Nancy Birch [Viola Davis] is a veterinarian, thus the painting of the horse in the background, as she and her husband [Terrence Howard] give Detective Loki [Jake Gyllenhaal] photos of their young daughter.
“[I wanted the film] to be as realistic and authentic as possible throughout…I wanted people to feel the rain and the dust surrounding the pain of the characters....”
—Director Denis Villeneuve
It’s a cold, cloudy Thanksgiving Day in a modest Pennsylvania suburb, the kind of town where kids ride their bikes and play in the streets every day. Inside a warm and welcoming home, the hardworking Dovers and Birches, the closest of friends and neighbors, share the traditional holiday meal together, relaxed, laughing, entirely at ease. All is right with the world. And then it’s not. In the blink of an eye, the two youngest girls are nowhere to be found. It is perhaps the worst thing that any parent, and family, can imagine, and for the Dovers and Birches, it begins a traumatic nightmare from which they cannot escape.
The setting is an everyman’s world. Hugh Jackman and Terrance Howard play the two fathers, Keller Dover and Franklin Birch, Maria Bello and Viola Davis their wives, and Jake Gyllenhaal the lead investigator on the case, Detective Loki. Paul Dano is the enigmatic main suspect Alex Jones, Melissa Leo as his aunt Holly Jones. The strong cast was backed by an equally strong production team: INCENDIES director Denis Villeneuve, Director of Photography Roger Deakins, Production Designer Patrice Vermette and Set Decorator Frank Galline SDSA…all top professionals committed to bringing this taunt, stark, very human tale of desperation, vulnerability and depth of moral boundaries to life as honestly as the script presents.
SET DECOR talked with Galline about the making of the film, set in Pennsylvania, but shot in the hills of Georgia…
SET DECOR: Production Designer Patrice Vermette had worked with Director Denis Villeneuve before. How did that impact this film collaboration?
Set Decorator Frank Galline SDSA:Deni and Patrice went to university together so they’ve known each other for a good while. Most of their conversations were in “French”, they are from Quebec. So that often left us out of the conversation!
My collaboration was with Patrice. We worked together on the wallpaper choices, tiles for the kitchens and baths, countertops, etc. Patrice created mood boards that I used as inspiration in dressing choices and, of course, the overall mood of the picture.
SET DECOR: Villeneuve’s stated goal was “…to be as realistic and authentic as possible throughout…I wanted people to feel the rain and the dust surrounding the pain of the characters.” Could you please comment on this?
Galline: “Realistic and authentic” certainly fall on the set decorator. I prefer character-driven set work and this was a great vehicle for that. Each of the characters is so torn in this film. I tried to bring the reality of the moment into the dressing. Whether it be half of a PBJ sandwich with a bite taken out of it or an unmade bed, it’s a snapshot of when their world stood still.
I used very little artwork on the walls, because the lives of the characters are emotionally stripped to the bone, leaving them all in their own little prisons, each with their madness bouncing around in their heads.
SET DECOR: Editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach, who often work with director Clint Eastwood, offered that Villeneuve worked in a similar manner, knowing exactly what he wanted and yet being open to improvisation. How did this impact set decoration?
Galline: Deni was very open to what we delivered. There really wasn’t any directive that we must have this or that. As a department we were free to bring it all to the table. It was pretty wonderful in that way.
SET DECOR: Director of Photography Roger Deakins points out, “A lot of the work is about the choice of the lights in the shot, such as using the practical lights that sit on a desk or illuminate a room, rather than film lights to create the look…” What was your collaboration with Deakins?
Galline: The use of hi def camera now requires Set Dec to bring a substantial amount of the lighting to the set. Roger relies heavily on practicals, from a table lamp to a street light. Some of our street lights had to be reworked by the electrics to get Roger the wattage he needed, table lamps had to accommodate higher wattage bulbs.
The Christmas lights in the neighborhood were a bit of a challenge. Roger drew the neighborhood and noted placement of street lights, Christmas lights, and practicals on houses. I had my own “electric team” for a couple weeks in the neighborhood.
There were a minimum of 5 practical lights in most every room. Overhead lights were specific to Roger’s needs. Purchased fixtures with frosted glass were too dense. Roger felt he didn’t get enough light through them, so we approached it from another angle. I found that by getting a clear fixture and having the painters frost it, we were able to control the amount of frosting on each fixture. The fixtures also had to be deep enough to hide a 200 Watt bulb, as they are rather large.
With so much emphasis on practicals, there was a show and tell of lamps and shades before production began. We used different styles of lamp shades to help delineate the different environments. The eerie Jones house had mostly fluorescent light or limited light coming through the windows. For the room where the girls were held, we covered the window with newspaper as a filter. The Birch house was more of a silk shade, frosted-glass ceiling fixture home, with a soft light throughout; while the Dover home was a bit grittier, with a burlap feel to the textures.
SET DECOR: Villeneuve says, “The film examines how extraordinary events in life can come out of nowhere and tear the fabric of a family to shreds in an instant.” Would you like to comment on this?
Galline: Part of the way we depicted this was once the girls were missing, life kind of stood still. The detritus of the Thanksgiving dinner was never cleared in the Birch home.
Grace Dover, one of the missing girls mothers, [Maria Belo] hardly ever got out of bed after they were taken. That bedroom progressively became more and more messy.
Ralph Dover and Eliza Birch [Dylan Minnette, Zoe Borde], the older children, were lost in the rubble of the crumbling families—old enough to get it, but too young to know what to do…looking to their parents for direction but unable to get it.
SET DECOR: Keller Dover’s basement offers a direct and highly ironic set reference to the core premise. Please tell us about this set!
Galline: Survivalist Keller Dover was prepared for just about anything. We had everything from radiation tablets to toilet paper, including a portable toilet. We amassed and organized gas masks, freeze-dried foods, heirloom vegetable seeds, canned goods, thermal blankets, propane, batteries, et al. One side of the basement was full of his preparedness goodies, while the other was all about his work, his tools etc. The center of the space was where Keller, an avid hunter, passed the time loading shot gun shells. Always prepared. And yet…
SET DECOR: The two families are very close, have similarities, but are quite different from each other. Both homes have muted palettes, the Dover house in browns and beiges, the Birch house in the grays, whites and soft yellow greens of their namesake trees. The only standout pops of color are the pinks of the bedrooms of the two little girls, the youngest child in each family…joyous innocence, playful and happy. Please tell us about the palettes and uses of specific color throughout the film…
Galline: The film is purposely devoid of most color, mimicking the weather as well as the bleakness of the tale.
I used a sheer pink curtain in Ana Dover’s room because the light coming through the curtain would cast that color throughout the room. As a result we had a great pink glow, the essence of a young girl. Joy Birch’s room was a little less pink, although still soft and sweet in color.
The Dover house is rather brown, as we felt it was of a depressed atmosphere, except for Anna’s room. The Birch home is lighter and fuller. We had our wallpaper made at Astek so were able to apply our color palette exactly.
SET DECOR: The Dovers seem to reflect the current economy and the burdened middle-class American family. He is an established repair person, but can barely get enough work right now to cover their mortgage and is unable to have the funding to restore his father’s rental property. The furnishings in their home are very ordinary and comfortable, a little tired. As oft happens, their children’s rooms are the most dynamic of the house. The Birches and their home seem to be more upscale and more sophisticated. Their home looks newer, fresher…
Galline: Yes, exactly. Dover’s business is not doing well, and his wife is a stay-at-home mom. Money is tight. Dover is single-minded, a bit oppressive in nature. The Birches are doing better as a two-income family, he a music teacher, she a veterinarian, with more expendable funds.
Both were practical homes. We did the most physical work in the Birch house. We opened the archways, installed French doors and hardwood floors, and totally remodeled the kitchen from slate floor up, including appliances. We also did a complete remodel of one of the bathrooms. The wallpaper in the Birch home was crisper, more modern. The Birch house is a bit more structured than the Keller home, with straighter lines, firmer furniture. The Dover house is more overstuffed, obvious that it has been around quite a while.
Other significant sets… …The derelict apartment building that Keller Dover’s father had owned…a maze within itself…
The other reason for Keller not restoring his dad’s rental property was the fact that his father committed suicide there when Keller was young and he really didn’t want to revisit that. This set was designed to be maze-like, and was built on a stage. The dressing here was minimal: radiators, light fixtures, toilets, tubs and sinks…pieces of miscellaneous wallpapers. I found some kitchen cabinetry at a junk store that served well in here, as did an occasional broken chair and a mattress.
…Jones house and outbuildings, a fundamental roadside property on the outskirts of town … Holly Jones was an interesting multi-layered character, very everyday simple on the outside, not so much on the inside. So we chose very simple, anonymous furnishings. Having fine draperies simply wasn’t her thing. The wallpaper was grandmotherly, even if she was not…
…The police station…This institutional world is the only set/home we see for Detective Loki, other than his car…
The police station was a large empty building that we filled to the brim. Unfortunately, we only saw a small portion of the work that was done in there: day-to-day police work, captain’s office, interrogation room, conference room, bullpen and work space, some of the other officer’s personal touches. Nothing personal for Loki, just his computer and work files…his background purposely not revealed.
…The priest’s house…
This was another stage set with the full-sized cellar/basement. The house was worn and uncared for…here was another drunkard who is torn and in his personal prison. St. Michael was not looking out for this guy.
SET DECOR: The film was set in Pennsylvania, but shot around Stone Mountain and Conyers, Georgia, starting in wintery January, when this part of Georgia looks like Pennsylvania hill country around Thanksgiving. Could you please tell us about this?
Galline: We were very lucky with the weather. Most exteriors required rain and most every time we shot an exterior, it was raining. Being from the northeast originally, I know it was very realistic weather-wise. We did have to make the snow.
SET DECOR: Was there something particular from your past experience that significantly helped you on this film?
Galline: I think my work on period films is always great to pull from, because on a period film you really have to pay attention to the detail of everything. Nothing can fall through the cracks or be overlooked…it absolutely has to be appropriate for the period. I can then take that same process into a character-driven contemporary set and ask, “Is this truly appropriate for the person who lives here? When was the last time they upgraded their furnishings? How much extra money do they have to buy a little something for the house?” In doing so, we are able to assist in creating the character that lives in the film.
SET DECOR: What was your take-away from this experience?
Galline: This film was a positive experience for me all the way around. I was able to dig deep and explore. We had terrific producers, UPM, etc. who were always fair and respectful, not to mention funny and in a good mood…most of the time! They enjoyed the process, as well as creating a very positive environment for such a dark film.
SET DECOR: What are you most pleased about with the film?
Galline: That it was so well received…I immediately felt very strongly about this particular film, so am very happy for its success. We’ve all worked on films or television projects we thought were great, and then they fall flat for whatever reason. I think the work my department did is well represented in the final cut. Of course, as always, there is a lot that we did that didn’t make it to the screen, but on the whole I am very pleased.