Q&A with Acclaimed Production Designer Gary Kordan

After struggling in New York for many years, Gary Kordan moved to Los Angeles. Over the course of ten years, he would evolve into one of the most established talents in the design world.

Gary Kordan is the two-time Emmy-nominated production designer for such hit series as Key & Peele, Workaholics, and Nobodies. Most recently, Kordan has created the sets for the highly proclaimed supernatural comedy series Ghosted, starring Craig Robinson and Adam Scott, which premiered on October 1st. From the start of his career, Gary has been deeply involved in the comedy industry; his first job in entertainment was holding joke cue-cards for famed comedian Joan Rivers, who would later become a close friend and mentor to him.

How would you define the role of a Production Designer, why did you choose to become one?

Everything you see that isn’t an actor on screen is something that the PD is in charge of. It’s not directly in charge, they have influence on the look. If I’m handed a script that says interior room, my job is to conceive what that room is gonna look like, what is gonna be on the walls, what art, what furniture, and working with the costume department to make sure the clothing looks good.

I need to do it within a budget that’ll make the producer happy, and a time frame that makes the shot happen without them waiting on the art department. I do that every single day, for seventy hours a day, for the last twenty years. I got into it from when I was in art school at SVA. There was a brochure on the wall my junior year for interns at CBS. I put a quarter in the phone booth, and it turned out it was for the Joan Rivers show. Two weeks in Joan needed an art piece for the show and said to have me, “do it”. I had my first credit at the end of the credit scroll and ever since then I was hooked. I’ve never had a different kind of job since.

How did you get the job on ‘Key and Peele’?

I was working on ‘Workaholics’ at the time, so I was aware of other projects on the network. I knew one of the producers that was going in. I made sure that I got an interview, and I think that doing other Comedy Central projects worked against me, because I knew that Jordan and Keegan wanted the show to look different. I had to work a lot harder to convince them that just because I did ‘Chocolate News’ and ‘Mind of Mencia’, it didn’t mean I was going to bring that aesthetic to their show. I did presentations, I went to their improv shows, I did whatever I could to show them that I’m gonna deliver for them. I got the job and I’m really thankful they hired me.

Moving on to FOX ‘Ghosted’, it draws a lot of sci-fi/horror influences. What were some of the shows and movies you took production inspiration from?

The production design goal for Ghosted was to not make it look like a show that had been on television in 25 years. So all of the research and the sketches and the visual research we did was all from the early 80s. From Ghostbusters to Total Recall, to Midnight Run, to Goonies. Anything that has a heightened sense of color, of realism, but not devoid of personality. By putting together huge mood boards and filling up walls with photographs we were able to make a show that honors the genre but puts a unique twist on things that people have seen before. We also put X-files into it. If you put all those movies and shows into a blender you have the production design of Ghosted.

Do you go for realism or are you focused on the fantastic elements?

Every project I take, I go for super, super realism. Aging, layers, in Ghosted we had actual dirty walls with slime and ooze on them that made this terrifying feeling in the warehouse. I have a standby painter who’s always adding more age. When you watch Ghosted and you see them running through the power plant, that was a pristine Budweiser brewery. We added tons and tons of age. The factory was an abandoned warehouse, we’re filling the walls with rust and slime. Even if it doesn’t call for it.

For shows like Workaholics, we add so many layers of dirt and grime. It felt like a real, miserable place to work in. Going back to Ghosted, the Bureau Underground (which is my favorite set of the series), and the one where all the main characters base themselves out of, my goal for that was to make it look like a miserable underground office that looks like it was built by the people who made the Mary Tyler Moore show set mixed in with Doctor Who, mixed in with Minority Report because I wanted people to feel like this was a government office that isn’t properly funded and it’s miserable to be down there. I think we pulled it off.

Was it difficult to balance the requirements of the show’s script with the budget?

That’s the biggest challenge. When you get a script with 30 huge scenes in it, with massive requirements. On the same day, the producer hands you the script he gives you the budget, and it doesn’t even come close to addressing half of the sets. How do you do it? You figure it out. You hire great people, you beg for more money, you negotiate with the assistant directors to help out with timing, you do what you can and you figure it out to work with budgets that are completely too low for the show. When people watch Ghosted they should pay attention to every single scene and every single location and realize that none of it existed 15 days before we started shooting.

Does actor improvisation have any effect on your work?

It’s not that it affects me. I try to affect them by the production design, and the set dressing and the props. When we’re working on a set we’re making sure to put as many personal items, props, things in the desk drawers, post its that have real things on them. So the actors can open their desk, and play off of real things that are in there. We don’t tell them we’re doing this. Very often an actor will sit down and riff off stuff on top of their desk for a whole scene, and they didn’t know we were putting it there. That’s one of the best things about my job. We are trusted to create a world, and when the actors step into that world they have no idea what to expect. Their skill of improvisation brings everything to life.

The shows you’ve worked on have different angles and concepts. How do you maintain versatility between genres?

I maintain versatility because every single project you go into is working with new collaborators. It’s a different director, showrunner, writer, network. It’s different people to impress. You’re only as good as the project you’re doing at the moment. I can’t phone it in just because I did Key & Peele. I have to impress the people I’m working for each day. I need to have approval from the network and the director for the set I’m building today. That constant pressure is what keeps me going. It’s really a case of research, a great crew and a director or showrunner that’s putting their thumb down on these things that give you no excuse not to.

Gary Kordan work can be seen on many shows, including cult-favorite miniseries Time Traveling Bong (created by and starring Broad City’s Ilana Glazer), The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail, @midnight (hosted by Chris Hardwick), and Amazon’s Just Add Magic.

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