How Designated Survivor’s designers built a replica Oval Office in Toronto
Even in a TV landscape that includes The Walking Dead and Westworld, few series are as relentlessly apocalyptic as Designated Survivor. In just nine episodes, the team behind the Toronto-shot political thriller has made a Trump presidency seem peachy: they’ve blown up Capitol Hill, killed off the President and most of his cabinet, and dealt with treason, whistleblowers and bioterrorism attacks. Kiefer Sutherland, who plays a housing and urban development secretary with a dash of Jack Bauer, has assumed the presidency and is trying to keep his country afloat from his new home: the Oval Office. Before tomorrow’s fall finale (10 p.m. on CTV), we spoke to production designer Cabot McMullen about how he created a replica of the commander-in-chief’s iconic room.
How long did it take to build your own Oval Office?
About six or seven weeks. We had three weeks to plan and research, three weeks to build, and another week for all the finishing touches.
What was involved in the research and planning?
There were a couple of standing Oval Office sets remaining from the 1997 movie Murder at 1600 that we considered, but they weren’t right for the way we were going to shoot the show. The director, Paul McGuigan, had a very specific vision, and it became clear we had to create an environment completely on our own. During our prep period, we took three scouting trips down to Washington. On our third trip, we were actually given access to the real Oval in the White House to do a quick survey.
How did that happen? It can’t be an easy room to get into.
Connections. The show’s writers have a consultant who works for a firm in D.C., and the head of that firm had been President Clinton’s chief of staff. We were granted access at 9:30 p.m., when everyone had gone home, and were allowed to stay for about an hour. President Obama was on the West Terrace, so he wasn’t in the building. We started at the lower level—down where the naval cafeteria and crisis centre are—then we walked up to the Roosevelt Room and the cabinet room. We weren’t actually able to wander around the Oval—there was a rope about three feet past the entrance—but we could look around. It was awe-inspiring.
What did you do with that hour to get what you needed for the show?
I wasn’t allowed to take photos in the West Wing, so I walked around with a sketchpad and drew little details as fast and as furiously as I could. Many of the rooms date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, and I noticed that a lot of the hardware looks like it’s from a nautical vessel. Doors are quite short and the ventilation is archaic, but somehow, it creates this overall aesthetic—like walking through a working environment and a museum all at once.
What was the best part of your visit to the White House?
For me it was when we walked out into the Rose Garden, and the young fellow giving us the tour started waving to someone out on the lawn. It was dark so we couldn’t see much, but then suddenly a guy emerged from the darkness with Sunny and Bo, the Obamas’ dogs. We played with them for a little bit. All I could think was, “The people these dogs have hung out with…”
What else did you do on those scouting trips?
We met with people from the Secret Service, D.C. metro police, FBI and a lot of the security entourage that would spring into action if a storyline like ours took place. We asked, “What was your day like on 9/11?” One detail they gave us was that, on the night of 9/11, the sky in Washington D.C. was lit up with a red glow. There were flares at every intersection so that emergency vehicles could get through without hesitation, and it created this glow all over the buildings and the sky. That detail made it into the pilot when the Capitol explodes.
Where did you end up building the sets?
We ended up building everything on a stage in Downsview Park Film Studios. It’s a former military facility and not designed for stages, but it was quite large and well-suited to our sets. There’s a lot of history in the building, which dovetails nicely with the story we’re trying to tell.
What other research went into creating your Oval?
Set decorator Enrico Campana did a lot of research and dug into the history of the White House. Each administration brings its own décor to the room. Most people didn’t know that Jackie O. had the Oval completely redone by a French designer. It was finished on the day that JFK was shot, so when President Lyndon B. Johnson walked into that office, it was Kennedy’s design. In our story, President Richmond is killed and Kiefer Sutherland’s character Tom Kirkman walks in. It’s a similar scenario. We also pulled historical architectural plans from the White House archives, so we could set the dimensions of our own mouldings and fixtures to match the real room. The audience knows so much about these spaces now—especially through shows like House of Cards and Scandal—so nothing could be out of place. Our set is probably the most accurate version of it on TV right now.
If every Oval always looks a little different, how did you decide on which details to include?
We ended up taking ideas from different administrations. The late President Richmond was a conservative who was somewhat regal, so we took drapery designs from the Roosevelt period, full of icons of the eagle. From Nixon’s Oval, we loved the way the flags were arranged, so we folded that in. From Reagan’s period, the colour palette was very monochromatic, which also inspired us. Obama’s office—designed by the California decorator Michael Smith—was the first one I’d seen geometric patterns on the wall. We ended up using a damask lattice pattern which is based on a historic European motif; it’s simple enough that it sits in the background and doesn’t upstage anything.
Where did you get the materials from?
A lot of light fixtures came from New York and a lot of art came from Los Angeles. We custom-ordered a lot of plaster mouldings, particularly for the huge, tremendous cornice overhead. We found the rug in an antique shop in Toronto, and we believe it’s the same rug used on The Kennedys miniseries—it was designed to fit the Oval Office. We put our own medallion and a presidential seal on it. The rest of the set is generally built out of clear lumber with roll-on sheets of plywood on top. The fireplace opposite the president’s desk is a removable piece of scenery which is on a castor-wagon—you can literally pull the fireplace to the set next door.
Of course, no show featuring the Oval Office is complete without an overhead shot to show the shape of the room. How’d you pull yours off?
Yes, in the pilot, there’s a crane shot, where the camera goes up over the president and looks down, so audiences can see he’s overwhelmed. The only way we could get that shot was to have the back of the set completely open up. Almost a quarter of the set opens up like a big door.