Earlier this month, HBO’s “The Plot Against America” came to a rousing end. It was up to production designer Richard Hoover to help director Minkie Spiro create the look for the show’s alternate timeline which posits that aviator Charles Lindbergh, played by Ben Cole, a Nazi sympathizer, is elected president in 1940 instead of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Based on the 2004 Phillip Roth novel of the same name, the six-part series finale opened with a series of anti-Semitic crimes and the looting of businesses owned by Jews. Evelyn’s (Winona Ryder) husband was arrested and she turned to Bess (Zoe Kazan), her sister for sympathy.
And to close out the series, Frank Sinatra’s “That’s America to Me” played over a montage of the 1942 election with ballots being burned.
Field trips, research and the novel all helped Hoover. “I caught up with the book as I started scouting,” Hoover says. At the time, he only had one script so he made a tone book filled with photos and notes to “help get the discussion moving.”
Those discussions would also help Dina Goldman who took on production design for episodes 4-6.
His first goal was to help with the Jewish neighborhood which in itself would be a character. This was to be the place where the Levin family, who are the heart of the story, an ordinary working-class family resides.
Hoover found the perfect location in Newark, N.J. “I knew we weren’t going to get exact houses – the three-story basement houses tied together with no front yard,” he explains. “I also knew we didn’t want 19th century houses so we had to find an alternative.” For Hoover, that meant asking the question, “What does it matter if it wasn’t exactly accurate, but close enough?” He didn’t have the luxury of building his set on a backlot, so he found 16 houses that he could control at a time, and that would become the ideal street where the Levin family live.
When it came to creating the interiors of the houses, the most important thing for Hoover was to look at camera angles for directors. To help visualize, he created both digital and physical models of the interiors.
Color-wise, the “tonality was muted because color was not in fashion at that time, nor was it affordable.” A dive into historical archives helped Hoover use a color palette that was focused on neutrals. “We kept it warm using pale greens and ochres.”
The warmth signaled a place of safety for the Levin apartment as the world outside disintegrates and they watch the rise of Lindenbergh in the White House. At the same time, “frames and doors symbolized the feeling of being kept inside,” Hoover says.
Hoover shied away from using red until the Madison Square Garden rally, “It’s when the show starts to get into the Nazi Germany propaganda,” he says. When the show finally shows red in the flags, it’s striking.