‘The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’: Creating a New Stage for a Bolder Era

Watch production designer Bill Groom, costume designer Donna Zakowska, and cinematographer M. David Mullen discuss Season 4's vibrant burlesque setting.

Rachel Brosnahan in The Marvelous Mrs.

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Amazon Studios

Curated by the IndieWire Crafts team, Craft Considerations is a platform for filmmakers to talk about recent work we believe is worthy of awards consideration. In partnership with Amazon Prime Video, for this edition we look at how production designer Bill Groom, costume designer Donna Zakowska, and director of photography M. David Mullen created the exquisite period detail of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”

As Season 4 of the Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” opens, stand-up comedian Miriam “Midge” Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) finds herself at a crossroads. Fired from her job on tour with singer Shy Baldwin (Leroy McClain), Midge decides the time has come to be uncompromising in her career, and she finds a surprising outlet for the creative freedom that she craves: a bawdy strip club where Midge performs between acts, slowly attracting a female audience that is a source of both added income and new frustrations for the club’s owner.

The burlesque venue is just one of several striking environments that allowed the filmmakers behind “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” to develop and deepen the visual style the series established in Season 1. As Midge’s story enters a new decade, production designer Bill Groom, costume designer Donna Zakowska, and director of photography M. David Mullen retain the vibrant color palette, whirling camera movements, and detailed settings of previous seasons while addressing not only a heroine but an entire culture in a state of transition. The videos below show the precision and artistry that went into bringing 1960 New York to life.

The Production Design of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

For production designer Bill Groom, the key new creation of Season 4 was the Wolford, the burlesque club where Midge finds renewed freedom as a comic. “It was a challenge for many reasons,” Groom said. “We went through around 12 revisions of the drawings for that just to get it right.” One of the difficulties was simply finding a space big enough to house the enormous set, which was ultimately constructed “in an old building where they used to build PT boats in the second World War.” Another challenge was keeping costs down and getting the set built in the short time frame Groom had before production began. “The show might look like we have a blank check, but we don’t.”

Groom stayed on budget without sacrificing scope by repurposing sets from previous seasons as part of the Wolford’s backstage area. As Groom explains in the video above, “each of the rooms that you see backstage was once something else. We reconfigured them, reassembled them, and added a hallway between them.” Though the initial motivation for Groom’s approach might have been financial, he found that it yielded creative dividends. “When you work that way and you’re reassembling other sets, sometimes you have elements that you might not have thought of if you were starting with a blank piece of paper,” he said. “In many ways it becomes more interesting and more real, because there are nooks and crannies and pieces that might not normally fit together that you make work.” Those unexpected discoveries, combined with Groom’s rigorous approach to research, yielded a set as distinctive in its details as it was impressive in its scale.

The Costume Design of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Like Groom, costume designer Donna Zakowska embraced the theatricality of the Wolford. “I was able to completely let loose this season,” she said, noting that her work on the show brought her back to her roots designing New York’s Big Apple Circus. “Strippers are very close to circus performers in a way, because it’s really about rigging and taking the costume off very quickly. In the circus people would perform crazy acts and suddenly jump on a horse and then come off and swing in the air and tumble, so I learned about rigging and costumes that transform in that way where clothes appear and disappear.” As you’ll see in the video above, Zakowska combined what she had learned in the circus with a deep dive into photographs of the period that provided her with inspiration. “There were recurring images like a woman with a horn — a ringmaster type — and I took those and expanded on them.”

Zakowska’s exploration into ‘60s photography expanded well beyond sources for the Wolford and into fashion magazines of the time that gave her reference points for Midge and her social circle. “So many great photographers of the time worked for Bazaar, worked for Vogue,” she said. “When you look at those magazines, you’re looking at the work of fine art photographers who were supporting themselves with fashion photography.” She found that 1960 introduced a wide variety of bold hats into women’s fashion, and she incorporated that into the series’ visual vocabulary. She also found new icons on which to model Midge’s look: “In earlier seasons Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn were a big part of Midge’s look,” she said. “In Season 4 we moved over to Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot, who I think epitomize ‘60s beauty.”

The Cinematography of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Cinematographer M. David Mullen also found inspiration in ‘60s glamour and was often surprised by the influences that found their way into the series, as described in the video above. “I don’t know if it’s subconscious or just that certain tropes of Hollywood cinema naturally repeat,” Mullen said, “but I do find myself looking for moments that create a feeling of classic Hollywood.” The trick for Mullen is that this heightened approach has to be grounded in believability, so he generally seeks ways to use natural light, even if the setting means that “natural” light is highly stylized. “There are environments that are more theatrical, like the Wolford or anytime you’re in a nightclub or restaurant, that can have theatrical lighting fixtures installed. In a nightclub, you could say that it’s naturally lit except that every unit hanging in a nightclub is a theatrical unit.”

Mullen found that those nightclub and restaurant settings gave him the most flexibility in his lighting. “You have some freedom to create colors and lights wherever you want them to be, because it’s a made-up environment,” Mullen said. “I work closely with Bill Groom and set decorator Ellen Christiansen because the nature of our shots means the sets have to do a lot of the lighting for me — there are moments where they’re just not going to be near anything I can add a light to.” While the performance venues on “Maisel” facilitate many of Mullen’s most striking lighting effects, even in less flamboyant environments there were plenty of opportunities to walk the line between naturalism and high style. “We’ll use natural light but from a more glamorous angle, or stage the actors so that they’re lit believably yet flatteringly by the practical lights,” Mullen said. “I’m always trying to lean into romanticism.” —Jim Hemphill

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