Having worked with Production Designer John Paino and Set Decorator Amy Wells SDSA throughout her signature hit series BIG LITTLE LIES, Executive Producer/Star Reese Witherspoon asked them to join her on her next major project, one that would help launch the new streaming network AppleTV+!
The top tier set decorator [films such as: INHERENT VICE, THE MASTER, A SINGLE MAN and iconic television: MAD MEN, SCANDAL, HOUSE, SHARP OBJECTS...and much more!] gives a fresh and candid first-person look at the process and some of the challenges even the most prestigious set decorators will go through.
We know you’ll enjoy!
From Set Decorator Amy Wells SDSA...
“I would like to share some of what the process is for me as a Set Decorator, including aspects of the emotional experience of putting a set together. At this point in my career, I have come to some conclusions...”
“Who you work with, collaborate with and share the long working hours with becomes the most important aspect of the work. The craft of Set Decorating is challenging and demanding, and often times seems almost impossible—you need the best team of people to share that experience with.”
“Every show is a journey and seems to take on a soul of its own. The gestation starts with the script and the people that begin the process. It continues to grow through pre-production, as all the crew members come on to add to the dynamic, now its own entity that takes on a distinct dynamic, an emotional weather system.”
“I love my work but once a set is done, I have to say, it goes out of my head – I don’t dwell on it or feel regret. The time that it takes to complete a set, from script to camera-ready, the set will grab my focus and hold me hostage – I am on a scavenger hunt for the tiniest detail and follow it through to where and how everything is placed. Once the director comes on the set and the DP starts having things moved to set up the shot, I leave it to my OnSet... I’m gone and moving on to the next set or setting my sights on who knows what.”
“We were on our last set in the last days of BIG LITTLE LIES, Season 2, when I heard about THE MORNING SHOW from Production Designer John Paino. He showed me research pictures of GOOD MORNING AMERICA and THE TODAY SHOW – the stages, hallways, control rooms, dressing rooms, green rooms, corridors, offices, the contrast of big stages and cramped quarters. It was hard to adjust to the idea of entering a new world and of leaving BLL behind. We were all still so immersed in that place, in Monterey and in the lives of the characters who inhabited that show.”
“My heart started racing, though I must say not in a good way – more like in a semi panic attack, maybe even thinking of crying kind of way. The research was full of screens, cables, switchers, miles of conduit and cable in the ceiling...many, many, many rooms to be researched and filled and deeply layered. Literally a network within a network.
“John doesn’t take the easy way out. I knew he would take the research and elaborate and expand! Which meant, I knew that I was entering into one of the biggest projects of my career – the sheer scale of it was enormous.”
The Morning Show studio...
“As usual, John’s vision was phenomenal. The set was designed so that a steadi-cam could travel through all the hallways, offices, dressing rooms and onto the main stage area. There was a great flow through workspaces.”
“Of course, each main character had a dressing room that would be infused with their own personality. Anchor Alex Levy’s
dressing room was filled with mementos of her career highlights...photos of her with celebrities or colleagues, magazine covers featuring her, awards, fan mail and fan art hanging from her bulletin board. As one would expect, her closet, filled with designer clothing, was organized by color...her makeup table held every imaginable type of cream, skin care, hair product.”
“Her cohost Mitch Kessler’s
dressing room had a self-assured masculine vibe, highlighted with strong, strident art. The furnishings included a really cool antique barber’s cabinet we found at an auction. His closet, as noted in the script, was filled with a multitude of suits and shirts and ties, the presentational aspect of dressing being essential for both anchors.”
“Every office and dressing room had screens and phones that were capable of live transmission from the studio set. In addition, Chip’s
office was provided with multiple screens to display other networks as well. As the Executive Producer of the show, he needed to constantly monitor and reference the competition.”
“The Control Room
and the Writers Room
also had multiple screens with many stations displaying simultaneously.”
“The Control Room
was the biggest challenge of all because it had to look and function as a real control room! Each position needed to be clearly designated, the monitors, switchers and control panels would be a mixture of new and old...as the years progress, equipment is often added, and the old equipment is still utilized. While the stage was contemporary and bright, everything backstage was cramped and old, or newish on top of old...the network had been broadcasting there since radio days in the 1920s.”
“The Green Room
was a lot of fun to create...John did a really cool mural on one wall, which offset the Green Room
essentials: sitting area, makeup area, coffee and nibbles corner.”
“On the Broadcast Stage
, John designed a large plexiglass Teacup
to serve as the anchor desk for the main anchors Alex
Bright colors telegraph that it is indeed a ‘morning’ show. [See photos above] The interview area was able to change out from a fantastic curved sofa built by Omega Cinema Props to a number of statement/designer-y chairs that could be angled to suit the number of guests. The other wing housed the weather report and additional LED displays & reports. The broadcast cameras seen onscreen were fully functional, actually running live-feed to monitors in the backstage areas, from Control Room to every desk and dressing room.”
“There were many other areas to dress, including the other key dressing rooms, the lobby and hallways and significant offices at the network, which were shot on location. The hallways displayed a full history of the UNA
network, with segments beautifully conceived by our Graphics department and printed on plexiglass. It was such an extensive project, we had 3 people working nonstop.”
“Creating all of these sets on the stage at Sony was a huge feat because of the vastness, scope and scale of the sets, plus the technical challenges.
The mailroom at Sony told us that they had never received as many deliveries for any show, it was a constant flow all day long.”
was a complex set to create and needed to be perfect, sophisticated, beyond stylish and beautiful. Initially, John and I spent hours and hours on the boards before presenting them...colors and textures and art, and lots and lots of mood pictures to illustrate what we were going for. The hallways outside our office were stacked with samples of every fabric, material, tile, etc. Added to the weight was the fact that TMS was to be key in the launch of AppleTV+.”
For this series, we had direct input from Executive Producer and Co-Star Jennifer Aniston, who has a highly developed sense of style and wanted to make sure that her character’s look fit within her vision of the character. As the set decorator, I needed to balance Jennifer’s vision with that of John, the designer, who had every aspect of the entire production in his scope.
John and I have a unique dynamic and it’s a relationship built on trust. He often pushes me to go further and to take more risks and, as uncomfortable as that is, I can only say that he has never been wrong. I rely on him and lean on him for support as we go along, and when we open a set, he backs it up with the Director and Producers.”
...Creating Alex’s 20-foot bookcase...
“Cheryl Strang, my beloved Lead, has virtually been raised in the decorating department...trained by her father, renowned Set Decorator Bob Gould, she joined the local when she was 16! When we saw the research and the plan for the floor-to-ceiling bookcase, Cheryl took on the task of trying to find a way to manufacture the bespoke metal frame and adjustable wood shelves, which had to be done in a short amount of time and, of course, within a budget. Ultimately, it was made in the metal shop at Sony, which was a godsend. That’s when being on a traditional studio lot working in the way it was intended, using the system as it was meant to be used, pays off. Productions need all the services that a studio provides – a mill, an upholstery shop, a furniture shop, a metal shop – all of those departments are essential to be able to make a large-scale show like TMS and many others.”
“Shopping and styling the bookshelves took time and concentration – each item that was placed in it had to have a definitive reason for being there – family pics, treasures from travels abroad, collections and books that reflected the interests of Alex
and her husband, I spent days and days moving things around...”
“Art is exceedingly important, not only in telling the story but also because it commands so much attention as it is often behind an actor’s head. Besides the obvious, “Would they choose this piece?’, I’m always asking myself, “Is this right for camera? Is it too distracting?’ Ultimately, we ended up with some incredible artwork – and were honored that Julian Opie allowed us to use one of his pieces. We also were fortunate to be able to use artwork from Portia Di Rossi’s company, General Public. She collaborates with artists around the world and makes realistic copies of their work, which she distributes through Restoration Hardware. The rest of the art was provided by Art Pic – they always have new and unique pieces, and we needed so many!”
...The essence of the penthouse...
“I would describe the living room and the style of the apartment as rustic modern. My personal favorite style – that’s how I would like to live, particularly with that budget! The taupe velvet sofa is very B&B Italia, the swivel chairs that I had covered in a cream wool boucle were sourced from Lawson Fenning. I included antiques, as well as some handmade pieces to complete the look.”
“Nothing in the penthouse was faux, everything was real, including the floors – unusual for a stage set these days. Jill Rolie December, my longtime Assistant Set Decorator, found an amazing almost-lavender veined slab for the counters in the kitchen. Jill and I like to tag team shop. It helps us focus and plow through what is needed to get the sets done. It is such a great way to find a layered look. One of our favorite places to go was Hughes Estate Auctions. Our favorite find for this set was an old wooden wheel spoke on a plexi base.”
“I loved decorating the dining room. We ended up using Kelly Wearstler’s Graffito wallpaper in Linen, which provided such a unique backdrop for the table and chairs. I was thrilled to find 8 matching brown velvet Maxaalto chairs at Modern Resale – what a coup!! The table was RH, a company that I often rely on because they ship almost immediately. They never let me down.”
“The large and elaborate closets for Alex’s
character, both in her studio dressing room and in her penthouse, provided a unique challenge. The clothes and shoes all needed to look expensive and, here’s an interesting visual detail: the right size and shape. Once again, the budget is always a consideration, and we had to do a combination of rentals from the Sony Wardrobe department and purchases from everywhere possible.”
The Archer Gray Hotel...
“Later in the season, John designed the Archer Gray Hotel
, the place where the new co-anchor Bradley Jackson
[Reese Witherspoon] would reside while becoming established in New York. John described the style as bordello/speakeasy. He painted the walls, which were all real Anaglypta, in a purple/magenta-ish color, which at first freaked me out...always my initial reaction when a color is unexpected, but then I get into it and begin to find things that go with it, and it becomes great fun.”
“I loved the contrast that it provided from Alex’s Penthouse,
and it gave me an opportunity to get all quirky. The bedroom, which was round, had a clawfoot bathtub in front of the windows and a Moorish-style bed complete with handwoven pillows, mixed textures.”
“I had a blast with the fabrics and textures everywhere!! Including getting to use a Tricia Guild floral velvet from Designer’s Guild. It was one of those sets that just evolved and evolved, shaped as I went along by what I found. I like to leave space to make changes, because as much as I look at a plan, it’s never the same as it is to actually be in a set as it is going up. It’s part of my process to not buy and choose EVERY last thing until I actually start putting things together. I know what I want when I know. My brain just works that way. I always used to worry about that, thinking I should know every detail beforehand, but now that I’m more experienced and perhaps not as self-critical, I realize that process creates a better set. I think all decorators have their own approach, but there are certain commonalities – I remember Rosemary Brandenburg reflecting on a conversation that she had with a producer describing that decorating ‘Isn’t a science.’”
“At that moment, I realized, ‘Wow that’s so succinct and so true! What a perfect thing to say.’
It’s not a science and I am definitely not a scientist.”
See our SET DECOR article on BIG LITTLE LIES in the list below.