anne ditmeyerinterviews

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

by anne

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)]

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

  • 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??

  • 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!

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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!

  • 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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