Because of weather issues, filming could not be completed on location, thus Production Designer Clayton Hartley, Set Decorator David Smith SDSA and their teams re-created the trailer interior on stage…
$5,000,000 worth of fake, but legally correct money was used to represent the $17million stolen. Thus, the bins and centers of the pallets were first filled with newsprint, then the bills placed over and around…
Back in the US, Steve Chambers is dispensing the loot, none of which is going to Ghantt. This is only a corner, the entire trailer is filled with cash. Inevitably, Chambers and his wife go on a spending spree…
While known for elegant, high-end sets for films such as CRAZY, STUPID LOVE., THE HOLIDAY and SHOPGIRL, Set Decorator David Smith SDSA notes, “It’s a lot more fun to work with character-driven environments than to do something pristine and beautiful.” Thus, he and Production Designer Clayton Hartley happily dove into creating the sets for the action-comedy MASTERMINDS, based on the true story of the riotous misadventures of unlikely anti-hero David Ghantt as he pulls off one of the largest heists in U.S. history.
The storyline: The trouble begins when David Ghantt [Zach Galifianakis], a trusted armored-truck driver for Loomis Fargo, falls for beautiful guard Kelly Campbell [Kristen Wiig]. After she quits her job, Kelly, egged on by local petty thief Steve Chambers [Owen Wilson], persuades David to clean out the company’s vault in Charlotte, North Carolina. After stuffing a van with more than $17 million of stolen cash, David delivers the money to Chambers’ gang and flees to Mexico to lie low while the FBI searches for the culprits. Steve and his wife Michelle [Mary Elizabeth Ellis] buy a mansion with their ill-gotten wealth and dispatch overzealous hit man Mike McKinney [Jason Sudeikis] to Mexico to kill David. Once David discovers the betrayal, he returns to North Carolina on a mission to rescue his true love and expose Steve as the heist’s real “mastermind.” After authentically re-creating the 1970’s for the biopic LOVELACE, Smith was ready to tackle the ‘90s, beginning with the remarkably bad-taste trailer homes of several of the main characters and then jumping into the post-heist nouveau riche Chambers mansion, complete with a large ornately-framed Elvis painting on black velvet and an over-the-top under-the-sea themed party. The Mexico sets [filmed in Puerto Rico] include a beachside resort juxtaposed with a village-like small port with funky motel and colorful sidewalk vendor displays.
SET DECOR spoke with Smith about creating realistic sets that are often tasteless and yet somehow honor the characters…
SET DECOR: You do such standard-setting beautiful décor, how do you make the switch to something like this?
Set Decorator David Smith SDSA: Really, you just do what is required and it truly is great fun to do something that is somewhat tacky and of questionable taste. We are storytellers, so we immerse in the world of the characters.
I think that my theatre training has helped me as a Set Decorator. I spent 14 years in Regional theatre, doing over 170 plays. It is like they say about Chekov and comedy: it has to stem from reality. So the goal is to not tip the scale too far in the wrong direction, keeping it based in reality. And for this movie, we had a local documentary about the heist and FBI photos as research. Many choices came directly from the research, including the Elvis black velvet painting, the animal patterns, the bad art and the cigar store Indian.
SET DECOR: Tell us about the world of Appalachian trailers/mobile homes…
Smith: Clayton and Art Director Elliott Glick found the Steve Chambers doublewide mobile home and moved it to a site across from the existing smaller trailer that was used as Kelly Campbell’s. Though it didn't make the cut, Director Jared Hess shot a great establishing shot of Kelly and Steve’s trailers in the rolling hills of the Smoky Mountains. David Ghantt’s trailer exterior was in a trailer park in another city.
SET DECOR: Were most of the interiors done on location or on stage?
Smith: Steve’s doublewide was dressed on location and shot, interior and exterior, in a day and a half. Kelly’s interior was to be shot out in one day and we used a lot of the homeowner’s furniture, adding a little more of our furniture and all of the artwork. When they didn’t make their day filming, it was decided to build the interior onstage, so we took everything from the homeowner and bought him all new used furniture to replace and upgrade his home.
David Ghantt’s trailer interior was a stage set with living room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. And as luck would have it, the summer rains forced us to cover for Kelly’s trailer and David’s trailer. Of course, they were built and painted, but not completely dressed until right before shooting.
The cheap Mexican motel and the service station bathrooms were also stage sets. The rest were practical locations.
SET DECOR: What was the advantage/disadvantage of shooting this way?
Smith: The Chambers doublewide was large enough to shoot in, which was good. Naturally, it is always easier for the shooting crew to shoot a trailer set on stage, which we obviously did, but I think shooting in small towns in North Carolina added a lot of atmosphere. Also the terrain is so beautiful. As for sets, it is always fun to be able to get them as real as possible.
SET DECOR: You have filmed all over the world, so please tell us about filming in North Carolina, the state where the heist actually took place…
Smith: The true story happened in Charlotte and the surrounding areas. The Charlotte area is somewhat flat, not in the mountains. It was decided to move the location to a more hilly terrain. We were based in Asheville, which is beautiful, and many of our locations were 1½ hours to 2 hours away…The Chambers mansion was 1½ hours from the office and we shot there for 7 days.
It is such a beautiful area, with the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains. In daylight, the drive to and from locations was spectacular, not so much at night or in early morning pre-dawn darkness!
Another plus for me on MASTERMINDS was that Asheville is 60 miles from my hometown of Greenville, SC. So I saw my two sisters a lot and I shopped a lot of things in Greenville because it is a much larger city.
Also 12 years previous to MASTERMINDS, I had done a Turner Network movie called FREEDOM SONG in Wilmington, NC and I was able to work with some of the same crew as before.
SET DECOR: And you filmed in Puerto Rico for Mexico?
Smith: When I came onboard the film, the original plan was to shoot in Wrightsville Beach, NC for the Mexican beach scenes and dress the Mexican streets on the backlot in Wilmington, NC. That became way too ambitious and too expensive. The plan to shoot in Puerto Rico instead came up a few weeks after we began filming, and Clayton and I went down 3 days early while they completed filming in Asheville. Many locations weren’t locked down or chosen until Jared arrived. We had about 8 days of prep before we began filming in Puerto Rico. The idea of the Mexican street chase with David and Mike McKinney evolved while we were traveling. And there was no real comprehension of what we needed for stunts and special effects. We all were running on the fly.
While very obvious to many of us, some of the production crew was surprised that Mexican goods were not available in Puerto Rico! Thankfully the Puerto Rican crew was used to mainlanders expecting to shoot Puerto Rico for Mexico. Several local buyers and leadmen have stored previous Mexican set dressing and make it available for rental. However, because it had been assumed the piñatas prevalent in the Mexican culture would be readily available in Puerto Rico where they are not part of the culture, I had quite the challenge when asked to quickly bring in 100+ piñatas for the chase scene! While not fully successful, I did by chance find over 40 piñatas at the handful of KMarts scattered on the island.
SET DECOR: After that tale, please give your observations or hints about filming on location!
Smith: After about a week, I think we Set Decorators get a good lay of the land and learn the area really quickly. You ask locals a lot of questions and you keep your eyes and ears open. I always find location work exciting and a real adventure.
Asheville is pretty small and I knew the city pretty well in a few days. On my first day there, I found 6 pieces of major set dressing that anchored the Chambers house. I was a little nervous about driving in San Juan. It’s difficult to drive in a foreign city and search at the same time. I didn’t have a dedicated driver like I had when I worked in Rio de Janeiro and the Czech Republic, but I had a GPS, so I coped.
SET DECOR: So many of your sets have at least one fabulous, unique chair! Please tell us about some of your favorites in this film…
Smith: Thank you. Several of them didn’t make the cut, like the leopard velvet chair and ottoman in Steve’s mansion bedroom and the gilt chair covered in turquoise moire that sat next to the King Neptune sculpture. But I did love the zebra-covered chair and the brown and white cowhide chairs in Steve’s mansion living room and office. I also love the orange floral bar stools in David’s trailer, and the dusty purple recliner on Steve’s trailer porch. And I particularly loved the chairs in the cheap Mexican motel, which is one of my top ten favorite sets I’ve ever done.
SET DECOR: The same applies to fabrics…including the great red-patterned curtains in that motel…Please tell us about fabrics!
Smith: Often I will use stretch jersey dress fabric for curtains and these were panels made from fabrics purchased at Hancock and Jo Ann Fabrics. There are mismatched panels on purpose so it looks a little haphazard. Clayton referenced some photos of Havana interiors as examples of how he wanted the Mexican motel to look.
SET DECOR: And then there’s the ubiquitous afghan, including the orange and yellow one in Jandice’s trailer…
Smith: That was from Bob Meek’s Props in Atlanta. I think we had five afghans in the trailer as though they were all made by Jandice’s mother, all equally as good as the one featured.
SET DECOR: Speaking of colors, please tell us about the palettes…
Smith: Since Clayton couldn’t paint the rented location for the Chambers mansion, and the mobile homes and trailers all had wood grained paneling, the set dressing that was available for rental sort of dictated the palette. Except Clayton decided that he wanted David’s trailer to be warm with oranges and gold. And, of course, the turquoise, aqua and iridescent sparkle for the Under-The-Sea party was really quite obvious...
SET DECOR: You always seem to find interesting sculptural details, for instance, in the lamps…
Smith: I do enjoy that aspect. In the Chambers mansion I used 2 pairs of elephant lamps that echoed a collection of elephants, and I had a good chuckle with the lamps in the cheap Mexican motel and in Steve’s trailer.
SET DECOR: Let’s talk about ugly sofas!!!
Smith: For that outrageous ‘90s look, we found a pair of sofas and matching upholstered table for Steve’s trailer from Meeks Props in Atlanta. The minute my buyer Gia Grosso texted me a photo of this “lovely” group, I knew we had the anchor pieces for the set.
The sofa in David’s trailer wasn’t the one that I originally bought for the set. Instead, on the day that we shot the Loomis Fargo parking lot with the truck flying through the loading doors, I had a few hours while waiting for the company to arrive. I went in to a local thrift shop and found the gold and orange floral jewel that is now featured.
And the trailer’s homeowner is totally responsible for the sofa and chair choice for Kelly Campbell. I would never have come up with the idea to mix and place in a trailer a large sofa, mismatched loveseat and upholstered chair. But I sure did know enough to keep them!
In Steve’s mansion living room, we had a change the day before we were to shoot that set! Luckily, in Waynesville, I found the rust suede cushy sofa that you see in the movie. I had to be persuaded by Clayton to not get the black vinyl and black and white cowhide sofa and chair I really wanted.
SET DECOR: And the bad art!!!
Smith: Ironically, sometimes it’s really hard to get good “bad” art. I found that just by adding many things to the mix and changing the scale, things could look worse than they really were.
In the diner, we used a mix of taxidermy, beach scenes, wildlife pictures and a few florals. In that set, there is also a large print of a squirrel by the 15th and 16th century painter Albrecht Dürer—the original is a very small and delicate work.
The art that I did buy from cleared art sources was also served well by 1980’s framing, along with some over-the-top framing.
And Elvis Presley on black velvet. You don't get to do that very often.
SET DECOR: And bad weather??
Smith: Ah, summer in the Great Smoky Mountains. Rain and more rain. We had rain daily while shooting the party and the interiors of Steve’s mansion in Waynesville, NC. There were great tarps to cover the tables and chairs in clusters…and the paper lanterns. Then at night, the dew would fall, which caused more moisture each morning. We were rained out numerous times and headed for cover.
SET DECOR: What were other particular challenges on this film?
Smith: In retrospect, I probably would have brought a trailer of set dressing out from Los Angeles. But the budget was really tight and I didn’t offer it up.
…Crew…Getting a crew in Puerto Rico was a challenge because we had very little planning time. But the local producer came through with some really terrific set dressers and a lead. Also, I lucked upon two really great Puerto Rico buyers, although I only got each of them after another had left.
Asheville isn’t an established filming area and there were no real local crew. But we all survived and I had a great rental house that backed up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
…Money…And then there was the money! Both real…as in budget…and fake…as in the heist. Fortunately, Mychael Bates, the Property Master, and I shared the cost and shipment of the money used in the film. Thank you ISS!
…P-A-R-T-Y …Clayton had asked me on the first day to come up with some ideas for a hillbilly-themed party for the obnoxiously nouveau riche Steve & MichelleChambers. So that weekend, I went shopping for assortments of palm trees, pink flamingos and alligators. Then after Jared arrived, Clayton brought back the news from their first meeting in Asheville that the party was now to have an under-the-sea theme! So we did a total u-turn. Amazingly, I found the King Neptune and Dolphins online within hours of getting the news of the new theme for the party.
However, after we showed them to Jared and got a thumbs-up, the next 3 weeks were hell. I had found them online from a vendor in Hilton Head, SC and there was a phone number and fax number listed.
I called daily for weeks and left messages. NO ANSWER AND NO RETURN CALLS! Frustrated to no end, I began looking for alternatives, none of which were as good. Ready to admit failure, I phoned one last time and got no answer and then out of frustration phoned the fax number…and after it rang about 20 times, someone picked up the phone. We chatted and they promised me that the owner would phone me back. He did and he was terrific. I learned that the website was an old one and obsolete…as was the phone number that I had been calling for weeks! Meeting Dynamics Inc., Hilton Head, SC is the company and we made a deal for them to deliver to Waynesville, NC and pick up for the return to Hilton Head. Happy ending to the tale!
SET DECOR: Wow! Was there something unexpectedly easy or serendipitous?
Frugal Framer, Asheville, NC amazingly had in stock, for some unknown reason, an inventory of colorful metal framing from the 1980s. I think I used it all. They also had closeouts of some very elaborate but cheap large-scale museum framing.
I also discovered Warren Fluharty Designs in Asheville, NC. A very respected interior designer, Warren has a large retail shop and warehouse. I was able to rent a lot of his inventory and ironically make it look rather tasteless and tacky when combined with our other set dressing!
SET DECOR: What was particularly helpful to have on this film?
Smith: For me, having Gia Grosso (SDSA) as the buyer was a real help, especially with her having just completed a couple of seasons of work in Atlanta and her knowledge of what was readily available in the prop houses there. And I had really nice crews in North Carolina and Puerto Rico.
SET DECOR: Please tell us about your collaboration with Production Designer Clayton Hartley…and your process…
Smith: Clayton has a long history of working with my good friend Set Decorator Jan Pascale SDSA, so I knew he would be terrific to work with on this project. Plus, I had done a few days of reshoots years ago with him when Jan wasn’t available and we had socialized on a few occasions. We had a terrific time. He is very respectful and supportive of his team. We had really nice communication.
In this movie, we started out with the idea that some things would be a little more tasteful, such as the Chambers mansion living room. However, as we got closer to dressing it, Clayton re-configured the look, based on a week of filming other sets and having a better read on what Jared Hess was shooting and might want. A few scrambles here and there but all for the benefit of the film…
SET DECOR: What were your resources for this film?
Smith: We sent two trucks and rented set dressing in bulk from the Atlanta-based vendors Meeks’ Props/now Central Atlanta Props and Sets, Georgia Prop Source, and RJR Props.
Art was from LA: Dina Art Gallery and Seattle: Mardine Davis Art Consulting.
And a huge shout out to ISS in Los Angeles for the $5 million in fake, but legal-correct and believable money that got shifted to camera to convey the $17 million that was robbed.
SET DECOR: Speaking of resources, you are a former SDSA President and Chairman of the Board, and are a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and of the Television Academy. Please tell us about being a member of these groups and the importance of participation.
Smith: I am honored to be a member of the Motion Picture Academy and to have been lucky to have done enough films that allowed me to be voted in. I urge every set decorator to join the Television Academy as soon as they have enough hours to join and to participate.
Being a member of the SDSA is so important in keeping our craft and our position as a part of the visual creative team alive.
They are all a great way to network, to get to know other set decorators and share information. And they all help with the awareness of our craft.
Just look at the success of SET DECOR.
And as a member of the SDSA I try to support as many of our Business Members as possible on each production I do.
SET DECOR: You have done so many great film and television productions! Do you have a favorite?
Smith: I have four.
CIRQUE DU FREAK: The Vampire’s Assistant because it was so theatrical and I used a lot of my theatre skills and knowledge…
SHOPGIRL for its art house pedigree and the fact that it holds up well…
The HOLIDAY because of the look and it’s a Nancy Meyers film…
My 90 episodes of NYPD BLUE for the variety and enormous amount of character set dressing required.
SET DECOR: Lastly, what do you always want to have with you when you do a film project?
Smith: Good energy and some fun. Though I take the work very seriously. I really love to work. Nothing is as much fun as dressing a set. Serendipity is always a big part of the equation and you never know when it will happen and what will appear. But somehow things always appear just at the right time.