Of course, with something as dynamic and stylistic as THE POLITICIAN, we wanted to know every detail possible!
Set Decorator Amber Haley SDSA graciously answers our questions and generously credits her talented crew.
Do take a moment to read below, we know you will love her clarity as much as her fabulous sets!
SET DECOR: You’ve worked with Ryan Murphy before, so please tell us how that previous experience dialed into this one
Set Decorator Amber Haley SDSA:
I have. I took over on THE PEOPLE V OJ SIMPSON and was on tap to do HURRICANE KATRINA before it was shelved. I really enjoyed the producers at Color Force, Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobs. They know what they are doing and help to make sure the money spent is captured by the camera. There’s not a lot of waste. They are my personal favorite...so smart and so real.
SET DECOR: Ryan is known for his personal great taste in art and penchant for stylized artistic sets and storytelling...and has often been hands-on in some of the artistic decision-making. What were some of his specifics for this production?
Yes, all of his sets are always so beautiful. But it’s more than that. He knows how to shoot them. You see the sets in their entirety, a complete 360. I cannot tell you how many times I have felt like I’ve done the same caliber work (on other shows) and you never see it.* Ryan and his team of amazing DPs and camera operators show you the environment in a way I’ve never seen before. They use cranes in every location and in every set on stage. Even in the smallest sets you think, OK, this will not be a crane shot, and then, they figure out a way to bring it in. It’s really incredible. We always dress the world for our actors and director, but in RMTV, we know the audience will get to see it too.
Please share some of your deepest challenges on this and how you met them!
Physically the sets were spread out all over Los Angeles County as well as Ventura County and Orange County. There were days we needed to dress locations in Thousand Oaks and then in Fullerton. I met them with lots of iced tea and listened to lots of audible books. Thankfully, my leadman David Potter and I communicated a great deal on our tech scouts about what was going on in each location both logistically and esthetically. Especially when you are dealing with mostly locations...some mansions that require white glove attention, and a school with murals over one-hundred-years old...you are up against the elements and architecture. His teams were incredible and worked very hard. These families being portrayed all had money, so we really couldn’t compromise on the set dressing. We all had to bring our A-game.
Was there anything particularly surprising or serendipitous?
Yes, I play tennis and am a huge fan of Martina Navratilova. So that was pretty cool that she played Georgina’s
love interest in the show.
We understand that much of this was shot on location rather than built on stage.
What were the pluses for that?
Hands down, the architecture. We shot in some pretty amazing houses all over Los Angeles and Ventura County. Which was great, because the sets were able to have a great deal of detail that is often hard to mimic unless you have lots of time to build. The locations had beautiful murals and carved pieces that really lend to the riches of our characters’ environments. I think the beautiful locations were a great starting point for the Art Department to do their magic to bring everything up to another level. That was definitely a challenge, to make sure our set dressing blended seamlessly with the existing architecture.
Usually there are many restrictions on a location, were you able to have carte blanche in some?
Almost all our locations required very complicated drapery. We were constantly having meetings with the designer to figure out how to accomplish what we wanted vs the locations perimeters. Matt Pollastrini, our draper, helped to solve these installation riddles. He estimates that 90% of our locations wouldn’t let us drill into the walls.
What was your overall approach to this project?
You had fellow SDSA members Natalie Contreras and Lisa Goldsmith as Buyers. Please tell us about how you worked with them to source all of the fabulous elements in these sets!
Well first off, they both have excellent style and taste. I would say I utilized their strengths.
Natalie has a fantastic eye, by nature is a problem solver and really organized, she’s sort of a unicorn.
Lisa is maybe the best detail buyer/decorator I know. She’s incredible with sourcing and dressing unique details.
I was damn lucky and I know it.
In total, we often had 6 buyers at a time working. Because we were moving so fast and I had to be in 3 locations at once, Natalie would assist me with tasking out and keeping all our buyers in the know and on schedule. We had a good team of buyers: SDSA members Sondra Thorpe, Tracy Johnson, Carrell Shaw, Amy Ryder and Karen Ipock. It was a large undertaking, and production was very accommodating at supporting our efforts.
What were some of your resources?
Warner Bros. Property
Warner Bros. Drapery: We lived at WB Drapery. Every throw pillow you see in the show, all the bedding, all the custom drapery and slipcovers came from WB. Andy and Ryan and their team really pulled off a lot of miracles for us.
Omega|Cinema Props: We had a lot of items custom made, and Allan from Omega was unbelievable in his assistance. He knew what we were up against.
Arte De Mexico
Eastern Oriental Rugs
We would often buy things and alter them or pull them apart and make them into something else...without our construction department, WB and Omega we wouldn’t have been able to pull that off.
How many days did you have for this? How large a crew? And how many sets???
We often had 30 set dressers, 6 buyers, 3 drapers and countless trucks.
Giovanni Aurilia was our On Set Dresser. I hired him on THE PEOPLE V. OJ and he’s been with Ryan Murphy ever since.
We had two months prep, but once the train left the station, we often had only a day or two for a location. It was very important to go in with a plan and start building right away all the pieces that we knew would be a challenge. The one piece that comes to mind was our 25’ dining room table in Alice’s House
. We knew immediately that would have to be a build, for the simple fact that it was going in the Paramour Mansion and we needed to get it up to that property.
Let’s talk about some of the specific sets and set elements for THE POLITICIAN.
The lamps/lighting...so many great & distinctive.
Please tell about collaborating with the DP/Director of Photography on the practicals. And did that aspect influence some of your choices?
There were parameters that were requested by the DP on the pilot. Those were carried on thought the season.
I have found...and for me, it started on OJ...that our lights now light the set.
When I first started in this business, that wasn’t the case.
It has changed, for the better. But it does add another layer of dimension to the reality of the set and needs to be considered when decorating the set.
We sourced paintings throughout LA and of course, there are always great finds at Art Pic
I have a florist, Elizabeth Bailey, who has been working with me for over 10 years. She does every single show that I do.
We talk at great length about the characters and the environments. We walk the sets and talk about what is needed, what I’d like to see.
She’s amazing and part of process, and she’ll only work with me.
The key set, the Hobart mansion...
...The chandeliers...Please tell us about the individual choices for these throughout, including the stables/horse barn!
There has been a lot written about this barn. Who knew the barn would get so much press? It was actually based on Ellen Degeneres real barn in Santa Barbara. So yes, it was based on reality. People really live like this...really rich people that is. Everything in that barn came from Objects. It was just the perfect mix of elegance and rustic.
...Library...Desk the size of a country... Leather bound books – First editions!
Oh, the Hobart House library
. That was a very special room. Art Department built that into the location house living room.
They built all custom bookcases and columns. So, for us, the stage was set to make this really warm and old money.
My favorite piece: the round bookcases they built.
Our buyers took two days to pull 500 feet worth of beautiful first editions at Faux Library.
...Living Room/music room...
The biggest challenge in the Hobart living room
was the size of that location. We had the two matching sofas that flank the fireplace custom built at Omega, and the rest came from WB. We wanted everything to be luxurious and look like old money. Because we wanted many sitting areas, proportion was very important in that grand room.
We wanted to keep this room very simple to not take away from the lattice work and mirrored panels.
We used the existing table and had the chairs made. We loved the look of the rustic table next to the velvet chairs. We used lots of pieces in that room that could have been heirlooms of the Hobart Family
When we tech-scouted the Hobart House
, and I was told the bed that was on location was going to be Payton’s
bed, I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
Our designer, Jamie Walker McCall, showed us a photo reference of JFK’s bedroom and that was our jumping off point. We wanted it to look like a Presidential suite.
...Lily pond patio...
We actually shot the swimming pool and the lily pond at two separate locations. The Hobart House
location was in Thousand Oaks on a ranch property. When they wanted to shoot the scene Georgina
paints, for blocking purposes with the twins shooting the bow and arrow and then jumping into the swimming pool, the Thousand Oaks house just didn’t work for that scene. So, we shot that in Beverly Hills at another mansion with large rolling gardens which we also utilized for Georgina’s
house was shot at the Paramour Mansion. We all loved her bedroom suite...all those windows and the sitting room with the fireplace flanking the two rooms.
Our draper was tasked with the challenge of also not being able to screw into the walls in a room full of windows!
Among favorite pieces were the Victorian bird cages in her sitting room. We don’t see them in that set, but we do catch them in her dining room.
Astrid’s home, particularly her bedroom...
Jamie selected that really fun satin green and gold foiled wallpaper, and that was really our inspiration.
We wanted Astrid
to be in jeweled tones, quite the opposite of Alice
. We had everything made for her: the rug, the bedding, the throws, the drapery and valances, her bedskirt, her bed...I mean, everything. We even hand-painted the blinds!
This set was another location where we couldn’t go into the walls and so getting those valances to stay up was quite the challenge!
This house was this great craftsman house up in the Highland Park hills. We wanted the Jackson
house to have a Tammy Wynette flavor. We had a lot of fun shopping antique stores for this set.
New York... Hotel room where Astrid & Ricardo stayed
This set was a build. We wanted it to be a take on the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. We loved the peeling paint and the mold on the walls. Quite the contrast to her lavish life in Los Angeles, which is exactly what Astrid
was craving. We added in antique pieces that might have been there since the opening of the hotel and were probably very hip in its heyday.
You’ve done such a variety of sets and settings on some great productions: AMERICAN CRIME STORY, BARRY, THE ROMANOFFS, INSECURE, MODERN FAMILY, & more, including Emmy nominations for BARRY and MODERN FAMILY! *
Did you have a favorite?
About a year after ACS:OJ, I felt a shift in my career, plus it was an awesome show and my first really big one.
I love INSECURE because Issa Rae is a goddess and makes the show so much fun.
Is there a genre or period you would particularly like to take on in the near future?
I love gorgeous sets, that’s my jam. Pretty, big and dramatic.
It’s what I love, and I have found it’s also what I’m good at without a ton of effort or research.
I’d love to do a big period film, obviously, but only if it shoots in Los Angeles.