling teakettle, and much, much more. I had the sky blue dress that January Jones wore to the wedding that almost never happened (JFK assassanation). It had a white faux fur collar (more round cut) and was a faile fabric. Love, love, love the details. Contact me anytime for more color information.

joanne

I spent the holiday’s at a good friend’s in Reno, NV and ever since, she has gotten my husband and I hooked on Mad Men! This interview really is worth reading, it really helps you put everything together as far as the production of the show. I’m a Fine Art graduate, and after reading this interview about art department coordinators…etc. I want to become a PA myself now. What a great interview, thank you!

Kelly of Spindle Photography

the only thing better than mad men is the fact that people get to create it! I found a dress with a very similar pattern to the one betty is wearing in the first pic while visiting san francisco (in a store called bell jar on valencia, in case you are interested) I so wish it’d been my size! Anywho, great interview.

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