When Alison DiLaurentis [Sasha Pieterse], the leader of a clique of high school girls disappears, the other girls, Emily Fields [Shay Mitchell], Spencer Hastings [Troian Bellisario], Hannah Marin [Ashley Benson] and Aria Montgomery [Lucy Hale], are harassed and threatened by an unseen assailant who claims to know all their secrets and lies, taunting them with the initial “A” appearing in unforeseen places. In their search for clues to unravel the dual mystery of the missing girl and their nemesis, more lies are uncovered and more are perpetrated…it’s the world of PRETTY LITTLE LIARS!
Step into a fascinating and in-depth chat with Set Decorator William DeBiasio SDSA, who episode after episode, with his deeply committed team, creates amazing sets for the most tweeted show in America!
SET DECOR: While Season 4 is coming to its climactic close…the season finale is March 18th…you and your team are jumping into the upcoming Season 5. You’ve been responsible for all but the first episodes of the entire series…
Set Decorator William DeBiasio SDSA: That’s correct, I came on for the second half of the 1st season, taking over for my friend Set Decorator Shauna Aronson SDSA, who is now doing the series JUSTIFIED.
The main characters’ homes were initially established by Shauna, particularly Spencer’s great room and bedroom, Emily’s bedroom, Aria’s bedroom, Ezra’s apartment and Hanna’s kitchen.
Our full seasons are actually split in half, because ABC Family airs 10-12 episodes, then another show is aired in our time slot over several weeks, and then the other half of our season is aired. So we shoot a full 24 episodes, but they air 12 at a time. Also, in the middle of the viewing hiatus, our special Halloween episode for that season is aired. These are stand-alone episodes where our girls do something specific for Halloween, usually involving something regarding the storyline but even more mysterious or in a “slightly” different setting.
SET DECOR: There seem to be many settings, a very creative use of space!
DeBiasio: We HAVE to be very creative with our spaces because of our budget. We like to say, “We’re the little show that can.” We shoot the entire show here on the Warner Bros. lot. In fact, we’ve left only two times, once was for use of the pool at a local college because one of our girls, Emily, is a swimmer. Other than that, we shoot everything on Stages 6, 7 and 8 and on the Warner Bros. backlot.
For me, it really is like old-time movie-making. I’m reminded of [famed set decorator] Cedric Gibbons coming to work every day at MGM, where he spent his entire illustrious career.
I get to come to Warner Bros. every day, and I work on three stages that all face the prophouse, with my office in what used to be the “Fixtures” building! When I first got this office, I thought, “You know, this is just about where you used to walk upstairs to the second floor where there were low beams that said, ‘Duck!’ and you’d walk down that hallway to get to the chandeliers...” [As he points to the hallway outside his office]
SET DECOR: As you say, the history of filmmaking and television converges with this very “now” show that has established a huge fan base...
DeBiasio: Yes! And it just continues to build the audience. It is amazing. Social media has fueled the show. Our fans embrace it. ABC Family has sent out demographics on the ratings of the show, and we continue to be at the top of the charts in the 18-29 female category, which is the audience we want to be tapping. Several times when episodes have aired, we have been the #1 show tweeted.
SET DECOR: Going back to the beginning and then taking it forward, Aronson established some key sets…have they changed a lot over time, or have they stayed “as were”, so people can immediately identify where they are?
DeBiasio: Those sets have stayed pretty much the same. We’ve done a little time-appropriate tweaking to Emily’s bedroom because the girls are a little older now. Emily is the openly gay character on our show, so we felt we needed to give her a bit more of an edge. The look needed to evolve from the sweet little girl’s room that her mother had created for her. Her mom is very much a Martha Stewart type, very detail oriented, traditional and a bit controlling, so the room had that feel. We tried to loosen it up a little bit and give it more of her character…it grew with the character.
Spencer’s bedroom has also changed a bit. Spencer is creative, so she has a bulletin board above her desk with lots of tear sheets and swatches, while on the desk are pastels, colored pens, etc. We have those laid out differently in some episodes, as if she’s used some of them. She doesn’t make much reference to them in the storyline, but it’s our responsibility to foster that part of her life, even if it's not delineated in the script. So those things change, and the bulletin board changes periodically, as though those were things Spencer did while not on camera.
SET DECOR: That’s the essence of good set decoration, the depth of character that you’re providing to the audience that is not stated or scripted. And the show’s fans respond to those details…
DeBiasio: They absolutely do. Our fans freeze-frame things and pay attention to…quite honestly, it amazes me what they pay attention to! We had an arc where two different characters ended up in a sanitarium, this odd rambling mazelike place…you didn’t quite know what was going on in there and it very much had a Boo Radley effect. For the common room, we gave a Deco feeling, as if the building had been built in that era. On one of the group tables, we put a jigsaw puzzle together, partly finished, as if someone were working on it. We literally had simply pulled a puzzle from a stack that we had placed on a bookshelf for background. Fans zoomed in on the puzzle and were completely onto the fact that it is of a picture of a barn, and a barn appears in our opening credits. This was coincidence, serendipitous. It was not planned, but the fans jump into it, take those things and see it as truth. Even little unpremeditated things like this, they read something into it.
SET DECOR: Are there also some “premeditated” treats you do put in there for them to catch?
DeBiasio: There are, actually. Outside of my leadman Craig Gadsby’s office, we have a wall of “A”s. Literally, a wall of “A”s! And, again for us, it’s all about the fans. It came from a poster that ABC Family had compiled from photographs that fans had sent in of “A”s they had found all over the world…the shape of a cloud, or someone standing in silhouette to create an “A”, for instance.
That has now generated a wall full of “A”s which we’ve created in different mediums and which have been hidden in the sets. They appear in the sets, but they are organic to the space, so you really have to look for them. The crew is now aware of it, and our girls are aware of it, so they have a lot of fun looking around trying to find them.
These are purposely never specifically set to show behind talent, they’re just on the set, and if the camera happens to catch them, great. We get to have some fun, and it leads to the fodder for social media. Fans will note on Facebook, “Did you notice the “A” that was sitting…”
And I have to give that credit to my crew. I think it was a crew member who first asked, “Can we hide one on the set?” I was fine with it, and now it’s simply great…a creative aspect we all enjoy.
This show allows me to go into a lot of different worlds, which besides challenging, has its own fun factor. Our story lives very much in the here and now, but we have our girls going into sort of creepy, menacing places as they go down the path of figuring out who the mysterious and possibly evil “A” is and, for a long time, whether Allie was actually alive…and now that that’s been determined, how to deal with her presence and what that means.
SET DECOR: And you have determined that there can be a variety of creepy, menacing places!
DeBiasio: Absolutely! It can be the sanitarium set I was speaking of…or, for another example, there are supporting characters of our show, they are actually dolls created by our propmaster Chris Vail that look like our girls, so at one point we had a doll hospital. That was a really, really fun set to do, a creepy, menacing world full of dolls! When we did transitional episodes into Ravenswood, we created tunnels, a ballroom, salon and shop windows that were all slightly “off”…an introduction to the world that was Ravenswood.
We’ve also done several different cemeteries. Of course, we re-visit the cemetery where Allie is buried, then, interestingly, re-interred…and then put into a mausoleum! We’ve had times when other characters have died on the show, where we’ve had to bury or say goodbye to those characters. And we’ve had storyline moments when grave holes have been found opened and bodies are missing. So we deal with death quite a bit in our show.
SET DECOR: Who knew? Did you know that you were going to have this in your criterion?
DeBiasio: Quite honestly, I don’t think any set decorator knows that! My background was in retail, in furnishings and then in fabrics. So my background had to do with the decorating side of the profession, but none of that prepared me for doing mausoleums or cemeteries, or retirement centers or sawmills, or any of these other worlds.
SET DECOR: So, it’s part research, part a willingness to jump in and be creative, and…??
DeBiasio: And paying attention the world around you and applying that. We’re set in present day, we’re real time. We’re in our fourth/fifth season, but some days we only move moments later. From one season to another, some shows will jump in time…we literally will be moments later.
So when we do the end of the last episode of a season, we have to maintain the continuity with the first episode of the next season. Which of these worlds in this last episode are we going to be in as we open the next season? Or will we be creating new worlds that are moments from what was last on screen? A rooftop, perhaps, that gives the season finale that cliffhanger moment…are we returning to that moment, or have we moved to one moment beyond and into another world? For us, it’s always that question as we’re dressing those sets. “Okay, what may I need to hold onto?” Or, quite honestly, that can be part of the thought process when I’m creating the set, “Where are the elements coming from?” Because, we’re the little show that can, I don’t have a big budget, so to take something that is completely a rented set, where I pull everything from Omega Cinema Props or House of Props or Universal’s prophouse, there’s no guarantee those pieces will be available when we go back up…someone else may have rented them. If a piece is from the Warner Bros. prophouse, I have a deal where I can pull anything from the house and hold onto it into that next season, and then the “moments later” is not an issue.
SET DECOR: It makes sense, and you can literally walk over and find it…
DeBiasio: Well, it’s always my first course of action. The first pass is always through Warner Bros. to see what exists at WB to create that set. If we’re creating a different world for our girls to go into, sometimes it turns into a flexible situation and the production designer and producers ask me, “What’s available?” Because they are open to it, I can then point out, “Well, instead of it being that space, it can be this space. And this space can be a lot less costly to do because I can pull the bulk of it out of the prophouse right here.”
SET DECOR: An example would be the western dance bar set? You could have taken that more western or more country, depending on what was available…
DeBiasio: Exactly, and the bulk of what was in that set came out of the Warner Bros. prophouse. Another interesting note: the architectural footprint of that set was used probably 5 or 6 different times, in episodes that then became reliant on set dressing to change the look enough to make it seem an entirely different space.
SET DECOR: Yes, you do the magic to make it a new space entirely…
DeBiasio: And many times, I’m told literally, “It’s all on you. We’re not even repainting!” For me, that’s some of my favorite work…to take the same footprint and reanimate it into another space. It’s done to the point that the audience is never going to know you are in the same footprint. That’s how it should be, we’re doing our job. But for crew and for talent to walk into the space and be completely blown away, “What the…??? Where am I?!!” Those are some of my favorite moments.
SET DECOR: And it works on so many levels. For you, for budget and for planning, you already know the measurements, you have the basics of the layout, so it speeds up that part of the process for you…
DeBiasio: That’s right. When we first started the show, we had just Stages 6 and 7. Then we added Stage 8 in the third season. One stage holds our classroom, our school and our girl’s bedrooms. We have another stage that holds Ezra’s apartment, Spencer’s great room and Hannah’s kitchen. Then we have our swing stage sets, which for quite a long time held Radley Sanitarium, and we have our police station that is a semi-permanent set. But even that footprint gets revamped into different worlds as needed. In a way, we create a product…and you have to create a product that’s profitable. Part of that is being resourceful with the materials that you have, with the time that you have, and with the budget constraints that you have. All of those things have to come into play. And, again, they’re my favorite sets to do.
SET DECOR: You’re coming from a history you have created…you have this continuum of people being put into situations and you have to make the situations fresh and new and different, while keeping the established foothold…
DeBiasio: That’s right. We treat our worlds as if they are real worlds. Even though Emily Fields and Spencer Hastings are not real people, their sets are real. So within their world, we have to make sure their linens are clean, that the carpets get shampooed, that the sofas are clean…because all of those elements are real and provide a real life for a make-believe character.
SET DECOR: That is another responsibility with the set decoration of a television series, the ongoing maintenance of the sets…
DeBiasio: It’s absolutely ongoing. We are in small confines, we don’t have a lot of space. We squeeze a large number of sets into our stages, and we use our sets a lot…and not just for filming! Our sets are also used for hair and make-up, and talent is “green-roomed” in one of the sets while another set is being shot. So not only do we have the wear and tear of the sets being used while being filmed, we also have the wear and tear of sets being used by the company while that other set is being shot. So it’s an ongoing part of the process.
Of course, the furnishings have set covers on them, but there are times when the covers come off, particularly on our coffeehouse set The Brew. I take it as a compliment that our real-life girls really love to spend time in there, off-camera as well as on. They thoroughly enjoy hanging out in there. So more often than not, if we’re shooting on a nearby set, that means Hair and Makeup will likely be set up in The Brew and that’s also where the girls will be when they’re not on set. We want them to feel as comfortable as possible, thus, everything is uncovered in that set so they can hang in The Brew like the four Pretty Little Liars would. That creates an added wear and tear because all of the furniture in that set is being used, and some are vintage pieces. So you’re asking a piece of furniture to continue to do a lot of work when it’s already beyond its prime.
One piece in particular…I happened to walk through a few weeks ago and looked at it, and it seemed a little “sunken” is probably the best way to describe it. Even though it has a cozy, very comfy kind of visual, from a filming & camera point of view, you’re going to want talent to sit down at a standard level and not sink down another 3 inches! I started having a conversation with one of my assistants that perhaps we’d better have upholstery come take a look at it, perhaps the original cushions needed to be replaced so they would be firm. But then, with a little more actual sitting down with the piece and looking at it, I realized it really needed a new set of springs, because it’s probably a 1960s couch and has lived a full life, perhaps even in someone’s home, before it came into our world and became a part of our history. So that’s just part of the ongoing maintenance, and of course, all the pieces have to be cleaned regularly.
SET DECOR: This kind of vigilance…again, it’s not just the making of the sets for a series, but it’s also…
DeBiasio: Keeping it all fresh.
And the coffeehouse is a perfect example of a multi-used footprint. It started out as our school lobby. If you walk through the set, it absolutely has moments where you’re in Rosewood High School and you turn a corner and then you’re in The Brew. There were corridors that led you into the school lobby, but a school lobby really doesn’t have a lot of furnishings in it. Traditionally, it would be a large open space, with perhaps some trophy cases. It was a footprint that was really nice to have as a set, but as the lobby, it didn’t serve a lot of use for story. So it became a variety of sets. It was one of those footprints that I got to change over several times…it was the crisis center, it was the doll hospital, it was a hair salon, it was a bus station, and then it finally became our coffeehouse.
The Brew is now one of our new permanent sets, and for me, creating that was great. I had that sense of, “Okay, I’m creating our version of Central Perk.” It needed to be that warm cozy place where you felt like you wanted to go have a cup of coffee, either with friends or on your own, a place to just be. The production designer gave us really warm, rich, jewel-tones to work with, and so I had a lot of fun in mixing some pieces that I bought with some pieces that I pulled from the Warner Bros. prophouse.
SET DECOR: Once again, that makes sense. These are pieces that you either purchased or can have on an unlimited basis for a permanent set…
DeBiasio: That’s correct. Those are sets that I want to add as much character to as I can, and I pulled as much character as I could out of Warner Bros., but then needed to augment a little bit more. So I went out into the world to find those pieces. That allows people, sometimes, to see things on sets that may actually be in their homes.
The connection is essential. You know, I see things in prophouses that you never thought you would see again in your life. They are part of the psyche and when you see them, there are visceral moments that suddenly bring you back to the last time you were in that moment. There was a television set sitting in Universal’s prophouse that was the television set that I grew up with. That was the television set that my family watched the coverage of Kennedy’s assassination on, it was where we watched the men landing on the moon and watched our Saturday cartoons. I walked over and I thought, “I remember it all.” It was literally one of those visceral moments. And if I get those moments seeing things at prophouses, then equally, fans have that opportunity when they’re seeing things on our show that may be something that is in their home or has been a part of their life.
SET DECOR: So you’re talking about establishing credibility and authenticity, plus keying into the human psyche. And those moments of stepping into the past, or a remembrance of a time…
DeBiasio: Yes! We had the opportunity this year to do a noir episode. I believe it was actually pitched from the network to us. The show ran with it and it was a joy to do.
SET DECOR: What sets did you do in this noir tone?
DeBiasio: The noir aspect was introduced literally through the perception of one of our characters. Once she started perceiving that, when she saw herself in period costume and the story started going in that direction, we were telling the same story but with the filter of it being a noir experience. So for every set I had to add in things that were evocative of an era but were still clear enough for our audience, who is a young audience, to know where we are.
We had our girls go into the restroom at school, but instead of the usual restroom, our girls stepped into a powder room, as if it were the 1940s. It was still the same sink, the same mirror…that visual…the tile work was still there. But I had an opportunity to give a sense that it was the powder room from ALL ABOUT EVE.
We added an entrance to the room and just took the stalls away as if they didn’t exist. I did a wall of drapery there and we treated what was a normal window with drapery as well, and added ottomans and chairs. It was a delightful project to add period-specific elements into the worlds that we normally had, but it was exhausting to do. This took a whole different level of energy, because every set was affected by this atmosphere. The girls went into The Brew, but it had become a speakeasy. Spencer was in her great room, and then all of a sudden it was the great room in the 1940s, with a different painting, period radio, telephone and vase.
When we were doing all the scenes in the backlot, we were in our usual Rosewood settings, but it was supposed to be Rosewood of the 1940s. Even the street would look different because the 1940s street wasn’t used the way streets are used today. So, what we really did was simplify our street, an editing back and then just adding a few elements.
Every set had something added to it, or temporarily edited out, but also had to go back to normal, so it was bringing in, then taking away and re-establishing! But it was really fun for the entire company to be on those sets.
SET DECOR: Another different atmosphere was the world of Ravenswood…
DeBiasio: Yes, part of our arc for last season was introducing Ravenswood. The spin-off series then filmed in Louisiana, but we actually dipped our toe into the world of Ravenswood in 3 initial episodes with sets that included a tunnel leading into that world, a street with shops and a salon, a large house with a conservatory and a ballroom. As I mentioned earlier, for Ravenswood, we had to create a world that felt like it was a little off. From a set dressing POV, it needed to have a sense of an era, but not a specific one…as if you could identify, but you couldn’t…
For the ballroom and its foyer, I got to use some chandeliers and lamps that we normally just wouldn’t, and a mix of pieces from several furniture periods. And I love to incorporate pieces that have a provenance in film or television history, and then let our directors and our crew know. For this, we had bookcases that were used in the film MY FAIR LADY. When Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle is running up the stairs with the housekeeper Mrs. Pearce and singing “I could have danced all night,” she dances right past those bookcases! It’s marvelous to get to share that film history with everyone, and even our young actors have a deep appreciation of it.
SET DECOR: And the other side of that is all of the pieces you will be adding to the prophouse…
DeBiasio: When PRETTY LITTLE LIARS is no more, and we hope that is many years from now, the assets of PLL become the assets of Warner Bros., because we’re a WB show. So these pieces that I have purchased throughout the four years that I’ve been doing the show, and hopefully several more, will become pieces I will eventually see in the prophouse.
I currently see things in the prophouse and I use some now that I bought when I did CHUCK. And I think any decorator would agree, all you want to know is where it is, so the next time you need to use it, you know where to find it!
SET DECOR: You might love a piece and want to use it in a different way, and that particularly helps if you’re on a tight time schedule…
DeBiasio: That’s exactly it. When you’re putting a set together and you can talk in shorthand with your crew, it makes life easier. When you’re blessed enough to have a crew that you’ve worked with year in and year out, season in, season out, show in, show out, then it doesn’t matter how many set photos you have in front of you, you can refer to…well, quite honestly, Craig and I will even refer back to an episode of ALIAS that we did. If we’re trying to create something for this show and we’ll get a sense from the production designer, it might turn into a conversation of, “Oh that sounds like…remember the set we did for ALIAS where….” And it’s a perfect reference. Boom! You’ve essentially created and shopped an entire set in your head already, so that’s invaluable. I’m fortunate that I do have a freakish memory. I can remember details, but when you have a crew that has a history with you, sometimes they can be the brain cells that are still clicking, because some things do fall out of your head.
Craig and I have worked together since I was a set dresser on BIG MOMMA’S HOUSE and he was leading for Set Decorator Ellen Totleben SDSA. Then Craig was the leadman on ALIAS, I was the buyer, Karen Manthey [also SDSA] the set decorator.
Dean Katz came on that show after Karen and Craig left to do MISSION IMPOSSIBLE III. He and Craig have worked with me on several shows, including CHUCK and MELROSE PLACE. He is my assistant/buyer in charge of promo, photographs and budget tracking. Dean photographs the sets in detail and deals with all the promo houses. Thus, if anything goes into a set, he makes sure that all the vendors are given pictures of the piece on the set. Everything is about getting back to the other people…if anyone is going to assist me, my job is to make sure I assist them.
My other assistant/buyer is Nikky De Lemos, my eyes out there in the world. She’s the person who runs around and is searching for everything! I’ll do the broad sweep on what the set is supposed to look like, she’ll start the process here, and the process is collaborative. Sometimes I will send her to the prophouse looking for something, but I already have an idea of what I want it to be. And sometimes that idea doesn’t come back. It may be because it isn’t in the house at that moment, it may be that Nikky didn’t think that was appropriate for it, she may come up with an option that’s a better choice than what I had perceived it to be initially, and sometimes it’s not the item I had perceived it to be. Occasionally it turns into me saying, “Do me a favor, go to the 3rd floor, take a left, then halfway down the left side, see those chairs…they’re green and they have…” She’ll walk over there and call or text me and say, “You’re a freak!” No wonder we get along so well.
And then we have a great crew…Michael Malone, our onset dresser and our core set dressers Eric Oleson, Alex Walker, Brian Ballbergen, Jeff Halverson, Amanda Mendonca and Mike Magno.
SET DECOR: You are so generous and it comes through your work. You’re not only making the set happen, but this sharing, bringing in the history, bringing in the elements and the appreciation, it makes it such a fuller life. And you bring that to your work…
DeBiasio: It’s a joy of a show to work on, for my crew and myself…
SET DECOR: Well you’re going into 5th season and still happy about it!
DeBiasio: When I retire, I’ll probably look back on this experience and say this was as good as it got.