Our latest interview dives into the world of The First Lady with Tony Fanning, production designer behind the Showtime series starring Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt.
Tony and his team were tasked to design over 350 sets for the show, including permanent sets of the East and West Wings, and other stage sets designed to reflect each Lady and their respective time period.
Due to the series following three distinct administrations in three distinct time periods, Tony did extensive research into how the White House and its rooms evolved and reflected the First Families that lived there. For instance, the treaty room, one of the standout sets from the show, for the Obama’s was used as a place for family gatherings, and Barack’s personal office. In contrast, during the Roosevelt presidency the room was used more formally, and was where Eleanor did her radio addresses from.
PH: Hi Tony! How did you get into production design?
Tony Fanning: I got my masters in stage design and expected to continue working in the theatre professionally. While I was working in the theatre, struggling, I got an offer from a designer I had assisted to work on a film as a draftsman. I had no idea what I was doing, but I quickly thrived at it. I continued working in theatre but started getting more offers to work on films. I slowly worked my way up the ladder to art director, which I did for many years. Then the logical next step was the production design. I continue to go back and forth between stage and film.
PH: Who are some of your inspirations?
Tony Fanning: I was very taken by the work of production designer Dean Tavoularis, The Godfather, One from the Heart, and Tucker. I like that his work has a subtlety yet pushes into being almost operatic in scale and tone. I also found the production design of Stanley Kubrick’s films 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining incredibly inspiring.
PH: How did you become involved with the First Lady?
Tony Fanning: I knew the showrunner and executive producer Cathy Schulman from working on a minor feature together called Five Feet Apart. She knew I had worked on the pilot for the West Wing and contacted me to see if I was interested. I also had done the American remake of Susanne Bier’s film Brothers, so she was somewhat familiar with my work.
PH: What drew you to the project?
Tony Fanning: I thought experiencing the American presidency from the first lady’s point of view was an excellent idea for a series. I’m also crazy for historical dramas and couldn’t resist the characters portrayed. I was also excited about the talent involved, both on and off the screen. I’ve long admired Susanne Bier’s work and wanted the opportunity to work with her on a drama about, and being told by, women. I’ve been fortunate to work on many different kinds of projects and have learned a great deal from all of them. I’m eager to immerse myself in and understand what it’s like to be in the shoes of a character completely different from myself, different gender, different race, different sexual preferences, and different political views. I’m fortunate that I get to educate myself in various ways while doing my job.
PH: How important was historical accuracy for this project and how did you achieve it?
Tony Fanning: For me, historical accuracy for this project was very important. To start, we had a full-time researcher who assembled information from sources like the presidential libraries, the white house museum, documentaries, biographies, and news reels. Once we knew everything we could about the characters, places, and events, we started figuring out how to tell the stories visually. Immersing ourselves in it allowed us to fill in any missing blanks. For instance, we had to do the white house master bath for the Obamas, which we couldn’t find any documentation on. However, knowing the history of the residence and Michelle’s taste, and the work of her decorator Michael Smith, we were able to design a space that fit nicely within.
PH: What sets stood out in your mind and why?
Tony Fanning: I really love the White House Treaty room seen in the Michelle and Eleanor blocks. President Obama used it as his personal study, and Eleanor used it for her all-female press conferences and radio addresses. The room has such a rich history, from being a waiting room for Lincoln’s office to the cabinet meeting room for Andrew Johnson.
There are some significant furnishings, such as the mirror over the mantle, one of a kind that was originally made for the green room, and the Treaty Table now used as a desk.
PH: How did you navigate different time periods?
Tony Fanning: It certainly was a challenge navigating the different years in the scripts. I had experience on projects with varying periods in them but not any with this span or that would be assembled out of chronological order. For that reason, I knew it was vital for me to show each period as clearly and succinctly as possible. I put my fears aside and did what I knew best, which was to understand how the people lived in each period, what was popular and available to them, how they communicated, how they cared for themselves, how they traveled etc. Once I had that information assembled, I would make detailed choices for the characters based on their history, circumstance, and taste. These kinds of choices were also being made by the writers, makeup, hair, costumes, lighting, cinematography, and property. Assembled together, you can recognize what period you’re in.
Besides the period details, I knew the color choices would help the audience know which lady’s story you were cutting into. I then tried to work out a color story that would reflect the period and the characters in it. I found some references to colors the characters preferred. I used those preferences to assemble a controlled pallet for each of the ladies. For Eleanor, muted blue, green, grey, lavender, and rose were used. For Michelle, brilliant, bold jewel tones combined with earth tones. These choices were enhanced by how the sets were lit and photographed. More natural light, fewer fixtures, fireplace light, and a softer look for Eleanor. Bold, sharp light for Michelle gives it a more vivid look.
PH: What cool things did you learn about how the first families utilized rooms differently?
Tony Fanning: The Roosevelt’s treated the residence as just another one of their homes. Familiar furnishings and treasured objects were brought from Hyde Park to make them feel as comfortable as possible. When Franklin lost his ability to walk from polio, Eleanor made it a point to bring the world to him. That became the custom at all their private residences and would be how the White would also function. Certain staff were given living quarters within the residence, the family had private spaces, and there were always guests, both social and political. Since Franklin and Eleanor no longer shared a bedroom, they had separate spaces. Because it was thought unnecessary for the first lady to have an office of her own (the East Wing did not exist at this time), Eleanor took what would be her bedroom and made it into her private office and sitting room, using what was traditionally the first lady’s dressing room and making it into her bedroom. Her secretary and additional staff set up and worked in the west sitting hall.
PH: How does the design reflect changes over the years?
Tony Fanning: When FDR took office, the West Wing had been newly renovated after the Christmas Eve fire in 1929. That renovation introduced the president’s office as an oval space like those in residence, centered on the south façade. FDR’s staff was much larger than Hoover’s and overcrowded the building. Franklin quickly sought additional space, but an expansion was unlikely to be approved while the country was in a depression. An architect was brought in to reorganize the existing layout to maximize its capacity. In this renovation, the Oval Office would be moved to the southeast corner connecting it to the existing colonnade adjacent to the rose garden. This change allowed FDR to access the office privately from the residence and remains today. During this renovation, a pool for FDR was also added and remains today under the press room. FDR also had the East Wing built, but it wasn’t until the Carter administration that the First Lady set up her offices there.
PH: How do you push your own creative boundaries and take risk for these types of set designs?
Tony Fanning: It’s hard to do that with spaces like the White House that are so well documented. But, I could push the boundaries with spaces less familiar, color, texture, and personal details. An example would be the Treaty Room we did for Eleanor. We found the rich blue color in written descriptions of the room and hand-tinted photos, but the walls were flat white. Because the administration took office during the depression, it restricted fully redecorating the interiors. The way the Roosevelts lived in the White House, the look wasn’t as refined as the other two ladies. So, we chose to push the color and add a pattern to the walls. I found a period wallpaper pattern and used the same blue from the drapery as its background. This brought out a richness that would put the interiors on a level playing field.
PH: I’d like to hear more about how you utilize and work with your team of showrunner, director, and producers, to make these intricate designs come to life. What’s that like?
Tony Fanning: I felt fortunate to be working with a very trusting team. I also already had experience with the showrunner Cathy Schulman, so her trust in me extended to other team members. I worked closely with Cathy playing historian and curator for the scripts. Collaborating with Susanne was very broad. She gives you her impressions and relies on you to turn them into a believable reality while underscoring her aesthetic. I worked closely with the First Assistant Director, Producer, and Cinematographer addressing the technical and production requirements before presenting the designs to the Director and Showrunner. It was essential on a show of this scale to keep everyone constantly informed so no mistakes were made and no time was lost.
PH: What’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned doing your job?
Tony Fanning: That I could never do it alone; not only do I have a close collaboration with the creative team but also with the crew of artisans. I rely heavily on their expertise not only for the look but how to get it accomplished on time and within budget. I am nothing without their support and dedication.
PH: What does this upcoming year look like for you? Is there a certain type of project that you’d love to work on that maybe you haven’t yet?
Tony Fanning: After wrapping The First Lady, I took some time to work on personal projects and continue with my teaching at UCLA. I hope we’ll soon get an order for season two and get back to work. I grew up in the theatre and have always wanted to work on a musical feature film. Also, early in my theatre career, I was lucky enough to work with August Wilson and would be honored to bring one of his plays to the screen.