Cal's career started in Toronto, armed with a keen sense of observation and attention to detail. She has worked on all genres, periods and budgets, as well as with production designers from both television and film. A self professed "Queen of the remake", Cal is currently filming ROBOCOP to add to her credits alongside THE INCREDIBLE HULK, RESIDENT EVIL AFTER LIFE and TOTAL RECALL, to name a few. Read this exclusive interview to Set Decor Online...
1. What type of education did you receive before going into the field of Set Decoration?
I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts specializing in Theatre Arts with a Minor in Dance Therapy at York University in Toronto, Ontario.
My parents came from southern Ontario, Canada where their families had lived since being kicked out of the American colonies during the revolution! My father moved us to northern Ontario to a mining town called Sudbury, where he became the Dean of the School of Commerce at Laurentian University. My mother was a physiotherapist. We were a family of academics, rare in a mining area. I was the eldest, with three younger brothers. Mom believed that every opportunity should be given to her kids. She had a very strong sense of beauty and a keenness for observation, which she passed onto me – I was taught to dance, sing, sew, paint, decorate and craft from a very young age.
So it seems pretty natural that my path lead to this career. I’ve been a set decorator since 1990; however I started in the film industry in Toronto in 1986 as a set buyer. The ‘80s in Toronto were the growing years of the film industry – I started back in the day when you sourced it, drove the stuff in a truck and dressed the set till all hours of the night. My very first job was a 1986 Coke commercial for the Olympics. Then I did several TV movies; but my first “Aha!” was with Claire Bowen on JFK: RECKLESS YOUTH. We travelled to New York to shop. She was a wonder! Her work and influence was such a strong factor in the success of that movie, she was a little powerhouse respected by the entire production, especially Production Designer Arman Ganz.
2. Which sources would you say are the best tools for research and learning?
I learn from travel, museums, galleries, books of all kinds and magazines, and of course the Internet. My camera and my powers of observation in are vital. I couldn’t be without them.
3. Name three of your favorite projects and why.
TOTAL RECALL. Without a doubt! Patrick Tatopoulos is an absolutely incredible production designer…confident, positive, endlessly creative. He makes the work of creating a new world effortless. And Patrick’s working relationship with the director was so tight, almost symbiotic. I can’t say enough about working with Len Wiseman, who was a prop man before he became a director. What a strength to have as a director, he was so inclusive of his team, smart, visually oriented, keenly interested in the details of every prop and furniture piece. I don’t think anyone worked as hard as he did on making TOTAL RECALL. Creatively, I couldn’t have had more fun asking the question, “What would it be?” …and building custom props, furniture to answer that question. Shanghai and New Britain – what incredible worlds!
RED. Again, the pleasure was working with an extremely talented production designer like Alec Hammond. We were completely in sync and laughed a lot throughout the project. I remember when we first met, he got terribly excited looking at my portfolio. Alec responded to my characterization of the sets and my strong attention to detail with an actor’s viewpoint. That’s what made RED fun – the characters were so wonderful. My favorite set was of course Marvin Boog’s [John Malkovich] bunker.
THE MIGHTY. Caroline Hanania is a wonderful production designer. Again, I learned so much from her, as she came from a British film tradition—her sense of color and textiles, which she loves as much as I. Caroline works from character in a very distinct way, which I enjoyed. And then, the script itself was just so beautiful when raising a young boy. I was also lucky enough to work with Caroline on SHALL WE DANCE, another favorite. As you might guess, all my movies seem to have a place in my heart.
4. What is your biggest challenge as a set decorator?
Funny, it’s not the creative side or even the business management, as you might guess. This business can be very brutal in terms of the time it takes away from your family. I try to make the increasingly compressed production schedules we work under manageable for my crew so they can still have the lives they work so hard for.
In 1992, I gave birth to my beautiful son Erlich, who is now a 20-year-old student with an NCAA hockey scholarship at Sacred Heart in Connecticut. When he was two, I separated from his father, so my choices became more difficult: find another career to spend more time with my son or become an internationally recognized decorator. At the end of the day, I loved my son more than anything, but I also loved my career and didn’t want to give it up. So I made a lot of choices to do “worthy” projects that I could be proud of, and find a way to do both...driving him to hockey and making awesome movies! My early projects are still some of my favorites…SMALL MIRACLE…THE MIGHTY…FINDING FORRESTER”.
As my son grew up, I started to try more action films. So here I am 22 years later working on ROBOCOP! Some call me the “Queen of the Remake” - THE INCREDIBLE HULK…RESIDENT EVIL AFTER LIFE…TOTAL RECALL and now ROBOCOP! But don’t knock it. It’s been an exciting challenge to work with some of the most accomplished production designers in science fiction design.
5. Please list any of the SDSA business members with whom you do business.
Studio Art and Technology, Herman Miller – Thanks Stephanie for helping us on ROBOCOP. ISS, Dazian, Farrow and Ball (Toronto), Kravet NYC, Rosebrand, Alpha Medical Resource, Astek Wallcovering, Linoleum City, History for Hire, Bischoff’s
6. What are the current contents of your car?
Dog treats, doggie bags, hunter boots, hard hat, green patch safety boots, umbrella, extra down vest, flashlight, handsfree light, chargers, water, warehouse keys, shopping bags, chewing gum and protein bars…and sometimes Argyle, my 9-month-old Westie who guards the car if he can’t visit the set.
7. What advice do you have for those interested in the field of Set Decoration (including those new and already in the profession)?
As a set decorator, you must straddle the diverse worlds of creativity, management, marketing and finance. Never let one take over the other. It is a business, after all, but the ultimate client is the viewer in the audience who pays the ticket to see all of our work together.
As someone who is just starting in the business, make sure you are bringing something to the party! Education is not just academic – it’s training in a skill, whether its upholstery or sheet metal work. Travel, journaling, observation of everyday life, knowledge of textiles, furniture, history, mechanics, electricity, chemistry, physics. Set decoration is the sum of its parts – pick a few talents, bring them along and continue to build on them. That really is the joy of this wonderful career – you continue to learn something new all the time.
9. Biggest set decorating disaster?
Other than a fire that destroyed the last historically significant wooden hotel in Muskoka that we were to shoot the next day on THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT…or the Spanish Mediterranean winds that destroyed my 1st Century market street in THE GOSPEL OF JOHN the night before we were to shoot it…I can’t think of anything!
10. What advice would you give other members of the SDSA on how to get the most benefit from their membership?
I live in Toronto. I get all of the SDSA invitations and believe me, if I were in LA, the first thing I would do is meet up with all the amazingly talented decorators of SDSA. What an incredible opportunity to network together, as well as watch each other’s work, with the special screening tickets that come your way. However, I do get to use the business membership a fair amount, which is helpful to keep up with what is currently available to our members.
Bonus: If you were able to design a bedroom in any way that you desired, what style or styles would you choose?
In the spring, I spent 10 days in Paris. Who wouldn’t be influenced by the gorgeous colors of Versailles? I would love to an over-the-top full rococo with tassels and fringes, gilded ormolu furniture, sumptuous layers of brocades, velvets. Yummy.
At the same time, I guess I live in a world of extremes. I love the tranquility of our modern bedrooms with bright open spaces using natural woods, wonderful fabrics such as leathers, boiled wools, felts and Belgian linens.