With sharp, quick-witted dialogue set amid the forceful power plays of a presidential primary, THE IDES OF MARCH is an intense tale of ambition, sex, loyalty, betrayal and revenge. The film follows a young press spokesman who falls prey to backroom politics, seduction by a young intern, and the treacherous manipulations of veteran operatives.
“At the beginning, he’s smart, the best at what he does, on top of the game, the one everybody wants. By the end of the film, the rug gets pulled out, and he’s even better at his job than he was before…and all it costs him is his soul,” reveals George Clooney, who directs, produces, co-writes and stars as presidential candidate Governor Mike Morris.
Ryan Gosling, who plays the governor’s press secretary Stephen Meyers, says that he was attracted to this “political film that’s not political in its message. You don’t really have to know or understand much about politics in order to follow the characters and be invested in the story. But it does offer a window into the sort of behind-the-scenes that you never really get to see.”
Those behind-the-scenes offered an unusual challenge for Set Decorator Maggie Martin SDSA and Production Designer Sharon Seymour: making the generic interesting, but keeping the realism, the core of this political thriller very believable.
A set decorator uses elements to convey the character through the environment, however, as Martin explains, “These sets are not really about the individual characters. It’s the campaign that’s the character. So the sets are about the character of a political campaign.” Thus, the key sets are hotel rooms, transitory offices, auditoriums and meeting halls, restaurants and bars, glimpses of the perennial campaign bus and plane, all filmed on location in Ohio and Michigan.
Martin relates, “Stephen and Paul [Morris campaign manager Paul Zara, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman] breeze into town briefly. They’re always traveling on that bus from one place to another. Their offices are temporary spaces—they are only in them for a week or two, while working on the campaign there, and they’re traveling all around the region at the same time. So it’s a very ad hoc environment and it’s very, very busy and very temporary. It’s not personal at all.”
“We probably made their personal offices look a little bit more interesting than they might actually look, because in reality they would spend so little time in there, they wouldn’t accumulate that much stuff…they’re just not any place long enough. It’s really very like working in the movies…They basically trade having a life for having a career, and they are vagabonds.”
“It’s interesting that when political consultants, who actually are counterparts to the Stephen character, came to our offices to meet with us, they laughed and said, ‘Well, you know what it’s like because it’s just like your office…only the political version! The paperwork is different, but everything else is the same. And the lifestyle is the same. We live in a hotel, you live in a hotel. We have temporary offices, you have temporary offices.’ We were basically living the story. Fortunately, we didn’t have all those bad political things happen!”
The campaign team hierarchy was subtly established through the hotels and hotel rooms. The press secretary had a room in one of the better hotels in town. The campaign manager commandeered a full suite in the same hotel. Interns and staff were bunked in an inexpensive commuter hotel across the state line.
The two rival campaign headquarters sets reflected the differences in the candidates Morris and Pullman. Seymour describes, “Morris is the underdog. He's very much the ‘free thinker’ candidate – the man of the people. His graphics lean toward the look that Obama brought to politics, which has a contemporary, graphic quality—more stylized and less structured.” Martin adds, “Morris’s headquarters had a friendly feeling, with younger people, but older furnishings, a generally warm tone. Pullman’s campaign headquarters were grey, cooler, with more generic, rented furniture…tidy and controlled…less organic.”
Many of the interiors, including both of the Ohio campaign headquarters were actually created in spaces for lease in downtown Detroit, and were shot after the Ohio sequences. “This worked out well,” Martin points out “because it afforded us the opportunity to get to know a bit about Cincinnati and bring that feel back to Detroit. In the Morris Campaign Headquarters, near the entrance, is a collection of pigs and a large banner proclaiming Porkopolis for Morris. Cincinnati was nicknamed ‘Porkopolis’ in 1835 and, to this day, embraces the humorous moniker.”
“Most of our exteriors were actually filmed in Cincinnati,” she continues. “When we moved back to Detroit, for the street scenes, we brought in appropriate trashcans, newspaper boxes, and some signage from local Cincinnati vendors, but we didn’t have to radically alter the streets.”
Filming on location in Ohio and Michigan added credence to the film’s look; however, complying with the incentive regulations for these states, while keeping up with the fast moving schedule, and controlling the budget were a challenge. The film’s initial prep was in Detroit, although principal photography began in Cincinnati. In fact, the crew drove from Detroit to Cincinnati through an intense blizzard in order to tech scout and then only a few days later, begin shooting.
Weather aside, one of the harsh realities of incentive-state filming hit hard with such a fast paced schedule. Martin explains, “You have to purchase the things and use them in the state where you’re filming. So basically, “I was in Michigan during what would have been my prep time for Ohio, but I couldn’t shop for Ohio in Michigan. And then, I was in Ohio for my prep time for Michigan, and I couldn’t shop for Michigan in Ohio!”
“We shot in three states and five different cities—this was a modest budget film and it was shot very economically. I admire Mr. Clooney’s expeditious approach to filmmaking,” says Martin. “In fact, he was so efficient that he would occasionally get ahead of schedule, and we would have to dash to get sets ready a day or two early!
Cloney encouraged his actors and creative team to prepare for shooting by watching various campaign documentaries, such as THE WAR ROOM, which traced Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid; JOURNEYS WITH GEORGE, about George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign for the White House; BY THE PEOPLE: THE ELECTION OF BARACK OBAMA; and PRIMARY, a groundbreaking 1960 documentary which followed presidential hopefuls John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during that year’s Wisconsin primary.
However, audiences don’t have to be politically savvy to get caught up in the film’s tangled web of behind-the-scenes manipulations. “It’s very much a human drama,” says Jeffrey Wright, who plays Senator Thompson. “It’s about interactions, desires, ideas and emotions that I think all of us will get wrapped up in. It’s a very intense and moving ride.”