INTERVIEW: Art Director Adam Rowe On Making The Good Place

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The Good Place is a comedy series on NBC starring Kirsten Bell, Ted Danson, William Jackson Harper, and Jameela Jamil which takes place in an idyllic afterlife and making this surreal place come to life is Emmy-winning art director Adam Rowe.

The Good Place is entering its fourth and final season, but if Rotten Tomato scores are to be believed, you’d quickly wonder why. Season one sports a 91 percent, season two and season three are both currently at 100 percent. The Guardian called it “relentlessly optimistic.” Fans will undoubtedly miss the show, but at least it’s going out on its own terms.

PopAxiom interviewed Adam Rowe about becoming an art director, possibly painting forever at Forever 21 and making The Good Place.

Welcome to Miami

Adam and I spoke for an hour, but the first ten minutes were all about Miami, Florida, which is where I was calling from. Adam’s a big fan of the city after working on Versace and Dexter. “It so diverse and beautiful there.”

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A native of Ottawa, Illinois, Adam now lives in LA, and after more than a decade, he proudly calls it home. “I’ve fallen in love with the city.”

But to end on a note that makes Miami sound cool, Adam says, “Miami is addicting.”

Getting To The Good Place

Adam’s path started in theatre and is now entrenched in the film and television world. Was that the plan all along? “I hate to say it this way, but I followed the money. I wanted to work in theatre, but it was hard to earn enough to live.” Keep in mind, at the time, Adam was mainly living in an SUV and not some extravagant, unaffordable lifestyle. “I would paint for any theatre that would hire me.”

“I kind of got into this triangle of working from Denver to Santa Fe to Florida.”

After moving around a lot , a friend suggested moving to LA. On a short trip to the city, LA was overwhelming, but Adam made the move anyway. “I dove in. It took about three months, but I got a job for a scenic company that made scenery for all sorts of things. I painted for them.”

The company landed a new contract. “I painted roughly 40-45 Forever 21 stores. If you remember, those stores are essentially all white. So, I was spending 8-10 hours a day in a Tyvek suit thinking ‘Is this it? Is this what a scenic artist becomes [laughs]?”

Six Foot Sub

Suffice it to say, Adam was looking for other opportunities to use his talents and landed an interview with Dan Bishop, the production designer for shows like Parks and Rec and Carnivàle. “I showed up to a coffee shop for the interview with a portfolio and a six-foot sub I carved out of foam for a Subway commercial.”

A couple of days later, Adam received an offer to work as a production assistant on a new show Dan Bishop was working on. “I said yes then found out I was working on Mad Men. It was just a pilot then.” Adam got to watch the pilot and was “blown away.”

As Mad Men was getting underway, there was a lot of turmoil in the world. First was the 2007 writer’s strike and second, was the 2008 recession. “Between 2006 and 2010, I basically said yes to anything that would hire me.”

What were some of those jobs? “I did stills for Fabreze; I worked on the Hillshire Farms ‘Go Meat!’ campaign; I worked on a game show that went nowhere called Paparazzi. Another game show called Pay It Off on BET.” There was a third, short-lived gameshow too.

All these diverse avenues of experience were enlightening. “The more I got into scripted television, the more interested I became.”

About The Good Place

Both The Good Place and Parks and Rec are the brainchild of Michael Shure were both “… very ambitious in what they wanted to do.”

About Shure, Adam says he has a “… clear visions about what he wants.”

The Good Place takes place in a weird place that’s a heaven-like paradise engineered for worthy people. “The challenge with The Good Place is time-tracking and staying within the timeline of the show. You want to set rules and follow those rules within the show. We try it hard to get it right.”

“For example, in a particular episode, we might have to ask ‘Is this taking place when Yogurt Yogurt Yogurt is Yogurt Yogurt Yogurt?’”

About keeping things straight, what’s Adam’s opinion on the infamous Starbucks cup in Game of Thrones? “Three or four times I brought it up to put that into The Good Place. That show allows for little things like that.”

Details Of Design

The Good Place is a surreal world, and so any touches of our reality have to be deliberate, but so do omissions of our reality too. “It seems very mundane, but when you’re shooting in Budapest or Australia you don’t think about light switches and plugs, for instance, but they’re different. In The Good Place, we tried hard to hide electricity.”

Film and television productions are a dance of different jobs working in unison. “In season three, Tahani (played by Jameela Jamil) is frying eggs. She throws an egg at the wall. There’s only so much you can plan for that moment. The team uses a material that won’t get destroyed by the egg because you will have reshoots.”

In an example from Parks and Rec, “When we learn that Ron Swanson has booby traps all over his cabin in the woods. We had discussions with the effects team and the DP to learn how they plan to shoot the scene. We workshopped a bunch of ideas. We made a scary version, a not-so-scary version … you come up with four or five ideas and present them to the showrunner and producers.”

Back to The Good Place, “In an episode of The Good Place, there is an American-themed restaurant in Australia, and they wanted these giant beers. As it turns out, we couldn’t get it to work because it’s hard to hold that much beer.”

Rent To Own An Emmy

Just days before our interview, Adam won an Emmy for his work on Rent: Live. “I’m still in the afterglow. No one can prepare you … it’s so surreal.”

About doing theatre on TV: “If you’re doing something on TV, inherently, they want more, more, more. On Rent, we wanted to include the audience, and we wanted them all around.”

TV gets a bigger budget than your average theatre production. The space and stage itself were larger than usual, which creates new challenges. “In “Over the Moon,” we were on one side of the soundstage, and the next scene, without a commercial break, we’re in “La Vie Boheme,” and have to be on the opposite side of the stage.”

Adam adds, “It was also a challenge to get things to play nice with commercial breaks. And so, we, as the art department had to react to what the writers, producers, and directors, were doing to meet those demands.”

“We’re dealing with live fire on stage with an audience. We’re dealing with ‘snow’ in the form of bubbles, not the usual particulates you see. We had flying stunts.”

Creative DNA

In a relatively short amount of time, Adam’s worked on shows spanning a wide range of genres and styles. What’s part of his creative DNA that inspires his work daily? “Early dramatic training. The fact that I had a great drama teacher in high school, Mrs. Williamson. I was heavily exposed to music. I took piano and choir. Those fundamental values I learned at an early age carried me through.”

Adam continues, “I saw as many musicals I could. I remember going to New York and seeing Lion King, Rent, Cabaret, whatever I could.

The power of influence comes from just about everywhere if you’re looking. “I get heavily inspired any time I go to Las Vegas and the visuals going on all over the place.”

One last source of inspiration: “… You throw in nature. There’s so much to take inspiration from.”

Wrapping Up

The Good Place wrapped shooting. So, what’s coming next from Adam? “I’m on a musical now called The Prom, and I’m diving into all this research about life in high school which influences what we make.”

The Prom is set to come out next fall.”

One last word about The Good Place: “Without giving anything away, we finished shooting on August 8th in a really beautiful environment with copious amounts of hugging.”

Catch the final season of The Good Place on NBC!

Thanks to Adam Rowe and Impact24 PR for making this interview possible.

Want to read more interviews like this? CLICK HERE.

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Ruben Diaz
Writer, film-fanatic, geek, gamer, info junkie & consummate Devil's advocate who has been fascinated by Earth since 1976. Classically trained in the ways of the future.

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