Meet BURN NOTICE Production Designer Craig Siebels

By: Amrie Cunningham

“We spend 3 days in a van with a writer for 12 hours a day” and other fun stories about Production Design – an interview with BURN NOTICE production designer Craig Siebels:

My name is Craig Siebels, I’m the Production Designer. Anything I say, I mean we because there’s another person that I work with Mark Harrington.

So, what’s it like to be so tall [Craig has to be 6’6” at least]:
Craig Siebels:
[laughs] You come out with the tough question right away.

Have you been with the show since the beginning?
Yes, I’ve known Matt Nix for 9 years and we started talking about this show at least a 1 ½ before there was a pilot. I didn’t design the pilot; I started with the 2nd episode. But I was advising Matt when he was here shooting the pilot.

How did you create the unique look of the show?
It’s not an easy question. When we first talked about the show we wanted the world to teach the audience to look at things differently. When we walk around scouting locations it’s ludicrous that we all think like spies now. Whenever we walk into a restaurant we check out all of the exits and how to get to the roof first. All of the sets, we know at least ten episodes down that we’ll have a place where people can hide. We had a mandate from the network to shoot in Miami. We’re the only show that’s set in Miami that shoots in Miami.

If you are building sets anyway, what’s the point of shooting in Miami?
We shoot 7 days per episode. 2 or 3 of the days are on set and the remainder is on location. Some of our sets are based on real locations like Madeline’s house and the Loft. But it wouldn’t be financially feasible to go and shoot at the real house every week.

You get the reality that you are really shooting here. I’ve seen some shots where I haven’t seen anywhere else – like the sun room. Are there people from your staff from Miami?
I’m the only one from my department who is not from here. My partner Mark was born and raised in Miami so he knows this city really well. He’s the Miami guy, and I’m the Production Designer who works with Matt. He’s the Miami guy and I’m the Matt guy. Our location department and set dressers are all from Miami. So I can ask, “is there a building like this?”

The funny part about the Loft is the giant fan.
We love the look of the light high in the room there. It’s used a lot in Church Design. The fan gives more light in the room, more movement in the background and makes the space seem more industrial.

Do you ever face budget constraints when designing a set?
Absolutely. It’s just part of the job. At this point we know what our budgets are. We scout our locations based on that. If we had more money, you would see different sets.

How detailed is the script with regards to locations?
It goes back and forth. We start with a very detailed script. As we scout, if we find something better it’ll change. If you look at the final script it’ll look exactly like what we have. But if you look at the first draft it’s usually significantly different. Locations are very hard to find for this show. If you look at the first half of the two hour season finale, we had to find a place to blow up a car, from that place we had to have a spot where someone can launch the missile, then we had to have a place where we can spy on the car, see the missile get launched, see the spies get arrested, and jump into the water for safety. So we’re wondering around Miami trying to find that. [laughs]

In that case, it actually was in the first draft. They wanted us to jump into an Ocean, but we found a river. So we were pretty darn close to what they wanted. A lot of things we get, we throw our hands up and say we can’t do it. But if we change a little bit then we can use this beautiful building and change the look. So instead of using two places you just rewrite the script to say it’s here.

How much time do you spend driving around Miami?
Oh, nightmarish. We have 7 days of prep work. So we spend 3 days in a van with a writer for 12 hours a day. If we find a great place, the writer will write it into a scene. Now that we’ve been here for awhile we have a better grasp of what’s here. So when we get the scripts we can send the writers photos and say “instead of using that, can we use this place.”

So now, you shouldn’t have to spend 12 hours a day in a Van. You should know this city like the back of your hand.
I wish that was true. Sadly, no.

Does it ever cross your mind that you wouldn’t use a location because it looks too much like MIAMI VICE?
Never. Miami is really different now, than it was then. More often we read a scene and we think we have a perfect place for it. It would be even better if we didn’t already use it a few episodes ago. We’re fighting ourselves more than anyone else.

Do you find that as the series progresses you don’t want to repeat locations?
We don’t want to repeat locations in the same way. If we found this great place where someone can watch from a car, we don’t want to do that the next time. There are so many places in Miami that are production friendly.

Do writers come out when their episodes are being prepped. Aren’t they all in LA?
They are in LA, but they do come out while the episode is prepping and shooting than they go back.

Are there writers that are more specific than any others?
No, they are all about the same. What’s interesting is how specific they are about the reasons they want to use a certain location. So if they want to use a parking garage, they can tell you in 30 sentences why they need the garage. It’s great, because if we move to a different location we can use those same 30 sentences to figure out why it would work.

Will there be any regular watering hole where Sam and Michael will hang out?
Only the one that we already have on set, the Café Carlito which we’ve used almost every episode.

How much of the Loft was described, like the mattress on the floor?
That’s something we talked about long before the pilot. We would talk for hours about Michael, “He’s a spy. How would he live, what would he like. He wouldn’t sit in that chair.” That’s an element and the look of the show was discussed way back. It’s hard to discuss scripts because we have big changes. We do so many sets every week that a lot of times it’s hard to track where the idea came from.

How much detail do you get down to our props?
Incredibly so. Mark and I are pretty specific about some stuff.

Why is it so important to have such a deep level of detail on the sets? Whenever you visit a set it’s amazing how deep you go with even if it doesn’t show up on camera.
There’s two real reasons. We don’t know what the camera will eventually show when we’re building the sets. Usually you only see three or four things, but until a shot is locked down you really don’t know. The other thing is it inspires the actor when they can actually see things from the real world. Sometimes an actor will pick up a prop.

Do you have to be on set when they film?
No, there’s no possible way to be on set. When they are filming, I’m usually out prepping the next episode.

At what point do you see the episode and can tell whether something will work?
We get dailies, but unless it’s something that I really want to watch I’m not going to. Once it goes to the editor I’m in no big rush to see it. It’s too late to go back; I’m really invested in what comes up next.

How did you get into Set Design?
I did NY Theater for years and years. I have a sizable list of theater credits. I know a lot of writers who used to do theater and now am writers of a bunch of primetime shows.

Do you ever have situations where there is something about the set that require emergency changes?
[Laughs] I’m going to dishonestly say no. It’s perfectly planned every time. We always have a little reserved and try to have something in our back pocket.

For all the latest TV news and reviews