James McGowan interview: ‘The Challenge,’ ‘Real World’ production designer
“We’re always going bigger – the bigger the better!” declares production designer James McGowan about the challenges of working on MTV’s ambitious Iceland-set reality action series “The Challenge: Double Agents.” “That Iceland set, the upside-down pyramid, was 90 feet across and 20 feet high” he says “It’s all about the gasp factor! It’s terrifying because every year there’s a panic that we’re going to do something lackluster and just not quite as good as the year before.”
We talked with McGowan about his work on that show and “The Real World Homecoming: New York” as part of Gold Derby’s special “Meet the BTL Experts” Q&A event with key 2021 guild and Emmy contenders. Watch our interview above.
McGowan, also known for his work on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” “Ex on the Beach,” “America’s Next Top Model” and “90’s House,” was not only responsible for the massive scope of work on display in the latest season of “The Challenge,” but also served as production designer on MTV’s flagship reality series “The Real World Homecoming: New York.”
“The Challenge” features alumni from all over TV competing against one another in various extreme challenges to avoid elimination and to win a share of the coveted cash prize. It’s reality action on a grand scale, set in the remote glaciers of Iceland. “The Real World Homecoming: New York” on the other hand reunites the cast of the first season of “The Real World,” one of (if not the) first reality series to air on television in the early 1990s. The original cast was invited back to live in the same New York loft they lived in for the original series, nearly 30 years after filming ended. The show contemplates how our culture has changed over the years, and also how reality TV itself has morphed and evolved over the years.
McGowan has worked on three seasons of “The Challenge,” explaining that “there was quite a long period of the show before I came on where the themes weren’t so specific and fleshed out and it was a little bit looser.” Recent seasons, set in Namibia, Thailand and Iceland respectively, have focused more on a specific theme or style that helped McGowan bring something new and fresh to the show.
“In Namibia we did a very desert-y ‘Mad Max’ thing and in Thailand it was kind of jungle embassy and all of that stuff, and then in Iceland we wanted to add a lot more technology so that we were led by that technology so that everything looked very clean,” he says.