Derek McLane: Broadway Design for the Oscar Stage

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riticizing the Oscars is sort of an American blood sport,” proclaims renowned Broadway production designer, Derek McLane. That was the first thing to come to mind when faced with the prospect of designing the set for the 85th Academy Awards in 2012, a notion he found “slightly horrifying.” Nevertheless, he accepted the challenge and is now fully consumed in his third year as the award show’s production designer.

When I meet McLane in late January, he is enjoying a brief 48-hour stop at his home base, an industrial design studio in Midtown Manhattan. He has just returned from London, where his designs are being brought to life for the West End transfer of Broadway’s Beautiful, and he will soon make his way back to Los Angeles to continue preparations for the 87th annual Oscars telecast. One could easily forgive McLane for exhaustion considering his workload, but he seems more energized than drained.

Today, McLane’s tall frame is outfitted in a charcoal Prada jacket paired with a loose-fitting John Varvatos sweater and two-toned oxford shoes. With his slicked hairstyle and smoldering facial expressions, McLane is a modern manifestation of Mad Men’s Don Draper but exudes a warm welcoming personality more akin to Jimmy Fallon. When I ask him to describe his personal style, McLane says he doesn’t think this has anything to do with clothing choices or physical appearance. “For me, style is more how you carry yourself… to be gentlemanly is to be stylish,” he says.

McLane’s design studio is organized and efficient with his associates diligently crafting intricate set models for a slew of upcoming productions. Among their latest projects: the set design for the Broadway-bound revival of Gigi, which just ended its engagement at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. McLane also shares the space with costume designer Catherine Zuber and director Doug Hughes, both Tony award winners in their respective disciplines.

Having just noticed that it’s nearly 2 p.m., McLane produces a Clark bar to chew on as we settle into the studio’s conference room. It’s his first meal of the day. The space we’re sitting in has been dubbed “The Library” due to the hundreds of period design, architecture, and fashion books stacked high against the east wall. The room also features a mod-retro table and chairs that have been salvaged from McLane’s previous productions.

McLane’s success didn’t happen overnight. He had to gain respect from the industry in order to earn the right to work on high-profile projects. Born in London in the late 50’s, he recalls an early fascination with creating inventive spaces. As a young boy, McLane began building miniature models of houses and oddly enough, aquariums. By the time he reached high school, he was designing production scenery. “I couldn’t draw very well but was always able to think in abstract space,” he says. This attraction quickly evolved into an ambition to become an architect.

It wasn’t until his time at Harvard that McLane began to develop a passion for set design. For McLane, creating the set for the student production of Guys and Dolls in Harvard’s Leverett dining hall was a turning point. He then decided to hone his skills by enrolling at the Yale School of Drama, where he received an MFA in Design.

After graduating from Yale, McLane moved to New York and immediately began to working in professional theater. He landed his first paying gig as the scenic designer for an Off-Broadway play at the La Mama Theatre. The design fee was 300 dollars, but McLane recalls that he was just excited to be paid for doing what he loved. From there, McLane began to work extensively in regional theater, traveling all over the country. “One year, I did 75 round trips from New York,” he recalls. It would be nine years before he made his debut on the Great White Way.

Throughout his Broadway career, McLane has made his mark on the theatrical world with his memorable sets for shows such as I Am My Own Wife, Anything Goes, Ragtime, and 33 Variations — the last of which stands out as his favorite and earned him a Tony for Best Scenic Design of a Play. He is now known for his signature multi-leveled sets, which often include repetition of key elements and objects. According to McLane, this provides continuity for the audience’s visual journey.

In 2011, McLane was hired by Hollywood producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron to design the sets for their Broadway revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. This successful collaboration led the duo to approach McLane about working on the 85th Academy Awards, which Zadan and Meron had just signed on to produce. McLane immediately began reviewing the last 10 years of Oscar telecast designs in an attempt to look for inspiration. When the pair saw McLane being pulled down the rabbit hole, they quickly intervened. “We hired you because we love your aesthetic,” they said. “We don’t want you to design this to look like somebody else’s. There’s a reason we asked you to do it.”

McLane’s first Oscar set was inspired by a nostalgia for old Hollywood glamor and was lauded by viewers and critics as one of the most lavish and effective Oscars sets in the history of the Academy. In his design, the stage was set against the viewfinder of an arched proscenium that boasted 1,000 replica Oscar statuettes, all silver-leafed. Each reflected different lighting palettes during the broadcast – a nod to McLane’s signature repetition.

For his second Oscar outing, McLane worked with British Director, Hamish Hamilton, who wanted to bring depth and 360-degree movement to the camera blocking onstage. This meant that cameras would capture every element of the set, including what was backstage and in the wings. “There was also more pressure in a way because all of these people were saying ‘oh, you have to out-do yourself,’” he says.

McLane shares that his three favorite elements from the 2014 design were the racks of typewriters from the Screenwriting Awards segment, the luscious red rose backdrop inspired by the “Loveland” set from the Broadway revival of Follies (which he designed), and the “curvicals” or the expansive towers built to spin as they traversed across the stage. McLane also worked with Swarovski to integrate thousands of glimmering gems into the set. The crystals were inspired by the ice palace sequence in Disney’s Frozen, which ended up winning the award for Best Animated Feature Film.

McLane is tight-lipped about this year’s set designs due to a strict non-disclosure agreement but is clearly excited about what he has planned.  With the fast pace and numerous projects he has in progress, I ask if he plans on taking a break and celebrate following this year’s Oscars. He admits that last year he was overcome by exhaustion and retired to his hotel the moment broadcast ended.  “This year, I am looking forward to making it out to the Governor’s Ball,” he says with determined optimism in his voice.

See Derek McLane’s work on the 87th Annual Academy Awards, airing this Sunday, February 22nd at 8 p.m. on ABC. His set designs are also featured in the current Broadway production of Beautiful at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre and the upcoming revival of Gigi at the Neil Simon Theatre (previews begin in March).