If you’ve been watching the FX network’s retro spy series, The Americans, which has its season finale tonight, you may or may not have noticed a recurring cameo by the National Geographic headquarters building as seen from the window of the show’s FBI headquarters (that’s us in the picture above, with our flat roof and long panels of glass).
Then again, perhaps you haven’t paid attention to this, focusing instead on the schemes and schisms complicating the lives of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by Mathew Rhys and Keri Russell), a pair of deep-cover Cold War KGB agents in Ronald Reagan’s Washington D.C., who are trying their best to blend into the background.
But since I work in the building, I’ve been more than a little distracted when its image comes on screen. So I talked with the show’s production designer, John Mott, about our architectural cameo and how he went about recreating the early 80s feel for the critically acclaimed series. I also found out why the weather’s always so nice.
A Whole Lot of Trickery
Set design involves “a whole lot of trickery,” Mott says, which is especially appropriate for a show in which no one is quite what they seem.
The fake FBI office, for example, is set on a raised platform to make it seem to be several stories above the ground. Extending the backdrop well below the line of sight out the windows keeps the camera from accidentally revealing that the view is of a static, 80 foot by 16 foot backdrop. But even the backdrop itself is elaborately disguised.
The view, which Mott would only say “looks a lot like” the north façade of the National Geographic headquarters building, is a composite modern-day image created by a Los Angeles-based company that creates studio backdrops. For authenticity, it has been scrubbed of anachronistic clutter such as satellite dishes and cell phone transmission equipment. Since I recognize our neighboring buildings, I can also see that our headquarters and its surroundings have been reversed, creating a lovely geographic and visual pun for this show. West is east and east is west.
The backdrop is specially made so it can serve as both daytime and nighttime window dressing. The back is printed black to block out light, except for the windows, the Washington Monument, and other accents that let light from behind it shine through during the evening scenes. To further fool the viewer’s eye, the whole image is slightly out of focus to make the buildings appear more distant, and the skies are always clear. “If there’s any clouds you might get fixated on them because they don’t move,” Mott says, “so that’s why it’s always a nice, pleasant day.”
Getting the Feel Right
As geographers, my colleagues and I care about what gives a place its identity, so I asked Mott how he went about creating a sense of place for the show. As a period piece, there’s a lot of additional legwork involved. “It’s set in 1981 in D.C., but shot in 2013 in New York City, mostly in Brooklyn,” he points out. So what does it take to get things right, to make a modern place look old and make a fake place look real?
“It comes down a lot to feel,” Mott says. “What your gut tells you, based on experience and research. We do a lot of research.” Not just about the details of an era, but where things are headed to allow little hints about things that are starting to change, like color preferences. The end result is “something sort of made up but not completely wrong,” he says.
The actual FBI headquarters is about a mile and a half from where Mott placed it, and looks out along Pennsylvania Avenue with a view of the Capitol, not across M Street with a view of our building, but there are a lot of tall buildings with rows and rows of glass windows nearby as well, so it works.
Mott also wanted the sets to show the differences between the worlds of the Soviet spies and the American FBI agents.
“My visual concept is that the Russians inhabit the old world and the FBI inhabits the newer world. Interestingly, the FBI building is a Brutalist building, which people associate with the Soviets,” Mott says.
“I created an interior that was in keeping with the exterior. The feeling of a solid building that was futuristic at the time. I thought about what kind of furniture there would be. I wanted them to be leaning forward.”
Of course there is also plenty of action and intrigue happening at the KGB’s Washington headquarters, known as the residentura. “For the Russian set, I wanted to say that the Russians are trying to move forward but are stuck in the past. Lots of ornament, decoration, patterns. They love wallpaper, love baroque.”
Beyond the Studio
Many of the scenes are shot outside, which poses another set of challenges. For the Soviet residentura, the show uses an establishing shot of what was the Soviet Embassy in the 1980s but became the Russian ambassador’s residence in 1994.
For active shots, the crew has a lot of phone booths that they bring along. They also remove inappropriate signage and late model cars, and they replace them with things that have the right look. “It’s very tough to get all or even most of it period, so afterward we will go in digitally and remove things,” Mott says.
Luckily, the show “is mostly about the drama, about people’s relationships, and not about running down Constitution Avenue and firing at people. That plays to our strengths,” Mott added.
Despite all this planning and hard work, the goal of the set, as it is for any spook worth his or her salt, is not to get noticed. As Mott puts it, “If you don’t think about it too much, we’re probably doing our jobs.”