One of the first things to strike you about “Gotham” — Fox’s Batman prequel that’s not about Batman — is exactly what’s promised in the title: The city looks astounding. So much so, the pilot episode earned the series an Emmy nomination for Production Design alongside the likes of “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards.” Finding the “grit” on broadcast TV can be hard, but the production team behind “Gotham” somehow pulled it off.
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Production designer Richard Berg is a huge part of that, even if he didn’t join the series until Episode 8. Hailing from the architecture world before establishing himself as a talent on “CSI” and “Modern Family” — the latter for which he earned two Emmy nominations — Berg spends his days working closely with the director, his design team and various other able hands to turn locations into a “realistic” comic book and sets into his visions. Season 2 certainly isn’t short on new challenges for his keen eye. Between a sea of new villains and creating the Batcave itself — though you won’t hear it called that on the show — Berg has quite a task at hand to follow up a gorgeous first year. Indiewire spoke with him prior to the Season 2 premiere regarding everything from his inspirations to his advice.
Looking over your resume/IMDB page, you have such a great background in television, and it’s so diverse: going from something like “CSI” to “Modern Family” to “Gotham” to all your projects in between. What was it that drew you to “Gotham” now, and how and when did you come on board?
“Gotham” was a bit of a break, too, because I had worked with Danny Cannon, who is one of the executive producers of the show, and Danny was one of the executive producers of “CSI.” So many of the pilots I’ve done are Danny Cannon pilots that he directed, so I’ve had a long-standing good relationship with Danny and love working on his shows. And so I got a call somewhere around Episode 8 of Season 1 last year to take over in the production design role for a designer that was going to be leaving the show, and I jumped at that. I wasn’t working at the time. I had just finished doing “Dallas,” the show, and two weeks later I was on a plane to New York to work on “Gotham.”
What about “Gotham” was alluring to you from a production design standpoint?
Because it hadn’t aired when I got the call, I wasn’t able to envision exactly what the show was, but my imagination ran wild because I’ve seen enough films that are comic book and superhero related to know that this show would be a different type of show than anything I’ve ever worked on before. It had this inherent darkness that I imagined would be “Gotham,” and that was very interesting to me because my background in “CSI” was doing some dark, seedy places. I really enjoyed that a lot, and “CSI” ended up being a lot of slick, very polished environments and truthfully I’m just not that interested in pursuing that, or wasn’t, so “Gotham” for me offered the exact opposite to that, the antithesis to that slick, polished look. It was sort of the underbelly, the dark, seedy, brooding aspect of New York, but called a different city.
One of the things I loved about the production design — which I didn’t even realize until a good number of episodes into the show — was how it combined a modern world with an older world. They had stuff like cell phones, but the cars all looked like they were from the ’70s and the buildings looked like they’d been built a long time ago. How do you decide what to use to indicate time and style?
It’s definitely an interesting or fun element of the show; that we are somewhat anachronistic in that we reside somewhere in the ’80s, let’s say, but some of the elements, like, some of the vehicles are from the ’70s and ’60s, and there’s this whole other element, sort of a noir element to our show, which is ’30s-’40s, and so it’s the amalgamation of all those periods. We sort of jump from period to period a little bit, but always stay ’80s or pre-’80s for the most part. And yes, as you mentioned, cell phones are a major element that we try and stay away from, because that has turned into a crutch in the modern era. Messages and smartphones are such a vehicle now to communicate things that are in the script, but really very difficult to communicate otherwise. They use the text message and who’s calling and all that stuff, and we don’t get into that at all. You don’t see any telephone screen, any smartphone, in our show. We try to avoid seeing computers, even though they were definitely around at that time.
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I like that you brought up that it has a little bit of noir going on because you can feel that it’s actually a cop story at its core. But to me, as I was watching it throughout the first season, it almost felt like you were splitting the difference between the Christopher Nolan gritty Batman movies that were more modern and then the Schumacher/Burton style where it had a little bit more stylized color specific to the comic book element of it. Were there any — I don’t want to say “aspects,” that’s too broad – but any particular steps or any particular design work you implemented to remind people of one or the other, or were you just trying to forge your own path?
Well, I purposefully did not delve into any of the previous Batman films when I got the job. In fact, I’ve seen all of them, but I haven’t seen any of them since I started working on the show. I wanted to attack this thing from a fresh perspective and not fall into the trap of what other great designers and other great directors have done in film. As a designer, truthfully, whenever we attack a new set we’re always looking at references anyways. So in my opinion, if I’m going to look at references, which I do, I’d rather look at ones that aren’t so specific to what I’m doing because it could fall into the plagiarism category, and that’s no fun.
But just looking at my favorite films and some of the designs that have been done within them, I was able to extract this new world. But I have to also say that I walked into a world that was already very detailed and sketched out; delineated to a large degree. I could look into the GCPD headquarters and stand in that massive set that looks like an English train station and get a great sense of what the materials are of Gotham and what some of the details are: the rivets, how far apart they are. The rivets in the GCPD are not the size of normal rivets for a single, standalone building. They’re the size of rivets for the Queen Mary or the Brooklyn bridge. Everything is over-scaled in our show to a certain degree, that was very informative for me about how to attack the new stuff we end up doing.
Was there a particular element or idea you had that you were proud of from your work on the first season that stood out to you?
Sure. In the first season, both of the two stages that we have were just about filled with permanent sets so I really was inheriting a lot of pre-established worlds. Most of my work first season was on swing sets and changing locations to create this “Gotham” world. I mean, there’s quite a few things, obviously, but one thing that stood out for me was what we did at the end of the season, for the last episode. When we finally were going to reveal the cave below Wayne Manor that Bruce discovers; with a fireplace that recedes back into itself and reveals this opening that goes downstairs into this world he didn’t know existed. So for me that was incredibly exciting for a few reasons. That’s a very charged element about our show, the cave, which I can’t call the Batcave because we are actually legally supposed to avoid the idea of the “Bat-” anything. So you’ll never hear that on our show, but it is the Batcave. And just the idea that I didn’t actually have to design it last year — I just had to design the stairs that led down to it — that was exciting for me because now I was bridging a world that existed, which was Doug Kraner’s wonderful designs to this new world that I knew would pay off next season, this season, where I would actually have to design the interior of the cave. Which, maybe by the time this piece comes out will have already aired. So that was incredibly exciting. This season has just been incredibly overwhelming in terms of the depth and breadth of what we’ve had to design, and we lost a lot of sets onstage as well, so it’s really a new world this season.
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Were there any personal touches or elements you combined to make it your own that really worked for you in creating Bruce Wayne’s cave?
I’m very rigorous about taking references from the real world and trying to translate them to our scenery world without losing reality. I’m a stickler about keeping things real. A cave is a difficult thing to design in scenery because it involves a lot of carving and a lot of subjective interpretation of what a rock is and what kind of rock is under Wayne Manor and how do we depict that in a way that’s interesting to look at and not expected. Who knows how a cave would be as a natural element? I collected — with the help of my art department — some really great references about caves and how shafts of light can come through. Fissures in caves, through the ceiling, can give the element of daytime being exposed into this subterranean world. All that was really exciting. So I feel like we really did nail it in the end and created a cave that is super-realistic looking and also sells the story that this is plausible to exist under Wayne Manor.
What new avenues did you get to explore in Season 2?
For Season 2, we have quite a few new characters: new villains, some of our pre-introduced characters have changed their colors a bit so it was very important for me that the environments we built specific to these characters were unique to them. I like to think that in one frame of seeing a set that it evokes a core feeling about the person using that set. We’ve done five or six major sets onstage for major characters. When you see the season progress, you’ll hopefully see that each environment evokes a different feeling for the character that’s living within it and all was in the framework of it being very realistic and not cartoonish. When I say cartoon, I mean it doesn’t have this animated, hyper-real feel to it. It’s somewhere south of that. I look at Dick Sylbert’s work, “Dick Tracy” in particular. That’s a comic book film that’s hyper-stylized — the colors are beautiful — and extremely saturated. Sometimes you get lost in whether you’re watching in-camera photography or if it’s drawn by hand. Our show is very different. Our show is from a more realistic standpoint, less comic book cartoon; more about playing with color, more subdued color, desaturated color, more atmosphere and shadows and light. That’s what excited me about our sets, and that’s really what “Gotham” is about I think.
Do you have any advice for someone who was thinking about getting into this field?
My advice would be draw like crazy. Be an excellent drawer. Be able to communicate your ideas if not by hand, then by using some vehicle that will show others what you have in your brain. If that’s computer graphics, do it that way. If it’s drawing by hand, do it that way. But the key is to be able to express yourself on paper so that other people can see your vision clearly.
Is that for when you have an opportunity in meetings, or when someone asks to see samples of your work or a spec thing? How exactly is that utilized?
I very often try to walk people through ideas, concepts of spaces, by drawing them instead of using a bunch of words that can be interpreted in many different ways. It’s the cliche: A picture is worth 1000 words, and I really believe that. It also provides a clear basis for — it’s almost like a contract. If you draw an object on a page, and it’s a decent drawing, you can talk about that object as if it’s a real thing, as opposed to just being a concept at that point. It kind of takes you to the next level. The other side of it is if you draw and then you redraw, it allows you to take yourself through the different stages of developing an idea or a design, and if you draw it enough times it becomes exactly what you want in the end.
“Gotham” airs Mondays at 8pm on Fox.
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