In the latest edition of Member x Member, Chucky Production Designer John Dondertman sits down with fellow Production Designer Rocco Matteo to chat about Rocco’s unusual path to film and television, from growing up in smalltown Italy to designing the Paramount+ spy series Rabbit Hole, starring Kiefer Sutherland. Rabbit Hole premiered at South by Southwest on March 12th, with new episodes streaming weekly on Paramount+.
John Dondertman: How long have you been working in film and TV, and what brought you to the movie business?
Rocco Matteo: About 35 years, around 30 of which have been as a Designer. I originally trained as an architect and worked in architecture for a couple of years during a very slow period where graduates were being hired as unpaid interns. At the time, I had kind of an interesting convergence of jobs: I was also drawing and moonlighting after-hours for theatre designers and the opera. I worked on a small theatre production when the original designer fell through, and an Art Director who worked in film saw my work and filed me away for the future. When I went back to working in architecture, one of my clients was the very same person who saw my work in theatre, and I was invited to come on board a project that ended up being the start of my Art Department career.
John Dondertman: Was there anything in your childhood that led you to pursue architecture and design?
Rocco Matteo: I’m from a small town called Molinara in the Campania region, which is in South Central Italy. I was born in Italy but moved to Canada with my family when I was young, and have dual citizenship because of it. I actually attribute my vivid imagination to being an only child in a large family. I spent chunks of time in the summer as a kid in my ancestral hometown, which had been knocked down by a series of earthquakes, leading to constant reconstruction that fascinated me. It was all concrete structures that could be partially built but sit empty for years at a time. I vividly remember one house that was just columns and slabs made of poured concrete, and there were no walls yet, but a family was already living in it. After we settled in Canada, I remember growing up on my street, and there were always houses being knocked down and rebuilt. So I could never get away from architecture. I ended up studying it at university, which was puzzling to my family, who didn’t really understand how architecture could be a career.
John Dondertman: How has the film and television production industry changed since you started? We’ve gone largely from analog to fully digital, but productions have also increased in size.
Rocco Matteo: There has been a shift towards an explosion in demand for storytelling in general, and television has become more on par with feature films. Storytellers really want a larger canvas to tell their stories. When I started in this business, in the Art Department, you’d be lucky to get one or two people in any job category. Most shows employ small armies of people in creative categories that weren’t taken seriously back then.
John Dondertman: Can you tell us about Rabbit Hole, the most recent project you worked on and how you got involved in the production? You worked with Keifer Sutherland before on The Sentinel – was there a connection there, or was it more on the Production end?
Rocco Matteo: More on the Production end. I had just finished working on a long project for CBS with a group of Producers. Rabbit Hole was definitely in my wheelhouse. I’ve worked on several shows and movies related to espionage, like Condor and Covert Affairs, so one of the Producers thought I might be a good fit. After a meeting with the Creative Keys, we discovered that we shared a love of American spy movies, especially a few specific films they had in mind when creating Rabbit Hole. The show had originally been conceived for New York, but they ended up doing most of the show in Toronto. The fact that I understood their sensibility and their reference points in terms of what they were hoping to do visually as a sort of a spy film, bonded us together.
John Dondertman: What were some of the American espionage films you turned to for inspiration?
Rocco Matteo: We went back to the classics like Three Days of the Condor, the Parallax View, and also the comedic espionage film Sneakers, which they liked as well and were borrowing heavily from its sensibility.
John Dondertman: Was there a particular colour palette you were working with?
Rocco Matteo: No, not so much. Rabbit Hole was written as more of a contemporary espionage story as well as an examination of the protagonist’s trauma. The external story is about corporate spin, spy craft, and media manipulation, but the real story is the examination of a character struggling with what is and isn’t real. It was a project that was very realistic and wanted to be completely based on reality, so we had to find subtle ways to invoke our heroes.
John Dondertman: What did you build for Rabbit Hole?
Rocco Matteo: We built four main sets: the inside of a house, a warehouse office for a consulting firm, a penthouse office for a high-powered media company, and a high-security technological vault. There were also other smaller sets. Shooting in the locations we had hoped to get was much more difficult due to COVID, so the project turned from being a location-heavy one to a studio-driven one. But that was a good thing in a way, as it allowed me to explore some of the themes, like the mental state of the protagonist and the meaning of transparency and veiling. What you see and what’s really going on are at odds, so having the opportunity to build sets and play with those themes, as opposed to relying on locations you sometimes can’t control, was quite gratifying.
John Dondertman: Do you have influences or inspirations for your work that you draw from art, music, architecture, or perhaps your own hometown?
Rocco Matteo: My whole life has been about design. My partner’s a designer working in fashion, and a lot of my family are in the arts. If anything, I have to struggle to get away from artistic inspiration, but it means that I’m open to a lot of influences. I never studied film directly, but I did study it academically through the artistic circles I was in. I find that I’m inspired by art and design that is based in reality but dissembles and reassembles reality in interesting ways. I guess you could say I’m mostly interested in abstract art. I like architecture because it’s modern but finds creative ways to reinterpret the past. I think that’s where I operate creatively; modernity that looks at everything and disassembles and reassembles it in interesting ways.
John Dondertman: Is there anything you’ve seen recently that resonates with your current or last project, maybe a documentary, film, or TV show?
Rocco Matteo: There are quite a few things in my recent memory. I came across Copenhagen Cowboy, which is a Netflix series from the Danish director of Drive, Nicholas Winding Refn. It has a very narrow bandwidth of sound, colour, and environment. It’s almost an extreme kind of experiment, creating a minimalist world for a story, but I found it really effective. It was made during COVID, so perhaps it was deliberately an experiment to work within a certain box. Its creative opposite would be the film Babylon, Damien Chazelle’s new movie. The first act, with the logistics and the design choreography of a Hollywood party, is just remarkable, and the second act is all about the Hollywood backlot. It’s vaguely based on Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon, about the notorious history of Old Hollywood. I would describe it as maybe two or three movies in one. It’s quite long, and it didn’t get the best reviews, maybe because it was “too much.” But the first couple of acts are quite exciting.
John Dondertman: Is there anything within your purview as a Production Designer that you feel that people don’t understand, maybe even people that work in the business?
Rocco Matteo: I think it’s true that in many situations, you encounter creatives or executives who have a very strong opinion and are empowered to make decisions without necessarily knowing how the departments work or how productions are generally made. From time to time, I have to navigate how creatives should work together, particularly if there are Directors or Producers who don’t know how to get from point A to point B. It’s important to find a balance between a holistic vision and the more specific details of creating a set. We’re supposed to be part of a distinct creative team, with a Director and a Cinematographer, who talk about the vision of a show and how it feels, and what the world we’re trying to create is like. Ideally, that conversation should be maintained throughout a show, but it doesn’t always work that way.
John Dondertman: Over the past 10 or 20 years, the Art Department has become responsible for more and more in-camera lighting. Have you found that has impacted your job, and are you budgeting for it?
Rocco Matteo: Absolutely. As technologies change, the responsibility of who does what and how has really evolved. Your point is so true, John; 20 years ago, I would try to incorporate lighting as a detailed nuance, knowing that the Camera team and the DP would work out the technicalities of actually illuminating the scene. As lighting has gotten smaller and more efficient, and can be controlled remotely, everything can be integrated. Whatever the fixtures are, they’re going to do the job of illuminating the set. It’s forced a complete reevaluation of how we work with set decoration, how many people are involved, and the amount of additional upfront planning that you have to do to incorporate all this rewiring of many fixtures. A whole new way of lighting environments exists.
John Dondertman: Right, and if you work with younger DPs, they might not even know how to light traditionally because they’ve only ever worked with LEDs where you can control everything off the board.
Rocco Matteo: That’s been the big adjustment in terms of working with fixtures and details that aren’t contemporary. The world is full of lamps and devices from 10 years ago that are obsolete unless you completely rewire them, and that’s been a shock to a lot of productions. It’s definitely a work in progress.
John Dondertman: If you could work in another position in film or media, is there anything you’ve ever aspired to or just for fun thought about?
Rocco Matteo: I always tell people who want to be designers to try to be a DP instead. Film and television is, first of all, a visual medium, and it’s really about the camera and its relationship to light. If there’s an area where creative expression can really happen, it would be there. When I first imagined moviemaking and film in general, I was always thinking about the camera. So the fact that I’m working in this medium, but as a designer, was not something I originally planned for. I think I would have been a cameraman if it wasn’t for designing. When I was in university, one of my first jobs was as a photographer’s assistant within the school, photographing architectural models.
John Dondertman: Would you agree that designing is a discipline that requires churning out sets and design elements in a shorter period of time compared to other businesses? I personally can’t think of a discipline that works at the kind of pace we work at.
Rocco Matteo: I think we are a very hyper-efficient business in terms of going from concept to material realization. In the advertising industry, there’s often the same kind of accelerated workflow, but in terms of how often we’re forced to create worlds from scratch? I’d say that we’re probably the most efficient.
John Dondertman: What, in your opinion, is the most amazing thing about being a Production Designer?
Rocco Matteo: Creating so many worlds and environments. Over the years, you get to exercise that creative muscle, and that’s one of the most amazing things about being a Production Designer.
John Dondertman: Do you think it’s important not to be typecast and to delve into different worlds?
Rocco Matteo: It can be very rewarding to find different styles of work, and I get a lot of satisfaction from that. I think it’s important to focus as much as you can on the project at hand, knowing that the next project that comes along can be the exact opposite.
Lighting Round Questions
John Dondertman: Analog or digital?
Rocco Matteo: Analog.
John Dondertman: Fiction or nonfiction?
Rocco Matteo: Fiction for books and nonfiction for films about music.
John Dondertman: East Coast or West Coast?
Rocco Matteo: I’m stuck on the East Coast, but I would say West Coast.
John Dondertman: What is your favourite non-work activity?
Rocco Matteo: Traveling. I might go to Paris next because I have an invitation from some friends to visit and stay in their apartment.
John Dondertman: What is a colour that goes with everything?
Rocco Matteo: Green. It’s interesting because it’s very versatile. If you have a dark green, it’s like the woods at night. If you go light green, it’s like you’re in a meadow. If you’re wearing a medium green, it’s khaki, which goes with everything.
Rabbit Hole premiered at South by Southwest on March 12th. Watch episodes weekly streaming on Paramount+ beginning March 26th.