When Set Decorator Gene Serdena SDSA provided such a splendid piece about the evolution of a set for the equally splendid period film THE BOYS IN THE BAND, we immediately asked him to take us behind-the-scenes of the next Ryan Murphy fabulous hit, THE PROM!
Meryl Streep! Nicole Kidman! James Corden! Kerry Washington! Keegan-Michael Key!, Mary Kay Place & Tracey Ulman! Ariana Debose & Jo Ellen Pellman and so many other breakout young talents!
It’s a perfect way to end the year 2020 and welcome 2021!
We know you will!
Karen Burg, Editor
I was on Ryan Murphy’s production of THE BOYS IN THE BAND (BITB), and preparing to leave for New York City for the last part of the film when I was approached by Exec Producer Eric Kovtun. Eric told me they had an upcoming project, to be directed by Murphy, for which they were interested in having me do the set decoration. Eric asked me if I’d heard of “The Prom”.
“You want me to do a movie about a prom?” I asked.
“It’s a musical.”
“You want me to do a musical about a prom?”
He said, “It’s on Broadway. You should see it when you’re in New York.”
I was skeptical, but having never worked on a musical I was intrigued.
“Do you know who’s starring?” I asked.
“When do I start?”
Swallow The Moon...This was a previous Broadway production, DeeDee’s [Meryl Streep] most award-winning role. Meryl Streep. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix ©2020
Weeks later when I was prepping NYC locations for BITB, my partner flew to NY and we went to see THE PROM at The Longacre Theatre. I knew little about the show, nor had I heard any of the music. The Broadway production, Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw...who would serve as Choreographer for the motion picture...completely won us over with its wit, its exuberance and its infectious good spirit. The audience was so captivated and moved, they were on their feet cheering by the end.
The critical part of me quietly observed that the settings were: a high school, a teenage girl’s bedroom, a gymnasium prom, and an Applebees. Not exactly awe-inspiring from a design perspective.
Eric connected me with Production Designer Jamie Walker McCall, and we spoke by phone. I wanted to hear Jamie’s ideas about how we could build a world that would be visually compelling and yet service the arguably banal settings of its story.
Jamie talked about infusing the sets with a heightened, picturesque realism. She talked about building an entire block of Broadway Theaters for the film’s opening as a mix of iconic marquees and a wet street that would reflect the neon atmosphere, as the principals and company performed an elaborate dance sequence that ran the length of the set.
44th Street/Broadway...Behind-the-Scenes! Still placing finishing touches on the set on Paramount's backlot! Set Decorator Gene Serdena SDSA points out, “We were not trying to do a faithful re-creation so much as a reimagined space that would serve as the perfect backdrop for the spectacle of song and dance that ran its length. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix ©2020.
For the scenes in Edgewater, Indiana, Jamie talked about color-blocking and a bold color palette. She was able to sufficiently describe the world she was imagining that I was immediately on-board.
Jamie and I both come from fine art backgrounds — she spent years working as a Graphic Artist for film and television before moving into Art Direction and Production Design. She’s so gifted and intuitive, and had the benefit of having Art Directed and Designed a handful of past Murphy projects.
I was delighted to hear that frequent Murphy collaborator, Lou Eyrich would be Costume Designer. Lou and I worked wonderfully together on BITB. She’s audacious and whimsical, and, like Jamie, knows well how to navigate the world of Ryan Murphy.
I was equally excited the production had hired Director of Photography Matthew Libatique. Matty has a rich and varied resume, and has shot some of today’s most iconic films with a degree of artistry that commands respect.
Sardi’s...The opening night celebration continues... James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Andrew Rannells, Meryl Streep. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix ©2020.
About Ryan Murphy...
Ryan is a fascinating source of creativity. He’s highly specific, extremely decisive and somewhat uncompromising. He’s also prone to flourishes of rhetoric in which he demonstrates a remarkable ability to summon forth a kind of impressionistic cataloging of images or moments that create an atmosphere he’s trying to achieve. The challenge for one is to take all of it in, make sense of it, and figure out how to execute it visually.
About Set Decorating for a musical...
The most thrilling parts of the theatrical musical experience are sudden changes in atmosphere that precipitate a song and dance number. In theatre, such atmospheric changes are usually signaled via light cues, but film has the added benefit of being able to cut between various places so the song track plays over an editorial montage of settings.
With this notion in mind, Jamie assigned a strict color palette, so that intercutting between sets would work seamlessly, rather than presenting viewers with a disrupted visual experience. It’s an audacious choice, so the challenge, from a Set Dec perspective, becomes how to distinguish sets that have similar color themes via character dressing. We were always conscious of both strict adherence to the designs set by Jamie, and the necessity to make each set have a discrete character.
A newer consideration for me had to do with creating spaces to accommodate song and dance. The process was complex and demanding, and required a lot of interdepartmental coordination. Generally, the Production Designer and Director would decide on an architectural character for a set or a location. Jamie and I would collaborate on the design character of the space. The Set Designers would model the sets in 3D renderings and illustrations for the Director’s approval. Jamie and I would consult with the Choreographers and discuss the placement of furnishings or elements within the space. The Set Dec team then acquired furnishings that would serve as placeholders in the dance rehearsal space at Paramount. The set walls would be suggested in taped lines on the floor, the Set Dressers would arrange the placeholder pieces to match the layout in the actual set, and the choreographers would work with their team to perfect the musical numbers.
Jamie and I were invited to attend rehearsals to observe the interactions of the dancers with the virtual sets. In the rehearsal process, there might be certain concerns that we would then have to address.
... “This table needs to support Meryl and James dancing on it.”
... “Nicole has to step onto this chair in heels.”
... “How do we get James onto the bar?”
Some elements required custom fabrication or stabilization support from Special Effects. It was often a process of reverse engineering that included a lot of spatial problem solving and support, but always with an aim to allow these elements to integrate smoothly into the overall aesthetic.
I have a wonderful team of craftspeople who adapt well to such challenges, so the learning curve was both rewarding and a lot of fun.
Greenroom sketch...Working sketch by the set decorator, which his team of set dressers will make come alive! Courtesy Gene Serdena/Netflix ©2020
Greenroom...And this is why they call it magic! Photo courtesy Netflix ©2020
Another note: In most contemporary films there is a tremendous amount of coordination between the Set Dec and Lighting Fixtures Departments. Every practical light, every illuminated surface is generally modified with the addition of remote controllable LED lights that the Fixtures Dept incorporates into the sets. Fixtures Foreman Damon Liebowitz and his team did an outstanding job in working with my Lead, Grant Samson, and our team of Set Dressers in such a way that we all functioned as one big family. They made our work sing, and I’m so gratified to have had Damon on board this project.
Ext 44th Street/Broadway...
Jamie designed a version of 44th Street that was populated not only with theaters that exist there, but also, she and her team relocated other iconic theaters, so the set was a compressed, heightened version of Broadway. Absent were construction scaffolds, and many of the realistic, gritty details that might meticulously re-create the street. Instead, the emphasis was on the iconography of the architecture and the illuminated marquees of the theaters. We were not trying to do a faithful re-creation so much as a reimagined space that would serve as the perfect backdrop for the spectacle of song and dance that ran its length.
There were entrances and exits through the Shubert Theatre and Sardi’s Restaurant sets. The construction was overseen by Construction Coordinator Mike Diersing and his fine team of propmakers, painters, and plasterers. The Set Dressing team oversaw the purchasing/renting/fabricating, augmenting and paint of streetlamps, awnings, practical lights, draperies, and then the lobby furnishings and carpets for the Shubert and Sardi’s.
The progress was sometimes hindered by sudden and prolonged rain and windstorms. The construction, decoration, paint, and rigging would have to cease temporarily. Plastic protective covers would have to be draped over everything, and then in the aftermath, repairs would follow for things that sustained water or wind damage.
The end result was glorious. The lights were up in the interiors, the facades and the marquees. The street was populated with cars. And then the cast showed up for the big number, Changing Lives. We were marveling at the crane’s eye view through a video playback monitor, and one of the crew members whispered to me, “They’re never gonna believe we built this…”
Sardi’s Restaurant, interior...
The Sardi’s interior was constructed on a tall platform onstage at Paramount Studios. The platform was necessary to accommodate views through the large picture window to the replica of the Eleanor! marquee opposite the restaurant — a practical build, rather than a visual effect.
The actual Sardi’s interior is rather compressed and not practically accommodating for a large cast song and dance number, so Jamie designed a reimagining of the space, that drew on some of its iconic features: richly patterned red carpets, tufted furnishings, and the famous rows of Broadway legend caricatures. Set Dec Coordinator Stephanie Feinerman located a talented local caricature artist, John Alex, who hand-illustrated hundreds of portraits that were drawn in a style reminiscent of those on display at the real Sardi’s.
There were mechanically rotating banquettes of which my Draper/Upholstery Foreman, Jory Alvarado, had to oversee fabrication, and which he coordinated with the Special Effects Dept to ensure their seamless operation.
And thanks to everyone’s cooperation, when Streep and Corden dance on that table, it holds up!
Sardi’s... “The Sardi’s interior was constructed on a tall platform onstage at Paramount Studios. The platform was necessary to accommodate views through the large picture window to the replica of the Eleanor! marquee opposite the restaurant — a practical build, rather than a visual effect.” Meryl Streep, James Corden. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix ©2020.
The arrival of the cast of Broadway actors Dee Dee Allen [Meryl Streep], Barry Glickman [James Corden], Angie Dickinson [Nicole Kidman] and Trent Oliver [Andrew Rannells] to Edgewater, IN, was like spilling bright colors of paint onto a beige surface. Murphy and McCall selected a hotel lobby interior in Koreatown, which featured a split-level conversation pit and an eccentric wishing well. Jamie and I worked up a design theme to de-accentuate the corporate luster of the location. We carpeted, painted, removed all the furniture including a pool table, and brought in a suite of channel-back upholstered pieces done in beige vinyl by Warner Bros. Upholstery. We added fake plants and taxidermy, and kept the color palette strictly controlled so it would strike a dramatic contrast with the deeply saturated costumes by Lou Eyrich.
Dee Dee’s motel room...
This was a stage set that had to flip orientation to serve as rooms for both Dee Dee and Barry. There are long scenes between Streep and Corden that transition from comic to deeply intimate and confessional. I love motel room sets because the challenge most often is to avoid obvious kitsch references, and to allow the character of the room to emerge through the details. I coordinated with Lou from Costumes and Prop Master Andy Siegel, to preserve the contrast of bright colors against a more neutral palette. This aspect of design excites me: to allow the set to play second banana to performances, costumes, and props for dramatic purposes. There’s a hilarious bit where Dee Dee and Barry don facial rejuvenation masks (provided by Andy), and it works perfectly because the peculiar magenta light that emanates from the masks contrasts so strikingly with the muted middle-value colors of the room.
Emma’s bedroom... Broadway dancer Angie Dickinson [Nicole Kidman] has some perspective to share with the beleaguered Emma [Jo Ellen Pellman]. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix ©2020.
Grandma Bea and Emma’s house...
This was another job of reverse engineering. The “Zazz” number with Nicole Kidman and Jo Ellen Pellman, who plays Emma, is one of the centerpieces of the story. Ryan Murphy wanted the set to have a geography that allowed for a moment that references the staircase scene in ALL THAT JAZZ. The choreographers wanted a sofa scaled with proportions that would allow Kidman to do a fan kick around a seated Pellman. We auditioned a couple sofas in the rehearsal space, took our notes from the dancers and choreographers, and then had Sofa U Love, in Hollywood, custom fabricate a piece that would suit our needs. The post-war architecture of the set was determined by the selection of the exterior location, then Jamie stretched the proportions of the interior to accommodate scenes that contained most of the principal cast.
In referencing many of the classics—SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, ON THE TOWN, TOP HAT, WEST SIDE STORY, FUNNY GIRL, and more—it became clear that movie musical sets were generally proportioned to accommodate their musical numbers. It’s a theatrical convention I came to embrace: ornamenting the set with a sufficient amount of decor to suggest character, but doing so with a degree of restraint that would enable the characters to explore the space through dance, to utilize specific features, and allow for a harmonious marriage of photography/lighting, design/decor, performance, costumes and props. My team and I were fortunate to have great working relationships with the other departments, so the collaboration was deeply rewarding.
[Editor's note: For more great photos, see the galleries above and below the article! And don't forget to click on the "SHOW MORE PHOTOS" boxes below!]
There were so many proms! There’s the Secret Prom. The Fake Prom. Barry’s Flashback Prom. The Inclusive Prom. In between, there were also prom decorating scenes, so we had to design events that catered to specific beats in the songs — moments that suggest the final prom versions, but sufficiently restrained so as to not ruin the big reveals. Jamie and I worked on developing a character for each prom to distinguish them as discrete events. My Buyers, Katie Childs and Allison Isenberg, had their hands full sourcing materials for these sets, as did Draper Alvarado, who made miles of drapes!
While THE PROM was filled with many large-scale sets that presented technical challenges to accommodate elaborate song and dance numbers in concert with complicated lighting cues and swooping, delirious camera maneuvers, none was more challenging than the Inclusive Prom sequence. Jamie designed a series of events within the gymnasium space that featured atmospheric changes that had to be pre-built and engineered to fit into a location that did NOT come with all the rigging apparatus one typically associates with a studio sound stage. The entrance included a series of ribbed arches that were manufactured by the Construction Department, which were then intricately wrapped in LED string lights that were sourced and installed by Damon's team. The ribs were programed to change color and illuminate sequentially by Damon’s crew in sync with the soundtrack.
The design also included an illuminated cloud overhead, which Jamie described as “crinoline-like.” Our R & D revealed that crinoline is highly flammable, thus unusable, so my team sourced a material with similar properties that is used for catch-nets in ball parks and golf ranges. The material was flame-proof, easy to sculpt, and photographed beautifully. The Set Decoration team, led by Set Dec Manufacturing Foreman Michael Garcia, constructed the 75-foot cloud that ran the length of the gymnasium. The cloud was flanked by a forest of suspended crystals that were shot through with lights provided by the Lighting Department, and created a dazzling, exotic atmosphere. Seeing the performers dance through the space while all the lighting cues went off without a hitch was truly a marvelous spectacle.
The various elements of the Inclusive Prom were a combination of purchased, rented, and fabricated pieces. The crystal forest was the result of an exhaustive search for domestic suppliers across the internet (the Covid-19 pandemic was in its burgeoning stages and created a huge bottleneck in goods being shipped from China, from where most of the goods originate). We also ordered about a dozen large-scale artificial trees from a vendor named Shop Wild Things. The trees were painted by staff, and then augmented with copious amounts of LED string lights, courtesy of the Lighting Fixtures Department. The six teardrop chandeliers were rented from Warner Bros. Property, which is one of a handful of vendors in Southern California where one can not only find large-scale vintage light fixtures, but fixtures which can also be found in multiples for such occasions.
The response from friends and strangers (via social media) to THE PROM has been tremendous. It seems to have touched a nerve in many people. As a gay man who came of age in the 1970s and ‘80s (Class of ’80), there’s something elemental and universal to the theme of wanting to fit in. The thing I related to with Emma was not so much a sense of wanting to alter herself to assimilate with and accommodate her peers, but rather that her perceived difference be something she could both hold on to and be entitled to demand a seat at the table.
THE PROM becomes an expression of wish fulfillment in which Emma and Alyssa [Ariana DeBose] get to declare and own who they are, while driving a wedge into the culture to make a space where they get to share in the same celebration and romance that all of us want. Set Decorating THE PROM was like being given the opportunity to throw a massive party for all those kids who needed a moment to feel like they were part of something special. So many folks have recognized and identified with that journey. It’s humbling and gratifying to have played some small part in the making of art that enables those connections.
In our last week of scheduled principal photography (March 2020), the Covid-19 pandemic announced its arrival in the US, and a statewide edict mandated that we shut down production. It was a confusing, terrifying time, and our departure from the movie (and one another) was so abrupt. During the period of shutdown, much was learned about the virus. Our Executive Producers Doug Merrifield and Eric Kovtun, and the folks at Netflix, worked tirelessly with health and safety experts to develop a series of protocols and guidelines to restore us to work, and to safely complete the film. I was called back in late June with my team to train in the safety protocols and resume production.
We were one of the first productions back after the shut down, and I want to give a shout out to all the Production staff, the Health and Covid-Safety Officers, the team at Netflix, and our Union Reps, who exercised an abundance of caution (I was getting tested thrice weekly) in keeping us all safe.
I got to take that experience in the resumption of work in the time of Coronavirus and share about it in SDSA meetings and at an IATSE Local 44 membership meeting on Zoom. Ironically, the ongoing isolation and physical distancing induced by Covid, seemed to somehow strengthen folks resolve to stay connected, and to enable a deepening of many of those relationships. Staying healthy and keeping our friends and loved ones protected takes on a whole new meaning, and I have so much gratitude for the part I get to play.
The ever-gracious Set Decorator asked us to please include the list of credits [below] of those key to the visual storytelling of this film and the vendors he relied on the most to help make that magic happen...
Ryan Murphy, Director
Jamie Walker McCall, Production Designer
Matthew Libatique, Director of Photography
Lou Eyrich, Costume Designer
Casey Nicholaw, Choreographer/ Executive Producer
Gene Serdena, Set Decorator
Grant Samson, Leadperson
Katie Childs, Lead Buyer
Allison Isenberg, Buyer
Giovanni Aurilia, On-Set Dresser
Jory Alvarado, Draper/ Upholsterer Foreperson
David Agajanian, Set Dec Gangboss
Chad R Davis, Set Dec Gangboss
Kristen Granados, Set Dec Gangboss
Michael Garcia, Set Dec Fabricator
Derek Dean, Nick Higgins, Cris Progar, Nikki Sass, Carl Studebaker, Francisco Vargas, Set Dressers
Alfonso Lima, Warehouse Manager
Stephanie Feinerman, Set Dec Coordinator
William Lynch, Set Dec Office Assistant
Andrew Siegel, Property Master
Sandy Rose Floral
Hollywood Studio Gallery
Warner Bros. Property
Nest Studio Rentals
Hollywood Cinema Arts
Little Bohemia Rentals
44th Street/Broadway, NYC...Meryl Streep as Dee Dee Allen. In a moment, the street will fill with a dynamic dance scene! Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix ©2020.
Sardi’s... “Set Dec Coordinator Stephanie Feinerman located a talented local caricature artist, John Alex, who hand-illustrated hundreds of portraits that were drawn in a style reminiscent of those on display at the real Sardi’s.” Photo courtesy Netflix ©2020.
Alyssa’s bedroom... Mrs. Greene, Alyssa’s very proud and controlling mother makes an adjustment. Kerry Washington, Ariana Debose. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix ©2020
Alyssa’s bedroom...BTS! With her mother, EVERYthing gets dialed back!
Alyssa’s room gets a softening of the pink & teal palette we find throughout the film defining the younger POV.
Emma’s bedroom...Now living with her grandmother, Emma has more freedom to define her personal space.