Art Director Gianpaolo Rifino on His Recent Emmy Nomination for ‘The White Lotus’

Posted on: Aug 22, 2023

Art Director Gianpaolo RifinoPhoto courtesy of Gianpaolo Rifino

By Steffanie Bradley

Gianpaolo Rifino stands as a visionary force in the realm of visual storytelling. With a remarkable career adorned by prestigious accolades, including an BFDG-win for his work on Cyrano and a 2023 Emmy nomination for his work in Art Direction on The White Lotus, his artistic prowess and innovative approach have left an indelible mark on the industry.

Congratulations on your Emmy nomination for The White Lotus.

Thank you! I didn’t expect to have the nomination. It was a surprise.

What did the art direction entail for this season?

Well, we shot in Taormina and in the Four Seasons hotel. So we had to redress everything specifically for the show, including building out a room. We built the interior of the hotel room in Rome, including the bathroom and the door in connection with the other room to make it look like it was two separate rooms like you see on the show. The set decorator, Letizia Santucci, did a great job because she was in charge of redressing everything. It was all very well done. It was a lot of work; we also shot nearby in Palermo and Noto, which was the location of the villa at the end of the season.

There were so many details in that villa.

Yeah. Letizia did a fantastic job. She got all the art you see hung on the walls. As a team, we worked on the rooms and added all the details you see. Cristina Onori, the production designer, led us on this experience, doing a great job.

The hotel bathroom was gorgeous, all that marble.

We rebuilt that in Rome. When we built the hotel room, we built a real bathroom attached to it [that you see in episodes]. We used real marble because the veins of marble are specific in that way in the real hotel. It was a specific kind of Carrara that was more previous than the normal Carrera. We went to hand-pick the marble ourselves to build out the set. It was wonderful.

What do you enjoy the most about art direction?

I love the initial part, when you start to think about the set and get to draw your ideas out. When you see it come to life…it’s fantastic. You have to put it on paper first and after it’s approved by the director, you build the set. We build out models for how the set will look, then follow through with construction and paint everything by hand. The other interesting [thing] that we did in The White Lotus was the “Madama Butterfly” theater. I painted all the backdrop on the computer with my pen. And after we printed it out on canvas, we used a frame—a front frame, and we built a platform in different heights just to give more movement to the set. Of course, everything in accordance with the production designer.

How did you get started in art direction?

I started in the 2000s. I grew up with Ettore Scola movies, and started with production designer Luciano Ricceri on one of his films, Concorrenza Sleale. I fell in love with the job right away. I spent my entire day on-set. I started in the morning at 7:00 and I was there until midnight. It felt fantastic to be there, because we started to see the work, and all the people that were involved with it brought it to life. I cried when the movie finished. It was an exciting experience. After that, I jumped to my first international movie. Another big one I worked on was Ocean’s Twelve. My first experience with HBO was working on the show Rome.

What was it like working on Rome?

I was a draftsman on that, so not [working in] art direction yet, but I was a part of the team. Cristina Onori was the set Decorator and she won the Emmy. It was nice because there was [a lot of] construction and we had to dress everything. We started with the research and studied the paintings of Alma-Tadema, whose paintings inspired the set for that production. We built the chariot and everything you see in that series. And it was nice because every day we had to redress it, to reinvent the set. We got to build it all in Rome.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in art direction?

You must work very hard, and be prepared to start from scratch. Don’t focus on the money. I see a lot of younger people more concerned about the salary than learning or gaining experience. You have to be passionate about this job. If you have the passion, you can achieve great things.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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