Immersed in Movies: Production Designer Galvin Talks Recreating the White House in New Orleans for ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler’

Immersed in Movies: Production Designer Galvin Talks Recreating the White House in New Orleans for 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'

The eclectic Tim Galvin, who, among other things, designed “The Silence of the Lambs,” “12 Monkeys,” and the “Parenthood” TV series, jumped at the chance to work with Lee Daniels on “The Butler.” It was a rare opportunity to chronicle the 20th century African-American experience, both inside and outside the White House in a fresh and compelling way. But it was also a reunion of two old Philly guys, since Galvin had previously worked with Daniels on his directorial debut, “Shadowboxer.”

“I thought the picture was something that had to be made,” Galvin suggests. “And it drove us. I thought this was a story that hadn’t gotten out there yet. And Lee figured out how to present the story of the African-American experience in a way that people could absorb and relate to. Here was this thing that would really make an important impact in our culture. And I said to producer Pam Williams, we have a pact to do whatever we can to make this film happen — and that’s what we did.”

Inspired by a real life story, domestic servant Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) serves at the White House from the Eisenhower through Reagan administrations and, without realizing it, becomes a subversive influence in the civil rights movement as a result of his strong work ethic and non-threatening manner. Early on, Gaines learns to disappear in dedicated subservience, recalling Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” but in the end his humanizing presence inspires political action.

However, Gaines’ personal life is far more complicated and tragic. He neglects his wife (Oprah Winfrey), who suffers bouts of depression and alcoholism; and his oldest son (David Oyelowo) turns rebellious, participating as a Freedom Rider and following Martin Luther King Jr. and then the Black Panthers after his assassination.

As with Andrew Dunn’s cinematography and Ruth Carter’s costume design, Daniels wanted an authentic, lived-in look, not something that appeared designed. Galvin did thorough research of the White House, Washington, D.C., and the Southern locales. However, with a $30 million budget, everything was shot in and around New Orleans with few digital enhancements. 

Galvin especially enjoyed the early sharecropping scenes with Gaines as a boy in 1920’s Virginia. “There was more to the sharecropping sequence that didn’t make the final cut, sadly. “That was strong stuff with more of him being very young and some of character-building events that told you who he was. It got a little compressed.

“With the White House, our goal was to be as accurate as we could with the Oval Offices and the places in the White House that are public. So we had to keep redoing the bedrooms of the president. It made the job a little unusual. Not only do you have to do the White House but you have to do it [several] times. Once I figured out the parts of the places that we needed, then when we went out on location to scout in New Orleans, then I looked for the things that are molded, you might say, because it’s not the easiest thing to make a movie about Washington in New Orleans.”

The challenge for the White House scenes was pinpointing actual months because changes in decor happened frequently (he was ably assisted by set decorator Diane Lederman). What the production designer found fascinating, though, was discovering which presidents were into changing the Oval Office and which were indifferent to it. 

“Eisenhower [Robin Williams] had drapery left over from Truman and he kept it, and he added those cornball paintings that he did and put those in there, but it was kind of Truman’s office, in a way. When Kennedy [James Marsden] came, he kept it that way for a little while and then he got the famous desk that Obama uses now. And the decor changed because Jackie [Minka Kelly] did some redecorating and after six or eight months that place got overhauled. It’s not that well known, actually, that right before the assassination she had designed a whole other scheme for the Oval Office. 

“LBJ [Liev Schreiber] just kept it, really. He brought in a different desk and got these TVs. He was crazy about TVs and a maniac about the media. He had three TVs always on in the Oval Office with the different networks. Then he eventually got some different sofas. Nixon [John Cusack] used the Oval Office for ceremonial purposes and had another office over in the executive building, where all the Watergate tapes were and stuff. There was some talk early on about having an Obama office, which has a different scheme. But it ends well.”

For the volatile scenes in the Gaines household, Galvin says Lee was very insistent on certain style elements, favoring an integrated look in some of the clothes and settings, which they would try to match. For instance, if Winfrey’s Mrs. Gaines wore orange or red or pink that would be reflected in the decor.

“I hope the general public will dig it because it’s not a take-your-medicine kind of history lesson. It has humor and drama and I don’t know that I’ll see another script like that again,” Galvin asserts.

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