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This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
House of Cards
A re-creation of a fanlight window on the set of the White House’s West Sitting Hall proved one of the most complex set pieces that were built for season three of the political soap opera. “Just getting the geometry correct for the initial layout required several tries,” says production designer Steve Arnold. “The curved muntins and window sash pieces, along with the window jambs and casing, were all milled from solid sections of wood at the various diameters needed. The ornamental rosettes, stars and other decorative carvings were sculpted from photographs, and then molds were made from which duplicate copies were cast. We chose to install antique-style wavy glass to match what really exists at the White House. We had the heating-register vents in the windowsills fabricated, and they actually are fitted to our air-conditioning system to provide cooling on the set.”
Adds Arnold: “The entire window unit had to be waterproof from the outside because the first time we see this room in season three is during a thundering rainstorm out the window. A custom-made photographic backing of the building that is directly across the street from the White House hangs just outside our window.”
Building a window like the one in the White House required scrupulous attention to detail.
Game of Thrones
For production designer Deborah Riley, the most difficult challenge on season five of the epic fantasy series was finding a base for Braavos, the new city to which Maisie Williams’ Arya Stark travels. “It had to feel unlike anywhere we had ever seen before and be made up of canals and islands that are connected by bridges,” says Riley. “It also had to be found right next to where we shoot our other locations. This meant that it had to be in Croatia and near Dubrovnik, where we shoot King’s Landing, or Split, where we established Meereen. It also had to not have too many modern elements as we needed to keep as many scenes as ‘in camera’ as possible, with minimum intervention from the art department.”
Riley says her team “struck gold” when they found a tiny fishing village far from the usual tourist haunts. “The scene opens in a Braavosi canal, and we were able to create a thriving village in Kastilac, just outside of Split. It was built in 1545 by Benedictine nuns and is 40 meters away from shore with a long stone bridge,” she says. “It was tiny but charming, and we shot every brick and surrounding waterway to our advantage. When Michele Clapton‘s beautifully idiosyncratic costumes walked onto set, we were transported to another place.”
The 16th century Croatian village of Kastilac stood in for the imaginary city of Braavos.
The Steven Soderbergh-directed series about the surgical team at a fictional version of the historic Knickerbocker Hospital is set in and around Manhattan’s Lower East Side during the early 20th century, and production designer Howard Cummings felt authenticity required filming in New York. “We would shoot four or five pieces of various episodes out of sequence to be able to take advantage of particular locations on the real streets,” he says, noting that the corner of Broome and Orchard proved a particularly tricky location.
“We looked for easier boroughs to shoot in, but nothing was quite the same as the real thing,” adds Cummings. “It took three months of groundwork and social finesse by the locations department to get everyone in the neighborhood on board. We had only four days to take this modern street back in time while keeping the individual businesses operational as we worked our magic. That required 15 full storefront facades that were used to cover up the existing nonperiod stores; lots of awnings to cover existing signs; window dressing for about 20 stores; 25 street vendors; a dozen or so carriages and wagons and livestock of various types; and a complete buildout of a clothing store that we turned into an Irish bar. Not to mention dirtying two full city blocks to hide the cement.”
New York’s modern Lower East Side got a reverse makeover to take it back in time.
Gotham reimagines the early days in the careers of a young Bruce Wayne, well before he becomes Batman, and James Gordon, years before he becomes police commissioner. And it takes place in a gothic, crime-ridden city that spawns many of the villains that become Batman’s adversaries. The sixth episode of the series’ sophomore season called for Robin Lord Taylor‘s Oswald Cobblepot, aka Penguin, to return home to his mother’s apartment for a nice, hot bath — but that was easier said than done.
“His mother, played by Carol Kane, lives in an Old World and rather bizarre Miss Havisham sort of flat that reeks of old lace and mothballs,” explains production designer Doug Kraner. “There was no bathroom on this set. Our director, the visionary T.J. Scott, suggested that we simply put a bathtub in the middle of the bedroom and take advantage of the existing set. But what bathtub would work in this strange environment?”
That prompted a quest to find just the right prop. Says Kraner: “Our brilliant set decorator, Andrew Baseman, found an ancient and wonderful ornate copper clawfoot tub that fit the set perfectly. It was discovered at Eclectic/Encore Props in Long Island City, N.Y. With some leak repair, the addition of some scary-looking plumbing and some great lighting, the tub was all set for the Penguin.”
Masters of Sex
One script for Masters of Sex, a period drama about sex research pioneers William Masters and Virginia Johnson, called for a “record your own voice” booth, once a popular attraction at state fairgrounds and carnivals. Recalls production designer Michael Wylie: “They are difficult to find because they were built in the 1940s and fell out of favor and were thrown out. There were some at museums, and we found a couple online that were in complete disrepair.” In the end, Wylie and his team decided to build their own recording booth. “We used colors similar to those you’d find on a jukebox of the same era,” he says. “These colors were also used extensively on the show. Benjamin Moore Historical Colors selection — love it.”
Adds Wylie: “Kim Papazian was the graphic designer on the show. She was responsible for creating all of the books and magazines and signs and packaging of 1957. We found samples of [recording booth] graphics online and re-created them. The best part was the instructions on the inside — they were printed on a tin sign and looked very authentic. The little details are the red record shapes and hand-painted lettering on the glass, the period lighting and microphone and the shellacked wood paneling.”
This “record your own voice” booth had to be built specially and decorated with period designs.
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