Production designer Julie Walker recreates the gorgeous White House interiors for Netflix’s Emmy®-winning political drama House of Cards.
Production designer Julie Walker recreates the White House interiors for Netflix’s House of Cards. She manages to maintain the historical look while at the same time bringing in modern elements and other important political landmarks.
I caught up with her recently to walk us through how she achieved the look and feel of the nation’s capital and the White House in the Emmy contender for Outstanding Drama Series House of Cards.
How has House of Cards changed from last season to this season?
We tried to shift it towards Season 1 and 2, the feeling it had when David Fincher started it. I studied the first two seasons and made sure we stayed true to the look of the show. I did some color shifting but stayed in the muted palette.
Other than that, it shoots in Baltimore. It was about finding locations that can play as Washington D.C. We have a few D.C exteriors days, but Baltimore has some good interiors and exteriors that work as D.C.
What is the creative process for you?
It starts off with the writers giving us the Bible which is the season of the show at a glance. Once we get that, we sit down and talk about the things that we have stage space for to build, what can be a permanent set and what can be a swing set. A swing set is one that can get taken down after one or two episodes.
It starts with the writers and then we look at it in a pragmatic way with what we can achieve without our shoot, we do two episodes in one. David Dunlap, Tim Barker, and I go and scout and find locations where we can shoot at. That’s where it starts.
The location manager and I do pre-scouting before directors come on so we can show the best of what’s available. I also do visual pitches with photographs. We sit down, make decisions and go for it.
What are the challenges for designing a show like this?
There’s always the symmetry factor. If there’s a situation where we are forced to go to locations instead of building it and looking for the symmetry, we have to figure out how to find that balance in the frame.
Finding new places in Baltimore is a new challenge. We’ve shot inside and out for five seasons, and last year was my first year designing it. With a new location manager, a lot of our time was spent cross-referencing what had been used in the past as we were both new to Baltimore.
We were heavily relying on people who had been on the show before. Our post producers and art department and everyone that was there before were whose knowledge helped immensely because if we did have to go and change furniture. My painter came in and changed the look with a few things.
At what point did you say you wanted to do production design?
I decided about ten years ago when I thought I wanted to build sets rather than hotel rooms. I liked the pace of how quickly things changed. A hotel can take months or years. With this, we have twenty days to make it happen and twenty days of shooting. I like the quick pace of building and delivering it.
I like when they’re shooting it I can prep the next thing. It’s been about 12years. I’ve primarily worked in L.A. rather than Baltimore, so that was something new for me.
Totally. It’s a different coast, different colors.
It’s a different everything from plants and trees. When I’m talking to my greens man, I was used to having certain plants and now I have something new.
What’s in your toolbox?
I would say, first and foremost, my ears. It’s about listening and hearing what everyone is wanting and trying to visually make their adjectives into what they want to see and what I want to see. I do use SketchUp, and that enables me to block up space and raise the walls and throw furniture in there so people can get a 3D model of it.
I also had a draftsman who was great at building up models. When we did the fields with the giant birds, that started with a photograph, and I had one of the sculptors on my construction team carve it. It became this 20-foot high crow made out of one by three and window screen material with insulation blown on the outside.
The painters got out there and painted making it look like aged stone. It’s crucial to communicate visually with 3D pieces. When it’s 1D sometimes it’s a bit hard, so for me, it’s SketchUp.
What can you tell us about Claire’s bedroom?
Steve Arnold was the production designer who worked hard to incorporate the flowers and the birds, so you’ll see the simplicity and the clean lines. He worked with closely with Tiffany Zappula (Set Designer). The only thing we added was her closet. Her bedroom is a cold blue. It sets the tone for her personality.
One of the most challenging sets was the bunker. That one was found out of researching about 9/11. They had taken Dick Cheney down, and they released a handful of photographs. We had some D.C. photographs of what the main conference room looked like. We tried to do it exactly the same right down to the accordion doors. The buttons that were probably half an inch wide.
Every time they showed a different angle, we were so excited because it would hold true to the reality of what we were trying to sell.
How has it changed working on this season for you?
For a while, about a month and a half before it started, I met with a handful of people and we sat down and talked about the story lines. We wanted to add the rooftop of the White House as well.
Which I loved.
Yay. I found videos of them installing solar panels on the roof. There’s not a lot of research out there. The video gave me a bit of idea, and you find your research in the oddest ways. David Dunlap and Tim Norman alternated as DP’s, and we all wanted to hold true to the early seasons.
That wasn’t a reproduction, and we tried to get the lighting back. It starts at the beginning, so that’s where we started. It was just a good and a balanced dynamic with the new people and the old crew.
What can you tell us about the rooftop?
We didn’t have that much space on the stage, so we shot it against black and we did a sky enhancement. There were a lot of people to get it the way it did.
The magic of it all.
I like the tone and colors.
Working with a consistent color palette helps. I had swatches made of every color used in the past and hung them on the wall. I might have deviated by a shade or two.
Was there a particular set that you loved?
I loved that bunker set and the hallway with the vault. I wanted it to feel sub terrain. My lead man said, “I think we can plumb the whole of Baltimore.”
I think, if you didn’t have those pipes, it wouldn’t look authentic.
Exactly. It needed to feel confined. It needed to feel you were going down and down. The set decoration team is amazing, and they work day and night. I think we worked 40days straight, and they had this great attitude. They really were a joy to work with, and they are a joy to work with.
As you watch each episode, you had to wonder what was happening and how eerie it was to reality.
I know. We were thinking it was a great and crazy story line, and now it’s just truth is stranger than fiction. I’m interested in Season 6 and where that goes. It’ll be interesting to see, especially with Claire being President. She’s far more powerful than Frank gives her credit for.