Barry Seal [Tom Cruise] comes into town to make a phone call that can’t be bugged or traced. This happened often, wherever he was, so the phone boxes became a visual symbol of the increasing clandestine activities!
“The quirkiness of the set is built around the idea that Lucy would have hired a decorator to design the window treatment and some key elements, then would have done the rest herself,” says Set Decorator Kelley Burney SDSA
“The kitchen was my favorite set,” Burney reveals. “I purchased some of the lighting from City Issue, the stools and sideboard came from Antique Factory. I really loved how all of the elements in the kitchen came together so cohesively and the boldness of it all...”
And more handmade art... Burney describes... “I created a patterned wall decoration along the stairway displaying Lucy’s button collection that she proudly considers works of art. Upstairs in the master bedroom, a series of framed clutch purses surround her vanity...”
Barry’s desk does NOT reflect the amount of money he was bringing in, but does reflect that he was always on the go with skin-of-his-teeth adventures. His Snowbirds fleet eventually included a Comanche, Bonanza and a Cessna 150...
The office was set in a mobile home, complete with stoop & American flag on the exterior and dressed with all things ’80s. An IBM electric typewriter, a Channel Master AM/FM radio and the obligatory landline phone, complete with curly cord....
“We brought in period correct tables, chairs and booth seating, changed all of the artwork and added beaded curtains. The great colonial baluster spindles were original to the location and had been there since 1969!” says Burney...
Tom Cruise, director Doug Liman and his team reveal the outrageous (and real) exploits of a hustler and pilot unexpectedly recruited by the CIA to run what ends up being one of the biggest covert operations in U.S. history!
Smuggler. Informant. Patriot. With his devilish swagger and zest for life, pilot Barry Seal [Tom Cruise] is the hero of his sleepy Southern town.
Much to the surprise of his wife, Lucy [Sarah Wright Olsen], the charming entrepreneur has gone from a well-respected TWA pilot to a key figure in one of the greatest scandals in modern history. Once the hotshot airman gets caught up in a shadowy division of the government—flying/running crates of AK-47s and kilos of cocaine—he makes a fortune as a key player in the Iran-contra affair. From trading arms for hostages to training forces of Central and South American kingpins, Barry becomes an improbable hero working against the system.
So, how does he sleep at night? It’s all legal if you do it for the good guys... —Universal Pictures
Liman, who refers to the film as “a fun lie based on a true story,” offers that he has long appreciated stories of improbable heroes working against the system. He brought on his own set of heroes to help tell the story and make the unbelievable real...very much as it actually was! The collaboration between director, star, writer and the visual production team of Director of Photography César Charlone, Production Designer Dan Weil, Set Decorator Kelley Burney SDSA, Costume Designer Jenny Gering and their crews set the energetic flow of the entire shoot.
“The energy between Tom and Doug is amazing,” says Producer Kim Roth. “It’s fun and moves very fast. Doug said from the beginning he wanted this movie experience for the crew working on it to be an adventure, and he delivered.”
Burney laughs, “The entire shoot was very fast-paced for this film with locations being moved up on the schedule at times because the shooting crew was moving so quickly. In addition, other than Barry’s two homes, the majority of the locations were shot in one day, so it definitely kept everyone on their toes! Thankfully, our team was fantastic. It was a deeply rewarding experience to work with Dan Weil. He has such an extensive design process and it was a thrill to be pushed so much creatively!”
AMERICAN MADE follows the Seal family from the late 1970s through 1986, and we watch as their wealth amasses during the decade. One of the most pivotal years for them during this period was in 1981, when they pulled up stakes in the middle of the night and moved from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to Mena, Arkansas. The CIA helped Barry to create a home base for his operations, far from the prying eyes of state or federal authorities.
Seal home, Baton Rouge...
Our first glimpse into the Seal family life is their suburban home in Baton Rouge. Burney points out, “It was at the beginning of the shoot, as well – great to set the tone for the whole production. I loved decorating for this time period! There are so many layered textures and bold graphic wallpaper and fabric patterns from the ‘70s along with the outrageousness that comes with the 1980s nouveau riche interiors of the Mena house.”
“We wanted it to look like Barry gave Lucy extra money to buy items for the house to make her happy while he was away weeks at a time working as a TWA pilot. The design is intentionally a bit quirky and off, as if Lucy had hired an interior designer to help with the window treatments and a few select details and then finished the rest of the decorating on her own. In the foyer, I created a patterned wall decoration along the stairway displaying Lucy’s button collection that she proudly considers works of art. A series of framed clutch purses hang on a wall in the master bedroom surrounding her vanity.”*
Seal home, Mena, Arkansas...
After driving all night fleeing their home in Baton Rouge, when the Seal family arrives at the empty house in the backwoods outside of the tiny town of Mena, Lucy is shocked. Burney notes, “The house is completely spare and more than a bit depressing. We then see the house transform over the next 2-year period through large renovation projects as Barry brings home more cash than they can spend.”
The ranch house was painted a drab green hue when the family moved in, but over the course of one round-the-clock weekend, with massive collaboration of all the teams, what was once mundane became distinctive, complete with a pink exterior with white trim!
“The renovated exterior design was inspired by Spanish Revival and Palm Springs Midcentury architecture,” Burney recounts. “The front yard was completely re-landscaped, with manicured gardens, a miniature golf course, a large fountain, white gravel added to the long sweeping driveway. Greensman Jeff Brown and his team did an outstanding job! Set decoration added custom window awnings, new porch furniture, and all of the window treatments changed. The horse stable and shed already existed at the location and were redressed with period-correct tools, lawn equipment and lots of suitcases to store all of Barry’s cash!”
“The home interior was designed with a very over-the-top nouveau riche mindset,” Burney reveals. “All of the initial furniture was replaced with opulent classical-style furniture and lighting. The foyer walls were covered in a deep red velvet to complement black and gold wall paneling that was added at the stair railing and door frames. For the family room, I had a sofa and matching club chairs upholstered in a Thibaut fabric to give a modern take on the toile fabric patterns so popular during that time. We purposefully went overscale with the artwork in this room and with the live 20-foot tall Christmas tree in the living room to emphasize the Seals’ living large mentality.”
“The master bedroom was built on stage,” she adds. “It was the main stage set—95% of the project was on location! In the bedroom, there are touches of Hollywood Regency with a black and cream color palette, gilt mirrors and a black-tiled stepped Jacuzzi tub.”
“The amount of work and detail that have gone into in creating every aspect of the period was amazing,” says Producer Doug Davison. “You could see it everywhere. There’s a nostalgia for this era. As many items are still familiar to us, the late ’70s and early ’80s have an appeal. At the same time, they feel completely disconnected from our reality today.”
“Mena feels like small-town Americana, very Norman Rockwell-esque,” Roth describes. “You would never think, in your wildest dreams, that Contras would be training, and drugs and arms would be shipping out of this sleepy little town.”
To give the streets an older look, sand was spread on the sidewalks. Modern landscaping and store signage were removed and replaced with period fare. The story called for the construction of several banks, each one more retro than the last.
Burney explains, “The town of Mena is seen in two phases: Phase 1, when Barry first arrives there to set up shop, and then Phase 2, a few years later when his inside operation is booming and the local banks and stores are reaping the rewards with increased business.”
“Fortunately, the town of Ball Ground, GA, where we shot, is a small town almost frozen in the time of that era, at least from an architectural standpoint. We, thankfully, did not have to worry about switching out parking meters or retrofitting lampposts, but some street signs were removed. In Phase 1, period-correct storefront signage was added at the majority of the storefronts, several had boarded up windows with period “For Rent” signs dressed in. In Phase 2, some of the storefronts had upgraded signage and various storefront windows were dressed to depict that the town had flourished along with Barry’s business.” That business eventually included mock businesses that he used to cover up his illicit activities...storefronts were created for Royale Global, Royale Sports, Royale Television and Royale Liquor, each one more convincing than the last.
Pay phones are significant in the film, as Seal conducts most of his business through them. Roth explains the rationale: “The real Barry Seal actually used pay phones this way. Apparently, he would walk around with a camera bag filled with quarters.”
“All of the payphones fell under the set dec department since they really became a part of the main street landscape,” says Burney. “Originally, there was a scripted scene with technicians from the local phone company installing new payphones across the street while Barry is making a phone call on an older payphone. This was a play on the increasing volume of business coming in and how the phone company was reaping benefits.”
“It was a bit tricky to find multiples of matching payphones for the different time periods, and the number of payphones requested by the director kept increasing! I think the final number was close to 40 enclosures with pedestals, in order to have an adequate supply for various locations, with some extras standing by in case more were needed. I was able to rent a number of payphones from Central Atlanta Props, but I had to ship a handful in from State Supply in New York and then after extensive scouring on eBay and other sources, I was able to find a guy in Ohio who was getting rid of some!”
Rich Mountain Aviation...
The Rich Mountain Aviation hangar set, where Barry—along with his Snowbird pilot team—would do runs to and from Central and South America impressed Davison as well. “This set was dressed complete with the requisite pool table, pinball machine, foosball table, Ms. Pac-Man machine, Rubik’s cube, boom boxes and pin-up posters of ’80s models—big hair and all.” The signage for Rich Mountain Aviation was modeled after an actual sign seen from a low-resolution documentary about Seal.
All of these playful sign-of-the-times props and set dressings were contradictory to the hardcore business practices that were happening at the hangar. In full view, one can also see crates of AK-47s and bundles of kilos of cocaine.
Contras training in the US!
“The Contra training facility was created in an empty field near Roswell, GA. It was a huge set with several tents, a make-shift shooting range and obstacle course and an airplane runway,” says Burney. “The entire set dressing team and greens department did an amazing job with this set!!! I believe we had only 2 days to dress this location and it was very impressive what was accomplished in such a short time period!”
Key sets in the nation’s capital, filmed in locations in Georgia, included the CIA, Vice President George HW Bush’s office and Oliver North’s office. Burney says, “The CIA set was all about depicting the depth and vastness of the agency and the number of agents it employed at the time. We dressed 70 cubicles for this set so there were a lot of moving parts. Bush’s 1981 office was replicated with very closely matching furniture down to the striped sofa upholstery and the encased model ships. Gail Blackwell at Made to Measure did an amazing upholstery job and she was great to work with! We also re-created Oliver North’s office through the limited photographs we were able to access. The two large TVs adjacent to his desk were a distinct element from a reference photograph.”
Color palettes help define an era, a character and place. For AMERICAN MADE, Burney informs, “Bright and bold colors were incorporated in the Baton Rouge interior reflective of the time period in which the Seals lived there, late 1960s-mid 1970s. In the Mena Ranch Home the color palette shifted to deep reds and jewel tones that tied in with the classical furnishings and opulent velvet walls and black & gold paneling. The Mena town interiors—Mena Bank, the diner, Sheriff’s trailer and the aviation hangers & offices—all kept to a simple muted palette of mainly greens and brown tones to convey the quiet and simple small town lifestyle of back-country Arkansas.”
The truth of the lie...
“Barry Seal lived in a very unique time that we’ll never have again in aviation, or in history,” says Tom Cruise. “He had this incredibly adventurous life, and one that is just beyond belief. He was a character walking through history. It was just too outrageous to believe, and in this day and age, it’s something that will never happen again.” Burney adds, “The overall scope of what was accomplished during the Mena operation is so outlandish and incomprehensible when you realize all of the necessary factors that were involved. Barry really discovered a hidden loophole in the system that most people wouldn’t even go near, but he saw it as an opportunity because he had the particular skill set to succeed.”
Cruise also shares his approach to fimmaking, “What interests me is the passion of cinema and storytelling, that’s when it gets very exciting. It’s not just a job; I love this too much and want to push myself and surround myself with people who have that same sensibility and sense of exploration to make movies.”
It looks like he did.
Resources... Set Decorator Kelley Burney SDSA adds this gracious note: I’d just like to mention the local prop houses and vendors who were so welcoming and helpful! Bridge Props GAopened during the last week of our shoot and I was thrilled to be able to rent items from them for our CIA and FBI office sets.
Equally invaluable were:
14th Street Antiques
Antique Factory Antonio Raimo Galleries
City Issue I Communications Made to Measure Designs & Upholstery Myers Carpet RJR Props Warner Bros. Studios ATL
In addition to the local vendors in Atlanta, we pulled from prop houses in New York and Los Angeles
to obtain all of the period correct elements needed. Items were shipped in from: Air Hollywood American Screen Window Coverings/AMCO Eclectic Encore Props History For Hire Newel Antiques/Newel Props
Many thanks to all. *And thank you to Debbie Seal, wife of the real Barry Seal, for generously sharing their family photos. We incorporated copies according to the selected time period in both the Baton Rouge and Mena Ranch house.
Promoting the highest standard of excellence in the field worldwide, and to entertain, inspire, teach and preserve the legacy of set decoration in motion pictures and television.