“In some ways this is an Opera. It’s a tragedy, an epic love story about two people whose lives were forever intertwined but who were doomed by their own flaws to ever succeed as a happy couple.” -- Set Decorator James V. Kent SDSA
Set Decorator James V. Kent SDSA and Production Designer Jonah Markowitz took on the many challenges and innumerable period sets for this both wide scope and yet intimate story of the lives of country music royalty George Jones and Tammy Wynette...
And they hugely succeeded, with verisimilitude and style.
Jim gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse of their process, and we take a quick peek, an amuse-bouche, but don’t even scratch the surface of the myriad sets. Make sure you watch the mini-series, it’s phenomenal.
Notes from Set Decorator James V. Kent SDSA:
“It’s a very organic process. It starts with conversations about the script and story, the characters, and our different perceptions of who these people are and the world they inhabit. Jonah is very good at staking out new territory. He looks at what other films that have tread similar ground have done, and tries not to emulate that, but carve a different path forward. We are always looking for new visual language, new ways to tell a story. And I take inspiration from Jonah’s mood boards, which are amazing and inspiring, as he draws from so many sources, maybe some of the same great photographers we all turn to, like Eggleston for example, but Jonah is great at unearthing some real treasures as well from more obscure sources.”
“There’s also a high degree of trust in our relationship. I have worked with designers who tend to micro-manage, who like to get involved in the set dressing. Jonah is interested in what I do but trusts me enough to let me do my thing. And conversely, I trust his choices. He’s a great collaborator in the true sense of the word – accessible, open to fresh perspectives, but always a steady hand on the tiller.”
Representing George and Tammy in their private lives...
“We were fortunate that we were able to heavily research the lives of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, in depth, by reading biographies, and by accessing family archives, the family photo albums that showed their home interiors at different stages of their lives.”
“And of course we had access to their daughter, Georgette Jones, who was an invaluable source of information. Taken together, this research informed us as to how to shape their living spaces, always keeping in mind we were doing an interpretation, not striving for verisimilitude per se.”
“For instance, it would have been easy to lampoon their style, especially Jones’s, which some reviewers derisively called “Hillbilly Gothic”, but we wanted to honor them as real people we respected, and so we didn’t try to make sets tacky or in poor taste. We felt we kept true to George’s spirit or vision in those sets where he was known to be the decorator (and he definitely had his own vision). For instance, in the Red Bedroom in George’s house, where the love scene takes place, we really embraced George’s love for Spanish Revival furniture at that point in his life.”
George's house..Image courtesy of Showtime.
George's bedroom...Michael Shannon as George Jones. Screen image from Showtime.
George's bedroom, detail.Image courtesy of Showtime.
“In the Country Mansion set, the house George buys for Tammy and their family as a surprise for her, the furniture is still a bit Spanish Revival in influence but not entirely – he’s maybe moving away from that. Also, it was known that he just basically went to a local furniture store and bought pieces off the floor to furnish that house, so we weren’t trying to do Graceland. It wasn’t exactly ordinary, but not extraordinary either.”
“Now, First Lady Acres is another story. That’s all Tammy – it’s her space, her house, her break from George, and we gave her interior a completely different look. Much more contemporary, probably much more so in our version than it really was – but we wanted to strongly underline this fresh new start of hers, this new journey she was beginning.”
First Lady Acres, Tammy's house.Image courtesy of Showtime.
Behind-the-scenes: First Lady Acres, Tammy's house.Image courtesy of Showtime.
First Lady Acres, Tammy's house. Jessica Chastain as Tammy Wynette. Screen image from Showtime.
Scale / Intensity of Process...
“In some ways this is an Opera. It’s a tragedy, an epic love story about two people whose lives were forever intertwined but who were doomed by their own flaws to ever succeed as a happy couple.”
“It’s a story on a grand scale, spanning decades and chronicling huge achievements. And it’s all in the scripts. The scripts were daunting, packed with detail, countless sets, too many music venues to count – upon first read, it was all a bit overwhelming.”
“I actually turned down the project a few times because I knew we would be doing it in Wilmington, a small town for such a grand tale. My concern was lack of resources. But Jonah was fearless from the start. Jonah’s dedication and passion for the project was a huge inspiration to me personally and the art department as a whole.”
“The pace of production was intense – it was like running several back-to-back marathons – but Abe Sylvia’s scripts, John Hillcoat’s direction and the performances of Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon were so strong, it saw us through.”
“One of our biggest challenges – and there were so many, like building four tour buses...”
George's tour bus, created on stage. Image courtesy of Showtime.
Tammy's tour bus, created on stage. Image courtesy of Showtime.
George's tour bus, detail. Image courtesy of Showtime.
Tammy's tour bus, detail. Image courtesy of Showtime.
"...but even more challenging was creating the Las Vegas Penthouse Suite, which was a very overscale, dramatic set, showcasing Tammy’s arrival as a major star, not only in Vegas but to the world at large."
Las Vegas Penthouse Suite. “We were so happy to have a wide shot for this operatic set...” Screen image from Showtime.
"This felt like an operatic set to me. Far grander than her real suite would have been, but it was the right stage for her. We really enjoyed every aspect of the process of creating that set.”
"What’s ironic to me as a set decorator, is that for such an epic story, for most of the series, it is shot very tight. The camera is very close, it’s all about intimate space. I think it works, absolutely, but you always want to see more of your work on screen, don’t you? When the art department literally works itself into exhaustion, creating these wonderful sets whether on location or on stage, you wish they had shot and edited in more masters.* But another aspect is that we create these in-depth realistic environments for not only the audience to experience, but also for the actors to be able to live in their characters more fully, and they always respond to the sets. And as I said, I love the finished product.”
*Editor’s note: This is a classic Set Decorator & Production Designer wish, Jim is speaking for so many!