April 27th, 2023 by Claire Sanchez SDSA

Main Photo
George Foreman's mother is thrilled to hear he has won an Olympic Gold medal. From these humble roots, he goes on to become Heavyweight Champion of the World...twice! Sonja Sohn. Photo by Kyle Kaplan ©2023 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.

Set Decorator Claire Sanchez SDSA

Production Designer Clay Griffith


Set Decorator Claire Sanchez SDSA takes us through the “before and after” of the establishing sets of this true-to-life biopic of the remarkable “Heart of a Lion” George Foreman.
We know you’ll enjoy this behind-the-scenes journey!

The Foreman family tenement house/shack – George’s single mother works as a waitress. Times are tough and they have to downsize again. 
... from Set Decorator Claire Sanchez SDSA
"It was very important to George Tillman, the director, that we have the interior and exterior all in one location, instead of trying to find that exterior and then shooting the interior on stage. He really wanted to be able to have the action be seamless.”
“So, we went to a lower income neighborhood in New Orleans and found an empty lot to build in. And I mean, there was nothing there. It was a completely empty lot.”

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Foreman family tenement house – Before. Very before! An empty small plot. And the beginnings of set construction. Photos by Alan Markfield ©2023 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.

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The house exterior as the Foreman family finds it in 1960. Photo by Alan Markfield ©2023 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.

“They started on stage, actually, constructing the basics to sort of map out how big it was going to be, so our production designer and everyone could see the space and the spacing, then they finished constructing on site.”
“New Orleans is really distinct in a lot of ways, which makes it kind of challenging to play New Orleans for another city. Our architecture is very, very distinctive. Even things like...I don't know why this is...but our fire hydrants stick up like three feet on top of a pipe. And I think it's the only city in America does that. So I’m always trying to figure out a way to camouflage those hydrants! This little street that they found wasn't as gingerbread as we often have, so it could pass for Houston.”
“And I'll tell you, as far as the heat was concerned, it's just as hot as Texas—if not more the day we were dressing the set! It was sweltering. They brought in the big air conditioners. I think we finally burned one up, it was so hot in that building.”
“These tenement row houses were pretty derelict, some like shacks. The way we were telling the story was that whoever was there previously just up and moved out quickly, so things were left behind. For the exterior, we found piles of junk and debris and things to incorporate it into the rest of the neighborhood. And we dressed a little bit of the surrounding houses as well. The neighborhood was pretty cooperative with us, letting us come in and remove things like Saints flags, although (she smiles) there was one who said, “Oh no. You can't touch these flowers.” But eventually, you know, we worked it out with them.”

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The finished house/shack nestled into the neighborhood, as if it’s been there all these years. Photo by Alan Markfield ©2023 CTMG. All Rights Reserved.

“The interior, once it was built, was tight, and we had a lot of things to bring in. And it was sort of a cramped space on that street, so we had tents set up, pop-ups, with all the dressing laid out. It was a several-day process and was really interesting. For instance, it took a lot of time and effort to find the knob and tube wiring that we put into the building. My Lead, Pat O'Connor, is really, really great. He and Gang Boss David Poretto are very good with electrical—especially period electrical—so they were very deep into that dive to find the correct knob and fuse and the correct covered Romax, even the correct nails to attach it to the wall. They really get into the minutiae, which is wonderful that they absolutely love to do that homework.
The Foreman family tenement house, move-in 1960...
“The ‘leftover’ pieces strewn about when the family arrived, were quite deliberate. We had very specific discussion around that mattress and the table and the chairs because of how they had to work for the scene.”

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The house interior as the Foreman family finds it in 1960, complete with the mattress in the alcove. Note the knob & tube wiring. Courtesy Sony. All Rights Reserved.

“We had several meetings with our director, George, about that mattress specifically. In the scene when the family arrives with their meager belongings, one of the children is carrying a mattress. We had rehearsals weeks prior with the mattresses. I had them custom-made and dealt with issues like...How do they roll up? Can the children maneuver them through the door? 
There also was another mattress already on the floor as part of the detritus left from whomever moved out. And, of course, we went through many iterations of mattresses for that!”

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The house interior as the Foreman family finds it in 1960. Well, except for tablets and laptops and set dressing equipment – this is obviously BTS! Courtesy Sony. All Rights Reserved.

“We decided that a table and overturned chairs would have been left behind as well, because we needed that setting when the mother shares the hamburger that night with her children who are all sitting around the table...that heart wrenching scene with the one hamburger she tears into small portions so that each child would have a bite of food.”

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The 1960 bathroom – at least it was indoor! Love the details such as unmatched faucets & handles. Courtesy Sony. All Rights Reserved.

The Foreman family tenement home, 1967...
In the ensuing years, Nancy Foreman, George’s mother, and her children have been steadily trying to make the place more of a home.

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Foreman family tenement house 1967. Still a working single mother, Nancy Foreman and her kids have made the shack into a home. Courtesy Sony. All Rights Reserved.

“I think she probably had a sewing machine and when she's finding pieces of fabric, she's making a home as best as she can, whether skirting the bathroom sink or making a table cover. Maybe someone she works with is getting rid of something. But I do think that she is making this house a home however she could.”

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Note the skirting on the basin, the curtain for the tub. Everything as clean as possible. Courtesy Sony. All Rights Reserved.

“I was actually a textiles major and I want lots of textiles and fabrics whenever I'm decorating. I had some great buyers on this—my Assistant Set Decorator Li Yaffe, Jessica Taylor and Madi Turin. They all know to find the pile of quilts and lace and tablecloths and sheets...and I want them all around me...I want a store laid out in front of me with all these textiles, so I can pick and choose the ones that are going to work best with the light and with the space. And it just makes us all happy to be surrounded with these vintage bits.”

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Foreman house bedroom – BTS - fans and fans! The basket lightshade is such a ubiquitous & affordable shade for the times. Courtesy Sony. All Rights Reserved.

“The sofa was a fun and perfect find. I was at an estate sale with my sister and was able to purchase it for like $35. And it was serendipitous that although it was a Saturday, my crew was working, so we were able to get them to help load it into and out of my Suburban and onto the set. And I could not have picked better upholstery fabric!”

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Foreman house 1967 – The textiles tell the story of the family “fixing up” the place piece by piece...lace on the window & entry tables, handcrafted quilts, crochetwork, hooked rugs, homemade curtains, “found” special curtain piece...and the sofa!!! Courtesy Sony. All Rights Reserved.

“One of the other most interesting things we found was the television, residing here in pride of place across from that sofa. Li Yaffe found it on Facebook Marketplace. It was the right period, which is huge right there, but there’s so much more! You know how we always have issues with playback, with some of the TVs that are that old. This one had been owned by Robert Plant’s son. We were told that he loved the shape of the old TV but wanted it to function like a modern TV, so he had taken the guts out and refitted it with a LED screen with a Roku that you could put a USB port into, which is just like set dressing gold, right?!! It’s one of those amazing stories.”

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Foreman house 1967 – The super-find: vintage television with working updated LED! Note: always, in every room, at least one fan. Courtesy Sony. All Rights Reserved.

George Foreman Youth & Community Center before and afters...
Per story events, the exterior of the George Foreman Youth & Community Center was refurbished twice. To avoid spoilers, we’re showing the location “before” and then the initial, main revision of this community gathering place.

Re: the interior of the location...“It was quite involved with all the location logistics, but they put in a concrete floor, and then we added the wooden gym floor on top. There was just a little chicken wire fencing at the top of the loft, so that whole end was completely, safely redone as well.” 

Editor's note: Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!

Boxing ring(s)...
“There were a lot of boxing rings! And I learned a lot about boxing rings! For instance, there is not one actual standard size. I mean, there are standard sizes for different versions. So the one in the Youth Center was the 14-foot one that our boxing consultant said would have been appropriate for a youth training program, but a professional boxer probably would not have used. We got our hands on that smaller one because it was the practice ring that they used in our rehearsal space for the actors, which was great because the size worked. And we did the skirting to match the one he actually used in the center he opened. The ring ropes were a little confusing to keep straight about what color template went was always red, blue and white, but which was on top or in the middle...we had so many, it was often hard to track which was where! And, (she smiles) you know, the ring did not come with instructions.”

Editor's note: Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!

Resourcing the vintage gym equipment...
“I would say that we found locally 90% of everything that we used. I have great Buyers/master magicians that can just manifest these things. We do have some great prop houses here, but it's nothing like Atlanta or Los Angeles where you can just go to the exercise equipment prop house and pick up things.  So, there's a lot of Facebook Marketplace, there's a lot of estate sales, there's also a lot of just texting random people that you know in another city that might have a gym! Lots of digging.”
“Most of that equipment was local. We have some really great relationships with several gym owners now! They were all very helpful. And the old the older gym owners were great resources for what was period correct. So, to find equipment that still looked kind of new, but also was correct for that period, was a little bit tricky. And to find that information, the best resource was these gym owners who could tell us, ‘Oh, hey, I used that back in the ‘80s..this has been here since the ‘70s...”

Editor's note: Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!

The balanced vision...
“One of the big parts about that youth center for George Foreman was that it be not just a place where kids could exercise and play sports, but also, he encouraged the academic side. ‘You need to have a space to come here and do your homework.’ So, we had study hall rooms built in at the loft end, and tables placed in the midst of the gym, to emphasize the need to get schoolwork done as well.”

The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson...
"The Johnny Carson set was interesting, and unexpectedly difficult! That was the first time I ever had to work within those challenging parameters. The whole thing as one unit is copyrighted. Everything! It is amazing all that cannot be re-created because it is protected. So, it was a lot of working with the clearance department on literally every single thing that went in there. For instance, at one time they had a striped curtain. So, we were going to do a striped curtain but in completely different color tones. However, we were told that we could not do stripes in any color. Then, it came down to the solid curtain colors we went through and had to omit, because one stripe of the original curtain was that color. Obviously, we could only use something that never been hung on a Johnny Carson set, in a tightly controlled definition of that palette!”

Editor's note: Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!

“We had a similar situation with the table that's next to the sofa. We had to send every piece to  be cleared, and I think we went through like two or three end table iterations. It wasn't like it was a distinctive end table. It was just they thought it was too close to something that had been used. As you can imagine, the backdrop, that translight, was another huge could not be similar, but it had to be similar. Talk show desks are very distinctive, so we had our own built by our construction department. It turned out beautifully and really worked well in anchoring the set.”

“The part of re-creating the Johnny Carson show that made me the most nervous was the technical practicals, because I've never had to tackle it on that scale. The technology like the period boom, and the broadcast cameras in the playback monitors...that's what made me the most nervous, because I really wanted to get that right. But thankfully, our prop master was wonderful. He took care of the camera. And then our sound mixer had a source for the correct boom, out of Tennessee, I think. And, with everyone's help, it turned out that it wasn't as scary as I thought it would be!”
Final thoughts...
I love the story of George Foreman, which I didn't know that much about before I started the film. Of course, I knew who George Foreman was, but to know more about his life and his struggles and what he overcame...what an amazing athlete and champion, and person he is. 
In the back of my mind was the thought, ‘I'm doing this for George Foreman. This man deserves for the sets and for this film, to honor his life and to be as good as it possibly can be.'
And it was a great experience, especially working with Clay Griffith, the production designer, who is a former set decorator. His understanding of the challenges that a set decorator faces, and then learning from his past experience, little things that he shared with me...we just got along wonderfully. And my crew came through so many times, it meant so much to all of us to do this film, to tell this true story.”
...Set Decorator Claire Sanchez SDSA would like to acknowledge her outstanding crew:
Assistant Set Decorator: Li Yaffe | Set Dec Buyers: Madi Turin, Jessica Taylor | Leadman: Pat O’Connor | Gangbosses: David Poretto, Matt Mysing | On Set Dresser: Joie Todd Kerns | Set Dresser-Warehouse Manager: Russ Halsrud | Set Dressers: Teddy Hennessey, Remy Laan, Caleb Rimmer, Jen Brunjes, Mike O’Sullivan , Dustin Poretto | Set Dec Coordinator: Brad Miller
Editor’s note:
This film had a considerable stop/start, with Hurricane Ida and other forces in between. 
Thus, early on William Cimino was the first Set Decorator