Director & Executive Producer Ken Olin talks about the collaborative aspect of this provocative ensemble hit series that pulls at our heartstrings with the theme “Sometimes life surprises you!”
The runaway hit series created by Dan Fogelman that unabashedly pulls at our hearts and has us coming back for more, THIS IS US takes us through different parts of a family’s life cycle, jumping back and forth through the decades and each of their lives, remembering and experiencing with them.
The sets not only reveal characters but also help ground us and let us know “when” we are. And we delight in each one!
Executive Producer/Director Ken Olin chatted with SET DECOR about the dynamics of making the series, the collaboration throughout, plus aspects of the sets by Production Designer Gary Frutkoff, Set Decorator Beth Wooke SDSA and their talented and hardworking teams!*
SET DECOR: Congratulations on THIS IS US! An intelligent dramedy with heart. You must be proud.
Executive Producer/Director Ken Olin: Yeah, I’m really proud of it. Not only am I proud of the show and what we do, and all the response and affection for it, but also it’s such a nice show to work on, with an incredible group of people. They are so diligent about the work, rigorous, and they’re really caring as well and respectful to one another. So it’s a kind of a big ensemble experience, really. It’s great.
I’ve done shows where you talk about family and you want that to be the experience, but that’s not what happens. It has to be organic to the experience. I think this has a lot to do with who Dan Fogelman is and the kind of people that he gravitates towards. In all of the leadership positions, the people are such decent and honest people, and kind, and it filters down. It’s just a really extraordinary group.
SET DECOR:Collaboration is essential. Everything overlaps and you really have to be able to work with each other—costume with set decoration and production design and photography, lighting—they’re all intermingled so much now...
Olin: Yes, especially when doing human relationships genre, it’s the most subjective. This is not a legal or medical drama where you can have more of a direct reference for the look.
There’s always taste involved when you’re working with design, but the human relationships genre has the most subjective reference point, because you’re saying to all of the “designers” [referring to everyone mentioned above] who are working with the writers and the directors and the cast, that everybody has their own experience...and their experience is valid. There’s no hierarchical reference in terms of authenticity.
It’s interesting because Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, the directors who did the pilot*, come from a very strong visual and design background. I don’t know what the process was, except that the pilot itself was purposely very limited and they had to be very cautious about what they did and didn’t show from a design perspective to hold for the intersection reveal. Of course, as we’ve been going forward in the show, it’s grown and expanded enormously.
For me, design is not my background. I come from a reactive place. So on the part of a set decorator and production designer, I have to be shown a lot of things, and I encourage a strong point of view because I have to react to them. I have a strong sense of how to move people in space and a strong sense geometrically in terms of photography, but I don’t have much ability to conceptualize architecture and color and design from nothing. So it has been really important for me to be able to react to different possibilities, to different palettes, to different kinds of things. And with Beth, that was extraordinary this year.
Another thing that is really important to me, especially in terms of relationships dramas, is that I like sets to be layered...sets that are messy and realistic. If things are too formal or too clean, I find that uninviting and it doesn’t feel particularly real. It’s actually not the way that I think people live in their spaces...they are usually more cluttered!
SET DECOR: Yes, because we keep things, some we even keep through different time periods. For instance, the rocking chair originally in the Pearson’s living room has made its way upstairs to the bedroom...
Olin: Yep, and our show has got to have that. Consistently, those are the places we go. You know, the whole series has very different kinds of experiences that are outside of the professionalized world. And that’s hard. I imagine this is pretty challenging for Beth and the crew!
We do go to Randall’s workplace, but that and a couple of high-end hotels, parties and restaurants are pretty much the extent of our “professionalized” canvas.
I’ve lived a pretty long time now and spent time in the theater, and I’ve been married for a long time and I have 2 kids that are grown and gone, so I’ve lived in those kinds of places where we’ve gone through, like you said, many different periods.
So when I walk into a set like Kevin’s dressing room [Broadway stage], and it is so brilliantly real...it is so filled, it’s spot-on. I’m very drawn to all the specificity, all the specifics that are on the wall, on the mirror, on the counter, because they’re in relief against blankness. For me, if that sense of space is filled accurately, I can watch the actor.
That was a set we did fairly quickly—the script comes out and we’re going to be in this NY stage dressing room that we suddenly have to create, because it has to fit on the same day we’re doing the main stage set in the theater.
You know working with people who are talented and who care makes such a difference. Beth is not from the theater. So for me to walk in there, and go, “Wow! That’s what it looks like!”...! You could look anywhere in that room and there’s tons of stuff and it’s a nondescript mix because he’s just moved in there. I was so happy with that set.
It’s things like that, if they seem so real that they go unnoticed, then we’re doing a great job. I think for our show, all these people/characters should seem to have lived in their places long enough that there’s too much history to start dissecting and deconstructing it, and it just feels like that’s where they live.
SET DECOR: And there’s a little wear and tear...
Olin: Yeah, and that’s hard to do. You know, you can wow people with really expensive sets and very glitzy or slick kinds of surfaces and all those things, but I don’t think those are as difficult, from a décor perspective, as pulling off a den in a house that someone has lived in for 15 years and who have teenage children. That’s really hard to do, let alone if it were 20 years ago and it’s got to feel like it’s completely truthful.
SET DECOR: With this series, we really relied on the sets in the Pearson house to tell us which period we were in because it jumps so much. Elements as simple as the different kitchen curtains helped us spot “when” we were...
Olin: Well that’s true, too. And we’ve gotten really good at it, but boy at the beginning, for all of us, it was entirely different. You know, the template that was created by the pilot was completely misleading. In the pilot, they were so careful about not revealing the different time periods, the intersection of the lives. But, then from the second hour on, it was, “Okay, now it’s all out in the open, we’re not concealing it at all.” And then it goes to the other extreme, “Wait a minute, they’re remodeling the kitchen!” And we would sit and laugh—these are the most involved decisions and most involved production meetings because we’re trying to figure out whether they should have replaced the stove in 1989 or 1993. I mean...!
SET DECOR: That’s the true life part...
Olin: Yeah, and the whole point is when we go in and photograph it, we don’t want you to be paying attention to that, it has to be seamless because all we’re trying to do is to create a context that feels authentic. Steve Beers, the producer, and I would sit with Beth and with Gary and talk it out. This is the single most complicated show we’ve ever done, and all of us have done really big shows, because we’re constantly changing time periods, having people live their full lives in these different periods. It’s really fun, you know, but it gets to be a little mind-bending at times.
SET DECOR: And how many times does a set piece get to be a major part of a storyline: the washing machine! And then it’s in the background in later scenes, the different incarnations, which just adds to it all, the realism, the credibility...
Olin: I know. That was fun wasn’t it?
SET DECOR: And we see the furnishing choices made, like the very Americana sofa set for the Pearsons’ home. The living room evolves as it would, different pillows, different throws, ever-changing stuff on the coffee table, and eventually the new sofa set. Those main pieces anchor it and give that deep sense of family and the others give quick time period references.
Olin: Even though ultimately those decisions I guess are under my purview, I’m not particularly knowledgeable about those things, so I can only react to what it feels like...if it feels right to me. The people in our design and decor department have a tremendous amount of authority and autonomy, and that’s the way all of us work. It’s a very collaborative place that way. We have a discussion conceptually and people take it from there, which is great.
I thought that in the finale, the set that was done for where Rebecca lived when she was starting out...she was 22 years old and there’s something that’s just marvelous in having those real record covers and things. You’ve got to tell something about her in literally about a minute, and the details do.
SET DECOR: Exactly, and the textures and the rust-color velveteen sofa against the greens of the rug gave clues to the period. The palette told us about her...earthy and natural...but also the brightness of the colors gave a sense of her optimism...
Olin: That’s great.
SET DECOR: In contrast, Jack’s attic space palette was somewhat drab and darker, like his life had become...
Olin: Great. And all I noticed was the sparseness...I would say to Beth, ““Look, this is 1972...I think he lives this very spare life. It’s temporary. He came from living in the barracks. It’s got to feel rougher in that way.”
And she did it having elements of that, without going overboard on both Rebecca’s and Jack’s sets. The color palette had those feelings, and the things she chose. And that’s not easy to do, but you want it to feel easy. Again, you want it to be, “Okay, don’t pay attention. I can watch and be with the characters.”
That’s the great thing in terms of our design department, there’s humility there. It’s not showing off. The only thing we want to show off is how good the actors are and how good our scripts are. It’s not show and tell about the way the show is shot. And it’s not show and tell about the way the show is designed. That takes a lot of talent to do. That takes a lot of texture and it takes a lot of substance to be able to create that kind of environment.
SET DECOR: Yes, and more! The Pearsons’ house takes us through their past, even this last episode was not yet current...
Olin: Right. We went from 1972 to 1996.
SET DECOR: So, our touchstone for current day is Randall’s house and home. It is more high-end but it, too, is not overdone. It is very much a home that they live in, that is comfortable for them. We love the fact that there are floor pillows in the living room and the actors actually use them and it’s not just staged!
And at the same time, the look of this house gives a veracity for the younger generations today, because it’s something they can directly identify with, just as we can identify directly with some of the earlier periods, so it’s an interweaving, a beautiful combination of that...
Olin: Yep. Agree.
SET DECOR: And then, this is what happens often...the set decorator having people ask where a piece of art came from, or a rug or a pillow, because they so have fallen in love with it or identify with it. That certainly has been happening with Beth, particularly about one of the key pieces in there, the huge framed photograph of the tree.
And, I’m sure you know the story, about Beth coming across that photograph and thinking it would be such a perfect representation of Randall, his search for his roots, trying to complete his family tree...
Olin: Oh, yes. I remember she talked about this with me, but that was when I first saw it, a long time ago, which is beautiful. It’s so subtle really, and it doesn’t matter if anyone ever knows that. But it’s there. That’s the kind of care that goes into to the set.
Yes, it’s a beautiful art piece in and of itself, but it also has so much depth and meaning, because, again, we are ALL storytellers, whether you’re a writer, actor, director or the set decorator.
Olin: That’s right.
SET DECOR: So in trying to help get the story of the character, or the storyline, across, Beth would use a few elements with a bit of a leaf or branches motif throughout the house, just subtlely making that connection.
Olin: It’s great that you write about that, because people don’t know about that kind of thinking and care that goes into these things. When I’m told that, I’m “Wow, that’s so cool. That’s true.” That’s something that millions of people have watched and seen how many times over the course of this year?
That’s cool. I don’t even think about that.
I just look at it and go, “Oh, I like this piece here, that feels good.”
SET DECOR: Then they’ve done their job perfectly.
Olin: Yeah, well that’s what I mean about the humility...the humility of those decisions and going, “Hmm. Okay, that enriches the story in the way that I can.” I think everybody wants to contribute in their way, and respects everybody else’s contribution.
And that’s pretty unique.
*Production Designer Dan Bishop and Set Decorator Dianna Freas were responsible for the pilot
Set Decorator Beth Wooke SDSA would like to acknowledge her fantastic crew:
Buyer Jill Carvalho SDSA Associate
Lead Mark Rodriquez SDSA Associate
OnSet Dresser Casey Van Maanen
Art Department Coordinator Gina Hermosillo
Set Dresser David Dunn
Set Dresser John Horning
Set Dresser Ron Sica
Set Dresser Steve Rodriguez
Set Dresser Art Vasenius
Set Dresser Raul Ortiz
Graphic Designer Megan Greydanus
Production Assistant Marcie Maute
Wooke would also like to acknowledge the following resources, who can all be found in the SDSA directory Set Decorator Resources:
Custom and Period Drapery:
· Omega|Cinema Props
· Warner Bros. Studios Randall's living room:
· HD Buttercup
· Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams
· Grace Home Furnishings
· Hollywood Piano Company
· Sandy Rose Floral, Inc
· Green Sets - especially the live Douglas Fir Christmas tree-in October! Randall's kitchen:
· Exclusive Sales & Rentals
· Hollywood Studio Gallery
· Warner Bros. Studios Pearson home – Rebecca & Jack + children:
· Wertz Brothers Furniture Inc (a lot!)
· The Mart Collective
· Universal Studios Property
· History for Hire
· Omega|Cinema Props
· Practical Props
· St Vincent de Paul LA Thrift Store
· Square Deal Plumbing
· Playback Technologies, Inc (Always changing period and practical television sets, including Kate's 1996 pink TV in bedroom) Randall's office:
· Modern Props Cabin:
· Warner Bros. Studios
· Prop Services West Kevin's agent:
· Bridge Furniture & Props, LLC Kate's fitness camp:
· Lennie Marvin's Propheaven Kate's apartment (and later hers and Toby's):
· Sunbeam Vintage (teal velvet sofa)
· Art Pic
· Pinacoteca Picture Props
· Nest Studio Rentals Memphis Blues Clubs and Ray's Bar
· Air Designs
· RC Vintage
· Hollywood Studio Gallery