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Immersed in Movies: Production Designer Galvin Talks Recreating the White House in New Orleans for 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'

Photo of Bill Desowitz By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood August 16, 2013 at 1:37PM

Tim Galvin jumped at the rare opportunity to design nearly a century of the African-American experience, both inside and outside the White House, with "Lee Daniels' The Butler."
Lee Daniels' The Butler

The eclectic Tim Galvin, who, among other things, designed "The Silence of the Lambs," "12 Monkeys," and the "Parenthood" TV series, jumped at the chance to work with Lee Daniels on "The Butler." It was a rare opportunity to chronicle the 20th century African-American experience, both inside and outside the White House in a fresh and compelling way. But it was also a reunion of two old Philly guys, since Galvin had previously worked with Daniels on his directorial debut, "Shadowboxer."

"I thought the picture was something that had to be made," Galvin suggests. "And it drove us. I thought this was a story that hadn't gotten out there yet. And Lee figured out how to present the story of the African-American experience in a way that people could absorb and relate to. Here was this thing that would really make an important impact in our culture. And I said to producer Pam Williams, we have a pact to do whatever we can to make this film happen -- and that's what we did."

Inspired by a real life story, domestic servant Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) serves at the White House from the Eisenhower through Reagan administrations and, without realizing it, becomes a subversive influence in the civil rights movement as a result of his strong work ethic and non-threatening manner. Early on, Gaines learns to disappear in dedicated subservience, recalling Ralph Ellison's "The Invisible Man," but in the end his humanizing presence inspires political action.

However, Gaines' personal life is far more complicated and tragic. He neglects his wife (Oprah Winfrey), who suffers bouts of depression and alcoholism; and his oldest son (David Oyelowo) turns rebellious, participating as a Freedom Rider and following Martin Luther King Jr. and then the Black Panthers after his assassination.

As with Andrew Dunn's cinematography and Ruth Carter's costume design, Daniels wanted an authentic, lived-in look, not something that appeared designed. Galvin did thorough research of the White House, Washington, D.C., and the Southern locales. However, with a $30 million budget, everything was shot in and around New Orleans with few digital enhancements. 

Galvin especially enjoyed the early sharecropping scenes with Gaines as a boy in 1920's Virginia. "There was more to the sharecropping sequence that didn't make the final cut, sadly. "That was strong stuff with more of him being very young and some of character-building events that told you who he was. It got a little compressed.

"With the White House, our goal was to be as accurate as we could with the Oval Offices and the places in the White House that are public. So we had to keep redoing the bedrooms of the president. It made the job a little unusual. Not only do you have to do the White House but you have to do it [several] times. Once I figured out the parts of the places that we needed, then when we went out on location to scout in New Orleans, then I looked for the things that are molded, you might say, because it's not the easiest thing to make a movie about Washington in New Orleans."

The challenge for the White House scenes was pinpointing actual months because changes in decor happened frequently (he was ably assisted by set decorator Diane Lederman). What the production designer found fascinating, though, was discovering which presidents were into changing the Oval Office and which were indifferent to it. 

This article is related to: Lee Daniels' The Butler , Lee Daniels, Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Immersed In Movies

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.