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Fall 2019: Dialed In

He won an Emmy in LA this fall for his first TV series. He flew back the same night to New York to begin shooting on his second. It’s been a “pretty good year” for Michael Bricker ’04.

Michael Bricker once told us that a production designer is “the person who works with the director, art director, writer, and costume designer and does everything else they don’t do.” 

He’s been doing that “everything else” exceptionally well. 

As production designer for the Netflix series Russian Doll, Bricker won an Emmy for the first TV series he’s worked on, earning praise from the show’s co-creator and star Natasha Lyonne in the press and on Late Night with Seth Meyers. In addition to his other duties, Bricker helped everyone—including the show’s creators, Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland— visualize and keep track of the series’ multiple time loops. 

“That was really the detail-oriented, big-boy work of our show: keeping the rules of our particular game very specific,” Lyonne told TheWrap, “Michael was a key figure in that.” 

Bricker spoke with WM by phone from the set of the new show he’s working on in Brooklyn—a series that he is not allowed to talk about. 

WM: So all you can say is that you’re in Greenpoint, northern Brooklyn? 

Michael Bricker: Yeah, it’s pretty hush-hush, unfortunately. 

Okay—so let’s talk about the Emmy. Where were you when you first heard you’d been nominated? 

I was scouting for locations at Grand Central Terminal in New York for the show that I’m on now. My agent texted me, freaking out. 

My girlfriend, Zoe White, is a cinematographer and is also working on this new show, and she got a call, as well. She had been nominated for The Handmaid’s Tale. We feel pretty crazy and fortunate. It’s been a pretty good year. 

This is the highest honor you could get working in TV at a time when TV is making some of the best stuff out there. Did that take a while to sink in? 

I still don’t really understand it. To be nominated for my first series was already ridiculous. To win on top of that was almost incomprehensible. [laughs] I have to give Netflix a ton of credit for promoting my work on the show. It’s unusual for people to specifically point out the production design in the world?building of the show. 

Tell us about receiving the award. 

The second of the three Emmy nights is our night—it’s generally about the behind?the?scenes folks. It’s a cool room to be in because you’re in there with the designers from Game of Thrones, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Veep. To see all the amazing talent that goes into creating television right now is pretty impressive. 

I don’t generally get very nervous at all, but I was sitting there for two hours—I kept getting more, and more, and more nervous. Our cinematographer won. Then the costume designer won. I was like, OK, it’s looking pretty good. It’s also like, Well, if I’m the one that doesn’t win, that sucks

Everything happens so fast. You get up there. You say your words. You leave the stage and they take the Emmy away from you because that's the prop Emmy. You go and you sign up to get the real one, which they hand you. The plaque comes later. Then there's the official photos. 

Then there’s press photos. Then there’s press questions. You’re put on this little conveyor belt of stations. You enter the machine with a prop Emmy and you come out the other end with the real one, having answered a bunch of questions and taken a bunch of photos. Then they’re like, “And, we’re done. Thanks. Have a great night!” 

Do you have a favorite Emmy moment?

There was this moment when I felt like I was really a part of this industry. Our Emmys were awarded on a Sunday night. Our first day of shooting on the show that we’re on now was Monday. We left the Emmy after?parties at 11 p.m. and raced to LAX in our ball gown and tux and got on the red-eye for New York. The show we are on has a scene set at JFK, and we got them to put that scene first on the first day of shooting. 

We landed at the airport and walked to the set. Zoe picked up the camera and started shooting. I checked in with my crew on what was prepped, got in a car, and drove off to the next set shooting that afternoon. We were both bummed that we couldn't enjoy the whole evening and celebrate. Yet we were also amazed, and grateful. These are not complaints!

Russian Doll was your first TV series, first large-scale show?

And the first setting that was written to be a bit more fantastic. On a lot of the indie projects I worked on they wanted authenticity and real world. It's not about production design. They want the world to look as the world is.

I like those projects, but I was growing a bit tired of doing them. I was starting to not get a sense of what I would be capable of as a designer because I wasn't stretching.

I was fortunate enough to pitch for Russian Doll. It is pretty amazing that the design I pitched is the show that we made.

Your design pitch is a lot of what we see?

Yeah. It aligned with what they were thinking, or maybe they just saw what the show could be. But they hired me.

I had some experience, but doing independent movies versus a studio series is quite a different level. They were like, “Yeah, we are building these sets. We need the drawings of them right now. We've budgeted $400,000.” I’ve never worked on budgets like that. 


I just went for it. I was like, Who knows? Maybe this is the only series I ever get to do, so I’m going to make a bunch of choices that make me uncomfortable. I really was dialed into my gut. I was making decisions really quickly. 

What I’m most proud of is that I realized how powerful the design position can be when used properly. It’s not about picking out pretty things. [laughs] It’s about storytelling. If you’re able to use the design to help tell the story, it helps everybody else make decisions.

I read that you found errors or inconsistencies in the script and that you’d come back to the writers and show’s creators with suggestions. Is that the norm in the industry?

Well, that’s the thing—I don’t know what normal is because I didn’t learn that from anybody. I don’t care what normal is.

You once said, “Idea does not equal impact. If you want to make change, you have to start with action.” You’ve said that’s what you love about production design: You don’t just put it on the board; you do something.

Do you remember when you first realized that you’re not just the idea guy or the action guy, but both? 

Early on when I was doing independent movies, the art crew was so small that if you wanted to do anything at all, make anything better, you were the one who had to do it. 

Then founding the nonprofit People for Urban Progress (PUP) in Indianapolis was a big moment. I was so down on the city at the time. Then I told myself, Well, you can complain and move. If you don’t live there you can complain about it all you want. But if I am living here that means I’m choosing to be here. That means I either need to stop complaining or try to make a difference.

That moment in some ways maybe is the clearest example, because I was like, What can I do with no money and a master’s degree and no job? And that was 2008, and we were in a recession. [laughs]

Where does that passion for impact come from? 

I have no idea. Both of my parents died while I was quite young, and someone has told me that people who have that experience at a young age tend to have a superhero view of the world. Friends have told me, “You have this Batman vibe, like you are carrying the responsibility of the city on your shoulders.” 

I realize I’m comparing myself to a superhero, which is outrageously arrogant. But there’s something to it. If I don’t have parents to feel responsible for and there’s no one there to be responsible for me, then I have to look for that connection to humanity in a different way. The only way I have to do that is putting something out in the world that is about making it better, because I know what tragedy feels like. 

Even when we put the old Bush Stadium seats at bus stops when I was at PUP, I could picture someone having a shit day—they’re taking public transit, it's raining or they’re just having a shit-show up to then, and then there’s this seat there that wasn’t there before. And they would think, You know what? Someone just thought about me. If someone feels like the city itself is looking after them a little bit, that's a pretty good thing to do. 

You live between Austin, Indianapolis, LA, and now New York? Where is home? 

My stuff is in storage in Indiana and I’ve been living with Zoe in Brooklyn since July. Before then I was in Toronto for six months, seven months on a different series. I’m a nomad. 

Where's the Emmy? 

The Emmy is sitting on Zoe’ s piano. 

When you look back at your life so far, how is that architecture degree paying off? 

Big time. Architecture is training in designing at scale, so I can design at any scale. I can be talking with a prop master about fabricating something really tiny for a character, or I can walk down a street in New York and say, “This street is better than the other street because we’re looking for this style of architecture for this reason and so we need to shoot here.” 

Not all designers know how things are built. I can speak that language. 

How’s the art major, classics and philosophy minor from Wabash paying off? 

Just as well. At Wabash you’re really challenged to have your own opinion on the first day. You’re encouraged to become a quick decision maker and to have an opinion. In my work, if you don't have an opinion about a story or how something can be built, then they’ll move on to the person who can. 

The more I do this, the more I get delight from just seeing the choice, whether it’s good or not. There will be times where I'll see a piece of furniture I picked for something and be like, “That's terrible.” I say, “Look, that doesn’t work,” and change it. 

Thankfully, I now have the resources, too, where making a change like that is a no brainer, it just materializes. The way things happen now is unbelievable. I just walk around and point to things, say how I want things changed and what I want things to look like, and this whole swarm of insanely talented people help deliver it. 

What do you do when you’re not working? 

Last fall was the first time since Russian Doll that I just intentionally did nothing. It was bliss. I did yoga and exercised and cooked and traveled to hang out with my girlfriend. I’m learning how to take it easy and chill out. 

The work that we do in this business is so intense; I’ve never worked hours like this. It’s really complex. We have a whole unit that will be going overseas. It’s the next bigger thing and it's amazing and fun. I try to never complain about the hours, because even when it’s bad it’s really not that bad. 

But then I say, “Okay, when this is over let’s make sure we don't just go right into the next thing.” I’m looking forward to making sure I’m taking time to re?engage the world. 

Interview by STEVE CHARLES