by Tony Ruiz, Gold Derby
Emmy-winning production designers Todd Fjelsted and Tony Fanning are both credited with creating the world of “The First Lady,” Showtime’s 10 episode limited series about three very different presidents’ wives and their experiences in the White House. However, Fjelsted and Fanning didn’t really collaborate on the series.
Fanning, an Emmy winner for “The West Wing,” worked on the segments focused on the tenures of Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis). Fjelsted, who won his Emmy for his work on “GLOW,” designed the segments centered around Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer). Check out our exclusive video interview with Fjelsted and Fanning above.
Fanning says that over 350 sets were created for the series, a challenge made all the more daunting by having to traverse multiple decades and even different centuries. However, Fanning, who calls himself a “White House history buff,” enjoyed the challenge. “Figuring out the puzzle of the whole thing is really what interests me and enveloping myself in the characters and the time periods,” he says.
For Fanning, the greatest design challenged involved recreating the White House of the Roosevelt administration. He describes the various changes that Franklin Roosevelt made to the White House during his time in office. “A lot of what we think of as how the Oval Office happens… all of that was set up for FDR, to help with his handicap and to keep his privacy,” he explains. “I think it’s so interesting to put that together in these overall stories and see how the White House itself is a character in the series.”
Fjelsted had a completely different challenge caused by something beyond his control. Production on the Ford portion of the series began during the height of the Covid pandemic before vaccines were widely available. He and his team spent months meeting with series director Susanne Bier largely via Zoom. However, Fjelsted is particularly proud of recreating the town of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where a young Betty (Kristine Froseth) first meets Gerald Ford (Jake Picking). “It was just such an unexpected set,” he says. ” I wasn’t really expecting to create a period small town, and that was really was exciting. We had to find a location that was similar and then drastically alter it.”