Awards Daily talks to the crafts behind FX’s American Crime Story: Impeachment about how they went back to the ’90s to depict the scandal of the century.
In addition to some show-stopping performances, one of the things that FX’s American Crime Story: Impeachment truly gets right about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal is its setting within the mid-’90s, including the colors, hair, and general look of the time period.
Here, makeup artist Robin Beauchesne, director of photography Simon Dennis BSC, hair lead Natalie Driscoll, costume designer Meredith Markworth-Pollack, and production designer Jamie Walker McCall explain how they worked together to take audiences back to the decade that gave us the rise of everything from the internet to Ann Coulter (whether we like it or not).
How they achieved that dull, grey look of the ’90s.
When you look at a photograph from 10 years ago, you’re amazed by how clear photos of today are by comparison, so just imagine what we were looking at on TV in the ’90s when Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky dominated popular culture.
Director of photography, Simon Dennis, BSC, explains how he manipulated the saturation of palettes on set with LiveColor to create a more desaturated look.
“We were given a ‘time map’ of the events in the script which spanned 4 years over various seasons in DC, so I would add or subtract color on the lighting through windows,” says Dennis. “Especially the White House Oval Office. DC is largely known as being blue in past shows and movies, yet our look ranged from warm summer hues to a grey/cool white feel. This was all done to honor the ebb and flow of this giant story and to help sign post for the audience.”
On the other hand, a lot of the dull palettes weren’t necessarily due to the time period but the setting. Government buildings aren’t exactly filled with warmth and color.
“The White House had a warmer range including beiges and oatmeal and the Pentagon world had a military, steely tone in both design and fluorescent lighting, which was described in the script as ‘hellish.’ Monica’s fishbowl apartment had to feel welcoming, as it’s a government-issued apartment, yet elements were colder, like the vast cell bar-like view to the outside world which implied that she was trapped.”
Taking us back to Monica and Bill’s first initial meeting.
It seems like time stops when President Clinton (Clive Owen) sees Monica (Beanie Feldstein) for the first time with the fellow White House interns passing in a hallway, almost like a love story—because in essence, it was one.
“You have to remove yourself from judgment of the moral aspect of this story,” says DP Simon Dennis. “Yes, the affair between Monica and Bill was wrong, yet I saw those private meetings between them as a love story or rather how it felt to Monica at the time. Warm and fuzzy. Yet we also played here and there with cooler tones to the scenes to try and convey Bill’s perspective which was more ambiguous and cautious.”
Monica also wears a lot of the same color in this scene as well as throughout the series, something costume designer Meredith Markworth-Pollack discovered based on research.
“In our research and notes from Monica [Lewinsky], she wore a lot of navy, so that was definitely evident in her costumes.”
And in this initial scene, we’re seeing one of several hairstyles on her, according to hair lead Natalie Driscoll.
“With Monica, she had three wigs and four different looks. I wanted to stay true to her most iconic looks she had throughout the decade, and there were four distinct ones. Monica started out in the White House fresh out of college. We chose to leave her hair long with natural curls to help her appear fresh and young.”
Makeup artist Robin Beauchesne also says that Feldstein’s Monica has a progression of looks based on her relationship with Clinton.
“Her look changed with her emotional state,” says Beauchesne. “Beanie never tweezed her eyebrows so we took baby steps to ease into her new look, reshaping the inner corners and giving her a bit of an arch to open her eyes. Then we reshaped and filled in to give it more structure, contouring her face and neck to shape her face without prosthetics. Bright, cherry colors were chosen to reflect her state of mind using trendy lines like Mac, Revlon, and Nars.”
Aside from nailing the character looks, production designer Jamie Walker McCall says that it was challenging to depict the Oval Office setting.
“Blending our world with what is real and what would work for our storyline [was a challenge],” says McCall. “I had to account for what was scripted for the long walk and talks, making sure the designed hallways allowed the characters to weave in and out through the combined worlds while keeping budget and stage space in mind. Intricate sets like the White House are always a design challenge.”
How they depicted Monica’s FBI interrogation in “Man Handled.”
Bottle episodes are typically reserved for shows that want to save some money by having one location and a limited number of cast members (see: Friends). In Impeachment, the FBI loosely holds Monica hostage in the Ritz Carlton Hotel for nearly 24 hours in order to coerce her into testifying against Clinton.
“It was tough because the longer you are in a single environment, like the Ritz Carlton Hotel room,” says director of photography Dennis, “in this case, the more you are challenged with keeping up the tension or building the tension. We did this by using various camera techniques, framing and perfective-driven angles. We also used a split diopter filter (used in All The Presidents Men, our key reference) with the camera lenses set to ‘wide open,’ which created an intense ‘macro’ effect where we could almost put Monica under a giant microscope.”
Production designer Jamie Walker McCall had to look at a lot of ’90s hotels while accounting for what the script called for.
“A lot of research went into the entire show, including the Ritz hotel room where Monica was held,” says McCall. “I researched early ’90s hotel rooms. The design layout was based on what was scripted versus the real room where Monica was held.”
Since she was on her way to the gym that day, Monica was in gym clothes, which had to look like they were from the period (no Lululemon).
“We looked at magazines and catalogs from the ’90s to see what the gym attire was,” says costume designer Markworth-Pollack. “A lot of spandex and tube socks! Also, we had images of Monica in a blue fleece DKNY sweatshirt that was very sporty, so we replicated that for Beanie to wear on the show.”
The FBI agents also had to look like they were of the time—you might notice that ties were a lot wider in the ’90s.
“For the agents, we tried to get as close as possible,” says hair lead Natalie Driscoll. “Some of them did not have similar hair, so we just made up our own versions of them. We would cut, temporarily color, add extensions, and style their hair to create their character’s look or a ’90s style. Basically with any cast member, if there was a picture of their character, we did everything we could to try and match them. The actors loved it, the producers loved it, and we had a blast creating them.”
Makeup artist Robin Beauchesne also had to incorporate facial hair into her work.
“Men’s facial hair was styled accordingly or using lace facial hair pieces, hand laying mustaches, sideburns, and beards hackling and prepping over hair in various blended color tones to tie into existing sideburns that might be too short or thin and overlaying on top of the lace pieces finessing the edges for a complete look.”
How they achieved the evolution of Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) right before our very eyes.
If you watch only the scenes with Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), you will notice that with each scene she has a different look. This shows the evolution of how the media and representation influenced her style—and her life.
“Almost all of Paula’s costumes were direct replicas of found images of her,” says costume designer Markworth-Pollack. “She ended up in a lot of black after she hired her publicist Susan Carpenter- McMillian (Judith Light) who styled her.”
When we first meet Paula, she has large, fluffy permed ’80s hair with a lot of volume, according to hair lead Natalie Driscoll.
“Mall bangs and wings! Once she was in the press, she was judged right off the bat by her hair, features, wardrobe, and small-town accent. At that time, a lot of women had already moved on past the big ’80s hair, especially in the bigger cities. Once Susan McMillan got ahold of Paula, her first step was a makeover to make her appear more current. The hope was to be taken more seriously to win the lawsuit. After her initial professional makeover, we put a little fluff back into the bangs to try and bring her authentic personality back into them. We had three wigs and four looks for her as well. One of the wigs, we attached an entire piece to the back of the wig to give it her iconic, long permed look she was known for.”
Makeup artist Robin Beauchesne worked closely with Ashford to establish these looks.
“Annaleigh and I both felt that she had various looks, like her signature eyeliner and eyebrow shape—that was something she held onto throughout the years. After [Annaleigh’s] prosthetic nose was applied, I would apply her makeup. It always seems natural to shape eyebrows evenly, but I had to do the opposite by creating almost a hook-like shape, as if she tweezed too much, making them slightly different.”
Beauchesne also added the thinnest black eyeliner on the upper lid and bottom with the slightest touch of white liner on the table of the bottom eyelid. She also reshaped her lips with a ’90s gloss that take everyone back to that place and time.
“As she started changing her appearance, braces were made for her as well. When Paula decided to get a nose job, bruising effects were used for her post-plastic surgery look.”
In one of Ashford’s final scenes of the series, Susan McMillan (Judith Light) calls her about rumors she’s doing a spread for Penthouse magazine. Production designer Walker McCall showed the desperation in Jones’s setting.
“We wanted the space to feel tight like everything was closing in on Paula,” says Walker McCall. “It was important to create a set that was the complete opposite of Susan Carpenter-McMillan’s home. We achieved this with the dark wood paneling, molded brown carpeting and a lot of depressing outdated furniture and a lot of tchotchkes.”
American Crime Story: Impeachment is streaming on Hulu.