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Interview: Tony Fanning on Depicting the White House’s Visual Legacy in ‘The First Lady’

“It’s always nice to meet another presidential nerd,” he laughs when I tell him my obsession with the forty-five men who have assumed the role of Commander-in-Chief, “I discovered a friend of mine was also really into presidential history when I was working on this!” And as production designer Tony Fanning would discover, few things turn you into an aficionado of the American Presidency quite like working on a film, or in this case a miniseries on Showtime, about their lives. But The First Lady is not about any President. It is instead a look at the women and men who took on a considerable public role alongside the President by virtue of being their wives or husbands. The first season focuses on three – Eleanor Roosevelt (played by Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), and Michelle Obama (played by Viola Davis), though the Betty Ford section of the series was worked on by Todd Fjelsted

It was Fanning’s responsibility to bring the Obama and Roosevelt White Houses to life. He explains how that played out during production: “The Betty section was filmed first, then we did Michelle, then Eleanor was last.” So, this made some parts of his work more manageable. “When I came in, the main White House set was already standing, so that was off my plate. My job was to figure out the next two block with what existed through locations and other stage builds. It was easier to tackle Michelle because there was just so much material on her and her work on the White House was extensively documented.”

This material told a story of a woman who was deeply inspiring to Fanning, “Michelle was kind of our ‘Cinderella story,’ coming from a working-class background to her work as a lawyer into the White House. We see her gaining confidence and forming into her own as they also achieved more of a material security in their lives.” He was careful to ensure the look and feel of the White House reflected the #1 priority of the Obamas. “Michelle Obama insisted on maintaining her routine and interactions with the girls. She wanted the White House to be a home for the family. They brought who they were as people and brought contemporary aesthetics to the classical look of White House. The color tones, the textures, all reflect who that family is. “

This entire story was mapped out through a mountain of primary sources that he needed assistance just to get a full handle on. “We did an enormous amount of research and had a full-time researcher who worked with us. We relied on archival footage, biographies, documentaries, and the White House archives.” On top of the copious research the team did, there were also logistical considerations, made even more difficult by… well, I’m sure you can venture a guess as to what we talked about next:

“It was chaotic and it was hard during COVID. Some of our biggest challenges were getting building materials, paint materials, upholstery, fabric, and it affected how we did the work. And it affected the decisions we made for what we could show.” When I pressed on this, asking him for an example of a decision that was affected by the limits of COVID and time, he offered a very specific individual who was more integral to the aesthetic of the Obama White House than I ever fathomed, “Michael Smith. He was the interior designer who did the Obama White House and many of the materials were only available through him and his company. We either had to find an alternate way of making them or do the same process.” 

So that was what he and his team had to work with when setting up the mise-en-scène surrounding a First Lady who was in the White House only a few years ago and is still alive today. But what about the First Lady who saw us through the Great Depression and World War II with her husband? “Eleanor was not interested in decorating.” There was a different emotional ‘character’ that the White House had to signify with this iteration of the residence, as this First Family – the longest-serving First Family who have ever lived there, and who ever will – saw it very differently than the Obamas. “The way the White House functioned was very different; a lot of it was controlled by FDR, particularly navigating the residence with his handicap. So, the pathway that we see from the residence to the Oval Office was all built for FDR so that he could keep his handicap private.” The average person today is probably unaware of just how dramatically different the White House back then was compared to today, and how that drove the Roosevelts as not just public figures, but hosts to visitors and guests. “FDR was also the person who got the East Wing built; it didn’t exist for a First Lady and was more of a Military HQ when it was under construction. Because of his handicap, people came over to stay with him. There were always dignitaries, always friends who lived there, which was not the way it was during the Obama Administration. The Roosevelts were a lot more personal in how they decorated the White House. You see those personal touches from other locations they grew up and lived in being brought to this space.”

So what’s next for Fanning? Any aspirations for other First Ladies? “I’ve always wanted to finish a movie about the Kennedys.” Key word there is “finish,” because he has worked on more than one project about our 35th President. “I was actually on the original production team for Thirteen Days,” which was the Cuban Missile Crisis thriller starring Bruce Greenwood as President Kennedy and Stephanie Romanov as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, “but that was a troubled production and it stalled.” That’s when he and his team had gotten an offer to work on The West Wing specifically on the strength of his work that was, at the time, unfinished. “By the time they resumed production with Roger Donaldson, I had already moved on.”

He also was the production designer for an unfinished movie I never knew about until now, apparently one about the Bay of Pigs invasion! “It’s like a curse with me, working on a movie about the Kennedys,” he sighs, “I’d like to eventually design the sets for a fully-completed movie about them. Maybe Jackie will be explored in the next season!”

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a military veteran who now spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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