HBO set designers provide 'change' you can believe in

The producers of 'Game Change' have deftly turned the Baltimore area into a nationwide campaign trail

  • Set designer Tiffany Zappulla (left) and production manager Michael Corenblith are working on the HBO film "Game Change," which is filming in Baltimore.
Set designer Tiffany Zappulla (left) and production manager… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
May 27, 2011|By David Zurawik, The 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."

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