Exclusive interview: Veep’s Set Decorator Kimberly Wannop on creating Emmy-nominated series

Promotional picture for Veep
HBO’s Veep is poised to win a third Emmy and multiple crafts Emmy Awards to boot. Pic credit: HBO

The Television Academy is in full voting mode for the 69th annual Primetime Emmy Awards and Creative Arts Emmys this September.

One nominee is set decorator Kimberly Wannop, who is in charge behind the scenes on HBO’s superbly acted and crafted Veep.

Kimberly joined the series in Season 5 and was part of its move from Baltimore to LA for filming, which saw her having to pull off the Herculean task of recreating the established set.

Her efforts recreating the White House — for lead character Selina Meyer, 45th President of the United States, played by Emmy winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus — gives the comedy a true air of authenticity amidst the riotous dialogue and situational moments.

That’s a huge part of Veep’s charm and alchemy for pulling off this comedic premise.

Wannop, who also recently wrapped up the second season of NBC’s The Good Place, is nominated for Outstanding Production Design for a Narrative Program (Half Hour Or Less).

She moved to Los Angeles just out of college and began as a Production Assistant on a TV series.

Moving up through the art department, she’s now achieved career gravitas and is an active SDSA (Set Decorators Society of America) member.

Of note, Kimberly has additionally received three ADG (Art Directors Guild) award nominations. She also serves as a board member of the peer group of the Television Academy.

Wannop’s other credits include Bones (for which she received an Emmy Nomination), Parks and Recreation, Spoils of Babylon, and LOVE.

An entrepreneurial techie to boot, Kimberly is the founder of the HOTSPOTNOTSPOT app, which helps people find popular bars and nightclubs.

Monsters and Critics spoke to her about the mechanics of decorating an interior set-heavy show like Veep:

Monsters and Critics: The art department rocks for Veep. Can you talk about how acting rehearsals affect your department’s set decorating and how do you schedule the changes from scene to scene?

Kimberly Wannop: When the director and actors get to set and rehearse the scene they need to make sure it flows if there is action, like people walking around, props being handled, or making their way to a desk, or sofa.

Sometimes the whole room can be rearranged, or sometimes a lamp might be too tall. It’s all about making it work for the scene, and part of the Set Decorator’s job is to make that work and make it look good.

M&C: Can you explain how the Set Decorator works with an Art Director and Production Designer for the “look” of a particular show and tell us about your collaboration with Jim Gloster for Veep?

KW: Jim Gloster is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, and he’s talented! I’ve very lucky to work with him, we collaborate on the furnishing and color schemes and especially the research to make our look on Veep look authentic.

I work with the Art Director, Andrew Leitch, by checking in with him about scheduling between when construction will deliver the set and more of the logistics of getting the sets ready.

M&C: Can you talk about the size and scope of your props, set dressings and items used on a show like Veep to give fans and viewers an idea of what you deal with? Especially putting the rooms together when the show switched from Baltimore to California?

KW: Moving this show to Los Angeles for Season 5 was a massive deal – the crew in Baltimore did a fantastic job packing and labeling all of the sets for us. We received 19 C-vans filled with dressing!

It filled two sounds stages and literally looked like Indiana Jones’s archives warehouse. It was very overwhelming to put this giant jigsaw back together and becoming familiar with the permanent sets like the West Wing and Oval Office that they sent.

And then to come into Season 6 and not use any of it! We have all new sets this season since Selina is no longer in the White House. Our storage area for the show is massive.

M&C: You have worked on so many cool TV projects, from NBC’s The Good Place to more office sets for Parks & Recreation. Can you talk about the differences in the work you did with these shows compared to a show like Veep?

KW: I’m pretty lucky, Parks and Rec was so special. It is still a government show but Parks was more whimsical then Veep’s real-world look.

The Good Place is completely different, there is more freedom in the decor decisions since we are in the “good” place. It’s been really great to have projects that are different.

M&C: Some of the sets you build on stage at Paramount Studios but, for locations, what does that entail for you and your crew? Explain to a layperson what a “swing set” is versus a set built on a soundstage that changes just minor things…

KW: Location sets give the opportunity for a different look to the shows, and to be outdoors. It usually works with the set-dressing crew clearing out full spaces and then we dress them for our scenes.

Veep is a very heavy swing set show, we average 15 swing sets per episode, we had 152 swing sets last season, so that’s two or three a day.

It means a lot of coordination with the other departments, grip, lighting…to make sure they have all their equipment in and then we can dress.

I always tell people when we go into their homes, that when we are done you will never know we were here, we take extensive photos so that we replace everything as it was.

M&C: People do not realize the number of textiles you need to approve and use for a show like Veep, as the White House is a pretty upholstered environment! Can you talk about how you find the fabrics and how you make the furniture and wall hangings mimic the real deal?

KW: I LOVE doing all the research for the White House, I respect the design decisions that were made for our President to live in.

Although it’s hard to exactly duplicate the fabric patterns, we make every effort to come as close as we can.

I shop online and downtown LA mostly for fabrics…praying they have enough!

Vendors get nervous when you ask, ‘Do you have 128 yards of this?’ [laughs]. For curtains, we pull the designs straight from what is really there. I hire one or more drapers to work on these details.

As for upholstery, we have great resources in Los Angeles to get pieces upholstered quickly. Warner Bros., Universal and Omega’s upholstery and drapery departments are amazing little elves that we depend on.

M&C: There are a lot of floral arrangements in Veep. Who do you use and what is your research regarding how the White House uses flowers in certain areas?

KW: I love putting flowers on the set, it makes the room feel alive, and Selina deserves fresh flowers!

I discovered in my research that the White House has its own floral department in house!

The White House has flowers in the Oval office, greenery in most of the meeting rooms and arrangements in most hallways.

I have depended on Sonny Alexander in Los Angeles for years for beautiful arrangements. I research what the scene calls for, select the style, colors and most importantly the heights of all the arrangements.

Then I send my choices to them for every set and they are always on time and always beautiful.

M&C: Are scenes filmed in corridors harder to dress than rooms?

KW: The corridor scene is only hard when we have to change over the hallways quickly to look like different hallways.

For Veep we would change art, furniture, and drapery pretty often to accommodate the walk and talk scenes.

M&C: What is your favorite room or set in Veep?

KW: My favorite room last season was the Green Room.

I got very lucky with matching the sofa I found on Craigslist and other furniture because we only had a week to build and dress it.

This season my favorite set was Selina’s brownstone. I got to custom make furniture, drapes, artwork…it all came together magically.

We are so pressed for time and trying to get the right pieces on-time is a struggle.

M&C: What is your favorite prop?

KW: Our Prop Master, Gay Perello, is so incredible at her job. Her attention to detail is impeccable.

I love all of the specific magazines and newspapers they make, but this past season Selina’s portrait was a huge undertaking with the time we had and she did a beautiful job with it.

M&C: Have you physically gone to the White House for research and how do you know what to put in the bedroom, Oval Office, etc?

KW: Sadly I have not, I would love to. Jim Gloster has been in some of the DC buildings and the writers have gone in past seasons to the White House and bring back research photos for us.

It’s a lot of online research and books. You get a sense of the bedroom by photographs and then tailoring it to our character.

M&C: For people not in the industry, can you talk about the people and roles who work with you like the on-set dresser, the difference between a Set Designer and Set Decorator and Set Dresser? The floral arranger, Prop Master and various craftspeople who directly work with and help you make these sets come to life?

KW: There are many spokes in our creative wheel in this industry and it can be confusing, I know I was confused when I first started.

The Production Designer is a department head, and is the leader of the art department and designs the large scope of the look of the project, including set decor and props.

The Art Director is under the designer and is in charge of keeping the budget and the construction on time, coordinating with graphics, and coordinating the Set Designer to get the construction drawing to construction on time.

The Set Decorator is a department head and is in charge of the furniture, light fixtures, drapery, and smalls [placeable decorative items].

In the Set Dec department is the leadman, who coordinates the pick-up of items, the workload of the swing gang, and the dressing and striking of the furnishings on the set.

The swing gang physically dresses the sets and de-dresses them.

The buyer assists the Decorator in options to buy or rent for set dressing. The on-set dresser is the representative on the set in charge of dressing the frame of the camera.

The Prop Master is a department head who works to find or create specific pieces that the actors come in contact with.

M&C: Shout outs to your core crew?

KW: I am nothing without my crew, they make it all happen. I’ve been with my lead man, Patrik Alven, for almost 10 years. I can say that he juggles the pickup, dressing and striking the sets flawlessly.

This past season I had two buyers, Ethan Goodwin and Karen Riemenschneider — they run all over town getting selections for sets and purchasing smalls. Their talents are invaluable.

My swing gang is amazing, I don’t know how they keep it together. Really a great group that I’ve worked with for the past few shows.

M&C: Who do you work closer to, the DP (Director of Photography) or the director in creating the Veep world?

KW: I work closer to the director because the layout of the furniture is essential to the movement they want to get in a scene.

I work with the DP to make sure that the practical lighting in the room is right and that the window coverings get what they need for bringing natural light into the sets.

M&C: Do you bring the same people you work with on Veep to other projects?

KW: I am lucky that I have had some longtime crew stay with me. My leadman, Patrik Alven and one of my swing gang, Dave Michel, have been with me for almost 10 years.

I can’t work without them at this point! They organize and work out all the logistics.

M&C: What is the work schedule when you are shooting a set-heavy show like Veep?

KW: The weekly work schedule includes working on the current episode and prepping for the next one.

We shoot during the week but we work at least one day most weekends to either dress a set for Monday morning location or wrap a set Saturday that shot late Friday night.

We don’t keep the same hours as the shooting crew because we always need to be ahead of them. My crew starts usually at 6am, sometime earlier, and we really work nonstop until 6pm.

Myself, the leadsman and the buyers sometimes stay later to organize for the next day.

During the day I am dressing sets, going to meetings…we usually have a whole day during the week that we are scouting locations for the next episode and I’m going to prop houses and selecting furniture, meeting with the buyers to choose from their selections.

It is a lot of work, long hours…but I love it!

Set Decorator Kimberly Wannop works with:

Production Designer: Jim Gloster
Art Director: Andrew Leitch
Set Designers: Rebecca McAusland, Arthur Chadwick, Alan Farkas
Graphic Designer: Graham Ratliff
Art Department Coordinator: Alex Hunter
Art PA: Rachel Scott
Construction Coordinator: Matthew Haynes
Construction General Foreman: Marcel Worch
Lead Painter: Maria Jaramillo
Set Dec Leadman: Patrik Alven
Set Dec Buyers: Ethan Goodwin, Karen Riemenschneider

VEEP Season 7 will air in Spring 2018 on HBO. CBS will air The Emmy Awards live coast-to-coast starting at 8pm ET/ 5pm PT on Sunday, September 17. The Creative Arts ceremonies are set for September 9 and 10 and will air at 8pm ET/7pm CT on Saturday, September 16 on FXX.

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