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Well before Mad Men production designer Dan Bishop was designing the offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, he was a theater student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Bishop is in charge of the show's overall look and frequently puts in 12-hour days to get Mad Men' s appearance just right. Bishop's hard work hasn't gone unnoticed. Last year, he was awarded his fourth consecutive award from the Art Directors Guild for Mad Men . We caught up with Bishop after he was wrapping production on the show's fifth season, which will premiere March 25.
RM: Aside from being visually stunning, Mad Men is also a period drama. What sorts of challenges do you face in getting the sets, furniture and props for the show?
DB: Maintaining the period is a challenge, because of lot of the stuff isn't made anymore. When we're either unable or unwilling to go out on a location that might have period elements to it that we like, we build the stuff on stage. … Other challenges are to just keep up the pace. The pace is pretty rapid, in terms of turning out the episodes.
RM: What brought you to VCU?DB: Well it was a little serendipitous. I had applied late to go there and consequently did not get in as a full-time student. But I was advised I could take classes there on a part-time level. I went down there to study painting, and a colleague of mine was another guy from Virginia named Jeremy Conway, who is now a well-known production designer as well [ Sex and the City, School of Rock, Failure to Launch ]. He was studying set design, and I thought it sounded interesting.
I signed up for an intro to theater class … and fell in love with it pretty much right away.
I took a year off and worked at what was known as the Virginia Museum Theatre back then [later known as TheatreVirginia, now defunct], and painted scenery there for a season. Then I went to New York for further study at NYU.
RM: Have there been any thoughts of shooting an episode on location in Richmond?
DB: Not for Mad Men. I worked a couple of films there a long time ago. I worked on two mini-series there in the '80s. One was called The Lost Colony of Roanoke, and it was shot for a little while in a Tudor mansion up the James River [Agecroft Hall]. Another time shooting continually there in Richmond was a mini-series called The Murder of Mary Phagan, which had Jack Lemmon and Kevin Spacey in it. We did a lot of shooting in the street in Shockoe Slip or Shockoe Bottom. We had our warehouse office set up in Tobacco Row.
RM: On the show, the character of Glen Bishop, played by creator Matt Weiner's son Marten, has a father that's named after you. How did that come about?
DB: From time to time, Matt goes out looking for names. This is a pretty straight-up British name. I don't know if he wanted to represent WASP-iness, because there's a WASP-iness to the name as well. Maybe he just liked it. Other people's names have floated up to the surface there, too. I won't tell you where they are — he sort of stopped doing it after a while. He's afraid it will distract the audience.
RM: Mad Men is known for being tight-lipped about upcoming episodes. Are there any hints you can give us going into season five?
DB: No, the only thing I can give you is that if you know your history about how things are happening, it continues to reflect the times. That's really all I can tell you.
RM: What are some other shows and movies that you've worked on?
DB: I worked on a little film called A Single Man a few years back. Lately I've been doing some pilots, which have not seen the light of day. TV shows I've worked on are Parks and Recreation. ... I did Carnivàle for HBO. I've worked on some smaller films that have been of some quality, King of California and one for Jim Jarmusch [ Mystery Train ].
RM: Do you still have any connection to Richmond?
DB: My brother Jamie still lives in Richmond. He's in the film business as a prop master. He worked on Real Steel, and more recently he was involved in some show where there were pirates in the 16th century, but that was based in Williamsburg. [Jamie Bishop has also worked on Transformers: Dark of the Moon, State of Play and He's Just Not That Into You. ]
I'd love to film sometime in Richmond; it just hasn't been in the cards lately.
The two-hour premiere of the fifth season of Mad Men airs March 25 at 9 p.m. on AMC.