1. What type of education did you receive before going in to the field of set decoration?
I originally started out as a drama education major at The University Of Texas. My only contact with theatre had been in high school in Houston. I saw a few stage productions at the Alley Theatre, Houston Music Theatre, Theatre in the Park, etc. It never occurred to me to ask how those sets got there. When I got to UT it was a revelation to me. I think I lasted about a month as an education major. I fell in love with the shop, casein glue, muslin, building flats. I worked in the shop and eventually started doing props and furniture for the productions under the direction of James Alexander Pringle III the UT prop master. He really opened my eyes to the possibilities of style, furniture design, fabrics, and prop construction. Even today at 85 he still plays a big part in my creative life. They say that every artist has an audience to whom they direct their work. He’s still my audience, even after all these years.
After I moved to New York to pursue a stage design career I found I could make a living as a theatre prop master. Those years in the professional shops and theatres of New York are without a doubt the foundation of what I do today as a set decorator. I always tell students that you cannot do better than to have an education in theatre and theatre crafts. Students who study theatre learn how to read a script, visualize a space, interpret characters in three dimensions, and learn what an audience expects. In short you learn how to make a play come to LIFE. What better training for the profession of set decorator is there?
When I was in college I took courses in The History of Furniture and Interior Design. This has proved invaluable. But I believe that the art of interior design is only one of the skills the set decorator needs to have. We are also expected to know history, engineering, landscaping, urban planning, visual merchandising, psychology, etc.2. Which sources would you say are the best tools for research and learning?
Its hard to beat Google and Dogpile for just plain speed and ease of use. The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian websites are incredible repositories of knowledge. It takes a bit of time to get through it all but it is usually well worth it. The set decorator’s personal library is without a doubt probably the most important and revealing tool. These are the books and research materials that I’ve come to rely on and probably tell more about my style than just about any other resource.3. Name your favorite projects and why.
without a doubt has to be on this list. This was my first big LA movie and it was so much fun because it was ABOUT the movie business. I designed and built a lot of furniture and sculpture. The movie’s characters are colorful and quirky so there were plenty of opportunities for Peter Larkin, the designer, to let his theatrical sensibilities take wing. We had a blast making LA look like the glamorous movie capital that everyone expects it to be. I met Heidi Baumgarten who was to be my buyer on several more movies on Get Shorty.
"The Thomas Crown Affair
" is also on the list. I got to select art for an entire museum we built on stage. Sort of my revenge on all the art history classes I slept through over the years. Plus I designed and built many pieces of furniture. For Crown’s rarefied world of art I had sculptures and paintings custom made. Bruno Rubeo and I really pulled out all the stops on finishes and details. It was my first time working with leadman Dave Weinman and his great crew in New York. We were in Martinique for a month or so in the middle of winter which wasn’t so bad either."The Good Shepherd"
was a bittersweet experience. Gretchen Rau was forced to leave the project shortly after I was called in due to illness. I had the experience of working alongside her for only a few weeks. (Gretchen won the Academy Award for Achievement in Art Direction for her Set decoration in "Memoirs of a Geisha" posthumously that same year) It was a privilege to be part of that incredible project and get to know the amazing Jeannine Oppewall. The sets were meticulously researched and epic in scale. Building a bombed out cathedral and Berlin street in Brooklyn over the Christmas holiday is an experience that I won’t ever forget.
The same is true of recreating Kuwait’s Highway to Hell
in New Jersey for "The Manchurian Candidate"
. In New York greens falls under the supervision of the set decorator. Road building falls under greens. Therefore set decorator=roadbuilder! It was my first experience with asphalt and I had such a good time. We also had to dress the finished highway with burned out trucks, busses, cars, scattered luggage, personal possessions, etc. Our amazing crew of set dressers worked for 3 weeks in the cold and snow in a commercial sand pit in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. It was almost like serving a tour of duty. Thank goodness Atlantic City was only 90 minutes away.
Speaking of enjoying your work, "Miss Congeniality"
has to be on this list for purely sybaritic reasons. Not only was it a fun movie with Sandra Bullock at her best but also because it was one of the most enjoyable times I’ve ever had on location. The set dec and art department offices and shops were at the old Austin airport. It was mostly abandoned to us and we really just took over the whole place. I bought an above ground swimming pool, we built an enormous covered deck and a huge picnic table. Of course we worked very hard but come Friday we had incredible parties. Austin is a wonderful place to work (and play). 5. What has been your biggest challenge as a set decorator?
Aside from increasingly restrictive budgets, which are ironically getting tighter and tighter even as movies become larger and larger, copyright clearances and the attendant paperwork are among the biggest challenges we face today. It seems that more and more materials are subject to permission and licensing. The day when we have to clear copyrighted furniture and fabric designs is probably not too far off. Despite the studio’s Permissions and Clearances Departments, every set dec office needs a person just to wrangle clearances these days much to the disbelief of most production managers.6. Please list any SDSA business members with whom you do business and comment on them.
Danica Derpic of D2 Art
has been one of my main suppliers of contemporary art since Thomas Crown. She always brings me interesting stuff and handles the clearances, reproduction, framing, etc.; The Hand Prop Room
has interesting objects and small art. Monty is very accommodating; Jefferson West
has fantastic and unique pieces including some rustic industrial furnishings. I’ve come to depend on the craftspeople and shops at Warner Bros
over the last few movies. This may be one of the last one stop shopping experiences left in LA. Terry, Larry and Victor upstairs in drapery and upholstery never fail to come through. Jay and Mike in the metal shop are creative and dependable and always on time even on the tightest last minute requests. In New York Suri, Jim and Barry at Eclectic/Encore
have an incredible and varied collection of furniture and smalls; Newel Art Gallery
is of course legendary. Rich manages the rental department. Wendy Goidel does my flowers in New York. Corri Levelle at Sandy Rose
in LA will bend over backwards to do the flowers and plants we need (even over the weekend); John Bush and Lewis Doty at Studio Services
have an amazing shop of craftspeople who can figure out how to build almost any strange electronic device, light fixture or gizmo I can dream up.7. What are the current contents of your car?
Crow bar, ice scraper, trail mix, logging chain, shovel (I live in the country).8. What advice do you have for those interested in the field of set decorating (including those new and already in the profession)?
I tell students that once you’ve discovered what it is you want to do, always say yes. You don’t get anywhere by saying no. Be open to new experiences and don’t be afraid to work outside your comfort zone. Having said that, however, be honest about what you know and don’t know, but remember: almost everything is learnable.
This is especially true for us “seasoned” set decorators. I find it all too easy to retreat to solutions I’ve found on previous jobs. One thing I’ve discovered about myself is that I’ve grown distressingly conservative as I’ve gotten older and more established. It’s a combination of fear and comfort I think. I’m not as adventurous as I used to be when I had nothing to lose and I think it is reflected in my work sometimes. I have to continually tell myself to loosen up and let go. Yes, you make mistakes this way but the alternative is just plain boring. 9. Which three tools of your profession can you not be without?Good Crew!
Without a doubt the most important thing for a set decorator is the people you work with. Leadmen Dave Weinman and Phil Canfield in 52 and the inimitable Jonathan Bobbitt in 44 are astonishingly good at what they do. My frequent assistant in 52, Christine Moosher and I have worked together for many years in New York beginning with The First Wives’ Club. We’ve gotten to know each other over these last 12 years so that there is a short hand between us. A similar thing has happened recently with Matt Callahan (SDSA) on "Get Smart"
and "G Force
". He makes me look a lot better than I probably am.The internet
In this day and age the internet is indispensable. In a very short period it has gone from a luxury to become our primary tool of communication and research. I used to carry boxes full of books and catalogs with me from job to job. Now, I select a few specific to what I anticipate the job’s needs to be and I do the rest of the research online. Traditionally the first stop on a new job was always the Picture Collection (thank you Jackie O!) at the New York Public Library. Now it is all at our fingertips. Remember printed call sheets and paper memos? Ha!
My address book
Over time I’ve developed shops, vendors and friends whose work I admire and trust and who always come through. It’s a good thing to have people you can count on as a back up for any situation. 10. Biggest set decorating disaster?
A mad scramble occurred at the beginning of Guarding Tess. Director Hugh Wilson (who also wrote the script) told us that the old Ohio mansion was originally the boyhood home of fictional President Carlisle. Governor and Mrs. Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine) had raised their family there before moving to the White House. Upon her husband’s death the First Lady moved back to the family home where the movie primarily takes place. My instinct was to use family portraits throughout, mostly the male ancestors of the late President, old pieces of Ohio furniture, regional art to reinforce the locale and of course all the trappings of office to show that this was the “summer White House” of the President of the United States. I even had the official portrait painted of our fictional president to hang in the study. The set was fully dressed when Shirley MacLaine arrived for rehearsals. Hugh, Peter (Larkin, the designer) and I took her on a rather tense tour of the house. As we sat down to talk, Shirley asked about the history of the house and who’s family did it come down through. Before I could even open my mouth Hugh asked her, “Well, who’s house do you think it is”? She quickly responded, “My house, of course”. Well, what else would she say? Afterall she was playing the title character and was the star of the movie. I first looked at Peter who’s face mirrored my shock and then at Hugh who completely avoided my stare. This was Wednesday. We were to start shooting on Monday! Needless to say I had a mad scramble over the weekend to bring some of Tess Carlisle’s family aesthetic into what had been designed pretty specifically as her husband’s family’s house. Fortunately Tess’ bedroom, which was the first room of the house to shoot, was already done very much as Tess’ personal taste. Tackling the rest of the house I changed several key paintings, lightened some upholstery, added some different art and porcelains and generally made the house reflect more of Tess’ family roots. We made our deadline, but just!
Lesson learned: There is no substitute for an actor’s input!11. What advice would you give other members of the SDSA on how to get the most benefit from their membership?
Do something. Why are you waiting to be involved with YOUR trade association?Bonus, for fun: If you were able to design a bedroom any way that you desired, what style or styles would you choose?
I’m torn between a Richard Meier minimalist all white room flooded with sunlight OR an Adirondack birch bark cabin with an open fire and deer skin moccasins. How about one of each?