EXCLUSIVE: An interview with the production designer Scott P. Murphy
Production designer Scott P. Murphy, best known for his work on the critically acclaimed Netflix TV series Bloodline, The Punisher, Daredevil and Spider-man 2 talks to Mandy News about his journey towards becoming a production designer and what it was like working on Marvel shows.
Introduce yourself and tell the audience at Mandy News how you become a production designer?
I studied architecture and I wanted to be an architect since I was quite young - so I went to under-grad for architecture. The grad school was The Southern California school of architecture. When I went there it was in Santa Monica, now it’s in downtown Los Angeles. I started there in 1988, I think that was when Los Angeles was at its peak, with the Olympics that happened in 1984, I really think it was somewhere people wanted to be. I mention the Los Angeles aspect of it, because as everyone knows the main business there is entertainment. It would be very hard to live in Los Angeles without the entertainment business somehow touching your life, or affecting your life.
This is in terms of the friends you make, the businesses that you deal with. And what happened with me, was right out of grad-school - the economy was not great - there were very few jobs in architecture and I had interns with a couple of very big name: Richard Myer and partners, I worked on an intern with his LA office for the Getty Museum project. And while I was in grad-school I started working with Franco Gary and associates on the Disney Concert Hall. Even with those two big names on my resume, it was incredibly hard to find a job in architecture. So I ended-up responding to an ad that had been posted at my grad-school for a company called Landmark Entertainment, their main business was theme park design.
So I went for the interview, ended-up getting the job, I guess my title was ‘set designer’. There were are number of set designers, we were working on a theme park for Oita Japan, in a small resort town and Landmark was doing that project and another one in Tokyo. So I ended-up working for Landmark for about a year and a half. It was very strange working in that world for me because I’d come out of architecture and my grad-school was very avant-garde, cutting edge school of architecture with a lot of theoretical stuff. All of a sudden, I was drawing elf huts and things like that, so it was a bit of a culture shock for me. But there were quite a few people who were doing what I was doing that were set designers in film and television and one of the people I worked with knew about a job opening on an American soap opera called Santa Barbra - it’s no longer on the air- and I interviewed for that and ended-up getting the job.
So that was my first job in television and I had no idea what I was doing. They crank-out a lot of scenery, they shoot 40mins every day, five days a week. So I learned quickly. This was at the old NBC lot at Burbank and the construction shop there which built all of our sets and set for other shows. There was a guy who had an office across the street who was a production designer, he had seen some of my drawings in the shop – he had an opening and somehow word got to me that he was interested in meeting with me, so I ended-up working with him for about 6months. Within that time, I had about 13 shows to add to my resume. So I went from one television show to around 14 very quickly. And after that I got hired on my first movie, I think my title for that was draftsperson. It was called The Road to Wellville and it was directed by Alan Parker.
And that was fantastic, it was a very design-heavy show. And then over the years working as a draftsman, set designer, assistant art director, probably for a decade or so and eventually had the opportunity to interview for the job of art director position on a pilot called Third watch and I think that show went 5/6 seasons. That was my first art directing jobs and I didn’t think I was going to get it and I almost didn’t go to the interview. It was in New York and it was very slow in New York at that time and the designer could have his choice of anyone. I ended-up interviewing and getting the job. That show was about the New York Police Department, paramedics and firefighters and my father was a firefighter, so I think that’s one of the things that really gave me the edge.
Then in some down-time, I ended-up getting hired to do The Sopranos as the art director, I was on that for 41/2 – 5 seasons and that was a great experience, season one got very well received critically, but it wasn’t something that everyone knew about. By the time season two came-out it had really started to take-off and it became such a huge thing that everyone either had seen, or knew it and it was great to be a part of that. Right before season 6, I got my first production design gig and that was on a pilot called NY70, which was a huge show based on the French Connection Movie – that show didn’t get picked-up, but I think it looked fantastic. There were some producers who had seen it who had a show that was going and they were looking for a production designer and I ended-up getting that job, so that was my first series as a production designer and that was 12/13 years ago. And I’ve mostly been a production designer since, mostly television and a couple of features…I’d like to do more features but right now the market for feature films are lower budget movies here, that are below $10 Million.
A tear 3 movie is $10m and below, tear 2 is $7m and below and tear 1 is less than $5m. And they are able to pay rates that are less than union rates. I did a tear 1 movie, it was a great experience, but I had no money to work with and my pay was half of what I might normally get. And then there are the big, giant movies, the big Marvel, Star Wars and things like that. But the movies that come in between the $10m and the $250m, there aren’t as many as there used to be and I think that the niche has been filled with big, television projects, the big Netflix projects, HBO, Apple, Hulu – it’s a great time to be working in television.
Speaking of Marvel, you were the art director on the first 2 Spiderman movies weren’t you?
I was the New York art director on the first 2 movies. The productions came out of LA and most of the big sets were done in LA. In New York was mostly locations, but we did build sets. There were about 5/6 art directors in total.
Is that how you got involved with the newer series (Punisher, Daredevil)?
Not connected at all. I think Spiderman is creatively owned by Sony. Some people I knew in New York I worked with knew Daredevil needed a production designer for the second series. So that was my first venture with these guys. After that wrap I did a pilot. Then they were gearing-up to do the first season of The Punisher. It was a totally new show runner and team, so nothing was guaranteed and I did my first interview while I was on the other series, which was a very challenging project.
For me it’s better to do an interview when I’m not working, so I can read and dissect the script, come-up with ideas and talking points – if I’m in the middle of a job, it’s much harder to devote time that I’d like to, to prep for the interview. So I did my first interview via skype with Steve Lightfoot, the show runner. Usually after an interview, I check-in with my agent and say how it went and I wasn’t sure how it had gone. It turns out that Steve Lightfoot felt the same way and so I did a 2nd interview and I had more time to prepare for it. I went in with a number of ideas and talking points and he responded very well to all of them, so it was great and then the job was mine. We did the first season of The Punisher and we got to design and build some very cool sets. And we’re doing season two right now.
With these new Netflix seasons that drop at once – does that affect the time frame you have to work with, as opposed to something going out weekly?
I’d say not really. In terms of the amount of prep and pre-production isn’t any different to a show which comes out on a weekly basis. Our prep for each episode and our shoot days are probably on a par with those other kind of shows. But what is different is that after working on a number of shows airing weekly, there’s so much work that goes into all of these shows. So by the time the first episode goes out, the next morning, everyone’s looking to see how it did in the ratings and that can be so soul crushing. When the first show drops, you have such high expectations and put so much work into it, if the numbers aren’t there, then it’s like ‘oh my god – how long are we going to be here working?’ I did a show called The Playboy Club that was an NBC show and it was a show I went after when they had announced the pilot and it sounded right up my ally.
It was set in 1961, Chicago, high style. I told my agent that I really want to get this. I knew the interview had gone really well. More and more of late, interviews tend to happen via skype – which I’m trying to get better at, I’d rather be in a room with people than via skype. Anyway, so I end-up getting that job and it was one of those shows that have a lot of buzz and a lot of publicity behind it. I’ve been on shows where we thought we’re not getting the same advertising that other shows are getting. It was going to be one of the big shows of the year, it aired and it didn’t have a big audience – I think everyone was really surprised and it got cancelled after three episodes (we made eight). So when it’s coming-out every week and the numbers aren’t good, it can be very stressful, so I prefer this model where we release the entire show. Obviously Netflix can track how a show is doing, but I don’t think they share any of that information with the public, so no one really knows, I think you know if the show doesn’t get picked-up again that it didn’t do the numbers that it wanted. I find this mode of working much less stressful than the version where the show’s coming out weekly.
Social media is a very good indicator to how a show is doing. Lou Cage had a lot of coverage on socials. What was it like to work on that?
It was great. It’s like The Sopranos when you’re working on something where you know it’s a product people really love and can connect with. So it was fantastic working on Season 2 and we had the premier just before the show dropped and they showed us the first episode and there was a party afterwards. I hadn’t seen it all cut together and that final version, it was great, a lot of the audience were cast and crew but they really loved it. And seeing the positive reaction review-wise and on social media people really dig it.
On these Marvel shows, they are stories of different people. Is there directive to be individual for each character, but also to have the same style for the Marvel world?
Yes each show is tailored to who that character is. Even the research of the comic for that character. I know on Daredevil season one they went into that and we’ve tried to maintain it. Looking at some of the artwork over the years the Daredevil comic and the Hell’s Kitchen that he operates from within. It was a really tricky thing, the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of New York, currently doesn’t really resemble what Hell’s Kitchen was like in the 70s, which seems to be how the comic book was drawn. Now it’s become much more gentrified, there are a lot of restaurants, shops and bars and in reality the comic book is a more heightened version of what 60s/70s Hell’s Kitchen was like anyway.
To try and find locations that worked, to say was Hell’s Kitchen was tricky. The real Hell’s Kitchen didn’t really work with the aesthetic we were looking for, so we were trying to find other neighbourhoods to play as Hell’s Kitchen – it certainly could prove challenging. And part of my interviews for The Punisher I brought up that I thought that we should be looking at the outer boroughs of New York City and use Manhattan as a backdrop, so looking into the blue collar neighbourhoods, so Brooklyn, Statin Island, Queens and The Bronx. And that’s something that Steve Lightfoot was already thinking and we did that throughout the first and second seasons of the show.
Is there someone to make sure there is cohesion between Marvel Show?
Yes there are people on the Marvel staff, two people each show and they do things like; looking at a location and making sure that one of the other shows hasn’t shot on that location for something else, also maintaining the marvel aesthetic and keeping track of storylines, where there are so many disparate elements with all of the shows. And also cross-referencing what is accurate and the history for each of the comics. Whoever that person is for episode one of the season will be there for the prep and then on set for the shoot and then the other person will be on set for the second – so they alternate back and forth.
What are you doing after The Punisher?
Not sure yet, there’s a possibility of Lou Cage 3 but it hasn’t been ordered yet. My agent has mentioned a couple of things that might be brewing.
What advice would you have for aspiring production designer / art director?
I get asked that question a lot, I don’t think there’s one good answer. I think my background in architecture gave me a very good understanding of designing spaces. Anyone who has done architecture, I think they have the ability to branch off into different fields that aren’t necessarily architecture. But the other way to go about it is to actually study production design and film. I think those are two very valid ways to go about it.