Production designer Rick Rifle grew up in Jacksonville, FL, where he first discovered his theatrical bent designing costumes and sets for his Star Wars dolls…that is, action figures. After earning his BFA in Design for Costumes and Sets from Florida State University, and attending NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, he went on to bigger and better things, like styling french fries for a McDonald's advertisement. Eventually, his hard work and determination landed him gigs as an art director on the independent films An Argentine in New York, April V, and Swing City and set designer on six TV projects including the 1998 Winter Olympics for CBS. But he's most famous as the first film and TV production designer featured on Trading Spaces, the hit series on The Learning Channel. Rifle sat down to break bread with Entertainment Design and revealed why he's happy on both sides of the camera.
ED: Is Rick Rifle your real name?
Rick Rifle: My brother's name is Winchester. [Laughs] You want to know the whole story? OK, I'm surviving in LA. I was called to do this sort of late-night smut stuff on HBO, The Best Sex Ever. They needed a production designer for 13 episodes. Well, I didn't really care what the content was; I cared about the magic number 13, because that gets you the TV experience people want if you're going to art direct. Most of the people on the crew changed their names. But, it didn't bother me.
At the same time, I'm doing another job, because you always do more than one job. Some of my friends bought a house, and they wanted to personalize it: correct some of the architecture, drop in some higher-end materials, architectural stuff that I could guide them through. Because I was shooting on the soundstage, very rarely could I meet the subcontractors at the house. So the sub would call me on the phone and I walked them through each area. Well, I had a bad connection one day and I wanted the guy to fax me at the soundstage. I said, “Fax it to Rick Whiteboard,” and he got “Rifle” out of Whiteboard, so this fax comes through to “Rick Rifle,” and nobody knows who the hell this person is. The production department eventually takes it to my art director who knows I'm doing this kitchen for my friends — she kind of puts one and one together and finds this to be alarmingly hysterical.
ED: How did it stick?
RR: The producers thought it was real funny, and they recommended me to another producer as Rick Rifle. This producer happened to be head of television at Mandalay Productions. The producer liked the name and thought it was hysterical. I figured, what the hell, if it works, keep it. No one else in Hollywood has the same name. I mean, please, like Vin's last name is really Diesel? And when Discovery called about Trading Spaces, I really didn't think they were going to buy that for a second. They're such a large network and so respected and relatively straight-laced about things.
That's how the name stuck and I figured it's easier than Whiteboard and I'm kind of a noise ball anyway.
ED: How does your work as a designer inform what you're doing on Trading Spaces?
RR: The very first on-camera experience I had was a pilot for a show called Housebroken. I hosted it and was the designer of the pilot. I took a very serious interior-exclusive approach to it and I wasn't even thinking about using theatrical knowledge techniques, ways to cheat things, visual tricks. I was thinking very strictly about what I had garnered from the interior decorators I worked with in New York City. Working on a budget. Working on the personalities of the two persons that were living in the house. That led me into the lower-budget funky-cool resources in LA.
The next thing I did was a show called Operation Style, which had musical guests. It was a little more challenging, because it was in this guy's dorm room. His mom wanted to do something really unique for him. They gave me $500. I got a little more theatrical on that one, because you have limitations in a dorm room — you cannot paint; you cannot do any major changes. It's pretty much about bringing the stuff in, and how you work with that. In theatre, one of the earliest lessons that I learned is that black and white and red is always an interesting contrast. You got white walls, so obviously the palette is bright red. So, theatre began to creep in.
Now, obviously, [on Trading Spaces] I've come into $1,000 at a time, with a carpenter. Capacities are still limited, there's only so much you can expect a carpenter to do. There's only so much detail you can get. I'm not going to get elaborate veneering. Still, you figure out how to work with it — I'm constantly experimenting. I'm constantly trying to stretch the impact, to stretch the visual.
Between learning how to use things in unconventional ways, I try to find an application that works for these people. I tend to be extreme. I just am. I will never be neutral. I don't think that everybody wants neutral. But there have been a couple of misses.
ED: Such as?
RR: My very first redesign — it was the third worst reveal in the history of the show — on my first episode.
ED: Did it air?
RR: Oh, yeah. I really just misread the personality of the people. I thought they wanted something that was very creative. I ended up using a lot of green lacquer and gold leaf… it was pretty vibrant. I liked it. I do not do things that I think are bad. And I thought that they would too. Instead, the producers made a special out of it called They Hated It.
ED: What was one of the biggest challenges you ever faced — that ended up more successful?
RR: The Best Sex Ever — first of all, because I had never done 13 episodes. Secondly, because we were going to shoot all 13 in four weeks. So, you're shooting one every couple of days, at least as the stage is concerned. I spent more time working with the production manager on logistics: what I could give them; when I could give it to them; how much turnaround they needed; how many locations on my stage each episode would need. The idea was to create this central core structure that was almost like a maze, that had a scenic morgue where all the types of doors that I had created would be of a standard width, so one door could be taken out and another dropped in. And the windows did that, the French doors did that, everything came off of that standard width.
In order to pull everything out, I was left with this very strange forest of walls at right angles, with huge gaps between them. But I found, much like playing with LEGOs, I could figure out, what I called, “the rotations of this scenery.” The idea was that we would accommodate all of the scenic necessities for the first six or seven episodes to be shot on the stage in the first week. We would do it in, what I called, two rotations.
The first rotation was three or four episodes that were created by plugging and chugging. The decorating department had two sets up and decorated, the camera could move in clockwise or counterclockwise around the stage, with camera backs always to the stage walls. It was like a big donut of sets. In the middle of it all, the windows would go into a certain area, in some cases front doors would go into a certain area, and lighting had this big staging as well. It made their job a little easier.
They would begin the rotation at the start of the week and decorating would be two episodes ahead. When they finished the first two days down at the north end of the set, decorating would begin at the south end of the set and they'd move around to strike the north end. You just keep going on around the circle.
The knowledge I walked away with was invaluable. I wouldn't mind art directing for someone on a TV series, but I'm not afraid to say that I'm qualified to do my own TV series.
TWO OR THREE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT RICK RIFLE:
- While in New York, he was a competition-level kick-boxer.
- He drives a red Mazda Miata convertible: “I insist that if you're living in California, one must drive a convertible.”
- A secret lifetime goal is to be invited to the Playboy mansion: “Studios are bought and sold at that house. I'm not just there for the grotto, baby.”