• Army One – Nixon’s Plane Photo by Greg Van Horn © 2008 Universal Pictures
  • Airline First Class Lounge-Frost Photo by Greg Van Horn © 2008 Universal Pictures
  • Hilton Suite Living Room Photo by Michael Corenblith © 2008 Universal Pictures
  • Hilton Suite Photo by Michael Corenblith © 2008 Universal Pictures
  • Nixon’s Casa Pacifica Library Photo by Brain O’Hara © 2008 Universal Pictures
  • Nixon’s “California White House” Office Photo by Brain O’Hara © 2008 Universal Pictures
  • Nixon’s Casa Pacifica Library/Office Photo by Ralph Nelson © 2008 Universal
  • Plaza Suite Sitting Room Photo by Susan Benjamin © 2008 Universal Pictures

Set Decorator: Susan Benjamin, SDSA
Production Designer: Michael Corenblith

Set Decorator:  Susan Benjamin, SDSA
Production Designer:  Michael Corenblith

Set Decorator Susan Benjamin, SDSA and Production Designer Michael Corenblith helped Director Ron Howard bring the gripping political drama FROST/NIXON to life. The film delves into the preparations, negotiations and planning that took place all over the world, then flows into the history-making interviews themselves, a legendary confrontation between glossy talk show host David Frost and the disgraced former president of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon – an electrifying battle of wits, wills and wiliness set in a living room in California.

A Q&A in the current issue of SET DECOR magazine, excerpted here, gives a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the film’s wide range of sets.

SET DECOR: Director Ron Howard is known for authenticity throughout his films. Please tell us about your collaboration with him.

Set Decorator Susan Benjamin, SDSA: I was very lucky to be invited into this close-knit group of filmmakers. Production Designer Michael Corenblith and Director Ron Howard have worked together on a number of projects, so there already existed a visual dialogue and level of trust between them.
Ron and Michael are both very thoughtful and prepared.

The amount of research completed before I even started the project was overwhelming. Once a plan was formulated on how they wanted to translate Peter Morgan’s award-winning stage play into a motion picture based on these events, they followed it through on every level.

Production Designer Michael Corenblith: We were dealing with a documented event. We felt we had an obligation to present it accurately. There is also a strong sense of period memory to which we had to remain faithful. On the other hand, the ‘70s have been replicated so often we had to be careful about not falling into cliché. We didn’t want to undercut the real emotion and the real drama of what was going on by having the audience distracted by the garnish. So it was a question of how to craft something that was true to the period but not an exaggeration of the period, which was a tremendously difficult task at the end of the day.

SET DECOR: Please share some insight with us about the most crucial set, the Frost/Nixon interview.

Corenblith: Since we were inevitably going to be compared to the real Frost/Nixon interviews, we took great pains to make anything that had been seen by an audience in 1977 as perfect as we knew how, down to the slightest detail. The exact brick, the tiniest piece of set dressing, the shape of a leaf on the houseplants on the table—we paid attention to everything that was in the interview corner of that room. At the same time, we took liberties with other aspects of the house to give it a certain character when we shot reverses.

Benjamin: It’s funny how enthralled people seem to be with how exactly we matched the Interview Room set to the actual room in the Smith house in Orange County, CA. It is much easier to match something than to create something completely new!

The Interview Room is the only place in the entire film that is an exact match. Michael and Ron made a conscious decision to have the interviews play out exactly as in the original series of interviews. The rest of the sets were either embellished or simplified to forward the story.

We were very lucky with the research for the Smith House. The film’s location manager found the original house where the interviews took place and cold-called the owners for permission to allow us to research the site. We went down to Orange County to photograph the house and to ask questions about the original filming.

Interestingly, this wasn’t very different from how the actual interviews came to be in their home 30 years before. David Frost’s producers had hired a real estate agency to find a house near Casa Pacifica, Nixon’s home in San Clemente, so the interviews would be easy for Richard Nixon to get to and so they would be on neutral ground. The realtor had also cold-called the Smiths; and they had agreed to let the interview take place in their living room.

Mrs. Smith told us stories about how the events transpired, and then proceeded to bestow upon us a treasure box of research that no one could have ever believed existed! Not only did she have photographs from the filming, she had production reports, camera reports, scribbled notes from David Frost on napkins and his company stationery, and a host of other “production droppings” that you would find on any set. When we asked her how she got hold of all of these things, she replied, “I waited until the crew went home every evening and then went through the trash!”

SET DECOR: “Nixon’s Library/Office at Casa Pacifica” – Tell us about putting together this incredible set.

Benjamin: I found a copy of ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST magazine that featured Richard and Pat Nixon in their “Western White House,” as Casa Pacifica was often called. This helped us see how they lived and also helped us create a great color palette specific to them.
Nixon’s real office was a small room on the second floor of Casa Pacifica, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We took some liberty and combined the library with the drawing room.

The Art Department spent a great deal of effort researching photographs of President Nixon with foreign heads of state and of historical moments during his term. We then used Photoshop to replace Frank Langella’s image onto all of these images to create “the great wall of Richard Nixon’s presidency.”
In this large room, we were able to convey the grandeur of the former president’s life, which would certainly be able to humble or intimidate any adversary.

There were two major hotel suites for Frost — “The Hilton” and “The Plaza”. What was your approach to these distinctly different depictions, each accurate to the times?

Corenblith: When researching archival images of David Frost, the photographs often showed him in hotel suites, but seldom provided their location. One of the schematic ideas in keeping the audience oriented was to have a strong stylistic vision for the decor of each suite as an expression of the city and its culture. At the same time we wanted to continue our use of pattern on pattern as a cue to the period.

For the Plaza Hotel, we were trying to reflect a more European vocabulary in the choices of furniture, fabrics and wallpapers. The palette was very controlled, but the mixing of pattern unmistakable.

The Beverly Hilton gave us the opportunity to reference Los Angeles from the perspective of the modern with a mixture of Hollywood glamour and Asian influences.The lines of the furniture and lighting approach a ‘70s interpretation of Moderne.

Benjamin: The room that Frost’s team used in the real 1977 Hilton was much less glamorous than the one we created on stage. In the film, Frost is always portrayed as traveling effortlessly in a haze of glamour as compared to Richard Nixon, who is seen in more traditional, isolated surroundings.
We based the headboard on some research we found in magazines of the time and used the pattern throughout the room.

The key to all of the sets was to make them believable. We wanted to decorate for the time period without calling attention to the scenery.

SET DECOR: The planes, the planes! What great interiors! Tell us about doing the first-class jets and Heathrow Airport.

Corenblith: We started amassing images from Heathrow, and it began to shape my idea of film as a whole. Ron always loves technology in transition. So I had an idea of a Heathrow terminal and concourse that blended the duty-free area and the crowds of international travelers into a sort of image-heavy representation of the world in which Frost traveled.

Since the action aboard The Airplane is a seduction scene, we wanted to keep the colors sexy, and chose a lipstick red for the upholstery, accented with a very British-looking tartan. The ‘70s reality of an Upstairs Piano Bar on 747’s was too good to pass up, so the action continues upstairs. We wanted very curvy bench seating, and furniture that reflected an optimistic and futuristic quality.
Benjamin: The back wall of the upstairs lounge was a graphic that we created in-house that we then printed on carpet. [See photo page 8.]

SET DECOR: Final note on bringing this historical moment to life in film?

Benjamin: We had such an extraordinary team, including our art department coordinators and research department. With their help and visual references, we were able to shop confidently and quickly—well versed in what we were seeking. Also, our hard-working teams of set dressers were able to access our “visual bible” when dressing the sets.

This project was very difficult but incredibly rewarding. We shot over 80 sets in 40 days. I think my experience working in one-hour episodic television helped me keep up with the pressures and demands of this schedule. Michael’s research and designs, the collaborative aspect that Ron Howard brings to his films, and the opportunity to give the audience a window into history made it an exciting and enriching experience.

Reprinted from SET DECOR Winter 2008/09. For more fascinating behind-the-scenes of both film and television set decoration click on: SET DECOR in menu above left.