Emmy®-nominated production designer of Drunk History, Chloe Arbiture discusses recreating history for Comedy Central’s cult favorite.
Emmy-nominated Chloe Arbiture is the only female nominated production designer in her category. In Drunk History, the show is the liquored up version of America’s history that features an ever-changing cast of actors and comedians who travel across the country to retell iconic moments from our history. Arbiture and I caught up to discuss the Emmy-nominated episode where she recreates the world of Hamilton and bringing 1776 to life.
Congratulations on the Emmy nomination. What were you doing when you found out you’d been nominated?
We were on the last shoot day of season five for Drunk History, and it was a night shoot. I woke up and knew the nominations were coming out, but I didn’t expect anything. Jeremy Konner our director sent me a text with exclamation points. I thought something was wrong and asked if something was wrong thinking I had to go back to the shoot.
He replied telling me I’d been nominated and, later, Derek Waters called me in tears. It was surreal. To go to work later was an amazing experience.
The entire concept of the history is brilliant. Where do you start as a production designer?
The drunken narration part starts way before I am on board in production. The writers and directors pitch a bunch of ideas, and they line up comedians to tell the drunken story of it. Those sessions last more than six hours, and between editing and writing, it’s whittled down to a shorter version. I’ll get a script, and the lines are pulled from the drunken narrator. The scriptwriter will say, “This takes place in a library or a room.” I’ll break that script down in terms of location and scripts and structure from there.
The fun part is you are creating an entire period and worlds. What’s your tool kit and process?
Everything is dictated by the schedule which is really fast for the amount of content we create. Each story will have between 12-15 sets, and we have to shoot that in a 12-hour day.
That’s totally insane, but those are my parameters. Really that dictates everything that I do. I take that script knowing I have to shoot it in one place in one day. Sometimes, there will be sets that are outside the norm.
There’s a scene where we might have to shoot in a garden, but we don’t have a garden. That’s when I’ll say maybe we’ll use a miniature or a false backdrop. A lot of the aesthetic comes from having to shoot it all in one day and get the story in one day, and that’s where it’s born from.
With this episode, Hamilton is a phenomenon, and the episode was brilliant. How did you feel about the pressure given everyone knows about it?
It was definitely intimidating know how much America loves Hamilton right now. The musical itself is such a phenomenon and so well done, and Lin-Manuel Miranda was our narrator. His energy was just effervescent. When we talked to Derek and Jeremy to pull off Hamilton because Lin-Manuel was the narrator, we wanted to stay true to his version of Hamilton, but we wanted to tell the pieces of the story that they couldn’t tell in the musical. So the part about the flaming boat was something they couldn’t do on stage. When we talked about it, we wanted to do the Drunk History version with the flaming boat and we built that crow’s nest. We wanted to show these pieces that were harder to show in the musical.
What was a fun moment to create?
Those flaming pieces for sure as we’d never done anything on that scale because we’re shooting so fast. It can be hard to work with fire because of the regulations in L.A. We were determined to do it, and we wanted to do that miniature version as well where you can see the guy and the fire. I loved that they kept those pieces in the episode.
Where do you get your pieces and material?
I build them all myself, and it comes from necessity. The directors will ask me about it. I say, “We can go in a pool, and I’ll make a mini iceberg made from styrofoam.” Often we move so fast that I don’t have time to translate it. So, it goes from a brief conversation, and I’m making it myself. There’s a lot of miniature train stores in L.A. that have miniature scales. A lot I make myself because I want that handmade element in the story. The goal isn’t to fool anyone. We want you to see that it’s styrofoam, and it’s intentional.
What was it like seeing the finished product of Hamilton’s Drunk History?
I was so happy to see a lot of how the pieces came out. I was nervous because that episode opens with the hurricane on Nevis Island. We were shooting at the Wilshire Ebel which is historical.
We were in their tiny courtyard, and I was nervous about how it would come out. It ended up looking how we had hoped. Seeing how it came out with Congress Hall, the battle scenes, and seeing that all come together. It was the only Drunk History episode that was shot over three days and two locations, so it was our big epic fanfare for this season. To see it cut together and still be funny.
And you don’t do any of this drunk?
[Laughs] I wish we could, but the workload is so heavy that nothing would get done if we were.
What’s great about this is you are one of the only female production designers nominated, and we shouldn’t be talking about this?
I have to say that to be recognized with this nomination is such an incredible honor, and it makes me so happy that women are being recognized. We’re not just seen as people who can pick our colors. It’s rewarding to be recognized for the heavy lifting design work. The great thing about my team is that it is predominantly women. It was important for me to find people who shared my view of how to tell a story. As I was interviewing people such as art directors, it was predominantly females who shared the way that I like to work, so it wasn’t intentional.
It is a male dominated field, but I feel the tide is changing. The fact that my team was nominated goes to show that. It shows that women can do the funny, the raunchy, the heavy, the architectural drafts, and it’s awesome to be recognized for that.
You can look at it and be frustrated, but I just think it’s wonderful. I’m so honored to be one of the only women and happy to be at the forefront. I hope it inspires other women to think that they too can do this and you don’t have to be just a man, and it’s not a prerequisite.
Chloe Arbiture is nominated for Outstanding Production Design.
Consider Drunk History in the following Emmy voting:
Outstanding Variety Sketch Series.
Outstanding Production Design for a Variety, Nonfiction, Reality or Reality Competition
Outstanding Picture Editing for Variety Programming
Outstanding Directing for a Variety Series.