We all know about the expansions of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but what about the MMU (Mrs. Maisel Universe)? Over the course of four seasons — as burgeoning female comic Midge (Emmy nominee Rachel Brosnahan) finds her way through NYC’s comedy underground with her irascible manager Susie (Alex Borstein) — the physical terrain of our title character has also changed wildly, her world inflating much like the 1950s-into-1960s NYC is.
“It’s not uncommon for us to have 30 sets per episode”, says award-winning production designer Bill Groom, who knows a thing or two about opulent period environs, having won four consecutive Emmys for his impressive work on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and has also received nods for every season of “Maisel” to date. “We usually have about 10 days of prep, and for instance, if Midge gets out of the car onto a sidewalk and walks into a building, then walks through a lobby, and gets into an elevator and goes upstairs to an apartment, that might be four sets. But each one of those sets needs attention and each one is budgeted, and we show up to do what needs to be done. So, it can be kind of daunting.”
Among Midge’s new hotspots in Season 4 is The Wolford, the raucous burlesque club where she does her nightly routine due to a slowdown in cashflow, where Midge’s zippy quips compete for attention with dropped drawers and pasties. “We knew that was going to be a big part of our season, so we started on that theater long before scripts were really written”, Groom says, “and it started with research into vaudeville houses and burlesque theaters. We’ve designed it in a way that it photographs like full-size theater, and it’s close, over 50 feet high in the center. For the backstage area we re-used a few sample sets that we had with low ceilings, like Joel’s [Michael Zegen] boyhood room, and that was partly in service to the budget.”
If you casually survey any given scene of “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” within this season, there’s a surfeit of small detail in every frame, whether it’s Susie’s new Manhattan office (which amusingly shares phone duties with her across-the-alley neighbor) or a shop in Chinatown visited by Susie and her live-in magician-hopeful (Gideon Glick), filled frame to frame tchotchkes and goodies. Says Groom: “I used to have an agent who would tell people when they ask what I did, would say he’s responsible for everything that the actor touches or stands in front of.”
But the most ambitious new sight in “Maisel” might actually be its most instantly recognizable. In the climactic episode, Midge gets an up-close, panoramic, and ahem, intimate, view of Carnegie Hall, where her confidante and fellow comedian Lenny Bruce (Luke Kirby) is getting his big break, and who has a showstopping monologue about why the comic’s life is one that needs to be nurtured and embraced, no matter how self-defeating it becomes.
“We shot in Carnegie Hall and our VFX supervisor Lesley Robson-Foster, who does such a beautiful job, was tasked to enhance the audience for the space because we didn’t have 2,000 people”, Groom says, noting that this season was still largely filmed during the pandemic. “And because of the shutdown, we were able to see everything in there, normally they’re scheduled back-to-back with very limited time. So, we got 3-4 days instead of the usual 3-4 hours one would normally get, and that’s what made the scene so extraordinary.”
And not to remain content with this classic venue concluding the season, a fateful snowstorm envelops Midge, and, in her midst, she sees a subliminal message in a nearby billboard that reinforces her pal Lenny’s sage advice in another impressive blend of practical and digital effects. “That’s an example of a script where it says, ‘She walks into the middle of snowstorm in Times Square’, and you wonder how the hell we’re going to do this”, laughs Groom.
“We were crushing ice for hours to keep it replenished while we were shooting and VFX enhanced all of that and smoothed out some puddles out and things like that”, says Groom, noting that viewers also see a lot of the real-life-inspired businesses of the era surrounding Midge’s whiteout evening. “We created all of that in July I believe, and it was a big, big undertaking.”
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.