Set Decorator Amy Vuckovich SDSA International took on the challenge, along with Production Designer Tomas Voth, of presenting the different cultures, lives and lifestyles that fed into the birth of the crack epidemic, as it continued to unfold in 1984. A challenge that required not only numerous new sets, but also changes to the original sets* as they either evolve with the story and its timeline or take on more significance—always with the mandate of entrenched reality, accurate “snapshots” of the time. The attention to detail is paramount, including a piece of fabric, a crusted pot, a pop of color, a wall of clocks in a bail bond office...and so much more.
Vuckovich talks with SET DECOR about the process and her choices...
SET DECOR: Recent eras, such as the ‘80s are in some ways more difficult to pull together because they are not far enough back in time to be considered vintage, thus people have tended to throw away rather than keep many pieces from that time.
...How did you go about finding relevant pieces?
Set Decorator Amy Vuckovich SDSA International:
Estate sales, eBay and flea markets, mostly, plus a layer of rentals from Warner Bros. Property, RC Vintage, Modernica and Advanced Liquidators. I’ve been really lucky to have made a couple of great friends that will allow me to preview estate sales. There are times, due to the period shows I’ve done, where I have literally bought almost all the contents of a house to build up stock for up coming sets. Storage is key on this show. There just isn’t a quick Target run for a last-minute anything on a period show. Plus, with smalls, things like vintage towels and glassware usually are no longer in multiple or in “ new” condition by the time they hit the prop houses. Sometimes, I can find much more personal items that help build character, such as an entire box of business cards, or old pens, office supplies, or even a collection of shaving mugs by repurposing out of estate sales. Many personal items that have sat in a closet for years may have ended up in the trash if I had not been at the preview of an estate sale. It’s a win for everyone actually. And I love the thrill of the hunt!
SET DECOR: Were there particular objects/elements that you knew you wanted to bring in?
Season 2 has Franklin
rolling in what he thinks is success, due to a cash flow that far exceeds the neighborhood expectations. Each character starts to spend the newfound wealth a little differently and that was fun to build up through perfect vintage electronics. This was the beginning of big TVs in people’s living rooms, double-door fridges, and music collections that changed from Soul to Rap in South Central. I think my crew would say, if it was super heavy, I bought it and they dressed it in!
I started with the store catalogues of what was available near South Central at that time. From eBay, I bought Montgomery Wards, JC Penny’s and Sears from 1979-1984. Our buyers, Karen Burnett and Allison Veilleux [SDSA International Associate members] and I built a quick reference of pictures of phones, stereos, TVs, lamps and drapery from those catalogues. We cleared out the set dec storage of items that were not period correct, or that were so iconic that they fell into a modern ideal vintage or hipster type classification and went from there.
SET DECOR: Was there anything that seemed specific to LA or Southern California of that time?
We had the Olympics in LA, but we could not show the trademarked Olympic rings. The city was getting a makeover and graphics were a big part of that California look. I remember those “Jordan almond” colors from HOUSE BEAUTIFUL as what was considered expensive and modern. That palette just starts to creep in on the Valley sets, such as the Volpe
house. The Cal Arts (my alma matter) aesthetic of April Greiman graphics starts to come in as the modern layer for Lucia's
SET DECOR: There are also elements that give clues to the individual characters or their history. Would you mention some that you’ve included?
Each of the main characters on SNOWFALL have a guideline for colorway and textures that was set by the Production Designer, Tomas, in the first season and which I expanded on to create difference between, say Claudia’s
club and Jerome’s
house. Both are heavy in jewel tones, but Claudia
is all crystals and sparkle, where Jerome
is hard lines and all about function.
Part of the character defining is identifying where these people would have shopped. I prefer to think Jerome
shopped at Gemco and Zodys discount stores, specific to LA at that time, whereas Lucia
has her furniture brought up from Mexico. Teddy’s
office is all issued steal case furniture and utilitarian. Claudia’s
is just fun and glimmering and purple and velvety. Claudia
, I imagine, has minions and access to a furniture store downstairs.
house is the center of the crack epidemic. It’s really where the most intense action happens. I changed things along the sightline where the actors’ heads tend to be, to tell that story in more depth. Jerome
went from selling weed and working out in the yard to being a full-on gangster who has a locked-up money room and a weapons arsenal in his house—all because of Franklin
. We wanted to show that change, and thus layered it every episode.
warehouse has a secret room for drug processing. That’s totally pre- “Ring doorbell” kind of crazy.
SET DECOR: In almost every set, even the grungiest, there’s either a small pop of color or a different texture or element that keeps the screen from being monotonous to the eye and enhances the depth of a scene. Such quality work...
Would you tell us about some of your favorite “notes” that you’ve tucked into a set...
Thank you for noticing.
I stared out as a painter and I feel, from my training in design and fine art, I tend to set rules for my sets based on negative space/positive space, vertical display, stuff that creates balance....or disharmony, on purpose.
People have quirks and hobbies. Sometimes, people have messy beds and leave their brush out. SNOWFALL has characters that are very complicated.
We want Franklin
to succeed, but what he does is awful, the crack cookhouse, for example, follows a path sort of like a stage with a proscenium. The kitchen/cooking drugs is at the center and spreading stage left and right from that all the way to the front door is the processing. This puts Franklin
in the Jesus seat, if you think of the set like the painting of The Last Supper
...one can’t help but notice that his name is Franklin Saint
We want Lucia
to be successful and find love...she’s the underdog lady boss in a man’s world. So, we kind of want her to be a winner in the drug game. We assume Teddy
is the good guy because he is government, but it wouldn’t be SNOWFALL if that were true.
SET DECOR: You have had such a range of sets, do you have a favorite from this season? 2 or 3 favorites?
It’s hard to take them apart, because it really is one big flow chart of how crack became crack, starting with the cookhouse
. There is not one thing in there that was not totally chosen and placed very carefully. It builds over time. There are more stoves, cooktops, places for security people and very limited conveniences. It is a horrifying place that started from the baseline of locations finding a house that had actually burned. The blinds had melted, so we left them in place.
I loved figuring out the flow of fruits and veggies and drugs through Lucia’s
and how that would become authentic.
I loved Claudia’s
club and how seductive her whole office and bar became. It’s very much a place that feels like 1984 underground luxury/hip. Not the easiest thing to research. Everyone has an idea of what that should be. Eventually, I just did what I thought should be done, and then showed the designer. Tomas had a different vision for it, but when he saw some of the pieces I had shopped, he got very excited and we both added and added till we were both really happy.
I liked Lucia’s
house. It could almost be a present day house, but then there’s the negative space. Everything is very open and clean, but there is old Mexico money in evidence. She has lots of cranberry glass and hand-carved dining chairs, embroidered linens, fine delicate crystal pieces that might be considered a little Grandma-ish now, but it shows a sentimentality and an honoring of her family.
SET DECOR: What are some of your favorite moments on this series...
in Santa Clarita, CA...With a runway, and getting to be there dressing while the small plane took off about 40-feet away. That set really felt like another country to me.
SET DECOR: What has been the most difficult challenge of this show?
How did you deal with it?
Shooting in South Central LA is not easy, due to traffic. It is surprisingly remote, and not very 5-ton friendly. The streets are narrow and the houses were not designed to accommodate the multitude of vehicles the residents have. Dressing these sets takes some major logistical planning from our incredible leadman, Glen Hale. The dressing has to be very organized going out, there is no room for error, or re-shopping, and the resources to re-shop are limited. Construction coordinator Randy Childs and his team build, paint and modify so much for us. Deep collaboration with everyone is key on this fast-paced series.
I use our fantastic SDSA International Business Members/vendors whenever I can. I really appreciate those with an online presence. I use the websites for emergency shopping and conversation openers with Tomas.
SET DECOR: This series is created by John Singleton, who also created the breakout film BOYZ IN THE HOOD, and many others since. Does he participate hands-on with the series at this point?
Mr. Singleton and I talk more about music than his writing, which is interesting, because I think he must have a soundtrack in his head all the time. Although his experiences in LA and mine are very different, we were both here in 1984, so sometimes that makes it easier. I appreciate his thoughts and his contribution to film. It’s amazing to be working with such an icon.
SET DECOR: What changes have you noted in the field?
A 1-hour episodic has become a feature every 8 days.
I now run 2 shoppers and am lucky to have consistency with the crew. I’ve recently had a second decorator work with us and that was amazing. We got so much done. With sets that are far apart and so many meetings, it’s important as a decorator that we stay mindful of the jurisdiction around our job.
The shows now tend to run double-up days and perms on location that have to be dressed and struck and redressed multiple times. I understand that the briskness of shooting and the burden of displacing homeowners is expensive, but the burden of this is hard on the crew and often feels a little cumbersome
SET DECOR: You’re a veteran of many fine productions, what draws you to a production?
The freedom and money to create quality sets without being second-guessed or having to prove and argue that what is needed is valid.
It is a real joy to work on a show where the writing is this good. Dave and Tommy (Executive Producers Dave Andron and Thomas Schlamme) keep such a tight hand on the quality of the show. For me, there is nothing silly about how the story is told. The fight scene in Lucia’s
secret drug room is a great example. It happens so fast and there are no additional words that pull the viewer out of the action. But also, the writers have the freedom to write as the characters would actually speak, and there are dialogue coaches. I love that so much of the show is in Spanish and isn’t broken down or homogenized.
If I could only do shows where the crew was respected as much as I feel my crew and I were at SNOWFALL, Season 2...well, that would be something.
*Set Decorator Hernan Camacho SDSA International took on Season 1, helping create the 1983 origins of the story
** Set Decorator Amy Vuckovich SDSA International would like to acknowledge the wealth of resources SDSA International Business Members offer, particularly those invaluable for this show:
Warner Bros. Property & Warner Bros. Drapery
Lennie Marvin’s Prop Heaven