HBO set designers provide 'change' you can believe in

Tiffany Zappulla, set designer, left, and Michael Corenblith, production manager, are working on the HBO film "Game Change," which is filming in Baltimore.
Tiffany Zappulla, set designer, left, and Michael Corenblith, production manager, are working on the HBO film "Game Change," which is filming in Baltimore. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Maryland is no stranger to movies and TV, but with the filming of the HBO political drama "Game Change" here, our small state has taken on its toughest role ever -- Alaska.

Yet production designer Michael Corenblith and set decorator Tiffany Zappulla weren't intimidated. Challenged to film a scene at the Alaska State Fair for the docudrama about the 2008 presidential election, they headed to Six Flags America near Bowie. They found a rollercoaster that looks just like the one up north and tracked down a 9-foot stuffed grizzly from an antiques store in Easton to evoke the vibe of a real Alaskan midway.

Then they built a booth selling reindeer sausage -- each board, nail, sign and piece of meat matching details provided by researchers -- and photos from the real fair in Sarah Palin's home state.

Finally, they decided they had to provide some snow-capped mountains in the background via the magic of computer graphics.

"It has a little visual effect component put on it, so we'll add some snow-capped mountains that you guys don't have here," Corenblith says. "But that's about the only thing we couldn't find in Baltimore."

Based on the best-selling account of the 2008 election, HBO's film starring Julianne Moore, Ed Harris and Woody Harrelson focuses on the GOP storyline from the time Sen. John McCain picked Palin as his running mate to their defeat by Democrats Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the general election. That means a multitude of campaign events, hotel rooms and days on the road.

"Every screenplay gives you a different mathematical equation to solve," Corenblith says. "And since this screenplay is telling the story of the 2008 presidential campaign, it mandated a canvas that covered coast to coast. And so, we had scenes that go everywhere from the Central Valley of California, to Alaska, to North Carolina and the hills of Virginia. And Baltimore really offers us the geographic and architectural diversity that we need to tell a coast-to-coast story."

While some press accounts of the production have described Baltimore as standing in for Washington, Baltimore and Maryland sites in fact will be standing in for Alaska, St. Louis, New York, Phoenix, Arlington, Va., St. Paul, Minn., Dayton, Ohio, and at least one rural roadside hamburger joint on the campaign trail traveled by McCain's Straight Talk Express, according to Corenblith.

As for that widely chronicled bus itself and the filmmaker's commitment to getting the details right, the team tracked down the old Straight Talk Express. It had been through several other lives since 2008, but the team restored it and hired the operator who drove it for McCain to drive it in the film.

"Let me put it this way," Corenblith says, when asked about the film's fidelity to accuracy, "Our actor on this bus, he will be sitting on the couch cushions that the candidate sat on."

It has been awhile since any made-for-TV movie has generated this kind of buzz . When HBO announced that Moore was cast as Palin, Sean Hannity had the real Palin on Fox News that night asking her what she thought of the choice. When a picture of Harris in makeup as McCain was released by HBO, within hours, it was everywhere on the Web.

Baltimore and Maryland, which have mainly been out of the TV and film production business since the last episode of HBO's "The Wire" was filmed here in 2007, is lucky to get back into the game at this level with big-name actors, a first-rate production team and top writers, producers and directors.

Director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong, who collaborated on HBO's "Recount" docudrama about the 2000 election, are executive producers along with Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman.

"We've been so hungry, so film-lean for the past couple of years," Zappulla says. "Being a native to this town, I mean, I haven't had a feature film in three years. So, my vendors would call me and say, 'When are things going to pick up?' A film like this does make a difference in their bottom lines at the end of the day. I mean, they do see that money we inject into the economy here is significant."

Last week, Corenblith and Zappulla talked in the downtown production office of "Game Change" about the ways in which they are refashioning, remaking, tricking out and dressing up Baltimore for the film.

Corenblith's Hollywood resume includes production design on "The Blind Side," "Apollo 13," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "Frost/Nixon." He's earned two Oscar nominations and won a BAFTA Award. Zappulla, founder of TAZ Designs in Baltimore, has worked on "Syriana," "He's Just Not That Into You" and "Ladder 49."

While the local film industry might feel lucky to be working again, Corenblith says Baltimore wasn't chosen for sentimental reasons. Hollywood doesn't work that way. Beyond the geographic and architectural diversity, it also offers "great colleges and universities" and a "good, solid urban fabric."

Why should the producers care about higher education? Because many of the campaign events took place in "college and university gymnasiums and auditoriums," the man responsible for restaging the events says.

"We needed a variety of campus events and rallies in the film," Corenblith says, "And so, we have used Coppin State University very well."

Corenblith and Zappulla talked only about selected sites -- not all of them at which they had filmed or planned to film in coming days. "Game Change" is a closed set, and HBO and the producers have been diligent in controlling access and information.

As for the "good, solid urban fabric," that includes 1st Mariner Arena. And while Corenblith declined to confirm that 1st Mariner stood in for the St. Paul convention hall where Palin was formally introduced as McCain's running mate during the 2008 National Republican Convention, he and Zappulla said sites such as Coppin and 1st Mariner "served double, triple and quadruple duty."

What that means is that a hall might serve as the site of a McCain rally in Dayton in the morning, then be redesigned and re-dressed to be the site of a vice presidential debate later in the day.

Oh, yeah, that debate between Palin and Biden, which Gwen Ifill moderated, is in the film. You betcha.

But just as important as the gymnasiums and arenas is that Baltimore has "so many great downtown hotels with so much diversity," Corenblith says. "That gave Baltimore a tremendous advantage for this film."

And it wasn't because out-of-towners like Corenblith wanted a nice place to stay while they were here. What they needed were distinctive presidential suites in which to stage major scenes.

"When the candidates are traveling, generally, they will be staying in secured situations in presidential suites, so this is so important to us," he says. "We've lost count, but we probably have eight to 10 presidential suites in this picture. … And every hotel suite has to be its own song on the side of an album, which is a very tall order when we go from St. Paul to New York to St. Louis to Phoenix to Arlington, Va. So we've got great hotel suites in all parts of the country."

And, says Zappulla, they found all of their hotels in a four-block radius in downtown Baltimore. But even as she and Corenblith praise the hotels for their "remarkable co-operation and assistance," they decline to name them.

They did share two Baltimore locations that will be in the film, the Inner Harbor building that housed the offices of the now-defunct Baltimore Examiner and the seventh floor at 300 E. Lombard Ave.

Corenblith and Zappulla built and dressed three newsrooms in the Examiner's old offices: those of The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The Lombard site is McCain campaign headquarters.

"We have photographs from multiple sources and behind-the-scenes videos of what his campaign headquarters looked like," Corenblith says. "So, his desk is his desk, and what's behind his desk is exactly what was there."

"The calendars are all accurate," Zappulla says. "What's on the calendars are things that were actually going on those days."

"We are surrounded with much historic knowledge -- people who were present at these events, persons who researched this way deeper than we ever could," adds Corenblith. "And we've had these people as assets and resources to help us. So, even the maps on the walls are reflective of where they really were in the polls on that given day."

Stressing the mandate from Roach and Strong to get every detail right, from the soft drink dispenser that delivered Red Bull instead of soda at McCain headquarters to the bowls of red licorice twists in green rooms on the campaign trail, Corenblith and Zappulla clearly understand that when they choose a color for a room or a picture on a wall, they are potentially messing or meshing with the historical record and shared national memory.

Who doesn't remember Palin and her family, including pregnant teenage daughter Bristol, standing onstage for the first time at the GOP convention?

"So, certainly what takes place onstage is archivally, I hate to use the word 'perfect,' but…" Corenblith says. "The degree of fidelity for the events that we're depicting that the home audience would have seen is an 11 on a scale of 10."

And they can get that degree of authenticity for every scene they want to shoot without leaving Maryland?

It turns out, there is one scene in "Game Change" that won't be filmed here but rather in Santa Fe. It's believed to be a scene at McCain's home in Arizona.

"We can do everything in Maryland except the desert," says Zappulla. "We've got mountains. We've got water. We've got woods. We have beach."

And, happily, Hollywood is back in town filming them again.