Thu. Oct 29th, 2020

Emmy interview: ‘Veep’ set decorators Kim Wannop and David Smith

Kevin Dunn, Gary Cole, Andy Daly, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Tony Hale.
(photo: Colleen Hayes/HBO)

Kimberly Wannop is an Emmy Award-winning Set Decorator for her work on the HBO comedy Veep. She has just been nominated for the fourth time for the final season on Veep. Kimberly is currently decorating the final season on NBC’s The Good Place and is also the President of the Set Decorators Society of America. Her passion for Set Decorating has led her to start her own podcast about the behind the scenes of the Production Design of tv and film called Decorating Pages.

As a Set Decorator David Smith has worked in many different mediums.  Trying to concentrate on Feature Films, he has worked on episodic television, TV movies, pilots, half hour sitcoms and soap operas, accumulating 6 Emmy nominations.  Prior to working as a Set Decorator, David honed his craft working in theatre as a Prop Master, Stage Manager, Set and Costume Designer, doing over 175 plays in Regional Theatre (The Cleveland Play House, The Goodman Theatre and The Guthrie Theater), Off Broadway and Broadway. Some wonderful experiences and credits include the films Crazy Stupid Love, Cirque Du Freak, Shopgirl, The Holiday, The Game of Their Lives, In Good Company; Last Holiday; and Dark Blue As Assistant Set Decorator with friends on Vice; Gone Girl, and Argo. Television Series include 90 episodes of NYPD Blue, Gideon’s Crossing, L.A. Law, The Guardian, Blossom, and Herman’s Head. In Soap Opera, David worked 5 years on As The World Turns and 3 years on The Guiding Light. An early board member of the SDSA International, David has served on several committees, terms as Chairman of the Board and as Treasurer.  But a great honor was serving as the second President of the SDSA International. He is a long time member of both the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS)  and the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).

I spoke with the pair, who are Emmy-nominated for the final season of Veep on the distinct challenges of decorating for a satire where life has imitated art and the pressure of closing out one of television’s sharpest comedies.

AW: First, congratulations to you both on your Emmy nominations for the series finale. What a great way to close it out.  

Kim: Thank you! It’s been an amazing ride and I am thrilled for us to get a nomination on this final season. 

David: Thank you, Erik!

AW: Kim, you’ve won here in this category for Veep. How did getting this nomination feel?

Kim: This nomination has a personal meaning for me. I was pregnant with twins through the whole season and it was physically very demanding for me to see the final season through. It being the final season also gave me the push to finish it though. I could not have done it without the support of my crew.  It is an absolute privilege to be nominated by your peers, we are very proud of the work and grateful it has been acknowledged.

AW: David, this is a return to the Emmys for you since been nominated for NYPD Blue in 1997. How did you react to the nomination?

David: I was very surprised. Mainly because I only did the final episode, but it is really rather amazing and a great honor!

AW: I’d love to turn the clock back a bit and hear what inspired each of you to enter the field of set decoration. Where did it all start for you?

Kim: I studied Interior Design in college at Philadelphia University and I always loved TV and film design. I moved to LA from Philly after college and started as a PA and worked my way up. It took me down a couple of paths from wanting to be a Production Designer to model maker but as soon as I saw an undressed set being dressed by Mary Ann Biddle on the show “Philly” I knew that Set Decorator was where I wanted to focus.

David: I wanted to be an actor since I was in a play in the third grade. After high school I got an apprenticeship at The Cleveland Play House in Ohio where I ended up in the prop department. After 14 seasons I went to New York to work at The Metropolitan Opera. The Musicians Union struck the Met in 1980 and I went to work as a Set Decorator at CBS where I spent 8 years. I came to Los Angeles in 1991 and I worked non-union for the first year on Blossom and Herman’s Head.

AW: Kim, your television work often finds you deeply entrenched in the shows you work on. How do you maintain a high level of creativity when you’re 20+ episodes in, or 78 in the case of Parks and Rec?  

Kim: You gotta love what you do, and liking the show you are on helps… lucky I loved Parks and Rec and Veep.  I really like staying with characters and their development through seasons. Taking Leslie Knope to end was a privilege, and I can say the same for Selina Meyer.

AW: David, you got your feet wet with soaps like As the World Turns and Guiding Light then moved into primetime television. Like Kimberly, you also found yourself embedded in shows like L.A. Law and NYPD Blue. Was that jump a natural progression? 

David: My first union job was working on the last season of L.A. Law. We shared the Fox Art Department with NYPD Blue and I saw intimately how the show was working and I so wanted to work on it. I had interviewed with Pau Eads, the show’s original Production Designer before they began, when he thought the show might be too busy for only one Set Decorator. But Set Decorator Mary Ann Biddle and Paul did the first season. Richard Hankins came into season two of NYPD Blue as an Art Director and he took over as Production Designer three quarters of the way through season two. I joined then as the Set Decorator. Richard and I had worked together in New York on The Guiding Light. It was an amazing ride doing the 91 episodes NYPD Blue.

AW: Kim, you’ve also just finished work (or ) on another final season show, The Good Place. What can we expect in the final season that we haven’t seen yet?

Kim: I really can’t believe how lucky I have been in the past year to be on two genius comedy shows that both ended. I think that it was very smart to end The Good Place, sad, but smart. What happens in the final season is… I can’t say. But I will say that the season is an emotion one, and if you are a fan of the show you will not be disappointed.

AW: David, you’ve also made the leap to feature films like The Holiday and Crazy, Stupid, Love. What are the detailed challenges and broader challenges of film versus television for a set decorator?

David: The Holiday and Crazy, Stupid, Love were very different in scope and budget. Working with Nancy Meyers was really focused because she is so invested in the look and the details. Her work is very much appreciated and by extension your work benefits from exposure. Crazy, Stupid, Love was such a surprising easy job and an amazing script. We had a really happy, calm and wonderful work environment. I am really very proud of both and happy that they came my way. I think there really isn’t much difference working in TV or Film and so much depends on the budget. I think the big advantage is mostly you have more time to film on a movie and if you are lucky you may see more of your work in the finished product.

AW: Tell me about collaborating with each other and with Jim Gloster and Andrew Leitch on this episode. Was there extra pressure being it was the last Veep ever?

Kim: Jim and Andrew are a dream to work with, such genuinely nice people which helps when you are under the pressure that a show like Veep keeps you under. I think the pressure was mostly self-inflicted, you just wanted it all to be great. We all respect the show, the writers, producers, creatives and the actors so much, everyone was there to make it a great season We knew it was something special to be apart of. I unfortunately didn’t really get to work with David as planned. He was going to come in the help prep the episode and see the sets, but my twins had other plans. I gave birth the night before he started, so he was kinda on his own. I was able to finish sets I had started, and was viable to help in any way I could but he really took on a huge episode, and was kinda pushed into the deep end. I had no doubt he could get it done, he’s an amazing Set Decorator, I’m a huge fan of his work.

David: Not only were Jim and Andrew very helpful and obliging to me, Kim’s wonderful Leadman, Buyers and Set Dressing crew couldn’t have been better. They really helped guide me through the Veep design vocabulary. Jim was so kind and tolerant of my thousands of questions and a really great collaborator.

AW: What were the most fun and most challenging elements of this episode to create?

Kim: I was able to decorate the Oval Office and Jonah’s Vice President’s Office (which didn’t make it to air) for the last episode. I really loved the opportunity to decorate the Oval for Selina. She had inherited the last look from the former president, so she never had her look in there. The set was challenging because I knew it had to be perfect for Selina, to make feminine but strong. Jim Gloster has always designed by letting Selina pop on the set. His choice of color palettes for her sets shows that. There were few personal items in the office, some pictures on the back table and the pen cup she had made for her father when she was young that was in a previous episode, Julia requested that. The challenge of any set is time and money, I think I had 3 weeks from start to finish which is an eternity in Veep world. The scene was moved to last, the last scene of the whole show, so it gave me some extra time… and pressure. (laughs)

David: For me the Presidential Library, Funeral and Burial Vault. They were also fun and different from anything I’d done before.

AW: When Veep began in 2012 it was a stinging satire but we were in a very different political arena than we are now. Did the decoration of the show change as life began to imitate art with the current administration? Where did you draw the line between accuracy and embellishment?

Kim: In conversations Jim and I made an effort not to reflect the current style of the Oval Office or on any sets. I think we knew that we needed to stay in our design lane and not try to imitate anything. Especially because the writing didn’t ask for it. We try very hard to make the sets look real and not like perfect sets. I think in the example of times where we pushed it was for a joke, only if it was scripted. It was always very important to the producers, especially our showrunner, Dave Mandel, to keep things real.

AW: What are your thoughts about Veep closing the doors to the White House now that it’s all wrapped up?

Kim: I could watch about 20 more seasons. It really was my favorite show, so I am sad to see it go as a viewer. As for working on it, it was hard. I don’t think anyone on the crew could say it was an easy show, but everyone from top to bottom was there to make it as good as it could be, really great people to work with, I will miss the crew a lot.

David: For me it all seems like a whirlwind and a bit of a dream.

AW: Best wishes to you both at the Emmys next month!

Kim: Thank you so much! Great questions! David: Thank you!

Kim Wannop and David Smith are nominated (alongside Jim Gloster and Andrew Leitch) in Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Program (Half-Hour) for the series finale of Veep, “Veep.” Emmy voting closes at 10pm PST on August 29th.

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