When Rachel [Kathryn Hahn] was in her twenties, she wrote avant-garde plays directed by her husband Richard [Paul Giametti]. They enjoyed the bohemian New York City artist’s life to the fullest, certain that they had plenty of time to start a family. But reality caught up with them fast—and now, in their forties, they’re doing everything they can to have a child. From painful IVF injections to nerve-wracking adoption interviews to the humbling search for an egg donor, Rachel and Richard have to come to terms with their choices, crying, laughing, and fumbling their way through some of life’s toughest questions about fertility, marriage, and what it means to be in control.
A human-scale drama infused with the humor that bubbles up at life’s most tragic-absurd moments, PRIVATE LIFE was written and directed by Tamara Jenkins. The film was shot in and around New York City for a quick thirty days in the dead of winter. For Jenkins, there was no question that the movie could shoot anywhere but the city that Rachel and Richard have called home for twenty years because these characters’ identities reflect a very specific location and lifestyle. They are New Yorkers who live in a small East Village apartment and travel uptown to see their fertility doctors. “Often I see movies that take place in New York that are so unfamiliar to me—the way that they use locations, the genericness,” Jenkins says. “So I was very into capturing the fabric of the East Village, of the Upper East Side—that whole doctor’s world—and what that feels like, going up there, then back downtown. That was super important to me.”
Jenkins talks with SET DECOR about those very things and how she relied on Production Designer Ford Wheeler and Set Decorator Jacqueline Jacobson Scarfo SDSA International to bring about both the specifics and the authenticity she envisioned...
SET DECOR: The sets give the visual credibility to a film, and your script and words were so significant, it was important they be “housed” properly...
Director Tamara Jenkins
: A lot of people have said, “It’s so lived-in.” And that’s like...magic. That’s like your dream response, that it’s lived–in, that it feels like life was there, and it doesn’t feel like they just went and bought some stuff and stuck it in a room. The whole point is that it really is like behind closed doors...the mess of life. At one point, the camera pans across...Kathryn
walks from the living room into the bedroom with the laptop computer, and she’s talking about the with the donor egg site on her screen...and there’s the smallest detail nobody in the planet would ever notice... It’s just one of those little things, but she as gets up, she says, “Do you want her to have your baby?” She walks into the bedroom, and to the bed, but when she passes through, there’s this chair in the corner, just piled with sheets and stupid shit. It’s so randomly messy in that real life way. Nobody notices it, but it’s in there. When we were in the edit room, I said, “Slow down. Oh my god, I just love that chair covered in crap.”
SD: That’s exactly what you want to give, where you don’t notice it, but on that third or fourth viewing...with Netflix, people are going to see this more and more. And that adds another whole dimension to it. But it has to make that message that first moment, giving that background.
It’s incredible how important texture and details are. I was teaching a class at NYU, at the graduate film school, and some of the student work was...well...
you’re watching these short films, and I kept saying, “God is in the details! God is in the details.” Not that it’s my quote, it’s Mies Van Der Rohe. But it was like they didn’t quite get that yet. It was just generic furniture, and I told them, “Everything you put in front of the camera, everything on that rectangle is information and storytelling. Every corner is storytelling. And you’re not doing your job as a filmmaker if you’re not paying attention to it...all of that real estate has to be exploited.”
apartment perfectly reflects that. Almost half of the movie takes place in this small space, yet there’s so much wonderful detailing, that it offers all kinds of focal points and insider information about the characters.
I remember walking into that apartment, and going, “Oh my god!” We were in it when it was empty, there was some painting go on here and there, and I was exposing the radiators and all this stuff. But then I left. And then we showed up later, and it was so densely detailed! It was like you were walking into the heart of the movie.
I think Kathryn and Paul felt they were totally immersed in their characters’ world. So much had been brought to the table, everywhere, every place your eye would fall. It’s like a funhouse of stuff to use, things tucked in, their tchotchkes...So great for the actors. And it works on a subconscious level, too, even if you’re not a person who notices things like that. It’s part of the storytelling. It’s not just a pretty set.
SD: The variety of art...
: Yes, the key piece is Lisa Yuskavage’s “Vagina” painting. She’s actually a friend of mine, and she’s an amazing painter. That is not typical of her work, but I remembered seeing it at one of her openings. Her usual work is all about color, lots of pop. Like wild greens and magentas and pinks. And this is very different, but I remember seeing it at one of her openings and it stuck in my head. There’s another piece at the very beginning. It’s like a little doodle, when Paul/Richard
is hovering over Kathryn’s/Rachel’s
hip, there’s a wide shot and it’s a little framed pencil sketch. And there’s another artist’s large piece with an orange mat. There are all these orange hits.
Like I love the sofa! I remember Ford coming to me and saying, “There’s this couch, and there’s this couch.” And one was normal. I went for the orange*, and I think he was so happy that I wasn’t being sensible.
It’s so great. I love him so much...how he grew up in NY, how he’s been there so long and how he understood the socioeconomic reality of an artistic couple who are like hanging onto the city by the skin of their teeth in their rent-stabilized apartment...and what that means and the kind of art that would be on their wall because it’s their friends’ art. He just got it all.
SD: ...And obviously shared with Jackie, the set decorator, because of course, she has to bring in those details with him. For instance, she found the sofa on Chairish. It’s very much a partnership. She was saying that there was such a great personal connection with everyone...
Yes! She, too, was amazing.
SD: Jackie says, “Tam is about everything feeling natural not designed not matching. I literally cleaned out my house and office to bring as much real layering as possible. We raided Ford’s loft, too! My husband kept saying don’t bring anything back please!”
Hah! There’s a lot of personal stuff, yeah.
SD: She also mentioned, “We brought in a huge collection of very groovy, intellectual books, but Tam wanted more! So she insisted I go to her house and get 10 boxes of her personal books...”
I remember that there were all these books as part of the set, and I remember looking around and saying “There’s not enough!” And they’re saying, “We bought all we could!” And I was like “This has to be more. They’re spilling, they’re everywhere.” And so, we just went to my house and we brought all these books.”
SD: And even the bed, with all of the books on the window sill. We immediately notice that, because it’s so New York-ish.
So specific, yeah. And who they are.
SD: Their eclectic artisanal taste including some great unique pieces, like the 3-legged tiered bar table...
Yeah, that’s Ford and Jackie. And also there’s that orange piece of art above it, and then there’s the orange couch and there’s a stripe of orange on the lamp.
And then, the dying plants, I loved. ...
SD: Jackie said she took the dying plants from friends’ houses and the sad ones came from her best friend....
Did she? Because they’re so good! And oh, I didn’t know that. She never told me that! Cause I’m sitting there and like these are good, these plants...they’re dying...they’re like all different levels of life. It’s exactly right. They’re not like just bought at wherever people get plants, you know. These are reality. It’s impossible with the plants in NY. All of a sudden, the lights too strong, it’s not strong enough, the radiator dries it out...it’s hard. These were right.
SD: While they are not set decoration specific, the dogs are an essential part of the story! And we do see accouterments and hints of this being their home...
There was a terrifying moment where they [producers] were saying, “You know, we can’t afford two, we can only afford one
“This is impossible! What are you talking about? This is a couple who is overcompensating with animals, we can’t not have two! They each have their own thing, and...”
So I said I would go through the script and reduce the amount of time the dogs show up, and we made it work.
SD: The use of a small space...
For the surprise anniversary dinner, Sadie pulls the table out, puts away her bed. We know it’s small space, but you’re able to shoot from different angles and we don’t get tired of it...
Yeah, there are a lot of nooks and crannies that are good. When it was written, I imagined she was sleeping on the couch, and then when we saw this location, it had that little nook, and we said, “Ah, that’s Sadie’s nook
.” And it just became perfect. At first, I was scared of it. I was like, “Wait she should be in their space and now it’s almost like she has her own room, and is that good or bad?
” But then, for instance, there’s a scene where Richard
are having a big fight and it goes on and on and on, and at one point they’re even arguing over whether it’s “Suppress or repress”.
looks up, “It’s suppress.”
And you’re like, “Oh my god, she’s there! She was in her nook. We totally forgot about her.”
SD: We see their life outside of their apt, but in a way it is their home life because of the restaurants they go to, the food truck, and the whole feel of their neighborhood...
You get it. That makes me really happy.
SD: Jackie said they sourced out menus and flyers, to make it as authentic as possible.
Everything was real. And all those restaurants I wrote into the script, they’re all in the neighborhood. They’re places I go, they’re real places. And I wrote them down precisely. I said, “That would be Supper, that would be Mogador, that would be Il Buco. And it felt like the neighborhood. Productions will a lot of times, for convenience or because it looks pretty, decide to use a place. But, no. I wanted it to be part of the neighborhood and feel like it is. It’s a very specific feeling. Even if you don’t know the neighborhood, it doesn’t matter, you know it felt like it grew out of that kind of neighborhood.
SD: Did you do any stage at all?
For the tax credit, you have to do a percentage onstage, it’s sort of the standard operating procedure for NY film. We did some bathroom things...the collection room, the bathroom where Sadie
sits on the toilet and the door opens.
The Artisanal Pickle
place was a location...in a weird space that had housed a soundstage. And the hay bales. You don’t expect, but originally there was a scene at the framers’ market where he sells, where they put out their wares. He does mention that they’re preparing for the farmers’ market. You never see that, but it is justified...
SD: Other locations...
Molly’s house [Molly Shannon plays the character of Richard’s
] was a total location switcheroo. We went to one house where we worked out every shot, my DP and I built the whole sequence. And then, we ended up having to suddenly find a different house! In the new one, the dining room wasn’t big enough, so we turned the living room into a dining room. It as a long table and a lot of people...and it worked really well. They were genius with drapes and everything. It was just perfect. It just felt right. They did a really, really good job. And the way they did the kitchen, and then the flow down into the basement!
In the bedroom, the open space, the expansiveness compared to the books behind the bed, cramped apartment bedroom – perfect. I’m telling you, those guys were amazing. They had to redo EVERYthing, because that house was wrong, so they just brought stuff in and made it right.
...And the same with the Brooklyn brownstone
house where they go to the dinner party. Again, they just made it so right, and it was a completely different kind of house then what you see on the screen. It was like very old people lived in it...and they just turned it around. I wanted to live there. And the lamp, I remember saying, “Can we get one of those Noguchi balls?” And there are these layers of looking into the rooms...and so different from other people’s lives.
I love Yaddo. I’m a member, so I do things, volunteer work for the organization a lot, because I love them. But we didn’t get to shoot it in Saratoga Springs, which is where the place lives! I was all excited, and said, “Okay, the president of Yaddo said we could shoot there.” They have this mansion on their grounds. In the film, we mention the history that the Trasks donated it, but we couldn’t afford to go to the actual Yaddo in Saratoga Springs and I was devastated. I was really a mess about it. I was like, “This is ruining my movie
.” And we cheated it with another mansion. But I was so negative about it. I was such a baby...I was in so much pain. I said, “This is bad. This is so bad
.” But then I showed Ford the real room, Katrina Trask’s room...and in this place, it was weird that it had this similar white woodwork and cutout windows. It wasn’t exactly like Katrina’s room, but it was very close. When they finished, it was very pretty and it did look a lot like the real room, with the daybed/chaise, the wicker furniture...it was perfect. They were so good.
SD: That’s the magic of movies, isn’t it, that they actually made it happen for you, too.
Yes! I don’t know how I’m going to back to anything else. I mean, there’s just something...like when you were saying there’s so many things from people’s houses, it just feels like that. It’s such a different thing. Sometimes you watch film/shows and you can tell they just went down the street and bought a plant. And everything’s placed. There’s nothing random. I remember having a production designer say something great to me. I had said, “I don’t know, we could shoot here, and then move over to here...”
and she said, “It’s too convenient
.” And I thought, “That’s brilliant. It doesn’t have the irrational. It’s not lifelike.
This one was.
Editor’s note: Set Decorator Jacqueline Jacobson Scarfo SDSA International would like to acknowledge all the SDSA International Business Members...
“It definitely takes a village—all the vendors help me on indies.
For PRIVATE LIFE, especially:
Aisling Flowers - Thanksgiving arrangements
American Foliage - The leaves that blow in the air...leaves everywhere!
American Screen - Pickle Guy office blinds, Doctors' offices, Brooklyn apartment
Arenson Props - Richard’s brother Charlie’s house dining room & artwork
Bridge Props - Rachel & Richard’s apartment: coffee table, end tables, artwork; Charlie’s house furnishings; Doctor’s office; Brooklyn apartment
Carpet Time - Apartment kitchen tiles, Charlie’s house rugs
Chairish - Apartment orange sofa *
City Knickerbocker - Apartment lighting, Brooklyn apartment lighting, Yaddo
Eclectic Encore - Yaddo furniture, apartment artwork, Anniversary scene table
Fabric City - Curtains & pillows: Apartment, Charlie’s house, Yaddo
Newel Props - Yaddo daybed
propNspoon - Apartment furnishings, Yaddo furnishings
State Supply - Pickle Guy office furnishings