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Recreating the Oval Office: A Q&A with Designated Survivor's Production Designer

Cabot McMullen reveals the challenges and inspirations behind his designs of the White House’s West Wing

This fall, ABC released a brand new television show that aims to look at how the U.S. government would be run if it was almost completely obliterated. Designated Survivor, according to Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, is an apocalyptic West Wing with crafty satire with enough twists and turns to keep you interested. Of course, with a TV drama firmly set in The White House, ABC had to recruit a production designer experienced enough to recreate spaces like the Oval Office with finesse and accuracy. That’s where Cabot McMullen comes in.

For almost 30 years now, McMullen has been a production designer who has designed sets for TV shows like Scrubs, Cougar Town, and Smash. He is a three-time Emmy Award nominee who has also been nominated for three art directors guild awards.

McMullen was able to take some time to speak with Curbed DC about his inspirations as a production designer and what challenges he faced when designing the Designated Survivor pilot episode. See what he had to say below.

Could you fully explain what the role of a production designer is?

The production designer specifically is responsible for creating the look of the show as well as creating visual metaphors that tell you something about the characters that the script is not going to be able to tell you in words. We scout locations. We find appropriate locations. We design and build stage sets as needed. We’re responsible for creating graphics. We’re sort of the visual architect of the show.

In terms of working on film and television projects, what's something that attracted you to the position of production designer, and what has made you want to keep doing it?

I was originally trained in architecture. I got my degree in Interior Architecture and Furniture Design. I was a designer for Vladimir Kagan very early on in New York, and when I was living in New York and working in the architectural industry, not a lot of people were involved in theater, and they got me involved in their productions just as a volunteer. Turned out I was actually pretty successful at it, and I started getting offers for my own shows.

So, a lot of producers bring me in because of my architectural background. They appreciate that I bring a sort of architectural reality to theatrical productions.

For Designated Survivor, what was the research process like?

It pretty much started in Washington, D.C. We went to Washington, and we scouted on several different occasions to find all the great places that we needed for the script. We scouted Georgetown [and] Capitol Hill. We scouted the National Mall. We spent a lot of time in Crystal City and Rosslyn because in the opening of the show, Tom Kirkman is sequestered into a secure FBI building, and when he opens the gates on the window to see what’s going on, he’s looking across the Potomac to see the Capitol on fire.

Then we had a bunch of meetings with security in Washington. We met with D.C. Metro police. We met with FBI. We met with Secret Service. We had a consultant on the show, whose name was Rich Klein, and Rich works with Mack McLarty, who was [Bill] Clinton’s Chief of Staff, and now has his own consulting firm. So, Rich became really instrumental in introducing us to really key players who not only involved the White House, but around D.C. when 9/11 happened.

We reference 9/11 a lot because this is a catastrophic event, and a lot of the same triggers would have gone off if this really happened. Rich said one of the things he remembered the most was that the entire sky was lit up red because they had flares in all the intersections so that the emergency vehicles could fly through uninterrupted. In our show, we reference that, and we put red flares on the road when we have the motorcade sequence.

We were given a private tour of the White House. We were allowed to go into the West Wing. President Obama was in L.A. at the time. We were able to poke our heads into the Oval Office.

The motorcade in Designated Survivor

What were some of the biggest challenges when it came to recreating spaces like the Oval Office?

There was a lot of pressure to keep it historically accurate. Up in Toronto [where the studio was], it was very challenging because we had to get a lot of stuff through customs, and they don’t generally work on our kind of schedule.

Also, I think trying to strategize what all the moving parts were going to be like was a challenge. Going in, the producers had a plan to shoot a week in D.C. and then try to do a fair amount of the White House interiors in location. They really didn’t have much of a plan to do very much of it on stage.

Well, It turned out to be just the opposite. We ended up building everything on stage and shooting very little of it outside. The director had a very intimate approach to the story. He wanted to feel the tension and the chaos, and he really felt like he could control that better on the stage.

We had to basically throw our plan out and start from scratch, and at that point I think we had only four weeks left to get it all done. So, that was a huge challenge.

With every new president, the Oval Office gets a new design. Were there any presidents you had in mind when you designed the Oval Office for Designated Survivor?

Yes, absolutely. The architecture of the Oval Office really doesn’t change much from administration to administration. However, the decor does, and the choices in the art and the personal artifacts are all specific to each administration.

The story actually opens with President Richmond in office because he’s the one giving the State of the Union address. So, when Tom Kirkman ascends to the presidency, he is assuming Richmond’s White House.

We did a lot of research on various administrations and how they approached the Oval Office. We wanted President Richmond to be a conservative and somewhat imperial, so I went back to FDR’s office and pretty much referenced the drapery from his office, which had these eagle medallions. We set up our flag regimen from Nixon’s office. Then we looked at the furnishings of Reagan, who had a very tasteful, monochromatic office. It was all sort of creams and earth tones. Then we looked at what Michael Smith, the decorator, had done for the Obamas.

The great thing about Michael Smith’s approach is that he put striped wallpaper on the walls, which I had never seen before in any of the photographs that I researched. What I found really interesting about it is that you could really see the shape of the room for the first time because traditionally the Oval Office has been very white-washed. As soon as you put a pattern on it, you really start to see the geometry of the room. We wanted to do something geometric, but we couldn’t do stripes because that would be right out of Obama’s office, so we ended up with almost like a damask lattice.

We did pull quite a lot of artworks from the Historical Archives and had some of them reprinted, so there’s a historical accuracy to the artworks in the office as well.

So, it’s kind of a mashup of four different administrations.

The set of the FBI Room

Along with the Oval Office, you also recreated the Emergency Operations Center and the State of the Union set. Which set for you was the most challenging to recreate?

They were all sort of equally challenging. With the Emergency Operations Center, we had to find a way to create a big scale tent that could contain all the energies in those scenes, and there’s a lot of technology and media involved in that set that had to be wrangled really quickly.

The set that I really am the fondest of is possibly the FBI room that the show opens in. We looked for five or six weeks trying to find the right room to shoot that scene on location.

We were referencing a room in what was called the Diefenbunker, which is basically an underground series of rooms in Canada where they send the Canadian government should there should ever be a nuclear event. It was from the Cold War period, so we wanted that Cold War feel. At the last minute, we ended up building it on stage.

We reference the works of Paul Rudolph, who’s an architect from the 1960s and 1970s with a sort of Brutalist style architecture. We reference David Hicks in the patterned wallpaper. Then we put a ceiling on it that created a sort of extreme perspective. We were referencing the works of Mies van der Rohe there and some of his buildings in Chicago.

I think even though that was one of the smallest sets on the show, it was one of my favorites.

What do you think distinguishes the production design work you've done in the past for other shows from what you've done on Designated Survivor?

I’ve done science fiction shows. I’ve done contemporary dramas. I’ve done comedies. I’ve got a pretty wide range now. The thing I loved about Designated Survivor is that it’s an accurate representation of something that could actually happen, but we had to present it in a theatrical way because it still is fiction.

I think what distinguishes it from my previous work is that it’s a very realistic setting in a fictional situation, so it’s kind of a really interesting weaving of reality and fantasy all in one place.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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