When Emmy Award nominations were announced last month, two Maryland-made series were front and center in the news.
HBO’s “Veep” and the Netflix drama “House of Cards” made the short list for best comedy and drama, respectively, with a pack of other nominations for writers, directors and stars. Almost all the coverage — mine included — was about Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright.
But there were other nominations announced at the same time in the creative arts category — nominations that didn’t get nearly as much attention.
Yet they tell a more important story, at least in a local sense. They show what a talented, experienced and largely unheralded production community Maryland has, with some of the most accomplished people in film and TV calling this area home.
We talked to four Maryland residents working on “House of Cards” and “Veep” who are nominated for the creative arts Emmys that will be handed out this Saturday in Los Angeles. The Emmy Awards telecast will be broadcast live Aug. 25 on NBC.
Tiffany Zappulla, set decorator, “House of Cards”
“This is not TV,” Tiffany Zappulla, the set decorator on “House of Cards,” says of the political thriller set in Washington. “We do make a movie every 20 days. And any single chapter if you put it on the big screen would hold its own against any cinematic production.”
Zappulla, a Baltimore native and graduate of Garrison Forest School, has worked on prestigious productions before. She was also set decorator for the second season of “Veep,” which won an Art Directors Guild award for an episode set in Finland that was largely filmed at the Engineer’s Club in Baltimore.
But this is her first Emmy nomination, and she says it’s exciting.
“It really is, and part of that is the fact that this is truly, certainly from my standpoint, a Maryland-made nomination,” she says. “I’m a native Marylander. My crew is primarily all native to Maryland. My vendors, my local craftsmen are all Maryland. I’m really proud to say that, and I think people don’t always recognize the level and scope of the talent here in the state.”
Zappulla, who started out in residential and commercial interior design, is one of three people named in the nomination for outstanding art direction in a contemporary or fantasy series (single camera). The other two are production designer Steve Arnold and art director Halina Gebarowicz.
Their work on “House of Cards” is up against very tough competition: “Game of Thrones,” “True Detective,” “True Blood” and “Justified.” She’s confident, though, about winning.
“We will be bringing the Emmy home,” she says. “My crew is very cute. I have a little Foamcore Emmy that they made for me as a placeholder until the real one gets here.”
One reason for that confidence is that their entry includes the fifth hour of Season 2. That chapter, as everyone on the series calls episodes, features Frank Underwood (Spacey) at the site of a Civil War re-enactment, Lucas Goodwin (Sebastian Arcelus) in the belly of a data center surrounded by giant servers, and delegates from China and the U.S. at a summit — three very distinct sets.
“We joked that one of the chapters that we submitted was really three separate miniseries that we somehow managed to condense into an hour,” she says. “We thought this was the episode that said, ‘We can do it all.’ “
“House of Cards” has one of the richest and deepest textures of any series ever on television. It feels, in that respect, more like a feature film than most television. The production design, art direction and set decoration are crucial to that result.
From the spiders in Zoe Barnes’ place in Season 1, to the “grease marks on Freddy’s apartment wall” in Season 2, Zappulla says her team is nothing if not “detail-oriented.”
“All of those things really do make it realistic,” she says. “We refer to them as layers. You can have a beautiful space, but until you add those layers and make it authentic, it’s just a movie set.”
Halina Gebarowicz, art director, “House of Cards”
Gebarowicz, who was born in England, came to the U.S. in 1994 and to Maryland in 2003. She has lived in Fells Point and Columbia and now calls Clarksville home.
She was working in film production in Virginia in 2002 when she got a call from Vince Peranio, the production designer at the time on HBO’s “The Wire.”
She joined the series three episodes into its run.
“In retrospect, I feel best about the fact that, apart from the first three episodes, I was part of the project from beginning to end — 2002 to 2008,” she wrote in an email last week. “It was grueling and exhilarating, but I always got the sense I was working on something important. It set me up for every project I have worked on since – nothing will ever faze me again.”
Like Zappulla, Gebarowicz thinks episode 5 in Season 2 (the 18th hour of “House of Cards”) is a winner.
“Chapter 18 was submitted, as it involved multiple complex sets and diverse locations spread miles apart, including having to recreate the Battle of Gettysburg along with campsite and re-enactors in Patapsco State Park in July in a week that had record high temperatures and humidity, massive rainstorms and bugs, and happened to coincide with the Gettysburg 149th National Civil War Battle Re-enactment,” she wrote.
“So, not one tent, uniform or musket was available. We had to delay filming until after the weekend celebrations. The battle recreation alone would have been a feature film. We pulled multiple rabbits out of multiple hats.”
It might not have been rabbits out of hats, but the presidential seal viewers see in the Oval Office took considerable ingenuity as well, according to Gebarowicz.
That’s because the U.S. Code states that, “Whoever knowingly displays any printed or other likeness …of the seals of the President of the United States” can be fined or imprisoned.
Even though the seal design was altered by the “House of Cards” graphics department so as not to make an exact copy, “Three major carpet manufacturers declined to make the Oval Office rug we had designed,” Gebarowicz wrote.
The company that ultimately did make the presidential rug seen in the series also made the real one in President Obama’s Oval Office today.
Gebarowicz admits being reluctant to discuss tricks of her trade.
“I like to perpetuate the smoke and mirrors aspect of the job, and am loathe to expose our design secrets,” she wrote. “But I will tell you that the roof tiles on the pagoda in the Chinese Garden [shot at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton] were sections of hundreds of orange paint buckets painted green.”
Lorenzo Millan, production sound mixer, “House of Cards”
The journey to his first Emmy nomination started 28 years ago at St. Paul’s School for Lorenzo Millan. A teacher there started a class in filmmaking, and he was hooked.
The Baltimore-born son of Colombian parents, Millan applied to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he found a lot of would-be filmmakers who shared his passion.
By the second semester of his freshman year in a class on reel-to-reel audio production — this was the 1980s, remember — he also found his niche among all that talent: recording and editing sound.
“I probably mixed 60 shorts for myself and other filmmaking students during my time at Tisch,” he says.
It was in Baltimore and not New York, though, that he ultimately gained entry to the major leagues of TV and film production starting in 1996 as a boom operator on the NBC series “Homicide: Life on the Street,” produced by Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson and based on a David Simon nonfiction book.
The 44-year-old married father of two has been working steadily ever since as boom operator and sound mixer: on the Simon miniseries “The Corner,” on award-winning HBO movies like “Something the Lord Made” and “Shot in the Heart,” on “The Wire,” “Veep” and now 20 episode of “House of Cards.”
“I was so green when I started on the second unit of ‘Homicide,’ I probably almost got fired several times. I was so in over my head,” “Millan said in a phone interview during a lunch break last week on the set of the Netflix production. “But I kept working at it and kind of moved along from there.”
Working on the Maryland-made feature film “Better Living Through Chemistry,” Millan didn’t start sound mixing on “House of Cards” until the ninth episode, but he’s done every one since.
Millan says he’s “over the moon” about the nomination.
“I don’t want to say it’s any kind of justification, because that’s not what it is for me,” he said. “But especially when you’re trying to start out and you say, ‘Oh, I work in film,’ people look at you like you’re crazy, because it’s not a career they can relate to. So, this [nomination] is almost like saying I made the right career choice for myself.”
Pat Moran, casting, “Veep”
While most people working behind the scenes in TV and film production are unknown to the general public, that’s not the cases with Moran — at least not in Baltimore where she is one of the most widely known members of the creative community.
That is partially the result of a tenure that reaches back to casting John Waters’ “Polyester” — and almost every major made-in-Baltimore TV production since.
Moran also has a personality as large as that of any actor. In fact, she’s appeared as an actor in such Waters productions as “Female Trouble” and “Pink Flamingos.” (She played a Nazi party guest in the latter.)
This is Moran’s ninth nomination. She has won twice — for “Homicide” and “Game Change.”
The straight-talking industry veteran pulls no punches in lamenting the creative talent that left Baltimore after “The Wire” ended production in 2008 and the pool of money for state incentives was reduced to only $1 million for 2009.
Her own son, Brook Yeaton, moved to New Orleans for work. He is now prop master on “NCSI: New Orleans.” Her former assistant in Baltimore, Meagan Lewis, moved to New Orleans and is up for three Emmys in casting for “Treme,” “American Horror Story” and “True Detective.”
“But I’m still here,” Moran said last week. “And there are a lot of good people still working here as those Emmy nominations show. And with two big series here, there’s work.
“You look at those two series and all the nominations for shows that are made here, and the message is clear: You come to a place like this to make your show, and you’re going to get nominated — you’re going to be up for some gold. There are good and talented people in Maryland who can help make that happen.”