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From “Vinyl” To “When We Rise” – Production Designer Bill Groom

Photo credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO

By: Marjorie Galas

Bill Groom has been so immersed in the seventies, you’d think his alarm clock blares Sonny & Cher’s hit “I Got You Babe” at the start of each work day.  Within the last few months the production designer wrapped season one of HBO’s hit “Vinyl”- a mini-series highlighting New York City’s music business in 1973 – then continuing in the same time period with San Francisco-based “When We Rise”- a mini-series chronicling the gay rights movement.  A stickler for detail, Groom would dispute my musical research, noting the song came out two years after the setting of both shows.

Groom had barely celebrated his fourth consecutive Emmy win for production design on “Boardwalk Empire” when he was approached to jump on board “Vinyl.”  Co-created by the minds behind “Boardwalk Empire” Executive Producers Terence Winter and Martin Scorsese (who worked closely with Executive Producer/co-creator Mick Jagger who approached them with the idea), Groom accepted with enthusiasm.  He’d been a college student in NYC in the early 70s and recalled the raw mixture of cultures that informed arts and society during the period.  In fact, his post-college job, working in the scenic department of “Saturday Night Live,” placed him face to face with Jagger when the singer was a guest host.

“In a sense I worked with Mick Jagger 35 years ago.  He’s been in the music business a long time.  When he is on set we welcome his input and listen carefully to what he has to say,” said Groom.

Mirroring his experience with “Boardwalk Empire,” Groom picked up the production design responsibilities after the pilot episode of “Vinyl” had been completed by fellow production designer Bob Shaw.  Shaw established the look of Richie Finestra’s (Bobby Cannavale) home as well as the interior for his record company’s, American Century, headquarters. Working with a number of the team members he collaborated with on “Boardwalk” he’s merged meticulous research with artistic license to create many of the clubs and settings crucial to the birth of musical styles that included punk, hip-hop and disco.   He’s also reconstructed many iconic landmarks that disappeared decades ago, including record stores like Sam Goody’s.

Finding authentic building facades proved easier for the “Boardwalk” team than “Vinyl.”  Intact architecture of the 20s can still be found in hotels, libraries and museums, where as much of the 70s influence was removed long ago.  Groom and his crew used a combination of locations that incorporated massive builds and soundstages to construct the series sets.  Majority of construction material used in the period is still manufactured today.  What proved a little more involved was incorporating technology.  While average workers are slow to adopt new technology, Finestra’s status and income would indicate he’d have the latest, cutting edge inventions, such as the briefcase-sized cell phone seen in Finestra’s car.

“Every type of technology we live with today was invented in the 70s,” said Groom.  “If there is a technology that is characteristic of the period, we can still find it. Someone still manufactures it.  Somewhere in the world they still use it.”

Working on “When We Rise” reconnects Groom with team members from 2008 Best Picture Oscar nominee “Milk,” including writer Dustin Lance Black and director Gus Van Sant.  Groom conducted extensive research, particularly into the three individuals the series follows during their role promoting gay rights in 1973, ensuring all design decisions were historically relevant.  However, as with the artistic liberties taken in recreating the rock clubs of “Vinyl,” Groom’s priority was to highlight the action of the story.

“It has to be historical and relevant, but the research can’t take over,” said Groom.  “Gus is adamant about not having a palette.  He likes things to be less controlled, and more character and story driven.”

Groom has enjoyed taking a new approach to minimizing the palette, and applied this sensibility to his work on “Vinyl” as well.  While set dressing infuses colors of the period into each location, working with a minimal palette allows for an overlap of our contemporary sentiments with what’s reflected on screen.  Interestingly, Groom also notes a strong correlation between the 70s and the 20s – the time period he was immersed in over the last five years on “Boardwalk Empire.”

“The 70s were a very messy period; it was an era of the youth movement and no rules,” said Groom.  “It’s not unlike the 20s when the kids were taking over any anything goes.”