NYC-based Production Designer James Bartol's creative atmospheres can be experienced in the feature film Good Egg, centered around a high school drama teacher and her husband who go to desperate and dangerous measures to conceive a child, and Age of Influence, a six-part docu-series from ABC News and Hulu premiering in the spring that dramatizes several famous internet influencers-turned-scammers.
Recently, James worked as the Production Designer for Lisa Steen’s Late Bloomers, a coming-of-age film about a millennial from Brooklyn and her relationship with an elderly Polish woman. Late Bloomers had its world premiere at SXSW this year.
PH: Hi there James! How would you describe yourself?
James Bartol: Hello! My name is James Bartol, and I would describe myself as a creative professional working as a production designer based in New York City. I primarily work on film and TV projects, but I’ve spent much time in the commercial, web, and industrial worlds.
PH: Can you share a bit about your professional history and how you got into the field of production design?
James Bartol: My experience in production design began back in college. I went to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to pursue a BFA in Film/TV Production. I started out thinking I wanted to be a director, but as I started producing and directing my student films, I realized that my interests and skills learned much more toward creating the visual worlds of a story.
This made sense because I had always had an interest in interior design and fine art, and as a teenager, I would design and construct sets for theater productions at my high school and at our local children’s theater. That work was so satisfying for me but I always knew that ultimately, I wanted to work in film. It wasn’t until I took an art direction class at NYU with John Nyomarkay that I realized production design was where I belonged.
Right out of school, director Deborah Reinisch, my thesis professor, hired me as the production designer for her short film, Sure Thing, right after graduation. The film did very well, and this really jump-started things for me.
I continued to work as a production designer on small projects with new-to-the-industry directors and producers. Over time, these collaborators moved on to bigger and bigger projects and they took me along with them. My career grew from there.
Nowadays I'm designing for short films, features, television, and commercials with a number of different directors and producing teams. It can be a challenging industry to work in, but I love what I do and I’m never bored!
PH: How do you go about selecting a project to work on? Do you have a certain criteria you follow?
James Bartol: I wouldn’t say that I have certain criteria, but I do think that first impressions are everything. When I receive a script, I can usually tell right away whether or not I’m the right match for the project. I look for stories that I respond to on both emotional and visual levels, and while I want to be confident that it’s a project I can do well, I also want to work on something with challenges that I can learn from and use to expand my skill set. It’s that balance between showcasing skills and looking for growth opportunities that attract me to a project that keeps me excited about the work.
PH: How did you become involved with Late Bloomers?
James Bartol: Director Lisa Steen and writer Anna Greenfield pitched Late Bloomers to me back in early 2022, and I’m so grateful that they did! I saw a lot of different scripts but I immediately loved Late Bloomers for its heart and its characters with whom I connected right away. Lisa and Anna also put together a pitch deck of excellent visual references that I really responded well to. Not to mention, they are both such talented, lovely, and funny people! In our first meeting, I remember talking to them about Francis Ha and Harold and Maude (two favorites of mine) as story references. I knew from that meeting that I’d have a great time working with them to help bring this project to light.
PH: Can you talk me through your pre-production mindset when constructing the design for this project? What's one of the first things you do to prepare?
James Bartol: I entered pre-production with Late Bloomers in much the same way that I began all of my projects. First and foremost, I want to be as well-acquainted with the script as possible and have a thorough understanding of the story, its characters, its genre, and its themes. These are the foundations of the narrative and the basis for my production design choices. From there, I approach my design process by starting with the biggest and broadest strokes of a design concept and narrowing things down from there, all the way to the minute details. I tend to think about color before anything else, and in Late Bloomers, we built color palettes around each character. In building palettes, I follow my initial intuitions, and while I may not know how these color choices will come into play specifically (and some of them may not at all), I find it’s a good starting point for design conversations and making choices. From there, I develop mood boards and sketches that use these color palettes and then start to articulate the textures, and forms that are coming to mind for me–this is where things get more and more specific.
After many conversations with the director, cinematographer, and producers, I can start to put these visuals into what we call a show “bible”. This is a document that my whole team can work off of in making their own specific choices for scenic work, set decoration, and props. It keeps everyone on the same page. At the end of the day, every design choice, no matter how finite, has to support our story and its characters, while preserving the overall production design concept for the film.
PH: You've spent a good amount of time in NYC. How has that influenced and helped you create distinguished spaces in the city?
James Bartol: Late Bloomers is a New York story, and Lisa, Anna, and I have all lived in Brooklyn at some point. I think that shared experience really strengthened our collaboration, and influenced the visuals on screen. Brooklyn has a visual language all its own that we could all speak together, and it informed many of the design choices for the film.
I consider my years living in New York as research. It’s a city of so many “flavors” and walks of life, and in my time here I’d like to think I’ve borne witness to quite a few. That said, I wanted to make the production design in this film distinct from other films I have designed in the past that also took place in New York. In Late Bloomers, our protagonist, Louise, is such a specific and complex character and I was really interested in what ways we could bring nuance to the designs in Late Bloomers, to support the world of “Louise’s Brooklyn”.
Not to mention it was a lot of fun to shoot in some existing locations that I might describe as some “old haunts” from my Bushwick days. I’m looking at you, Dromedary Bar and Nitehawk Cinema!
PH: Can you dive deep into some of the interior and exterior sets you specifically had to create? Where did your inspiration come from?
James Bartol: Considering contemporary Brooklyn was the setting of Late Bloomers, and its protagonist being a millennial transplant, I was able to draw from many of my own personal experiences and memories as inspiration for some of my sets.
When I read “INTERIOR: BUSHWICK PARTY” as one of the earliest scene headings in the script, I knew immediately what kind of scene this was. I have been to these parties. We dressed the set with found-on-the-street furniture, thrift store lighting, bad hipster art, vinyl records, damaged walls, and plenty of beer bottles. There was even a headless mannequin in there somewhere. All very “Bushwick”.
For Louise and Brick’s Brooklyn apartment, I thought a lot about some of my friends’ first apartments in New York. I actually dug through some very old Instagram and Facebook photos for inspiration. In the script, the apartment belongs to Brick who (more-or-less) has his life together, and he is renting out a bedroom to Louise, who does not. While the common spaces of the living room and kitchen are a little more put together to reflect his personality, I wanted Louise’s room to feel more juvenile and more like a “transient” space. She’s not exactly settled in, but it’s still a very personal space and needed to reflect her character more than any other set in the film. She’s hung up posters, but they’re not framed. Plastic milk crates are used as furniture. She’s got mismatched curtains on the window, in the wrong sizes. The set dressing is deliberately very messy and chaotic, but every item was a choice that supported Louise’s character, the narrative, and the aesthetic. I remember our set decorator, Brett Warnke, was especially excited and inspired by shopping for the laundry that we had strewn about Louise’s bedroom. Every item of clothing helps tell us who Louise is (and was), while still aligning with the color palette we established early on for her and her bedroom.
PH: How would you describe the feeling of having a film you're a part of debuting at SXSW?
James Bartol: Having Late Bloomers premiere at SXSW was so incredibly satisfying! I actually had a short film at SXSW in 2017 called Mouse (directed by the very talented Logan George and Celine Held), but I wasn’t able to go. It’s been a thrill to be able to attend the festival this year in person, and seeing it with an audience validates that the hard work we put into the film really shows on the screen. Also, Austin is such a fun city and SXSW is so fitting for our film. Everyone at the festival has been so welcoming to us. Premieres are always so nerve-racking for me, but we had a great audience and viewers really responded well to the film. There was lots of laughter, also some tears…. I’m really proud of our film, and I came away from our first screening feeling really excited to share it with others.
I often tell people that aren’t in production that making movies is like one big impossible magic show. There is much going on outside of each frame of the film. From pre-production to post-production, there are so many obstacles and challenges, and things that can go wrong… the fact that all of these people and elements can come together and form this one cohesive piece of film is a true miracle. And if it’s a great film, that’s even more miraculous. I really have to thank Lisa and Anna, as well as our producers Sam Bisbee, Alexandra Barreto, and Taylor Feltner for bringing together a great crew, and cultivating an on-set experience that was welcoming to everyone, all while rolling with the punches and keeping production moving. It doesn’t always happen that way.
PH: Did you encounter any challenges from a design perspective?
James Bartol: With any production, especially in the indie film world, you’re bound to face some challenges. One of my production design heroes, the great Richard Sylbert, said that “designing a film is like painting a landscape in a hurricane” and he couldn’t be more right. There are so many moving parts, and there’s never enough time. You have to be able to make choices on the fly, and as a department head, you need to be particularly conscious of where you are allocating resources and labor. It’s all about creative problem-solving while maintaining the integrity of your production design concept for the film.
In speaking about challenges specific to Late Bloomers, many scenes in the film are set in medical spaces. The challenge in these kinds of spaces is always achieving accuracy. In the film, we have a physical therapy room, an exam room, a nursing home, and a couple of hospitalization rooms. We shot in an emptied wing of a hospital in Brooklyn that we dressed with assorted hospital equipment, graphics, and medical props to bring it back to life. Dressing sets like these require quite a bit of research because you know you’re always going to have at least a few medical professionals in the audience and you want to avoid being called out for any inaccuracies, if possible! For this film, I brought on our amazing props team: Maddie Bucci (props master), and Tina O’Donnell (props assistant). I’ve worked with them both on multiple projects because I love how detail-oriented they both are. During Late Bloomers Maddie called on multiple members of her family who work in medicine, for consults—both in pre-production and on set—to be sure she wasn’t missing a beat with all of the many medical props in the script, and how they were used. This is the kind of due diligence that jobs in the art department require!
Another challenge we faced was location availability. The script required two separate pharmacy sets, and we were having a lot of trouble locking down both locations. So, even though we didn’t anticipate it, we made the collective decision that we would need to build one of the two pharmacies on a soundstage. However, a full pharmacy set was outside of our scope. We had to get really creative but I love these kinds of challenges. I pitched the design of a “slice” of a full pharmacy set that was within our means, to the production team and our director Lisa. It meant needing to make a small set build look much larger through the use of some key set dressing to help sell “pharmacy” as well as some creative foreground product shelves and the old-school Hollywood technique of the “printed backdrop” to create depth. I went to a local Walgreens, took some photographs of the store aisles, brought them into Photoshop to make some adjustments, then had the images printed on fabric that we could stretch and incorporate as the background in between set pieces. The whole set build was a risk—I was only about 75% sure it would work—but I built a scale model to illustrate it to our incredible DP, John de Menil, who helped with some cinematography “tricks” and the set totally sells as a full pharmacy. It’s only on screen in the film for a couple of minutes, but as someone with a penchant for old Hollywood techniques, who is thrilled by some successful creative problem-solving, this set is particularly satisfying to me.
PH: What are some of the other projects you've worked on, and how have those influenced you creatively and taught you more about yourself as a production designer?
James Bartol: It’s hard to know where to begin! I truly believe there were lessons to be learned from every production I’ve designed, from features to shorts, to series, and even to commercial work, no matter the size and scope of the project and its resources.
In general, I could say that perhaps the most important takeaways from each production I’ve designed have been the people I have met and taken with me to new projects. On Late Bloomers, it was my first time working with our on-set dresser Mariana Soares. She was fantastic and I’m excited to bring her on to future projects! At this point, I have a pretty solid “Rolodex” of folks to call when I’m building out an art department. For example, our art director on Late Bloomers, Kelley Lutter, and I have been working together for almost ten years. We met when I hired her blindly as art director on an educational video series I designed in 2015 and we clicked right away. I now bring her on to as many projects as I can. I think as a department head, you are only as strong as your crew. When you work with the same folks repeatedly, you really learn about how each other thinks and communicates, and this ability to speak “shorthand” with your crew members is so useful in the organized chaos that is a film shoot. I consider myself very lucky to have met so many talented collaborators (and lifelong friends!) through my different projects through the years, and they’ve all taught me things about myself as a production designer.
If I’m to get more specific about other projects, one comes to mind that tested my limits as a production designer but was ultimately very creatively satisfying. I designed a true crime show a few years back for Discovery ID called Dead of Winter. It is much like your typical true crime series, but all of the crimes took place in winter. However, to make the airdates, this meant we would need to shoot the series in New York in the middle of the summer. We couldn’t accommodate a full special effects team, which meant that our (small) art department would be handling all of the winter effects (namely…snow). I felt intimidated going into the show without this SPFX knowledge, but secretly very excited to give it a stab (pun intended). Over the series I learned so much about snow effects, and being a relatively small art department, I was right in the thick of it: frosting windows, blasting lawns with foam snow, and showering actors with faux flurries. The shoots were messy and scrappy (I still find fake snowflakes here and there from time to time) but I learned so much. Not just about snow effects, but also a lot about cameras and the kinds of “tricks” you can pull off with the right lenses. Justin Lee Stanley directed the series, and he is also a very experienced DP. We found that with just the right lenses and camera angles we could sell “winter” without covering an entire suburb in fake snow. Some of our setups would look ridiculous in-person (picture white fleece blankets, and snowbanks carved of foam insulation) but when the camera went up, it was totally believable. Once we had our footing, Justin and I had a lot of fun. Later in the series, we were even able to pull off some wintry car chases through poor-man’s-process setups and some more precise “snow work”. As a designer, the success of that project definitely influenced me to trust myself more, and gave me the confidence to not shy away from “the impossible”. It also reinforced to me that better knowledge of the camera is crucial for a designer. I now carry that knowledge with me to all my projects. It just shows that with the right kind of communication and collaboration with your director and DP, you can really make some movie magic from nothing.
PH: You also have an interest in antiques. Can you tell me more about that?
James Bartol: I think I’ve always been inspired by the narrative quality and history of objects. As a child, my parents collected and refinished antique furniture, and I suppose that’s where that interest began. So much of production design is about telling a story with objects. We even describe pieces, especially antiques, as having “character”.
I’ve been an avid collector of antique and vintage goods since my teen years. It’s a passion of mine and I think as a creative person, it’s important to surround yourself and your living space with items that inspire you. I have a strong interest in history, especially in regard to architecture, design, and interiors, which really feeds into this passion.
In 2021, I got into the business of vintage reselling with a years-long friend and collaborator Brett Warnke (also the set decorator on Late Bloomers). We started by selling online which took off pretty quickly. Then we began setting up pop-up retail spaces in New York City. We now have a long-term lease at a space in Newburgh, New York.
It’s incredibly fulfilling, creatively. We get to experience the “thrill of the hunt” in sourcing items, and the joy of “dressing” our retail spaces. Not to mention, it enables us to maintain a large inventory of items to pull from for props or set dressing on projects. You can check us out at @catchandreleasenyc or catchandreleasenyc.com.
I think it’s important to diversify your creative practices outside of the film set, and this side business is a great way for me to do that.
PH: What's a big focus for you this year (personally or professionally)?
James Bartol: As I mentioned, I think that as a creative person, diversifying your interests is so important. Working in this industry can be so consuming. The hours are long and the work is rigorous… It's crucial to make time for life outside of the film set. Not only for mental health reasons but also because life experience informs your work as a production designer. On a personal level, this year I have been trying to flex my artistic muscles in drawing and painting. Like most things, they are skills that are easy to fall out of without practice, so I’m hoping to get back into them. I’m also hoping to do a little more traveling this year. I’ve no particular destinations in mind, but I think travel is so important—again, it’s about more visual research to bring to your work.
On a professional level, I want to direct my film/TV work toward genre and period pieces. As I’ve mentioned, I have a passion for history and I’d love to book a show with some period sets to design this year. My most recent period piece was Victim No. 6. A short film directed by Nancy Menagh and produced by and starring Heather Brittain O'Scanlon. It’s a 1970s thriller that’s still making the rounds in the festival circuit and doing well. I’m really happy with how the design turned out.
PH: Can you share any upcoming projects you have in the works?
James Bartol: I’m happy to say I have a lot of projects in the works right now! I just wrapped a new show for Hulu and ABC News a couple of months ago. The show is a six-part documentary series called The Age of Influence, produced by Part2 Pictures. It breaks open the facade and reveals the truth behind influencer culture through intimate, first-person accounts of some of the biggest social media stories of our time. I designed the re-enactment scenes for the series, and our director/co-executive producer Tara Malone, and executive producers David Shadrack Smith and Joseph Eardly, really wanted to make the re-enactments stand out from the many re-creation shows that are streaming right now. They gave me a lot of space to get creative and I had a lot of fun designing and building these super-stylized, more abstract sets, and breaking the mold of more traditional re-enactments. It was a great experience and creative collaboration, and I’m excited for the series to be released. It will be streaming this spring.
I’m also in development right now with producer Dorottya Mathe and writer/director Nathan Catucci on a feature film that I’m really thrilled about called, The Beltlands. I have worked with Dorottya on several projects, and I designed Nathan’s first feature Impossible Monsters back in 2017. As for the cast, Laila Robins and Geoffrey Owens are already attached to the film as well. The Beltlands is a Western set along the rust belt in the early 1980s. The Western genre is new to me and I’m excited to sink my teeth into it, not to mention, this setting is a production design dream!
I should also mention that the feature film Good Egg that I designed back in 2021 directed by Nicole Gomez Fisher and also produced by Dorottya Mathe, is making the festival rounds right now and will be screening at Cinequest in August. (@goodeggfilm)
In the meantime, I am teaching production design courses to undergraduates part-time at Montclair State University’s film/TV program this spring. This is my second year with MSU and I have found working with these young people so gratifying. They are the future of our industry!
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