“From Puppet Shows to Feature Films, and Everything In Between.” Eleven Questions and a Story with Bruce Rodgers

SANTA CLARA, CA – FEBRUARY 07: Coldplay, Beyonce and Bruno Mars performs during the Pepsi Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show at Levi’s Stadium on February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Floyd (Complete Crewing, Chicago Labor and Production Services): Tell me about your first job in the business. How did you get it and what was it?

Floyd:  How did you first get into show business?

Bruce:  [laughs] Well, I grew up in West Texas, and I knew I was going to get into show business at an early age.

The only thing we could do with our three television channels back in those days was stay up late and watch late night movies. My mom and dad were irresponsible and never made me go to bed. [laughs]

In between a double header every night or on Friday nights, I don’t know if you remember this, they would do a little behind the scenes of the making of “The Planet of the Apes,” or this or that. I fell in love with the fact that there were real people creating these things and making movies. I saw Hollywood as this far away destination for a fun, fun, life and I was awestruck with the creative work.

A lot of times, growing up in west Texas, you don’t realize what’s possible outside the city limits. I grew up in a town that’s known for the “Friday Night Lights” story. So life was all about football. My exit was just being aware of the movie magic that was going on in Hollywood. I knew at an age, eight years old, that I was going to go and get out there somehow.

There’s so many different things you can do with set design, live shows, television, feature films, webcast, all that. You’re going to meet all different kinds of people along the way that  do specific things.

Over the course of my career I went from puppet shows to feature films, and everything in between.

MORRISON, CO – MAY 23: Chris Stapleton performs at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on May 23, 2017, in Morrison, Colorado. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

Floyd:  Now, where was your first job out of school?

Bruce:  The first thing I did out of school was I went with my theater professor to a Wichita music theater and spent three months helping with that project. Helped build a little bit of money, that was in the summer, and I knew in August I was going to move to Los Angeles.

Floyd:  How did you go from where you began to what you do now?

Bruce:  One opportunity at a time, and meeting everybody and working with different types of people.

I worked with a few designers along the way for about 10 years and eventually got the gig to design the AT&T Olympic Pavilion in Atlanta. That was about a three-year project, that was the one that had the unfortunate bombing incident. Remember that?

Floyd:  Yes, I do. I heard the explosion from my hotel room and made the decision to go back out to see what happened. That was a chaotic night.

Bruce:  Yeah. That moment catapulted me into starting my own thing. It woke me up. I saw that happen and it scared the hell out of me. It made me wake up, literally. For the first time in about 10 years I took a break, about three months, to just drive around the country with Shelley, a road trip to figure out what the hell was I doing.

I decided to start kicking back in and hired a couple of my friends from that company, Anton Goss and several others that are now gone on to do their own cool stuff. That was 20 years ago when I started Tribe.

Out of that AT&T job, we got this really great job for Lucent Technologies. That was a nice yearlong project to kind of help us set the foundation of Tribe. In the midst of that first year, we got the Fleetwood Mac, “The Dance” reunion on MTV.

We started getting all these other things that represented all different parts of the things that I’d actually been doing for the last 10 years, a car show here and there, a tour. That’s where it started.

Floyd:  What type of work or projects are you best known for?

Bruce:  I guess I’m best known as a production designer for large-scale events, thanks to the Super Bowl and a few other things. I’m working on my 12th consecutive halftime show. And we just wrapped the design and launch of a new Cirque de Soleil big top show VOLTA that started about a month ago.

That’s a totally different kind of design job for me. It is set design, and production design, but at the level of a Cirque Du Soleil kind of experience. It’ll tour for 10 years. It’s in Montreal for another month and then it launches and tours the world for a long time.

Floyd:  What about concert tours? Do you have any out right now?

We have Dierks Bentley tour out right now – it’s our fourth

one with Dierks, and I love working with Dierks and his team. Always a great creative process with Dierks.

We also have a tour set design that just launched about two months ago for Chris Stapleton. This is Chris’ first headliner tour. He’s been a writer for years and years. We put him on the CMA awards with Justin Timberlake a couple years ago. When you get a chance, check out Chris because he’s incredible.

Floyd:   How would you describe the scene you try to create for your clients, like musical artists? What are you trying to achieve?

Bruce:  As an artist or designer your job is to relay a certain message and vibe about that particular musical talent. You can imagine having to do a design for Prince, and creating that design based on his vibe and his personality, and then turning around and having to do the same thing for Bruce Springsteen. They’re similar dudes, but they’re totally different, if you know what I mean.

I did some design work for Bruce Springsteen. Bruce Springsteen doesn’t need scenery. When I came in, I was just working on finishes for his risers and the facade of his stage. I had to generate sketches before I came in to meet with him.

When I walked in and met him and showed him the sketches, it was in a break between songs in Asbury Park. Clarence was there, the whole gang was there. I rolled out a bunch of sketches. Bruce said, “Well, I can tell you one thing. I’ve never seen sketches for my show look quite this great. You’re hired.”


Floyd:  How do you go about getting inside an artist’s mind?

All designers are given this certain task of designing something, and you have to find the personalities and the little quirks that separate that specific design and artist from another kinds of show. I start having the conversation with the artist, what they like, what they wish they could do.

If it’s a major artist that’s done everything, a new idea or ideas can be hard to find. A lot of the clients that I’m working with nowadays are high-octane creative people themselves. They want to go out there and kick ass. I just try to listen and find any kind of clue that I can get of what they’re trying to do and what they’re trying to say.

Then, I’ll hone in on the vibe that I think they are and also hone in on technically how to make it the best solution possible for the road show or the television show, so nobody loses money. The artists get their cool design, and the audience is treated well.

Floyd:  How would you describe your leadership or management style?

Bruce:  Oh, man. I try to be extremely honest and I try to be the hardest working guy on the show. I try to include every single person in the process. Everybody knows that if they’re going to work on a project with me that they’d better be ready to jump in and take part. I try to keep everything happy, light and fun, because we are in the fun business.

Floyd:  Yes, we are. What do you think are your greatest professional strengths?

Bruce:  I think I’m really good at finding the essence of what the design needs to be, and working with the artist to identify what that is. Maybe this is from my West Texas thing, of believing all things are possible. You really need that as a designer. You need to be unafraid of achieving things and bringing things to life.

Then, the other thing, and this is pretty well represented in the Cirque du Soleil. I think this comes growing up in the oil fields too, that I’m really good at mechanical elements within set design. In Cirque du Soleil, we’re touring a 38-inch high by 40-foot diameter stage. Together we figured out how to hide a turntable system and a three-pronged hydraulic lift mechanism in such a tight space.

When you see the pictures, you see the set as a total character on its own, an animatronic Cirque du Soleil character. That also helps with the way we’ve been kicking ass on Super Bowl. We only have seven and a half minutes to get that stuff out there. It has to really click together. It has to look impossible and how the hell did those guys do that in seven minutes?

I think that the Super Bowl is a really good representation of my job as a Set Designer / Production Designer: it’s highly technical and highly strategic. It requires teamwork, and it has to look great to capture the audience’s attention.

Floyd:   Do you have any professional weaknesses, areas you’d like to improve?

Bruce:  That’s a good question. I would say that I’ve never learned to say no to a project. I guess if I improve that I could be a little more picky on the jobs that I accept. I just like everything, no matter the scale. That’s probably the weakness that I would hone in on.

Floyd:   Of all the things you do, what do you like the best?

Bruce:  Quite honestly, I like a lot of the work that I do, almost all of it, somehow involves music. To me, music is so important to everybody, it’s in our DNA. I think that’s what Tim Cook from Apple said. People use music to heal, to inspire, to live by

I’m not a Jay Z, Dierks Bentley, Bruce Springsteen or Leonard Cohen, but I’m thrilled to be part of their musical experience. That’s the thing I like the most. I like seeing the look on audience’s faces when they’re using the music to their benefit.

Floyd:  I hear you. What gives you hope?

Bruce:  What gives me hope? I generate hope on my own. The world can be a hopeless place, and I just can’t let myself fall into a dark place. I just won’t do it. I am a hopeful guy. I think there’s a lot of hope in our industry, because there are so many young and talented individuals on the tech and design side that really, really care.

You’ve got to be really smart in our business now, because technology is key. Our audience is more and more advanced so our industry needs to continue to be cutting edge.

Also, for the most part, if you travel around, everybody in our business has a lot of heart.  You know you’ve got guys on the U2 tour level that are professionals and have a solid approach to everything they do. If you look at a smaller tour, you can’t really separate the heart from those guys and the guys on a massive U2 tour. It’s the same kind of people. I think show business gives me hope.

Floyd:  Thanks for a great interview. Does anything we talked about today bring up a story?

Bruce:  This is fun story that I’ve told before, but I think it covers a lot of things in terms of hope, fearlessness and some of these other things we’ve talked about. It took place in the minutes before Prince’s Super Bowl halftime show in Miami, when we were in that massive rainstorm.

The rain was falling and had been falling for six or eight hours straight. It was not going to stop, and we rolled out all our carts out on cue at halftime. On the walkie-talkies and our headphones, it sounded like a scene from “Saving Private Ryan.” We were losing power and the technology was not getting connected. We were two minutes away from the halftime show starting.

I think they were anticipating a hundred million tuning in. People were questioning if Prince could pull off a halftime show. Those of us that knew believed Prince absolutely could, but the TV audience, maybe the football audience, was questioning.

Don Mischer, who was the executive producer and the director of the show, asked the stage manager to “Put me on the headphones with Prince.” Prince was under the stage about to step into a cage lift to take him up to be revealed in front of the audience.

They put the headphones on Prince and I heard Prince say, “Yeah, Don. What do you need?” Don said, “I just want you to know it’s raining,” as a joke. Prince goes, “Yeah, Don. Can you make it rain more?” Don was joking, but Prince was serious. He was absolutely ready and absolutely prepared to just kick some ass for the next 12 minutes.

And he did. That’s my story.