“As overwhelming as the material and the challenge was, there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t want to be a part of creating in the design of the series.”

After reading the scripts from series creator Steve Zaillian, production designer David Gropman started building the world of Netflix’s limited series Ripley through black and white photography from the period and incorporating staircases to showcase the rise and fall of the titular character, Tom Ripley.

The series is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and follows Tom Ripley (Andrew Scott), a con artist who takes an opportunity to travel to Italy on the dime of a wealthy benefactor, eager to find his son Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn). But Dickie has no desire to leave the small Italian town of Atrani and Tom embeds himself in Dickie’s everyday life, much to the chagrin of Dickie’s girlfriend, Marge Sherwood (Dakota Fanning).

Gropman, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his production design work on Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, and his team carefully constructed the look of the series, with a throughline of Tom writing at a desk on his typewriter and Tom travelling up and staircases along with his triumphs and being caught. Production was on location in Italy filming amongst the local architecture, and Gropman used location scouting to maintain authenticity when building sets, like Tom’s apartment.

“I scouted five or six apartments in Palazzi in Rome, and there were two I felt were the most like what we were going to want to recreate on stage,” explains Gropman. “So, I took Steve [Zaillian] there to look at the room’s size, the ceiling’s height, and details of the moldings. I like to work that way, maybe because it’s going to feel more authentic, but also, it gives me a chance with the director to be in the space and discuss what he might want from it.”

Gropman spoke with Awards Focus about transitioning from designing Broadway productions to production designing for film and TV, what his Excel spreadsheets look like, accessing Tom Ripley as a character to inform the production design, and how he creates a visual throughline for the series.

RIPLEY. (L to R) Dakota Fanning as Marge Sherwood, Johnny Flynn as Dickie Greenleaf and Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in RIPLEY. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

Awards Focus: How did you move away from stage design to becoming a production designer for film and television?

Gropman: I was a theater brat from my earliest years and loved doing art. I spent four years at San Francisco State doing stage design and had a successful career as a theater designer. I then worked with Robert Altman on a television version of Five and Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and that’s where I began. I did three more projects with Bob, which was a kind of remarkable way not only to fall into film design or production design but to really free me as a designer the way it’s hard to do in film. In theater, when the curtain goes up, it’s locked. Whereas in film, you get to improvise, especially with Robert Altman.

AF: What were your impressions when you first received the scripts for Ripley?

Gropman: My very first impression was what a remarkable piece of writing it was. My second was, oh my God, this is overwhelming. Then, the third, as overwhelming as the material and the challenge was, there wasn’t a single moment that I didn’t want to be a part of creating in the design of the series.

AF: The show has remarkable visual storytelling with stunning locations along the rise and fall of Tom’s journey. I couldn’t help wondering what your spreadsheets looked like, tracking each scene and location. How do you and your team break down the scripts and start organizing the production of the show?

Gropman: [laughs] I could send you a picture that would overwhelm you. My spreadsheet is my amazing American and Italian supervising art directors. My team consisted of five directors and four assistant art directors, three researchers working internationally, and a great amazing graphics office staff. That’s how I got it done.

Could I do my own spreadsheet? Never in a million years, Matthew.

AF:  When did you learn of the black-and-white aesthetic that Steve Zaillian was going for, and how did that affect your design and research?

Gropman: Steve intended to do the film in black and white from day one. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do in my career, and aside from one small, old forties recreation of a whole movie, I’ve never had the chance.

I start all my work with a great deal of research, and when I can, depending upon the period, I actually prefer to start my research with photography. So, in the case of Ripley, not that there wasn’t color photography at the time, but everything that I was looking at was black and white. Just from the research alone, it was incredibly easy to imagine what the film would look like, and, of course, with all our departments, all of our research photographs were up on the wall. We tried to organize them as much by the major set we had to realize, so we had over 200 locations, with seven built sets, making it hard to have everything up on the wall. We did run out of a room. 

Steve and I did a great deal of the scouting together. He would see something on a day off, or I would see something on a day off, and we’d exchange photographs of what we’d seen, and we always shared them in black and white, never in color. There were times when we looked at dailies in both black and white and in color, but only because there were certain things that you pick out in color that you might miss in black and white.

RIPLEY. Andrew Scott as Tom Ripley in RIPLEY. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2024

AF: How are you looking at these locations and planning for availability and the time needed to design the locations?

Gropman: I started on the series in October of 2019. I was working in New York at the time on a film, and I was able to, on my days off, scout all of New York before going to Italy. Then, we came back to New York in May of 2022, and at that point, there was a little bit of a panic about what we could get. While we were in Italy, there was a worry about whether we could recreate the locations in New York and Cinecittà, a large film studio in Rome. That was in flux, and the shoot was over 167 days.

AF: How do you distinguish between a practical set and one needing to be built?

Gropman: I like to be as authentic as possible. You make some changes, and you take some liberties along the way. But, like Tom’s apartment, which was a built set, it was always going to be a built set just because of the complications of the cat and mouse between him and [Inspector] Ravini and the officer who comes in with Ravini for the first and second interviews. So, we knew we had to build that as a set.

Prior to doing that, I scouted five or six apartments in Palazzi, in Rome. There were two I felt were the most like what we were going to want to recreate on stage. I took Steve there so that we could look at the size of the room, the height of the ceiling, the details of the moldings, or the simplicity of it, and figure out what they would look like. I like to work that way, maybe because it will feel more authentic, but also because it gives me a chance with the director to be in the space and discuss what he might want from it and what works and doesn’t work before we build the whole set.

AF: There are a few sides to Tom; there’s him as a person, the persona he’s putting on, and then the impersonation of Dickie. Can you talk a bit about accessing Tom as a character and the aesthetic of his apartments?

Gropman: The great thing about Tom is the journey he takes from his apartment in New York, which was built at Cinecittà. From his little SRO apartment in New York to moving into Dickie’s villa and the high and low, it was great fun to be able to see him in all of those spaces and have a through line of Tom at a table or desk with a typewriter.

For Tom and Dickie, they’re both living in spaces that are rented. Dickies Villa is full of furniture and effects that would’ve been there, to begin with, and he might bring a Picasso into it or drawings by Franco Gentilini. Tom’s apartment is as it is rented, except for the few effects of Dickies that he brings, like his easel, paint brushes, and paintings. We wanted to show Tom arriving and finding the place that he thinks he has the privilege to occupy. It happens for that one moment at the Excelsior Hotel, where he checks into this most magnificent hotel, walks into this room, and does a double take once the bellman leaves the room and realizes he’s finally arrived. I think it’s one of the funniest moments in the show. He then must check out without so much as spending a night. So, when he gets to the apartment now, he’s finally, through some nefarious means, earned the right to sort of live the grand style.

AF: It’s interesting what you were saying before about Tom and Dickie renting out their apartments because Marge’s apartment is rented but, conversely, feels much homier and more lived in.

Gropman: Absolutely. That is a stage set as well. It’s one of my favorites because we don’t get to explore some characters in a much deeper way. That space had a few pieces of furniture and things that Marge cobbled together. She is a writer, photographer, and artist, so she has all those effects around her. It was really one of my favorite sets to do.

Ripley. Dakota Fanning as Marge Sherwood in Episode 106 of RIPLEY. Cr. Stefano C. Montesi/NETFLIX © 2021

AF: You mentioned before that using Tom’s writing was visually a throughline for the story. What other considerations did you explore when taking the audience through the entire series?

Gropman: In all my film work, I’ve always felt a real responsibility, no matter where the story took you in terms of interior exterior sets and locations, to make sure that the audience knows they’re in the same world. I try to be very controlled with my color palettes so that there is a kind of rhythm and theme that takes you all the way through the story. When Ripley came about, it was black and white, and that was one thing I could check off the list not to worry about because I knew that I would have the black and white to always keep the audience in the same world.

I think it’s clear that we’re seeing the story through Tom’s eyes, so, as a designer, you have to consider all the ways through the story. What is Tom seeing? How does he perceive it? Where are his joys? Where is he going to get tripped up?

AF: How did that influence the way you showed the push and pull of Tom’s story?

Gropman: Tom’s life is always going up and down, or in the story’s context, his life is going up and down the stairs, right? He gets his beautiful room at the Excelsior, and then he gets himself kicked out. He then goes up the stairs to Hotel Boulevard in Palermo. Toward the very end of the story, in this beautiful hotel in Palermo, staying one step ahead, he ends up in the basement room.

So it’s that theme, the crescendo, and then the quiet.