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TV Newsroom Gets a Hip Look in ABC’s ‘The Beast’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Veteran production designer James Spencer is responsible for the unique, stylized look of the series “The Beast,” which premieres tonight on ABC.

Frank Langella stars in the drama as media mogul Jackson Burns, who made a fortune in video games, and has built a 24-hour news organization, WNS. His team of reporters and associates not only covers stories, they are also part of the story because cameras located in the halls, their cars and behind closed doors document their every move.

Spencer’s massive, intricate set for WNS is replete with a seemingly never-ending stream of video monitors, steel beams, cameras, desks and long and winding ramps. WNS is the epitome of George Orwell’s “1984.” But instead of Big Brother, a mysterious figure named Harry sits somewhere in the WNS building and oversees all the cameras for WNS’ Internet telecasts.

Spencer, who began his career as an art director more than 30 years ago on the series, “I Spy,” was art director on “Rocky” and production designer on such films as “Lethal Weapon 3,” “Gremlins,” “Innerspace” and “Poltergeist.” The designer recently talked about his designs for “The Beast” on the Culver Studio set of his latest project, the 3-D movie “The Haunted Lighthouse.”

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Question: Would you talk about the genesis for your design for WNS? Was it described in the pilot script?

Answer: This particular project is a great opportunity for a designer because Frank [Langella], sort of being the owner, operator and builder of this place, he came from the video game world. So he is ultra hip and very functional.

There was an existing set. They had done a pilot earlier and they wanted a new look. I came in with a palette of darkness so the only thing that showed up were the people and the media itself--all the screens. There are 125 screens in the set. So with the steel and the cabling, I wanted everything to have an industrial feeling, but exciting. That’s why the dark blue walls. I put the control room into a block of walls and opened it up so you could see into every other part of the place. And Frank’s office and the perch where he brings everybody to talk is sort of the bullpen backed by 20 monitors.

I put the anchor desk in the middle of the floor in the atrium--it was up on the second floor [in the original pilot]--and it has people working behind it, just like any of these networks. I went to ABC and scouted their new news building here in L.A. I wanted it to be a new and interesting space that people hadn’t seen before.

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Q: What about that lounge where everyone hangs out?

A: The cocktail lounge they wrote into the script. “Ally McBeal"--they go into a bar--but this needed to be really something different. I don’t know if you remember a club called the Mocambo on the Sunset Strip in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. My folks frequented that when they were around. So I adopted that name. I made it a Polynesian affair with its own beach and setting sun backdrop. I didn’t want it to be realistic, but a place that Frank--being the wonderful broad-minded individual--would come up with for his clients and employees.

Q: Where did you find the theater that serves as the exterior of WNS?

A: That is one of my great moments. I hunted all over L.A. to try to find the right building that was going to house WNS. Nothing was suitable. I was coming out of the Central Market on Broadway [in downtown] and I looked at the Million Dollar Theater which is on the corner of Broadway and Third. I looked up at the marquee and said to myself, Frank is bringing theater to the world, why not put him in a theater? So I sold the idea to [executive producer] Mimi Leder. Digitally we took the top off the building and added this sort of steel drum [shaped building].

Q: Is the interior of WNS all one big connecting set?

A: Everything is attached because Mimi [who also directed three episodes] always wants to go from one place to another in a continuous shot right into the next set.

Q: What about Harry’s working space? We only see him in the dark surrounded by monitors.

A: We don’t know where he is, but he’s in the building. There is an overhead shot [in one of the episodes] which sort of tells you a little more about Harry. He’s a collector of antiquity, so his space is cluttered with antique grandfather clocks and stuff like that. We haven’t had a chance to flesh out his room. We have to shoot him at the end of each episode because we need all the footage that we have shot [in the episode] to be on his monitors. So he always gets this short end of the stick because at the end of the schedule we are running out of time.

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* “The Beast” premieres tonight at 10 on ABC. The network has rated it TV-14-S-V (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with special advisories for sexual situations and violence).


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