“At first alone in her claims against the Nixon administration, Martha Mitchell finds herself maligned by the very establishment she loved and criticized in equal measure. A smear campaign against her, orchestrated in part by her own husband, was a major reason why she was dismissed at the time and remains largely forgotten today. But her legacy persists: Martha Mitchell was the first person to publicly connect the Nixon administration to Watergate, breaking ranks with her husband and the establishment and risking her own reputation in order to tell the truth.” Starz
114 sets for 101 days of shooting! Even though that was a beyond substantial number, care was given to each set...creativity and depth was always evident. Production Designer Daniel Novotny teamed up with Set Decorator Jennifer Lukehart SDSA, and her stalwart crew, and his, and created some amazingly unique sets that depicted an actual turning point in our recent history. We can’t possibly cover all of those here, but we can take a look at some of the most significant, and, happily, Jen was open to a great e-convo. We appreciate the partnership that comes into play with the PD/SD of a project, and their collaboration with other keys and, equally important, all of their teams...and it was great to explore that with her as well as the fabulous sets!
We know you will!
SET DECOR: Your collaboration with PD Dan Novotny:
Set Decorator Jennifer Lukehart SDSA: Dan is a very collaborative Production Designer, which I appreciated. This meant that we would often choose details or colors for sets around furniture pieces my team had sourced. In my opinion, this is incredibly important for a period show since I really wanted to use pieces that we found in pristine vintage condition! Of course, we reupholstered or refinished pieces as well, but it’s such a treat to use items in original fabrics & finishes. So, especially on the built sets, my Asst Set Decorator, Jill Carvalho, SDSA Associate member, and I had a lot of late nights with Dan and Art Director Rob Tokarz talking about ideas and finishes for sets.
Watergate Penthouse, John & Martha Mitchell’s Washington DC residence. Set Decorator Jennifer Lukehart SDSA reveals, “This set has a number of my favorite pieces, including those blue mohair wingback chairs from Pasadena Antique Center... [See photo above.] And the classic arrangement from Sandy Rose Floral anchoring the foyer. Many pieces here have less of a 1970s feel, since Martha and John came of age much earlier.” Photo courtesy of Starz Entertainment.
Early on, it was also decided that we would stay true to the period, but not try to re-create the exact reality of the characters’ lives, per se. Our director, Matt Ross, was very clear that we were creating a show for a contemporary audience, and wanted it to feel cinematic and be entertaining. After looking at the historical photos, we realized much of what was “real” would just look almost sad to contemporary audiences, since people tended to live much simpler and less ostentatiously than the wealthy [nouveau riche] and powerful do today. It’s tough to sell 8’ high popcorn ceilings as Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous!
Penthouse. “The 6’ long coffee table felt huge when we bought it, but is almost too small for this monumental conversation pit!” Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle © 2021 Starz Entertainment.
Penthouse. Looking up from the conversation pit, we see glimpses of the bar area [rt], the kitchen island [ctr with cane backed stools] and the dining area with its Mastercraft dining table.
Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle © 2021 Starz Entertainment.
So we tried to take the essence of who they were, but then weave that into sets that gave Matt and our DP, Larkin Seiple, more to play with while shooting. And when you have this fantastic cast, you want them to have freedom and feel like they are in their world on each set!
Julia actually made a special effort to thank all of Art/Construction/Set Dec for the Penthouse set, which was a lovely gesture. Due to Covid and the schedule, I spent very little time on set, so knowing the actors appreciate it really helps us all keep going!
Penthouse Suite en suite. Martha is devasted from what she overhears John and others saying at the birthday fete she has thrown for him. Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS at the end of the article to see the size and details of this huge master suite bathroom. Julia Roberts as Martha. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle © 2021 Starz Entertainment.
Penthouse Master Suite. The Mitchells were deeply in love, until he switched his loyalty and attention to Richard Nixon, who in turn, destroyed him. The huge headboard symbolizes their once monumental love and passion and their over-the-top personalities. Julia Roberts, Sean Penn. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle © 2021 Starz Entertainment
Where did you shoot and how long? Locations?
Jill and I ended up with 9 weeks of prep. We shot for 101 days, with no hiatus. Offices and all of our stage sets were at Universal, with locations from Long Beach to Thousand Oaks, Malibu, Pasadena, Pomona and Hollywood for starters. We also shot the entire show like a feature—a simple 580-page movie, LOL! This got a bit upended when Sean Penn boycotted coming to work due to Covid, but we never missed a shooting day. We just pulled things forward and extended some sets to hold until Sean returned. It was quite an adventure! At one point I believe I tallied up 114 dressed sets for 101 days of shooting.
Biggest challenge and how you met it?
The speed & scale of the show was just relentless, as is the case with so many shows these days, especially Limited Series. We did not have traditional permanent sets that the crew would return to, to give us a moment to catch-up, so my crew just lived for the sets they would shoot for more than a day!
And then to add the Covid layer of it all, of course.
Building backstory into the sets - were there talismans or personal favorite pieces?
The details that rarely get seen are the lifeblood of the Set Decorator, right?!!
Penthouse bar area. Jennifer confesses, “I love vintage barware and had to keep myself from adding too much! That snifter of vintage matchbooks is something I bought years ago at a thrift store and brought from home.”
Jill was forever collecting and layering in Elephant figurines for the GOP into the sets. I took a few personal things into the Penthouse set - the giant snifter of vintage matchbooks and the plaque over the stove. The plaque is a version of one my grandmother had that my cousin gave me at my wedding.
Penthouse kitchen. Avocado and autumn gold bring us into the period. Wonderful details show this is a kitchen that is used and lived-in. Inset: Sean Penn as John Mitchell. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle © 2021 Starz Entertainment.
I also knew immediately when I saw the Blue Boy & matching Pinkie replica paintings that I would use those, as my grandmother had those in her guest bedroom.
Editor’s note: To see Pinkie, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!
Favorite pieces - too impossible to choose! We were really able to push beyond the prop houses and buy some incredible fresh pieces. I love every single piece in the Penthouse. Since it was so spacious and people tended to have fewer things then, and the Mitchell’s wouldn’t have clutter around, we went for a more monumental scale to convey their wealth and stature. A 9’ credenza and 6’ long coffee tables don’t seem oversized at all in that set. In the kitchen, we layered in more “life” with a mail center and cookbooks and hand-written recipe cards, so it didn’t feel like a museum.
And all of the period appropriate floral arrangements...so very many...that the Sandy Rose Floral team provided added incredible detail. from plastic vintage flowers to silks, to live arrangements AND that final shot at the funeral where they re-created the iconic Martha Was Right arrangement!
What did you discover about each of these real people you were helping depict? Something you wanted to be sure to convey or include in some way in the set?
I think the most interesting thing was how in love the Mitchells seem to have been prior to this, and how it destroyed them. We used a lot of colors on what I call the “baby poop" spectrum in the public parts of their Penthouse...the sickly browns/mustards/avocados...to try to subtly convey the rot seeping into their world after moving to D.C. Of course, those colors are also very on trend for the early 1970s, which also helped convey Martha perhaps trying to be something she was not, as she was really more dated in her style. So, she still has a pair of classic Dorothy Draper chests by the front door, but then has that more on-trend brass Mastercraft dining table.
Dean Townhouse. Happily married younger couple, Mo Dean [Betty Gilpin] and John Dean [Dan Stevens]. Image courtesy of Starz Entertainment.
The Deans, of course, are still together, so Watergate seems to have forged their relationship. Mostly, we just gave the townhouse a more coordinated and pulled together look after Mo moved in...and added some plants! They were much younger, so we got to have fun doing John’s bachelor look, and then juxtaposing the different stages with Mo, as their life together evolved. They still had a tailored look, but it was much more current, like them.
Dean Townhouse. Maureen/Mo Dean [Betty Gilpin] stands up for her husband John Dean [Dan Stevens] throughout the Watergate crisis and subsequent penalties. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle © 2021 Starz Entertainment.
[For more photos of the Deans’ townhouse, before and after Mo’s influence, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!]
Is there something that usually sets the direction for you for the look or feel of a set?
It really depends. Sometimes it comes directly from research, other times it’s just something that clicks into place while shopping. I really try to shop as much as I canin case I spot the unexpected piece that becomes the foundation of a set. Of course, I also have to rely on my team of Buyers for that since it gets harder to go shop as you start dressing set after set. I often have a section of photos in my office called “things Jen loves” that I will just wait patiently to find a home for in a set. You usually can if you stay alert to that.
Our Newporter Hotel Suite shows the poppier, California color palette. We got very lucky finding a matching bedroom suite, and then two side tables in the same style. Then we designed the coffee table since it needed to be a break-away for Martha’s fall. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle © 2021 Starz Entertainment.
The palettes…Besides those already referenced, we had a much brighter, citrusy palette we tried to use in all of the California sets, vs the East coast.
Fontainebleau Hotel, Miami. We redressed the same set in two slightly different ways, to be two different rooms. Definitely pushed this into a very new palette for our Miami shoot. The fabric was actually one we chose not to use on THE WHITE LOTUS, so that was a fun back-pocket type of thing that I thought of right away when I read this script! Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle © 2021 Starz Entertainment.
What do you rely on the most? Is there something you’re always glad to have in your back pocket?
I think the thing I’m glad to have in my back pocket is a great crew! When you can’t see your way through, I find that sitting down and focusing on it with the team gives an amazing ability to solve a myriad of problems! I also have enough experience at this point in my career that I know sometimes I have to step back from all of the [sometimes conflicting] input and not let myself get backed into bad choices. It’s my job as the Set Decorator to serve the needs of Director, PD, Producers, DP, Set Lighting, Locations, etc., but as the head of the department, I have to trust that I know how to synthesize all of those needs into a set that I am also proud of.
What have you gained/learned/experienced working on this production?
I had never done a true period show before, so I learned so much! How you have to search for all the little details in a location that aren’t period appropriate and figure how to deal with, cover, etc...and how one EXIT sign always tries to slip thru. LOL.
Duke Zeibert's, where the Washington elite mix and meet. Martha Mitchell [Julia Roberts], John Mitchell [Sean Penn], Ken Ebbitt [Billy Smith], Peggy Quinn [Erinn Hayes]. Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle © 2021 Starz Entertainment.
To get through this show, I learned to rely on and trust my crew so much, and that is invaluable to one’s sanity. My Leadman, Jason McDonough, had a group of Set Dressers who were always up for the task and kept good attitudes, even when I didn’t! Shannon Curfman came in as Buyer and took so much off my plate, but Goar Galystan, Heidi Hansen and Jenn McClaren were also on board for various periods and they each helped execute key sets and details. Since the show moved so quickly and had so few meetings, I also relied on a flow of information from and between Costumes, Construction, Props, Art Directors and Locations—we all tried to keep each other on the same page.
Our job is always so subjective, but I found that dealing with the early 1970s comes with many people’s memories and baggage. And since, for decades, the shorthand for “working class/poor” in TV and movies has been to use 1970s furnishings, it can be hard to get everyone to accept that the set dressing isn’t kitschy or thrift-store, but that it was appropriate and much of it, in my opinion, is beautiful! Dan was always saying he loved things because they were “so bad”, but I would tell him I thought they were gorgeous, truly. I think as Set Decorators, we have to find a way to love all time periods. I think the joy of our craft is to find "the way in” to your taste in any particular set, especially ones that may be out of your personal wheelhouse.
Editor’s note: For many more fabulous sets and photos, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!
Set Decorator Jennifer Lukehart SDSA would like to acknowledge the invaluable help of SDSA Business members, for this production especially: Universal Studios Property & Universal Drapery - We were on the lot and couldn’t have done it without them! Warner Bros. | Omega Cinema Props | Faux Library Studio Props | Hollywood Cinema Arts | and, absolutely, Sandy Rose Floral !
Also: Hollywood Studio Gallery | Ob-jects | Modernica Props | RC Vintage | U-Frame-It Gallery | AMCO/American Screen & Window Coverings | Air Designs | Practical Props | PSW/Props Services West | Re-Store by Habitat for Humanity | Alpha Companies Motion Picture Rentals | Heaven or Las Vegas | LA Party Rents | Little Bohemia Rentals | Lennie Marvin’s Propheaven | Astek Wallcovering | Linoleum City