The USS Nathan James is the absolute star of “The Last Ship”. A constant presence since day one, it has survived two takeovers, torpedoes, missile hits, airstrikes, and come through relatively unscathed. However, most of what you see isn’t a real Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyer at all, but an incredibly detailed and intricate set built on a soundstage in Culver City, Los Angeles.

Building the set was a painstaking labour of love, and we talked to Jeffrey Kushon, set decorator, about how this incredible set came to be built.

“We put a lot into details,” says Jeffrey. “So much so that when we have the Admiral and all the top navy brass come through, they’re just blown away by the authenticity and detail that we’re able to create for the show.”

bridge04Watching the show as a fan, although most viewers wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell the difference, it does, indeed, look amazingly accurate. “That was kind of our challenge that was set in the very beginning,” admits Jeffrey. “Originally, we had a different deal with the navy in order to be able to have full access to all their ships. So in the very beginning, when we did the pilot on the show, we thought that we would never really have to build much of the ship, except maybe small portions of it. Then there was some activity in Syria and the Middle East and stuff was happening, and so the navy went on high alert and they kinda came back and said, ‘sorry, we’re not going to be able to give you the access that you desire.’ And at that point, we’d already been shooting into season one.”

Oh my gosh, how are we going to do this?”

bridge08That must have been an incredible blow, and many productions would have folded at such a bump in the road. Not “The Last Ship”. “We kinda went into a panic mode because we were like, ‘oh my gosh, how are we going to do this,” explains Jeffrey “‘This series could be over if we don’t have 100% navy cooperation’. That’s when all the people at Platinum Dunes (Michael Bay’s company) kinda went into a tailspin and said, ‘okay, so what can we do?’.

“So at that point we started kind of putting pencil to paper and asking ‘what do you guys need? What do you think you’ll shoot the most of?’ And at that point, it came down to basically what we need and all that kind of stuff to get it done.”

Having to build sets mid-season would cause even the strongest people to balk, but, instead of throwing in the towel, Jeffrey and his team took up the challenge and ran with it.

“That was the challenge that we were pitted against. It was difficult because if we weren’t able to pull this off and there was an obvious distinction between what was a stage set and what was the real ship, the audience was going to get it and say ‘I can distinctly tell when they’re on the ship and when they’re not on the ship”.

So they basically said, ‘hey guys, can you guarantee us that you can make this seamless, so that when we’re on the ship shooting interiors and we go back on stage that it’s not going to look any different?’ Can you guarantee us 80%? 90% that you can do this?’ And of course I opened my mouth and was like, ‘I’ll give you 110%!’ And at that point I was like, oh my gosh, this could be the end of me!

So that was the big thing because at that point you think to yourself, ‘I opened my mouth, I said I could do this, now I have to deliver’. 
First there was panic, because I opened my mouth, now I’ve got to do something. Then there was doubt, and then there was fear of losing your job. And then came the thing where you’re just going to have to dig in the trenches and push forward and make this happen at all costs.”

cic04Trying to find resources, especially at short notice, must have been almost impossible. “It was at that point that I think that we started tracking down what other shows had happened that dealt with Navy destroyers and other movies that had happened like ‘Battleship’,” explains Jeffrey. “And other movies that had maybe assets in their possession. The other one was a show that started and went down called ‘Wild Blue’.  

“So we kinda started sleuthing and being detectives and going, ‘ok, who would have this, and who would have that?’ because, when we reached out to the navy and said ‘hey, can we get some of stuff from you’, of course they’re not in the business of selling set dressing and pieces of ships. So for them it was kind of like, ‘I don’t know where to get this stuff and we don’t really know who to send you to, so you’re kind of on your own’. And at that point we were like, ‘oh my gosh, if the navy can’t help us who can?’

“So we started tracking down these shows, and we found a little bit of pieces here and there. I worked with the head of TNT who was in charge of the show, Bill Phillips, and Bill helped me broker in some deals with this other show and buy their assets. And that was kind of a starting point, we were able to acquire some of their assets which were from a ship that they had salvaged in Hawaii on show called ‘Wild Blue’.

“We were able to gather their assets, and that gave my crew enough time to start putting together the pieces of how we were going to build the Nathan James.”

“We needed the Nathan James bridge first and foremost, because when they shot the pilot, they shot on the bridge of another DDG destroyer. And the DDG class destroyer is what the Nathan James is. So, what occurred at that point was that we focused on the bridge first. Then they really needed the CIC or ‘Combat Information Centre’, that’s the blue lit room when you watch the show.”

199_DDG_CIC_Pg_07_R001So just how did Jeffrey and his team manage to get things so accurate? “We had no references, so we went down to San Diego, at Camp Pendleton and scouted the USS Kidd, and that’s where we regained access,” he says. “We got special access to their Combat Information Centre, and most people who are un-enlisted, other than government contractors, are never allowed in that room because that is very highly sensitive materials and equipment, and stuff of that nature that normally is not seen by the public.

“And we regained access because of the nature of our show and our relationship to Michael Bay and all he’s done for the navy and the armed forces. We took over a thousand pictures of every little detail we could possibly shoot, in order to give us references to build it exactly how we needed to build it. Because this stuff since it is still classified equipment, we had to build it from what we could measure and photography and kind of extrapolate from their designs. We made it with the talented craftsmen, assembling all the best minds and everything, to draw specs so we could actually build all these control units within the CIC. Same with the bridge, the bridge has a lot of instrumentation and we figured out that we were able to deliver the bridge while they shot other stuff.”

It sounds like one hell of a challenge, and would probably take months! What happens when you don’t have months, though?

“So we had a certain timeline, we only had 8 weeks to really build the Bridge and the CIC, which is not a lot of time. I think we ended up at about 10 weeks because they were able to shoot the bridge first and then move into the CIC. There was a lot of dancing around. They had to block a lot of time in the episodes, and shoot episodes without going into these places, and eventually when the sets were finished, they all had to go back in, all the different directors, and shoot their episodes once we were finished with the bridge and the CIC.

rachelslab01“We were shooting what’s called cross-boarding. We were cross-boarding episodes, avoiding shooting in the areas that weren’t quite finished. The pressure was on us. Of course, we had people coming from Michael Bay’s party, his camp, and the producer looking in on us all the time, making sure that we were doing the work that we promised and making sure that it looked spot on.

“There were changes made, design elements that were added. Electronics, wiring… I mean it just went on and on. We were able to deliver that on time, and season 1 was able to complete by shooting some of the interiors of a DDG down in San Diego and then piecing it all into what we complete in that 8 to 10 week schedule.”

To say we were stunned at the tight turnaround is an understatement. “It was a monumental thing, and of course they were astounded when we finally cut the ribbon to allow everyone to view what we had done,” chuckles Jeffrey.

“And we had our navy advisor at the time, Captain Coons, came through and I basically said to him, ‘Captain’…he’d spent 20+ years of his life on a DDG destroyer… I said, ‘do you have any things for me, that I need to know or can you give me any idea what I can make better?’ And he basically had nothing to say, he’s like ‘you guys nailed it!”

I feel like I’m on a destroyer. I feel like I’m on the ship. In the CIC I feel like this is my CIC. I really don’t know what to tell you other than there’s a few little things we could do here and there, little tweaks but other than that, I don’t know how you guys did it.’

“And of course, I was lucky enough to get stuff from local props houses who had some ship stuff. Some of the stuff from the show ‘Wild Blue’ and some of the stuff from others shows that had been kind of military ship-centric in their design and build. We constantly kinda just Frankensteined it all together and brought in all the pieces. I can tell you, I have half a stage full of ship instrumentation, panels, keyboards, monitors, it was just a sea of devices, electronics and machinery to make this happen!”

bridge10With the sets being the size they are, it’s hardly surprising that there is so much space taken up by props. “We figured we ran close to 3 football fields of pipe… PVC piping,” says Jeffrey. “We ran 6 football fields of wiring and cables and electrical. And we had probably a ton and a half of material that was built and put in to the bridge and CIC. So, that gives you… I would say probably a quarter of a football field just to fill the CIC and bridge. It was a mountain of stuff, and it just sucks it all in. These small little spaces just absorb every little piece and we pretty much used everything.

“That being said, we completed our mission, it was slaps on the back all round. The navy did their walk through, they were blown away. There were some admirals, and they commented. They would see something and be like, ‘ok I know that that is a heating element for the home but you guys have made it look like the picture of what it really is, but it’s not what it is. So congrats to you for making something that’s a  household item look like an item that would really be on a ship!’

“It’s just funny, because they have a big laugh, because they can see stuff that’s not anywhere near what it was but they see kind of what we used. Outside of using a toaster as a piece of radar, we cheated as much as we could by finding stuff from hardware stores, and then changing it. Our super talented craftsmen in our industry can basically make everything from a picture into a drawing, and then build it in 3D space. Something that’s functional, that an actor can sit down at, interact with, and make it look as real as possible because that’s what we need to do for this show. That’s what Michael Bay kinda dictates – that everything has to look like you’re really on the ship, otherwise people aren’t going to believe it.

communications1“Its funny because we don’t get the accolades that we think we deserve, that’s why I like talking about it. Every design, every art director that I’ve worked with that walks through this set always says the same thing, ‘we never knew you guys bought all this stuff, we thought you guys were always on a ship, on a real ship’. That’s the thing that we try to do in our industry is fool people, and if we can fool the navy and fool the public and make them think that we are actually out at sea on a real ship, on the Nathan James, then that’s a great honour. It’s especially great that people who live and work on these ships give us that kind of kudos.”

If you were ever unsure about the level of detail that went into creating the USS Nathan James, you need look no further than the coffee mugs. Jeffrey laughs. “It’s funny, I found the company when I was scouting a ship and I looked on the bottom of the mugs and saw the name of the company that actually makes the mugs for the navy. I contacted them, and I remember that they said they only really deal with the navy. So when they have someone like me calling them they don’t know if it’s a crank call or whatever. They’re like, ‘and you’re with what?’ This was the first season, so they had no idea this show even existed. It’s much different now. So I called them and said I need to order these mugs. I got all the cast of characters, and I found out what their ranking was, and really put their names on there and did everything.

bridge01“I think an old designer once told me, god is in the details. And I really think that even though the public may not see it, I see it and my crew sees it and the actors see it. And I think that that’s what’s important to me. I’ve been in this business for over 25 years, and to me it’s like I always love just going the extra distance. Even all the books are hand-picked out that deal with the navy and strategy and what these guys would read. All kinds of spy thrillers and tactical stuff. Even down to the books, all the drawers are filled with stuff too, so if they ever open a drawer there’s appropriate navy paperwork in there, so the actors really feel like they are on the ship and that’s kind like what we try and do. Which makes it even detailed, and I think people really feel it, they may not see it, but they can feel it in the overall vibe of the ship.”



Watch out for part two of our chat with Jeffrey, where he talks about how he got into set decorating! RELEASE DATE: Sunday 16th October 2016