September 23rd, 2011 by Karen Burg


Every time a writer returns from a set, their eyes are wide from seeing what the Art Department team has come up with… it adds so much to the process…and has even driven story several times....”    
Showrunner Graham Yost

The wild-west is alive today in the hills of Kentucky, as vividly portrayed in all aspects of the risky drama JUSTIFIED. The sets are as realistic as the intense personalities and interfamily feuds that explode in the deep rural environs and towns of Harlan County.

Set Decorator Shauna Aronson SDSA stepped up for the third season to take us even deeper into the hills, into Nobles Hollar where Ellstin Limehouse’s BBQ joint and slaughterhouse have stood for generations…from which he rules the remote valley. The compound is a convenient place for disposal of human remains and hidden secrets, and a crossroads for illegal trafficking of any sort.

 “We fully built the slaughterhouse and the BBQ joint on a mule farm in the middle of Green Valley, CA, and later created the cold room on stage,” says Aronson. The sets were impressively and thoroughly detailed. Showrunner Graham Yost reveals, “When we got a look at what they had created for the character Limehouse, we said, ‘That's where we'll set the climax of the season!’”

Aronson vividly describes the creation of this backwoods fiefdom... 

Ellstin Limehouse’s BBQ Joint

“The BBQ shack mimics the kind of shacks seen in the deep, Deep South…a mix of colors and flavor and a down-home feeling…the scent of BBQ sauce seeping from the property, almost as if you knew there was sauce wiped on every chair and under the tables from some kid, or grownup, who didn’t use a napkin.” 

“The place needed to exude history and decades of a very specific culture frequenting this establishment. The front of the counter was created using reclaimed doors salvaged from abandoned houses. In the hillbilly world, nothing is wasted…repurposing is the rule and has become part of the craft. Old hog-scrapers became cabinet pulls. If a stool broke, it was fixed with duct tape or held together with wire to make use of every last bit. Limehouse [Mykelti Williamson] wouldn’t have bought something new. It all had character or meaning to him...maybe someone brought in something and tacked it to the wall…every inch of the place is spilling with soul and story.”

“We decoupaged the top of the bar with pages from a vintage copy of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN with the idea that the matriarch of the family had put it there as an important message of record. In a jelly jar on the counter, next to a sign made out of clipped license plates that says ‘Not all who wander are Lost’, sits a collection of leftover Bakelight dice that Limehouse's grandmother had made and sold back in the fifty’s in her five and dime store. Period, authentic Harlan, KY photos are displayed along with unique memorabilia from the early coal era. Add to that layers of old sauce seeping into the lacquer, and it gave the focus piece a unique texture.”

For the walls, Aronson relates, “We bought every vintage license plate available from EBay for 2 months, and I found signed photographs of blues and jazz artists that we hung over the already layered plates. 2000 bottle-caps rim the windows and doors, adding vintage bling. Metal street signs adorn the ridge beams, blending with the tin ceiling. A lone Harlan High School football jersey is tacked to the wall with a photo of its former wearer, a young man with much promise who was cut down in his prime.”

“We wanted to capture the feeling of a classic juke joint combined with the BBQ shack atmosphere,” she continues, “So we added music details from the past decades…a cigar box guitar, the remains of an old piano nailed to the wall, a box of old 45s…and a old radio propped on top of a broken jukebox sits ready to blare out some John Lee Hooker as the mismatched metal blades of the overhead fan twirl around to the tunes.”

“Outside the shack, a customer has the choice to sit at a family-style picnic table or in a variety of metal lawn chairs. But don’t try to steal anything from Limehouse because he has the furniture chained down,” Aronson points out. “Exterior accent lights were created from old gas cans, and I had local welding artist Jay Ryatt make a couple of BBQ monster smokers…the main requirements being that they had to be fully functional and could only be made out of used items found on his property.”

“Creating a barbecue joint in the Deep South may seem like a simple thing, but in the south, it’s part of the religion, it’s part of the culture, and part of the heritage,” elucidates Aronson,”…and if you get the details wrong, people will know.”

Slaughterhouse and cold room 

To create a similar level of realism for the slaughterhouse and cold room, Aronson, Production Designer David Blass, Propmaster John Harrington and their crews, as always, did extensive research, “From the how and where pigs are slaughtered to the type and style of tools a butcher would use, even the cleaning supplies and other details that would be typical of the environment of a down and dirty pig farm.” 

“The slaughterhouse was dressed with several artificial pigs, exact replicas of real pigs,” says Aronson. “It was hard to tell the difference after we added the nitty gritty dressing to the pig and his surroundings, including visceral fat and a pig hoof strewn along the floors. We suspended the pigs with a pulley system at the top of the barn and hung the carcasses over ‘scalding’ pots welded from half barrel drums, then rigged with smoke from F/X. In the empty stalls, we dressed in butchering tools and buckets, more pulleys, ropes and hooks dangling pig hocks, and more scalding pots of various sizes hoisted onto cinder blocks or other found objects. The butcher-block tables were real, purchased used. We added layers of fake animal parts and fat around the table scene, so it looked authentic and dark and creepy to sort of mimic Limehouse himself.” 

The bars of Harlan County…

“On JUSTIFIED, there is the idea that you can tell a man by the whiskey he drinks,” states Aronson.

“Walking into Johnny’s Bar, you can smell the whiskey. It has a seedy, dark backwoods dive bar feeling…one of those places where the music stops if someone walks in the door and isn’t recognized. The backroom, with its card tables and comfy sofa, is the hangout place where Boyd Crowder [Walton Goggins] does his business.”

“At this point in the story, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens [Timothy Olyphant] has left the motel room he lived in for the last two seasons to move into an apartment above a college bar…the High Note Bar,” Aronson explains. “This is a University of Kentucky Alma Mater college bar set in downtown Lexington that we built on stage. School pride fills the air and walls… blue and white banners, flags, college sports equipment, team trophies and plaques. Neon signs and flyers of bands and community events line the walls of the bar. An older style piano greets patrons as they enter, as do huge flat screen TVs that beam out the latest sports events and are only turned off to welcome a vocal artist to the stage. The bartender keeps her bar quite tidy and serves the guests a nice traditional cold brew from the tap, or a local Kentucky whisky sour, with a smile.”

Close to the coal mines is Audry’s, a stopover for the miners, providing moonshine, beer and other comforts. This season, Aronson and company took us into one of the brothel’s trailers, parked conveniently in the yard out back.

Crack den/Oxy-house

The illegal Oxycontin “highway” seems to run right through Harlan County…pill mills have become prevalent. “It’s called the ‘Redneck Cocktail’,” Aronson informs. “The premise of Season 3 was based around the rush of the Oxycontin trade and its affect throughout Appalachia.” The set for a dealer/addict’s house was, again, all about layers, including “Years of parties that had gone bad and never been cleaned up. We threw in a random bowling pin sitting in a broken TV to tell the story of a party gone wrong. Cooking devices sit on the coffee table used as an ashtray, along with the remains of food eaten two days or two weeks prior. Tin foil lines the windows so no sunlight can penetrate, dark sheets are hung to block out the light just in case a piece of foil peels off. Prize possessions among the filth-layered dwelling are a blinking pinball machine and gigantic flat screen TV used for video games. Pulsating party lights are on 24/7. A Japanese fighting sword is jabbed into the upholstery of the black leather sofa so it is handy at all times.”

Raylan Givens Apartment

In stark contrast, the sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment that Givens moves into exudes another time, another history. “A place built in the 30s, with hardwood floors, worn-in brass faceplates and an old metal radiator,” Aronson relates. “Raylan brings a suitcase and a couple of guns to his new home and finds a nice place for them on the shelf in the closet next to the folded blanket and extra bed pillow. He has a Tombstone poster but decides not to hang it quite yet, so all we see on the walls are some old drapes and the illumination of a neon sign from the bar below splashing thru the window. 


 “Dave’s litany each season is, ‘We need to up the level of hillbilly.’ He provides tons of books and articles for our research, plus he’s traveled to Harlan and has hundreds of photos for reference. I respect the hands-on collaboration, and it’s always such a joy to attack with Dave and my team the challenges the show presents…to create believable sets that portray one of the poorest areas of this country.”

“Thankfully, I have Buyer Josh Green who willingly shops funky salvage yards and thrift stores as well as prophouses, and my set dressing team who bring a lot of great ideas to add to the “makeshift” detail of the sets. They’ll make a planter out of an old coffee can or a colander then hang it with a piece of rusted wire or some string from the newspaper…phone numbers scrawled on walls above a payphone, wads of chewing gum under a newly built bar, or cat towers and litter boxes that hint at a pack of felines you never see, but can almost smell in HD…just some of the great details from my great team!

“Seldom have the words ‘This is a beautiful set’ been uttered on JUSTIFIED… and we like it that way.  Gritty reality is our goal. Each episode we create sets so real that the actor’s performances are elevated by the atmosphere. The authenticity of environment brings depth and life to every scene. Each run-down shack, mechanic’s shop, brothel or bar has to have its own specific identity…it needs to have an essence and a feel steeped in character and history.”



Set Decorator Alex Carle SDSA handled the second season set decoration of JUSTIFIED. Carle’s observations below give a basic primer on set decoration, particularly for episodic series, insights into the world of realistic illusion...and an overview of the series.

Murder…Mayhem…and Moonshine

“JUSTIFIED is about a US Marshall, Raylan Givens, who is reassigned from Miami to his childhood rural coal-mining community in Harlan, a town in Harlan County, Kentucky,” Carle relates. “Givens’ style of justice is old school, that of a 19th century lawman, which doesn’t particularly put him in the greatest regard by the criminals. Having to enforce the law when he returns to his hometown, he runs into situations with his family, whose history isn’t that pristine…and with the dominant families of the area, who also have many activities that aren’t exactly law-abiding. The combined elements create an interesting challenge to portray visually as the storyline revolves in murder, mayhem and moonshine.”

[Editor's note: For the third season, add “oxy”… the narcotic of choice and economics in the hollers.] 

 Reality…or the illusion of reality…

The sets are so realistic, the majority of viewers assume they are filmed on site in Kentucky. “Since the town of Harlan actually exists, it was very important to create the local hollers, from interiors to exteriors, from floor to ceiling, ground to sky, with the greatest accuracy and thought,” notes Carle.

 “Dave Blass, our production designer, was very thorough in doing his research…as a matter of fact, he went to Harlan, and to Lexington, KY, and came back with at least 2000 photographs of interiors and exteriors and countryside, which were very helpful.”

“For the second season, which I was decorating, we found the small town of Green Valley about 20 miles north of Santa Clarita Studios, where we were based. Green Valley, CA, to our surprise and delight, was very much like the geography of Harlan, KY. In addition, the architecture of the homes was very close, and there was a feel similar to many of the hollers…the valleys and neighborhoods of rural Appalachia. Luckily, there were also places in the areas surrounding Santa Clarita that we could use to replicate Lexington. ”

“There are lots of little details from Harlan…the hollers with all the different elements in the front yards…the 8 rusting cars and anything and everything imaginable. Sometimes they’d build sculptures outside of their house out of the junk that had accumulated. So we depicted that as well. And then of course, you’ve got the people who have a statue of Elvis in their front yard,” he smiles. “And because it’s the home of the Kentucky Derby, horse sculptures are prominent in Lexington. Local artists create different types of sculptures in different mediums and in different patterns, anything from a 60s psychedelic to a solid color to gleaming steel, and these horse sculptures are dotted around the city.”

“We incorporated all of those things. We would try to make it feel as if you were there. When we were doing the exteriors here in CA, we had to make sure the fire hydrants on the streets were correct for KY, or were covered/or blocked out in some way…and the street lights, street signs, the color of the signposts, even the trash cans. When we’re on a street, we’re always looking in all directions for all of those things. Essential set decoration…if you miss catching just one of those details and it turns up on camera, it blows the whole illusion…and that’s what we’re doing, creating an illusion depicting reality.”

Location, location, location!

Brooming out

“In a lot of cases, these are locations that existed as something else and we had to broom them out—removing everything in the house or building and then finding a way to store it—before going forward with implementing our design and dressing within the location.”

For example, Audrey’s Bar [in photos above] “Where people go to drink and smoke and play cards, and get a little on the side,” Carle describes. “Not a brothel exactly, just a local place where the coal miners go after work and the locals go. There is a madam that runs the place, so therefore the drapery and some of the lights are a little indicative of that…it’s a mixture…a home that Audrey owns that has many bedrooms, so she invites people in…”, he says knowingly. There’s the requisite painting on velvet of a reclining nude, beaded curtained doorway, but also mounted fish, and huge antlers propped up on the pot-bellied stove. Carle explains, “There are so many retro elements that are vibrant in this society. People have junk lying around. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to get hung on the wall…they found it, and might never get around to mounting it.”

As in Coover Bennett’s House...Coover’s place was rather disheveled, “Carle says. “He was a little bit of a packrat. How Coover made his living and how he supported his pot habit was not that unusual in the hollers. He basically gathered junk and then sold it. And all the stuff he gathered was left outside on the porch and strewn about the yard, although some would end up in the house as well. Thus, the variety of pieces layered into both the interior and exterior sets.”

No flying walls, as on stage

“On a location, there are often restrictions that you don’t have on stage, as far as what you can do in the way you get the shots. Sometimes we would build a plug [a wall] to alter the configuration of a house, or we would remove a window to create a camera portal.”

McCready’s House, was one of these. Carle recalls, “It’s the style of house and had the look and feel that was evocative of the local people and how they lived. Their homes are a hodgepodge of anything from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s…reflecting their economic stature. What really amazed me, though, are the TVs! They might live in a house that seems really low end, but the one thing they all have are big flat screens! However, they don’t have any of the nice entertainment centers. They just got a board and strapped it to the mantle or screwed it onto a shelf and put the TV on it. That’s why you see the monitor on the mantle like that. Because of their economic status and what they have to work with, they couldn’t run down to the nearest Home Depot and buy stuff…they would just grab something out of the yard and whatever it was, make use of it. Everything is broken, up there in the hollers, so they have to be creative and practical to get it to work. You really have to think of how the people live there and how they acquire things, how would they do something with what they had to work with? You have to become the character.”

Windows & lighting

“A set decorator also has to think a little bit like a director of photography,” Carle points out. “Besides the design aspect of the portrayal of character or history or place, there are lots of technical aspects a set decorator has to consider as far as the angles of the camera and what the director of photography may want to do. And then of course, there are a lot of things pertaining to lighting that the decorator has to think about and work with the DP as well. Sheers and drapery on the windows are useful to control the light, but sometimes when light is being blown into the room from a light outside, the sheers just become a great big glowing spot on the wall. Some DPs prefer blinds—Venetian blinds, mini-blinds, shutters—for controlling the light. Thus, the window treatment is often based on trying to set the mood and how the DP might want to light it.”

Practicals – working set dressing elements, particularly lamps & lighting

Carle’s extensive experience came into play when determining, finding and placing the lighting elements based on both decorative and technical needs. “The set decorator has to be aware of what the director’s blocking is—the movement in the scene—and then think about which practicals to use that create the mood that the director and the DP are trying to achieve…and determine the placement of those practicals, whether they be wall sconces or floor lamps or table lamps, so whenever the actors are moving around, there is either a backlight, a key, or a flood light source illuminating the actor.”

Because JUSTIFIED is a character-driven action-drama, establishing mood is paramount. “Francis McKinney, the DP during the second season, likes to utilize practicals as the lighting source for camera, and to create the shadows…to generate the light on one side of the face of the actor while it’s dark on the other side,” reveals Carle. “Rather than using fernell lighting as a filler to cheat a light somewhere off camera, Francis prefers to incorporate the practicals. So he and I had many conversations about how we would accomplish that.”
[Compare the practical lighting in Judge Reardon’s Chambers to US Marshall’s Evidence Room in photos above]

Process & collaboration

The first and foremost collaboration, of course, is the set decorator with the production designer. When asked about the process, Carle replies, “The production designer shares with me the blocking of the actors from the director. The PD, with the art director, generates the ground plans and the director’s plans, whether it be a stage set or a location, and then we discuss basic furniture placement to help with the blocking…where a couch may be, where a chair may be…that all has to do with the blocking. So there are some basics that we put onto the director’s plans just as a guideline. And then from there, I fill it all in.”

“Once the set decorator gets all the furniture pieces and establishes the mood and the economic status, we have to go into the details and really tell the story of the character. With all the layering, even though the viewer may not see everything on the screen because of the camera angle, you are also creating the environment of the actor, so that they can become their character. That’s another reason why we go to extremes on details even though they may not all be seen.”

“I don’t go on the initial scouts, where they are looking for locations, because if they go to a location that proves not suitable, that’s a waste of my time, which is already stretched! Once they have secured locations, I will often go look at them before we do the tech scouts because that helps me to start envisioning what I have to do, or we have art department/set dressing mini-tech scouts to have a look at the situation. I always then go on the tech scouts.”

“The PD and I talk a lot about the palette and the color schemes–mostly about what it is on the walls and on the floor—and from there, I go off on that as to what the furnishings might be. But then again, the furnishings are dictated to by the location and the environment of the character. Sometimes, the writers will refer in the script to a specific kind of furniture, e.g. a Victorian camelback sofa… …but that has something to do with trying to depict the history of that character’s space, as to why they have that piece…it could have been a family heirloom that has been there through the generations. So occasionally there’s a specifically noted piece like that, but most of the time I’m just using my experience and my research.”

For example, Mag Bennett’s Parlor ...Carle remarks, “The parlor was deliberately decorated in a very masculine way because Mag inherited it. All of the main families, the Crowders, the Bennetts and the Givens, have lived in the area for generations, and this room reflected her father’s office, which she has kept exactly the way he had it. Photos on the wall are of family members all the way back to Victorian times. There are color photos which are of her boys when they were growing up in the last couple of decades, then sepia and black & white pictures which are family members from generations before. In the scene, she was relaying how ‘Our family has lived in these valleys for the last 200 years.’ So the whole wall tells the story.”


“Of course Leadman Marc Meisels and Buyer Karen Burnett [SDSA Associate members] are my left and right arm in doing all of this. Our great crew varied in size, from the core of 6 to as many as 20. We could have three or four 5-tons [huge trucks] running at once striking sets, doing pickups and dressing multiple sets all at the same time.” While this is standard for a one-hour episodic, time seems to be even more compressed when shooting “…in LA, but out of the LA city limits…” Carle observes, “One of the logistical challenges in shooting in Santa Clarita is that the nearest prophouse is at least 30 minutes away, and then I would go into town for other prophouses and shopping, come back out to Santa Clarita, then go out to Green Valley, and then come around to the studio. I was driving 250 miles a day.”

“A set decorator is multitasking all the time, basically because you are dealing with so many different concepts in an abbreviated time, including inserts, for instance. Because the company does not always get the coverage they require when they’re actually doing the filming of the scene, that set or a portion of it might come back in what would have to be an insert. So then, consideration has to be made about whether to buy or rent a piece, because the if inserts won’t be shot for weeks, the rental price, which was reasonable for a few days suddenly has potential to become extremely budget un-friendly, and if you return it in the interim, it might not be available to rent when the insert shot comes up.”

Fire & explosions!

When queried about the explosion of Johnny’s House, Carle explains, “Since we know they will cut to the shot so fast, just before they blow it, we’ll remove the porch furniture, or anything in the house…because no matter how careful they are, things can come flying through the air at the crew. Or we’ll remove the things before the fireball engulfs it, because it’s a split second from the time you see it to the fireball, so you won’t notice that things were removed. If we can’t move them because they’re too prominent, those things are specially fabricated in materials that when they do explode, if they fly, they won’t hurt anyone.”

“Thus, the set decorator works with special effects as well. ‘Okay, you guys are going to blow up the furniture…” Do we rent this or purchase, or do we need to fabricate this? If it’s determined we do see it and it will go flying off, then we have to make sure it’s fabricated in certain specific materials that are safe. And the types of materials determine how we fabricate it by the way they will splinter or break up.”

“It seems that the set decorator and the set dressing crew deal with every department…always with the props and costume departments,” Carle imparts. ‘I can’t have a red couch and all of a sudden the character is sitting on the couch with a red dress on. So there are discussions that occur all the time, in meetings, during scouts, or it may be that you have a cup of coffee in your hand and you say, ‘Hey, what about that …?’ as you pass each other in the hallway…”

Moonshine & Marijuana

When asked if there were a signature set dressing element for JUSTIFIED, Carle reveals, “On this show, I always tried to make sure there was a mason jar somewhere on the set, for the moonshine. Mag Bennett sold her ‘Apple Pie’ moonshine in the family’s general store [in photos above], but she also gave it to friends who would come into the store…and then…it was a rather handy conveyance for poison,” he chuckles.
“There were several drying sheds that we created, because the Bennetts had a marijuana business on the side. The Bennett family owns about 1000 acres of land, so they have these drying sheds, which are old barns, all over the place. We did actually manufacture large bundles of marijuana and had them hanging all over this barn.”

Perhaps the tag for the second season of JUSTIFIED should be the four M’s…Murder, Mayhem, Moonshine and Marijuana!