—Director/Writer Paul Thomas Anderson
A striking portrait of drifters and seekers in post World War II America, Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER follows the aimless path of Freddie Quell [Joaquin Phoenix], a Navy veteran who arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future until he is tantalized by a spiritual movement, The Cause, and its charismatic leader, Lancaster Dodd [Philip Seymour Hoffman].
To bring about his meticulous yet fluid vision, Anderson once again called on his frequent collaborator Production Designer Jack Fisk, who brought in Production Designer David Crank and Set Decorator Amy Wells SDSA.
Fisk says, “I think David, Amy and I worked well together. I have never worked with a decorator that could pull rabbits out of a hat faster than Amy, her instinct for decoration was perfect on a very tightly scheduled and budgeted film. Since Paul had created such real and nuanced characters in this story, it pushed us to create settings that would be equal to the writing and acting.”
Wells notes, “Jack, David and l follow the same philosophy about dressing and art direction on a period film – less is more. It should never look like the art department was there at all. The challenge is to make it real as it would have been – don’t over embellish. Jack definitely pushed me even further in that direction and it worked beautifully for THE MASTER.”
As Quell’s journey unfolds, the narrative jumps through time…each locale adding layers to his shifting relationship with Lancaster and Peggy Dodd [Amy Adams]…and The Cause.
Wells and Fisk share behind-the-scenes details about the major sets for the film…
Stolstad house - Lynn, Massachusetts – WWII and post-war working-class
“The Stolstad house was in a really interesting neighborhood,” Wells observes. “The houses were all tiny, mostly turn of the century give or take a decade. They were layered upon steep hillsides overlooking the bay. There was a huge sugar factory in town that was impeccably kept and seemed very covert.”
“For the hospital, we had lots of research from the VA, which we referred to in an almost biblical way…the rocking chairs, the simple curtains, the attempts that had been made to make it seem homelike. It was a challenge to outfit all of the beds in the dorm area. We wanted to make sure everything was dressed so that it felt like a different person inhabited each bed. We had gum, personal items, family photos, books, magazines, letters, small bits and pieces of what their life was at that moment.”
Capwell’s Department Store
Fisk recalls, “The department store was so much fun to pull together. We had decided to tempt Freddie Quell with women's intimate apparel surrounding his photography studio, and I remember Amy's delight in prep when she found some original boxed period lingerie in a shop in Crockett, California. The movie god was looking out for us.”
Wells says, “He’s right! The shop had dead stock from an old department store…bras with tags still on them from the late 40’s and early 50’s…some display items, cosmetics, stockings etc. I featured this merchandise up front.”
She adds, “Capwell’s was the greatest challenge for set decorating. It was a HUGE space – and I mean huge! We segmented it into departments according to what made sense for the script.”
“I went to an amazing estate sale in South Pasadena that had been the home of a professional photographer who had passed away many years before. I bought a huge lot of period-correct darkroom accessories, bottles of chemicals (Freddie loved those chemicals…), boxes, all sorts of negatives and accoutrement. All of this made the darkroom come to life. Pam Elyea at History for Hire was a lifesaver! She provided almost the entire rest of the darkroom and helped by even offering photos of her parents for the photo display area. We had a great time putting it together and I could not have done it without her.”
“Obviously, dressing the mannequins and the wedding area was tremendously gratifying,” she continues. “It doesn’t get better than that for ooh la la fun dressing projects…and I loved the wall of stocking boxes that was a graphic illusion, but super fabulous.”
San Francisco wedding yacht
…Filmed on the USS Potomac, a historic vessel that formerly served as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Presidential Yacht, now a museum in Oakland’s Jack London Square…
Fisk points out, “It was a totally metal ship, because FDR was very scared of a fire on a boat. We were able to re-dress the main room multiple times to serve as several different rooms in our ship, and then we built a portion of the interior on a soundstage in Los Angeles for the intense first scenes between Joaquin and Philip.”
Wells relates, “The boat was on the diminutive side, so all the furniture needed to be scaled down to fit. We also needed the perfect fixtures for the walls and ceilings that would not stand out too much but also feel perfect. It was like a puzzle trying to fit everything and everybody on the boat. For the wedding tableau, I based the table décor on my parents wedding photo…they had ferns laid atop the white tablecloths as décor. There was a great built-in bar that was just pleading for some fabulous dressing. Loved that boat!!”
“Mildred’s 5th Avenue apartment was shot twice,” Wells reveals. “The first time we ended up in a location that was too small and felt claustrophobic. The 2nd location was just a fantastic house with beautiful details. It worked much, much better. I was pleased with it and the results.”
Sullivan house - Early headquarters of The Cause in a seemingly traditional Pennsylvania house…Helen Sullivan [Laura Dern] offers her house to Dodd and his group to use as a base for their new movement.
“I love the idea of us not knowing what is going on behind the doors of many houses we see daily.” Fisk imparts. “We used a house on Mare Island [near San Francisco] that was originally built for Navy admirals and constructed in a very East Coast style, which made it great for our purposes. With some painting and Amy’s dressing we were able to present it as a convincing Philadelphia house. This very normal, traditional home was a beautiful contrast to the new, experimental ideas of The Master.”
“There were several of these houses all in a row,” Wells adds. “Most of them were in semi-original condition, except for the kitchens and some bathrooms. We scouted all of them for furniture, details and the best locations. It was great to have an empty house to work with. It was well cared for and the perfect space for Helen. We also dressed 3 of the bedrooms upstairs, but they didn’t make it into the final cut. I missed seeing them on film. I feel like half my career has been looking for period bedroom furniture! The bedding, the matching bedroom set that I found in Los Angeles, was the most amazing complete mint condition set I have ever found.”
UK… The Cause headquarters & school
“The Cause headquarters was one of my favorite sets to do,” shares Wells. “We shot in an old school, and it felt very real to me the minute I walked in. I felt or believed that I was in England.
Once we got the location, I flew to Los Angeles to find just the right furniture and dressing that would tell the story and convey that we were in the UK.
A set decorator’s POV…
When asked how her experience of brilliantly creating transitional periods with the sets for MAD MEN and A SINGLE MAN came into play here, Wells responds…
“The expectations and requirements are completely different on each project...”
“MAD MEN had its own world, its own mood. Creator Matt Weiner was explicit in what he was hoping to convey. I tried to be a conduit for his ideas…and had the type of relationship with him where my ideas were embraced. For me, that was enormously rewarding. He was a stimulating presence. I am still a MAD MEN fan. Love it! Needless to say, those were dream sets for any decorator.”
“A SINGLE MAN was the most difficult experience in my career, in that first-time Writer/Director Tom Ford, an internationally recognized designer, had a precision in his thought process unlike anyone with whom I have ever worked. He had a formality in his approach that I wasn’t used to. Although the process was painful for both of us, I think the result is beyond a doubt the most beautiful work I have ever been a part of…A SINGLE MAN is an immensely sensitive film, and I have an understanding after seeing the film that I did not have when I was helping create the sets. Tom did what I believe he set out to do…and he did a brilliant job.”
“THE MASTER was a completely different experience. Paul has a certain command and fluidity that is quite the opposite of most directors. He definitely moves in the moment…nothing is fixed until the film is shot. Both Paul and Jack like to be on the set and experience it, and then the changes are made! I must say, I am a bit like that, too. I am not a decorator who embraces plans or photographs of objects. Seeing and touching the furniture and art is very important to my process…all the more so for THE MASTER, where “best” translates as “real”.”
“It was a challenge to come into this very tight knit filmmaking group,” she muses. “However, David Crank and I have been on several projects together going back many, many years, so that made me feel more comfortable…and because much of my training was with Set Decorator Jim Erickson SDSA, who was Jack’s decorator for several projects, there was a shared sensibility in our approach which translated to the sets.”
“Paul had a connection to the people around him that was extraordinary. He is probably the most connected to his crew of any director I have ever worked with. There is a lot that happens if you hang close, watch and listen…it is not always about what one is told directly that conveys what is needed.” She concludes, “There was an environment on the film that said, ‘We are all working here together, trying to make something that is real, extraordinary and a pure vision.’”