Interview: Emmy Nominated Production Designer Chloe Arbiture on ‘Drunk History’ and “Hamilton”

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There are few shows that pull off a unique aesthetic like “Drunk History.” The series is unique for its hilarious tellings of famous historical moments, but then re-enacting these moments with equally amazing actors and comedians. However, the actors wouldn’t quite look the part with the equally great sets they step into. That’s where Chloe Arbiture comes in, the production designer responsible for making the show look like a million dollars. Arbiture received a nomination for production design at this year’s Emmys, and has already started work on the larger 5th season. She took time out of her wedding week to sit down and discuss “Drunk History,” the 3-part “Hamilton” episode, and what’s next for her in the world of film.

AF: So before we jump into it, congratulations for your Emmy nomination.

C: Thanks! It’s been a pretty crazy summer. I’m actually getting married on Saturday so I’m home.

AF: Wow! Then double congratulations.

C: Yeah, it’s been busy but it’s been very good so far!

AF: Alright, well how did you first start down the path to become a production designer?

C: Well I was always an artsy kid. I had started the road in school to be a fine artist, a painter. I was taking a lot of art classes in school, but it didn’t feel like there was a lot of practical application. I had ended up taking a film class, and when I heard about production design, I kind of moved that way. It was a combination of the two things I loved, both the design and storytelling aspect. I originally wanted to be a costume designer, but after working on one show, I realized production design was more where I wanted to be. So after the show was done, I made the transition right then, and that’s how I got my start.

AF: What are some of the things that stand out to you more on the production design side versus the costuming side?

C: I think I like the idea that the aesthetic of the entire show would come from me. I know that sounds like a power trip, but I like the ability to have a say in a lot of different elements, while the costumes were a little more focused. I also liked the conversations with the director and showrunner, which I enjoy more.

AF: How did you first get involved in “Drunk History?”

C: I had actually worked with the line producer on a previous pilot. She knew I was a very hands-on production designer, and she thought I would be a good fit. She told me they love doing miniatures and hand crafted stuff, and that was really my kind of wheelhouse. She said not only do you have the skillset, but you’ll work well with Jeremy Konner and Derek Waters, and it really is like a big family. That’s what was so great about the nomination, is that everyone was very excited for us and with us.

AF: How much freedom do Jeremey and Derek give you in the process?

C: It is so immense, it is just a playground for me. They are so trusting in me and the productions we bring to the table. This also makes it difficult and challenging for me, but they love when I pitch ideas. Oftentimes they’ll ask me if we should shoot in miniature, or how they should shoot this. For a production designer to have that much input is pretty unique in a TV show. Sometimes because we shoot so quickly, because we shoot a very fast schedule, sometimes they don’t see it before it goes on screen. The trust that takes is huge.

AF: How do you start prepping the sets with research? Do you deep dive, or wait for the narration to come in?

C: So by the time I’m brought into production, they’ve recorded all the narration, and cut them down. By the time I get it, it’s a pretty focused story. The first thing I do is break down all the locations for every story. We actually shoot on location and we hardly ever build full sets. We build pieces, but for the most part, we shoot everything on locations. So I break down the script and find all the locations.

I’ll then couple those with a couple of other stories in the season so we can shoot a couple of days in the same location. I’ll do my research from there, and honestly, there’s some crossover. If it’s a story I’ve never heard of, I’ll have to do some research to find out what the location should look like. I usually do a broad sweep of the stories and how documented they all are, then we begin to focus our research. My art director does a lot of research and my decorator does a lot of research and we all combine efforts on that. There’s so much history to get through in a season, we split it up evenly.

AF: Which narrator has given you the biggest challenge as the designer?

C: Ha-ha!  It’s tough to pick out one because some of the narrators like to embellish. I like those more because they have very specific dialogue or they reference a sign that is clearly not real, but I love that stuff. It informs how we do things and it gives the story structure. That said, I like the more ludicrous and absurd because it adds to the comedy.

AF: One of my favorite things about the show is when the narrator says something ridiculous, and then the next scene the characters are holding a newspaper with something extremely vulgar or insane.

C: that is our favorite joke! My other favorite is desk plates. Like someone will say “he was the mother f-ing president!” Then we’ll make a desk plate that says that. I actually have that one on my desk now, I always take the ones I like.

AF: How much do you actually focus in on the script to pull visual jokes that the audience might not see?

C: Well we rely heavily on the scripts. I actually meet with Derek and Jeremy and they each direct half the scripts. In season 4 we had 28 stories, so they each did 14, and they co-directed “Hamilton.” When I sit down with each about their individual stories and I’ll tell them, these are some jokes that I found funny. It’s very collaborative. The same thing with my crew. Rae [Deslich] is a genius and very funny. Oftentimes we were at Warner Brothers prop house, and we thought it was funny and hilarious. What do you think about incorporating this into the scene? So it sounds like it can get out of control, but we have such a streamlined way of doing this, it actually adds to the comedy?

AF: Do you have any tools or tricks to make sure you get everything done in time?

C: We actually love backdrops and miniatures, even though they’re the ones that have me scratching my head sometimes. So if we’re doing in a scene in an airplane, and we’re shooting at a hotel location, we might ask how we’re going to do an airplane interior? We don’t rely heavily on visual effects or green screen, so then I’ll ask, well how about we do a backdrop, or a miniature, or a forced perspective miniature? So in “Drunk History” we have those tricks even if it’s a little bit off. It doesn’t have to be perfect because we can still tell an effective story.

AF: Speaking of miniatures, how much detail do you put into those? Sorry for the oxymoron, but one of the big miniatures you used this last year was Boston. Was it 1/85th the size?

C: 1/87th.

AF: Yeah. How much detail did you put into it before you dumped molasses all over it?

C: I built that by myself in my living room, and put about 40 man hours into that miniature. I put a ton of detail into that because we knew that we were going to have to dump molasses all over it and cover an entire cityscape but we didn’t have time to talk about what shots we wanted. So originally I would build a small portion, but then I wondered if they wanted extra shots, how could they? So I built more and more. They’re mostly DIY but we embrace that aesthetic. If it looks a little hand made the better. It was funny because, for season 5, Jeremy came up to me and said, “Hey Chloe, this miniature looks a little too good. It looks a little too real. We need to make it look more ‘Drunk History.’” So that’s our motto.

Derek Waters actually told me that he wanted to keep the mood of it feeling like community theater. I actually came in on the 4th season, and there had been an amazing production designer before me. When I met the guys, they wanted me to lean harder into what she did. Even though the series budget has drastically heightened since it was a web series, both Jeremy and Derek want to keep that feel.

AF: So let’s jump into the “Hamilton” episode. It’s the one you’re nominated for, so what was your favorite part about it?

C: I really love this episode. We actually had more than one day to shoot, which is very different than we’re used to.

AF: How worried were you given the popularity of the show?

C: We were a bit worried, not only because of Lin Manuel Miranda but because Hamilton had a special place in our hearts. For Jeremy and Derek, it was the very first episode they ever did in the web series. So they had an emotional investment on top of the musical. Then it was going to be an entire episode instead of being one of three stories. I was very worried because we needed to do it justice, and live up to all the other “Hamilton” hype. We couldn’t just duplicate the musical.

AF: Did Lin surprise you with how much he knows about Hamilton?

C: I’ve seen the raw footage, and the amount of knowledge he has is just incredible. There were so many side paths and stories we didn’t get to use all of them and that’s disappointing.

AF: One of the things I noticed is that most of the time, the narrator’s go wildly off path. Even at his worst though, he was still telling an incredibly coherent version of the story.

C: Yeah it was pretty amazing!

AF: Now obviously you’ve already started work on season 5, what are some of the cool things for us to look forward to?

C: Well it’s the biggest season yet, we’ve got more stories and more episodes. We’re also leaving the United States, so I’m really excited because it allowed the “Drunk History” universe to expand. There are more stories about women and people of color, and stories you’ve never heard from before. It was great to dive into stories that you just don’t know. At the art department side, we also did two matte paintings, which I had never done before. Like I said, we have the money to rely on CG other than some muzzle flashes. In terms of creating buildings, we don’t really do that. So using matte paintings was a throwback to old Hollywood. I just think it will expand the universe more and I hope the audience likes it. Everyone on the show is such a history fan, I just hope it comes through.

AF: Now something that’s great about your nomination is that you are the only female production designer nominated in your category. How do you encourage women to go out and do what you do?

C: I think it’s really important for women to have people to look at and see in visible roles. My whole crew that’s nominated is women. Our extended crew set dressers, and props, coordinators, graphic designer are all women. Because our crew is so big, we make a point to hire as many women as we can. I think if I have a word of advice, it’s to just go for it. Now more than ever, the tone is set for women to succeed and balance the equality in gender roles. You can’t get intimidated by the fact that it’s going to be in front of a room full of guys. You have to just go for it.

AF: Okay, so is there anything else for us to look forward to you other than “Drunk History?”

C: Well a movie that I worked on last fall is premiering at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s called “Chappaquiddick” and it’s a historical movie. I was the supervising art director on that, and it’s a story about Ted Kennedy at an important point in his life. I’m very excited about that, and I’m excited to see where that goes. It comes out at Toronto.

AF: Who are some of the people involved?

C: Well I brought a lot of my “Drunk History” history crew. John Goldsmith (“A Most Violent Year”) is the production designer. In terms of actors, Kate Mara, Jason Isaac, Ed Helms, Bruce Dern. It was a very fun film to shoot and we shot on location in Boston. It was just an amazing experience.

AF: Well congratulations on the nomination, congratulations on the wedding. I can’t believe you took time out of your week to talk to me.

C: Oh it’s no problem! I’m just so thankful for everything this summer, it’s really great.

“Drunk History” Season 4 is now available to steam on Hulu.