Bill Groom jokingly refers to himself as a “method” production designer–a reference to method actors who embody their characters to better portray them. It’s not unlike how Groom recreates the places of the past.
Currently responsible for recreating the groovy look of 1973 New York City as part of Vinyl, an HBO drama about the pre-cassette music industry created by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorcese, Groom is no stranger to recreating vintage scenes: he was previously the production designer for Boardwalk Empire, where he helped bring the world of 1920s Atlantic City to life, as well as 2008’s Milk, where he resurrected the night life of San Francisco in the late ’70s.
The secret to his process? A willingness to lose himself in the past–and extreme attention to detail.
“When I start shooting a new location, I go in alone, without all the actors and crew, and I close my eyes,” Groom says. “I try to pretend I lived in that space, and try to exist in that time. I imagine the ideas and even the dreams I would have had there. If you can actually put your head in that place you’re trying to create when you work, at some point, you get familiar enough you have an intuitive knowledge about it. You start to feel the period, or the world you’re creating.”
Groom has always had a feel for production design. As a child growing up in a mobile home in the ’50s, Groom lived in a religious, blue-collar world where he wasn’t even allowed to go to the movies until he was in college. “I think people can assume that it takes a certain sort of privilege to make your way in show business, but for me, that wasn’t the case,” Groom says. Even so, Groom says his love for set design was in his blood from an early age. By the age of six, Groom was helping his cousins hang bedspreads in his grandmother’s basement to put on plays, recreating shows they’d seen on television.
By 1978, Groom had entered the industry, working as production designer for Dan Ackroyd and John Blushi’s last season. He did that until 1984, and spent the next few years working on small projects, like the first Macaulay Culkin film, Rocket Gibraltar. His first “big” project was 1990’s Awakenings, but according to Groom, it was a job that he got almost entirely by accident: The man who hired him for the job thought he had been the art director for Woody Allen’s movies. But Groom proved himself, eventually landing the production designer role on Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own. It wasn’t his first period piece, but it was his first blockbuster.
Although Groom continued to get plenty of work for the next 15 years, it wasn’t until 2008’s Milk, when he was 58, that he felt his career really started coming together. Having come out himself in 2003, Groom was asked to recreate a period of his life he felt he had missed: What it was like to be gay in the late ’70s. Recreating the LGBT world of 1978 San Francisco, Groom was able to bring iconic period locations like the Castro back to life. “Ask any designer, some projects are just more personal to you than others,” Groom says. “I was 58 when Milk happened. Before that, I’d just done some nice work on some mediocre projects.”
Since Milk, Groom has been in demand–he marvels that the busiest period of his career has been his sixties, when other professionals are usually ramping down. It led to Boardwalk Empire and then Vinyl, where Groom may be on track to win an Emmy for outstanding production design, five years running.
So what’s the secret to recreating a period? According to Groom, it’s crucial to understand that something like Vinyl‘s portrayal of the ’70s isn’t just about a single period in and of itself. It’s an encrustation of different periods and styles that lead up to the ’70s, but which might also include the ’60s, the ’50s, and even the 1800s. In other words, the past is just as stylistically messy as the present. And importantly, it has its own past, which designers need to take into account. Groom points to a project he did in 1994, the Nicholas Cage-Bridget Fonda comedy It Could Happen To You, as to what he means.
“For that project, we had to build both exterior and interior sets that felt like a building from 1810 in early Manhattan,” Groom recalls. “We were working on stairs to a small diner made of concrete, and we took pains to wear it away, and chip it, so it looked like it had been used for years. Architects who were walking by looked at it, and thought it was so interesting. ‘Wow, you’re always looking to fuck things up!'”
Method production design, as Groom calls his technique, involves a lot of research into details. When Groom starts a project, the first thing he does is hit the library, trying to answer questions about the era. For example, if a scene in Vinyl takes place in a ’70s hotel room, what color are the walls? Are they painted or wallpapered? If so, why? What screws were used to install the wall sockets, and if so, are they different from the screws we use today?
Many of these details might seem extraneous–after all, even 4K HDTVs can’t show the detail on a room’s individual screwheads–but Groom says that it’s all part and parcel with establishing a “feel” for the past, which eventually becomes a form of intuition, making his work feel more authentic. But not necessarily authentically authentic. “You need to think about what’s authentic not just to the time, but to the character, or even the space itself,” he says. That means that when he’s looking for screws to install an electrical socket in Vinyl, Groom isn’t necessarily looking for ’70s screws, any more than he might be aiming to make sure that an out-of-touch character in Vinyl is wearing contemporary clothes. Knowing what to leave out is just as important as what to include.
“Every project has a point of view,” says Groom. “It’s just like Spike Lee told an interviewer, when they asked him why Do the Right Thing didn’t comment on drugs in the black community. He looked at her, paused, and just said: ‘Well, that’s not what the movie was about.'”