Bringing a hit Broadway play to life, giving a 3-dimensional immersion into characters, time and place, is always a challenge...add in the aspect of it being a musical and a coming-of-age teen drama, and the demands for realistic visual portrayal are raised even higher. Director Stephen Chbosky wisely brought on Brandon Trost as Director of Photography, Beth Mickle as Production Designer and Lance Totten SDSA as Set Decorator to, along with their teams, give the audience opportunity to know the characters and their stories in more depth and definition.
Set Decorator Lance Totten SDSA generously gives us notes on how they went about creating these environments, with the added challenge of being one of the first productions to film after the forced pandemic hiatus.
The story & characters:
Evan Hansen [Ben Platt] is on the outside always looking in, a high-school senior who’s all but invisible to his classmates. A motivational letter Evan writes to himself is stolen by Connor Murphy, a volatile loner in Evan’s class, and is later found by Connor’s mother and stepfather after the boy takes his own life. The letter, they hope, means that their son had found his only friend in Evan. To console a grieving family, Evan spins a tale of a friendship that never existed. What starts as an innocent lie of compassion spirals in ways Evan didn’t expect and isn’t prepared for. As he begins to be celebrated for someone he isn’t, Evan struggles to find the courage to tell the truth and be seen for who he truly is. –Universal Studios
Notes from Set Decorator Lance Totten SDSA...
Much of the challenge of this project was trying to strike the right mood for each of the characters’ physical environments. The script is obviously the starting point, but we often have to do a lot of independent thinking and discussion among ourselves to arrive at a finished product that will inform the audience as to whom they are watching.
The Hansen home...Because the palette was earthy and warm, we favored a blend of patterns and textures to give Evan’s mother, Heidi, a slightly eclectic vibe. A mix of rattan and wicker, along with some down-market midcentury items so as not to feel too curated, and a single “antique” bookcase that could be a family heirloom, set the tone for the furniture. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
The Hansen home...
Set Decoration is one of the first layers of character development. With some characters, we end up creating the backstory ourselves to have something tangible to work with. To that end, we wanted to show that Evan’s mom, Heidi, was busy with her work as a nurse, that she was single and didn’t have a lot of money. We made sure the house felt full but not messy. Beyond that, of course, we had to think a lot about her choices in artwork and furniture to give a deeper background that isn't verbalized.
The Hansen home...The script mentioned a worn-out old Ikea sofa and we found a great used one on Craigslist—this is why I’m always having to fight to get petty cash on our increasingly “cashless” productions, not everything can be rented from a prop-house or purchased with a credit-card! To avoid seeming too “period", we included several contemporary touches in the form of inexpensive table-lamps from national retail stores, as well as a few raw-edge smooth wooden tables from World Market. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
Julianne Moore, who plays Heidi, was gracious enough to give us some of her family photos from her childhood, so we were able to inject some extra family history into the house. (She really does look just like her mom!) We had childhood photos of Ben Platt to use as well.
Evan’s bedroom was an example of the question: How do you show the character of someone who doesn’t have a lot of interests and whose character isn’t fully formed yet? Buyer Lauren Adams Jones was invaluable in this regard, for both the Hansen house generally and Evan’s bedroom specifically, as she put a lot of thought and effort into helping me figure out how to show who these characters were.
Lauren and I leaned into Evan’s interest in the outdoors by choosing nature photography and posters from national parks. We also used several mixed-media woodblock paintings by Todd Anderson that Lauren sourced through a local gallery. These pieces had a haunting outdoorsy quality that added a quiet sophistication to the house.
Evan Hansen’s bedroom...Mismatched bedding was a deliberate choice, as was the uncovered box-spring. We peppered in some random camping gear, a thermos, flashlights, found animal skulls, some inexpensive modern electronics, a laundry basket with clothing, used books, and even a couple “participation” trophies. I brought-in my own Mason jar filled with loose change from home to put on Evan’s desk. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
We managed to add in some small toys and figurines as well. Universal Clearance is super-strict, so even random objects like Rubik’s cubes and a battery-powered aquarium were subjected to scrutiny. That being said, the clearance team at Universal did a great job of wrangling all the various pop-culture items requested by the various actors for their sets.
We figured that while Evan wasn’t a big music-fan...and we definitely didn’t want him to appear overly cool...as a teenager living in the present day, it was mandatory that he have SOME music and movie references in his space. Ben Platt requested LORD OF THE RINGS, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and SCOTT PILGRIM VS THE WORLD, in addition to musical acts Radiohead and Ben Folds, which I found to be interesting, unexpected, and thoughtful choices for Evan. Since Colton Ryan had also requested Radiohead/Thom Yorke for his character Connor Murphy’s bedroom walls, I thought Radiohead/Yorke was a nice through-line connecting these two boys who weren’t friends, but still shared some things in common.
The Auditorium, memorial service for Connor...
The Auditorium...The Auditorium scene is so pivotal that we put a great deal of thought into the few items of decor on that stage, knowing they’d be seen a lot. This sequence had to be done twice due to actor availability and the number of extras that could be allowed in the scene (due to COVID protocols). We shot it once for the Murphy family reactions, which were mostly done from the stage POV looking into the audience, and then again on a different day for Ben Platt’s actual singing performance. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures © Universal Studios.
The Murphy home...
The Murphy home was an exercise in good taste and restrained elegance. Buyer Mary Stacy did an outstanding job sourcing all the furniture, lighting, books, and smalls for this important set.
The Murphy house needed to feel like a different world to Evan, so its clean lines and muted palette of pale blue, greens and cream with silver and chrome accents is in contrast to the darker earth tones and rougher textures of his own house. Danny Pino as Larry Mora, Amy Adams as his wife Cynthia Murphy, Kaitlyn Dever as Zoe Murphy. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
We filmed in a large house in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, replacing much of the furniture and all the window treatments, but the homeowners did have some great pieces that we kept as well. We changed out almost all of the overhead lighting fixtures and sconces, and brought in a fantastic array of table lamps that helped to set the mood for many of the emotionally heavy scenes that unfold there.
Murphy dining room...Buyer Mary Stacy and I spent a lot of time and attention on the place-settings for the various dinner scenes, one of which was quite long and involved in its staging. Photos courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
Murphy kitchen... Again, the point of our work here was to show Evan being drawn to the world of wealth and privilege of this family that is now so damaged by the death of their own son. Ben Platt as Evan Hansen, Amy Adams as Cynthia Murphy. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
Even though Cynthia Murphy has crafted a carefully controlled environment of perfection, there was still something dark and troubling going on beneath the surface. To that end, we put son Connor’s somber bedroom of blacks and grays down in the basement of the house in a rec room that needed quite a bit of work as well. [See a Behind-The-Scenes photo in gallery below]
Zoe Murphy’s bedroom was built on our sound stages in East Atlanta and was a lot of fun to work on. It was also quite a large space that took a lot of dressing to fill up, but we were all very happy with how it turned out. Five out of six of the projects I’ve done in the past 2 years featured teenager’s bedrooms as major sets, and I have 2 teenaged kids of my own as well, so my team and I are getting pretty good a these type of environments! The biggest challenge is making them all look different and unique to their respective characters.
Zoe Murphy’s bedroom...Buyer Lauren Adams Jones did a stellar job managing all of the lighting, furniture, character details and textiles for Zoe’s bedroom. Lauren’s bedding options were especially successful, as were the various cozy nooks and hangout areas we created with floor pillows and the custom-made window seat. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
Zoe’s space is definitely that of a rich kid, but because her character is a musician and so well-layered to begin with, it actually gave us a lot to build on. The integration/clearance team at Universal was able to help us get many of the pop-music posters and albums that the creative team and Kaitlyn Dever, who plays Zoe, requested. So, artists like the Runaways, Morrissey, the Shaggs, Snail Mail, Ingrid Michaelson, and Mazzy Star were all able to be featured in our set. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
My office staff of Set Dec Coordinator Lisa Perry and PA Sydney Thomas Hoogland helped tremendously by sourcing all of the many small graphics we used on the wall, as well as taking hundreds of polaroids and disposable camera pictures to create the densely layered photo walls throughout the set. I should mention that Lisa and Sydney also did a phenomenal job of designing all of the many bulletin boards we dressed at the High School location, not to mention the countless hours they spent printing and framing photos and artwork for all the sets.
Larry’s home office & his corporate office...
Larry Mora, Cynthia Murphy’s husband and the stepfather to the Murphy kids, had both a home office and a professional workspace featured in the movie. It was very important to the producers and director that we push Larry’s Cuban-American heritage, so the home office became a fun project where Mary Stacy tackled the furniture, lighting, smalls and books, while Lauren jumped in with Lisa and Sydney to print and frame all of the Latin and Caribbean themed artwork, maps, baseball memorabilia, golf related items, barware, etc.
Larry’s home office... Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
Larry’s professional workspace was put together at a large office complex south of Atlanta; we had an entire floor of cubicles to dress, and in his private office we brought in more Latin touches within the context of a sleek and modern corporate space.
Larry’s corporate office... Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
Principal’s Office – West View High School...
The scene in the Principal’s office was interesting because it came up early in the schedule, although not originally planned that way. I think it was the first interior scene we shot, landing on Day 4 or so, and the first time I saw the space was actually on the tech scout, so we had to pull it all together very quickly. All of our work at the High School location was scheduled for the second half of the shoot when Amy Adams wasn’t going to be available, so we knew this scene had to happen at a different location, but weren’t sure where or when.
I believe Production Designer Beth Mickle chose this room in a church-school building in Decatur while scouting for a location for Evan’s grade school classroom set. We ended up dressing both sets in the same building across the hall from one another...and shooting them on the same day. For not having much time to plan this set, I couldn’t be happier with the way it turned out, we nailed it. You’d never know this room wasn’t in our HS location, and all the touches like spirit pennants, diplomas and schedules, and our invented backstory for the principal having gone to Maryland and Loyola universities, were nice character details.
Principal’s office...The emotional heft of this scene was so great that I’m sure if I’d thought too much about it, I would have been overwhelmed. So, instead, we just rolled up our sleeves and tried to make the best set we could and not dwell on what was going to happen there thematically. Amy Adams, Danny Pino. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures ©Universal Studios.
Editor’s note: Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!
West View High School...
The actual high school location was a huge logistical challenge to dress, especially with all the limitations presented by COVID-19 and the fact that the school was actually in session most of the time we were there. The school blocked off one hallway for our exclusive use, but as we also had work on another hallway that was actively having classes, we had to limit our work there to before 7am and after 4pm. Since Production kept the Dressing crew on a 10-hour day (also due to COVID protocols), this made it tough to get our work done.
Luckily, we had a lot of prep time with the school, so we were able to get it all done in time for shooting, but ultimately we did dress: two long hallways, the gymnasium as a pep rally and two different dance scenes, the library and media center, the cafeteria, the front lobby, the administration office leading to the principal’s office, a computer lab, a science class, an English class, a locker room, the bus port and exterior entrance, and all of the main characters’ lockers (including the Connor Memorial sequence).
My set dressing team of Leadman Mike Ellison and Gang Boss Nina Kyle did an outstanding job of juggling these many sets on a challenging schedule. They also had to navigate the new world of COVID protocols for the set dressers, inconvenient new rules and testing times, and the ongoing problem of losing some crew members to contact tracing and quarantine. All the set dressers did a fantastic job throughout the show, not least of which included them hand-making literally hundreds of spirit-banners and posters for the HS sets!
Editor’s note: For photos of these sets, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!
Other characters, defined through their bedrooms...
The house that was chosen for Alana’s bedroom had a number of other rooms that we were asked to dress as other characters’ bedrooms, additionally. These were for a musical montage, so we approached them like vignettes. Beth pretty much turned me loose to figure them out, with her blessing. My set dec team came through once again, as of course, this was just as we had huge other sets going. Lauren led the charge on these teen bedrooms, choosing a palette for each character and pulling out whatever we knew about them to create a unique environment, which allowed me to be able to put more focus on the high school and other big sets, and we brought it all together in time!
Editor’s note: For these fun & unique bedrooms, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!
COVID-19 protocols – going back...
DEH was one of the first productions to get up and running in Georgia after the film industry started to open back up in mid-summer 2020. I was prepping at Black Hall Studios by late July, for the shoot that went from late-September to mid-November, 2020.
I could go on and on about the challenges of working during COVID pre-vaccination (especially shooting at an active private school with its own protocols and concerns), but basically, we all had to learn new ways of doing almost everything.
I was also frankly scared and nervous from the outset about how we were going to pull this off safely. From the beginning, I openly stated that the safety and well-being of myself and my crew was paramount, and I let everyone know we would not be doing anything that we felt was unsafe.
I definitely felt better once the Covid Safety team was fully in place and available for questions on the ground. Also, I felt that Beth Mickle and the producers all took the safety aspect very seriously, so I knew they had my back and therefore I felt my team and I were protected.
When it was all said and done, that first show in COVID was probably the safest and most thorough of the 5 productions that I’ve done in the past 15 months. They gave us more time for prep at each location so that departments could keep in our separate pods, always had safety reps on site when we were prepping and wrapping (not only for the shooting crew), imposed strict self-driving policies, and did major disinfecting and air-scrubbing on a regular basis. Of course, I also lost many crew-days to positive-testing and close-contact quarantines, but better safe than sorry.
I need to mention that working for PD Beth Mickle was an absolute dream come true.
I have forged many great relationships with a variety of talented Production Designers over the years, but anyone who knows Beth will tell you she is someone special. Her unwavering enthusiasm and relentless optimism is unparalleled in our industry. She has done a variety of projects from HALF NELSON, MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN, and DRIVE, to THE SUICIDE SQUAD and now GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3, so she clearly knows what she’s doing on every level. I’ve rarely felt as trusted or protected as I did working for her, and I appreciated how tirelessly she worked on-set to style nearly every shot, within the protocol requirements, so that the end result of what we did made it on-screen as intended. It was great to have her input and accessibility with On-Set Dressers Joshua Justis and Konrad Lewis doing dual duty in this new zone setup. Again, so important for our team dealing with the unknown with the pandemic. Her Art team’s dedication to her was also understandable, and I have to say that our two crews blended extremely well, as if we’d known each other for years. They were all top-notch folks, and in spite of all the stress and worry around COVID, we managed to have a lot of fun and laughter together.
Editor’s note: For more Behind-The-Scenes, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below, and keep scrolling!