For a period piece like Underground, it’s so important to get the look right. The actors need to feel comfortable and look appropriate in their clothes and all the sets and locations need to ring true. If you’ve seen any or all of the episodes, you know all the behind-the-scenes people have done a great job of bringing this world to life. We believe Rosalee and Noah work on the Macon plantation. We see how Elizabeth and John HawkesÂ transform their homeÂ into a haven for runaway slaves. We watch August Pullman and the other slave catchers chase the Macon 7 as they attempt to travel 600 miles to freedom.
But what goes into getting all those little details right?Â Production design is a huge part of the puzzle and I had to the pleasure to talk to Meghan Rogers, the woman in that role for Underground.
TV GOODNESS: Did you always know you wanted to be a production designer and how did you break into the business?
Meghan Rogers: “Thatâ€™s always a hard question. I didnâ€™t always know. I started in school wanting to be a lawyer. I went to undergrad at ASU. When I was [there], I always worked in the theater department, painting backdrops and then eventually building sets. I learned to weld and that was my start.
I ended up spending more time in there working on those projects than I did doing other projects for my law focus. I had a counselor one day that just told me I needed to change my major to theater and before I left her office, she had done that. [Laughs.]
Then I ended up going to graduate school for the focus on theater. I focused on concepts and learning how to develop a vision in school. I worked in New York a little bit, in theater and thought I was gonna do theater and then realized you canâ€™t really make any money doing that. [Laughs.] For a long time, you can, if you’re patient. But Iâ€™m not a patient person.
So I was trying to figure out what I was gonna do and then I got a call from an alumni from graduate school and he needed an art coordinator on a TV show. I didnâ€™t know what that was and he told me I needed to figure it out. So that was my first job. And then I just worked my way up from there.”
TV GOODNESS: For those who donâ€™t know, as a production designer, what are you responsible for on the show?
Meghan: “Iâ€™m responsible for the architecture and the overall cohesive look of the show, what the themes and tones are between the scenery and choosing locations.
I start location scouting and reading the script and finding every place that we need to go. I find all those places. Then there’s usually other places that are impossible to shoot at, so we build them on a stage. I head a department that constructs drawings and previews and concepts for what those sets will look like and then we also see them through the build phase and build them and shoot them.”
TV GOODNESS: How did you hear about Underground and what made you want to do it?
Meghan: “Underground was kind of a surprise. I hadnâ€™t really heard much about it. I had gotten a call from a producer IÂ worked with previously on Oz the Great and Powerful for Disney. He was gonna do this TV series and it was a period drama.
It was really funny because he was trying to get me in on that show and Iâ€™d spent a year — this was the year before last — I had thirty or forty interviews trying to break into TV. I had previously mainly done features. And itâ€™s really hard when youâ€™re in the industry to cross back and forth or to find a way into the other one.
When he called me about it and sent me the script — I just thought the scripts wereÂ amazing and to do a period show would be great. But at the same time I was designing another show called The Fundamentals of [Caring] with Paul Rudd in Atlanta and it was kinda like, â€˜This is a long shot.â€™ But I put together a big presentation and did a Sykpe interview. Iâ€™m really, really terrible at Skye interviews so I wasnâ€™t really positive going into the job, but I was making myself do it and work hard to try to get it.
Then I met with Joe [Pokaski] and Misha [Green], the showrunners, via Skype and literally fifteen minutes after I got off the Skype interview, the producer called me. Heâ€™s like, â€˜Ok. Can you start on Monday?â€™ So I was like, â€˜This isnâ€™t a nice thing to do. You don’t do that.’ Usually we wait weeks while they decide and you suffer. So, it was really exciting.”
TV GOODNESS: A period piece like this seems so challenging. Can you talk about the research you did and the work you had to do to make sure things seem period-appropriate and also look good for filming?
Meghan: “Yes. Thatâ€™s one of the biggest challenges, but also one of my favorite parts is all of the research. I enjoy anthropological research. You get to find out what people were doing, what social classes were, what was affecting people emotionally at the time and how their environments affected that.
Thereâ€™s a lot of different dynamics that happen between what kind of house people live in or how many houses are close to them, how lonely is their environment or how congested is it and how that affects their psychology. I enjoy all that. And then you get into history and what was happening on a larger spectrum and it just becomes more exciting to look at.
I start with a ton of research. I read a lot of books and also look at a lot of pictures. We had walls and walls in our art department of, this is what a small town looks like, this is what a medium town looks like. This is what a poor personâ€™s home looks like, all the different demographics so we could have them covered throughout the episode.
Then on top of that layer, we add our layers of tone and mood and style that gives it a cohesive feel for what we are making this series. So we had a lot of color palettes with specific line choices we were making between the different demographics in different places we were going on the show.”
TV GOODNESS: I know you work closely with Karyn Wagner, the costume designer. Can you tell me about that process?
Meghan: “I enjoy collaborating with the other designers within the show. I think it makes it a lot more fun and we can create a lot more dynamic images. Working with Karyn, we really worked to bring focus to the costumes and the characters and also to take focus away, where it was necessary.
We had the house slaves on our large Macon plantation and we wanted them to blend into the background of the house when they werenâ€™t needed. So I took care to match my drapery and wallpaper coverings so that people could step into the shadows. That was also a collaboration with the cinematographer too, because he can add a lot and take away a lot of focus with the lighting as well.”
TV GOODNESS: Do you have a favorite set or location from Season 1?
Meghan: “It changes frequently. My favorite set depends on what picture I see. [Laughs.]
I think my favorite one was probably the Hawkes House nursery, which was the set that we built â€“ and it was one of those evolutionary sets â€“ that shows the Hawkes family getting into hiding slaves and digging a tunnel under their house and later starting the underground railroad adventure.”
TV GOODNESS: I like how we saw it transform and all the work they had to do. I thought that was great.
Meghan: “Thanks. Yeah. We had a lot of fun trying to figure that out and just really getting to see architecturally and work with what the characters are going through. It was a transformative moment for everybody.”
TV GOODNESS: Have you already started work on Season 2 and what, if anything, are you allowed to tell me?
Meghan: “Iâ€™ve started on it. Iâ€™m actually headed to Savannah [this] week. We just changed our location hub, not for any other reasons than incentives. [Laughs.] It seems to be what we do now. Weâ€™re carnival workers that follow that stuff around.
What can I tell you about Season 2? Itâ€™s gonna be exciting. Iâ€™ve read some outlines for it and itâ€™s equally dynamic and full of surprises just like Season 1 was. Thatâ€™s about all I can tell you.”
TV GOODNESS: Iâ€™m really looking forward to it. I like the way Season 1 ended and Iâ€™m so excited about Harriet Tubman as well as the regular cast, but I love that sheâ€™s going to be a character as well.
Meghan: “Oh, yes. Thatâ€™s gonna be great and thereâ€™s also some more historical figures who will make an appearance.”
TV GOODNESS: I know this takes up a lot of your time. Are you working on anything else?
Meghan: “Right now itâ€™s all Underground. I did a pilot earlier this year for A&E called The Infamous with the director Anthony Hemingway, who I also work with on Underground. That was a fun show that we got to shoot in LA. It was a period â€˜90s one-hour drama.”
TV GOODNESS: And, finally, do you have a dream project? What would be the ultimate project to work on?
Meghan: “Oh, well yes. I think my dream project would be getting to do Star Wars.”
TV GOODNESS: Nice.
Meghan: “Yes. I love anything thatâ€™s not real. And period is fun. And it is real, but itâ€™s not real in this moment.
I would love to do sci-fi or Star Wars. That would be my dream project — and thereâ€™s air-conditioning and no bugs.”
Edited for space and content.
Season 2 of Underground returns in 2017. Missed any of Season 1 or want to re-watch? WGN America is marathoning all 10 episodes Saturday, July 2nd.
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