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Mad Men Production Designer Dan Bishop is responsible for creating the show's highly-praised look. In this exclusive interview, he talks about the importance of authenticity and a character that shares his name.
Q: What are the design challenges for Mad Men?
A: Certainly the period nature of the show is a challenge. In particular, the challenge is to recreate 1960s New York here in Los Angeles, more so than creating 1960s New York. The weather here is different, and the architectural inventory is different. At the same time, the filmmaking infrastructure here is much larger. In terms of anything we have to collect and manufacture, it's easier here, but it's hard to get out on the streets of L.A. and find locations, so consequently we do most of our work on stage.
Q: So much of this show centers around the look. What did Matthew Weiner tell you about his aesthetic vision?
A: He wanted to make sure it wasn't a textbook study of mid-century modern America -- as Matt specifically pointed out, look around your own house, does everything exist from 2007 or do you actually have stuff lying around from the '80s? And that's the way it should be. People didn't adopt the modern ideas any faster than they do now.
Also, he wanted to be careful to make sure the show -- because it's in a mid-century modern environment -- didn't look overly designed. So we actually were holding back a bit on certain elements to make sure it didn't look so slick that it was unbelievable. We save those moments for more specific environments where we feel people would have been more cutting edge. In "Shoot," there are scenes in a competing advertising agency, McCann Erickson, and so there we pulled out the stops -- typical of what you'll find in design books of today, stuff that looks clean of line and elegant.
Q: How important is authenticity?
A: Certainly we want to try to be accurate. More specifically, we want to try never to be inaccurate. The question is, did it exist in 1962? Then the next question is, was it in common use in 1962? And then, was it in common use in New York City? Sometimes we will say, "You know what? Probably most people didn't have this in their home in 1960, but this character is modern and up-to-date and maybe they had it shipped in from the West Coast," or whatever. So we might lean a little this way and lean a little that way, but if we can't find it somewhere in research, we generally don't put it on the screen. The set-up environment helps support the idea of who the characters are.
Q: You received an award from the Art Directors Guild for "Shoot." What do you think worked so well?
A: I think it was the collection of images there. I don't believe the audience can, nor do I believe they should, separate out what they're looking at from what is happening. I think it is essentially the actors who take precedent in terms of what you're actually looking at -- so it's how they move within the space and they are staged within the space, and then of course how they're lit and how they're photographed can make a huge difference. We just felt, all things combined, that it was one of the stronger episodes in terms of the way things looked, as a whole.
Q: Was the character of Dan Bishop (Helen's ex-husband) named after you?
A: I have no idea. You'll have to ask Matt. I think they were just trying to come up with names. Maybe he thinks I'm the violent type who pounds on doors and threatens women.