When renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead at his estate just after his 85th birthday, the inquisitive and debonair Detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is mysteriously enlisted to investigate. From Harlan’s dysfunctional family to his devoted staff, Blanc sifts through a web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind Harlan’s untimely death.
With an all-star ensemble including Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Shannon, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, LaKeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford and Jaeden Martell, KNIVES OUT is a witty and stylish whodunnit guaranteed to keep audiences guessing, laughing and gasping until the very end. --Lionsgate
And to ensure it’s an immersive experience, Writer/Director Rian Johnson and Producer Ram Bergman wisely relied on Production Designer David Crank, Set Decorator David Schlesinger SDSA and their teams, setting the bar at high-level creativity...and fun!
David Schlesinger took time out from his next project to respond via email to our queries...another great conversation with him about the art, profession and love of set decoration! [See our article on JOHN WICK 3 in this same section]
We always encourage readers to enjoy...
We know you will!
Best of the season to all,
Karen Burg, Editor
Who doesn’t love a mystery?
What were some of the mysteries you had to solve or at least contend with for this?
Set Decorators wear many hats, including that of Detective.
Personally, I don’t dig the Sherlock Holmes hat, and go more for a Beret, Fez, or Fedora.
The mysteries I had to unravel were: Who is Harlan Thrombey
, and what do the objects he surrounds himself with reveal about his character?
The same goes for Marta Cabrera
. In a way, Marta’s
house was far more of a challenge then Harlan’s
Your process on this, your approach
I start all projects the same way. Research. I gather up as many images of how I think a set should look and feel, and then share with the production designer. Often the designer has their own batch of research. The designer and I then compare and contrast, our next step is to consolidate the visual research, present to the director, and insure we are all on the same page. My best means of communication with both the Director and Designer is Visual Reference.
Once I know where the world of the movie is headed, I lay out a shopping plan/strategy. In the case of KNIVES OUT, I knew we needed a lot of pieces and our budget would be tight.
My solution was to work with vendors with large inventories and make wholesale type of deals with them. Vendors tend to give you better deals when you are renting truckloads instead of one of few things.
Difference from other projects?
The process on KNIVES OUT was not all that different from the process on other projects. Every job presents specific challenges.
The challenge on KNIVES OUT was not creating a lot of visual noise with all the many layers of objects, and to tell meaningful stories with set dressing.
My rule of thumb was, “How does this object relate to one of Harlan’s Books?”
KNIVES OUT was shot in the Boston area. Although I had worked in Boston on THE EQUALIZER 2, I had an entirely new team, with the exception of Jimmy Luc (more on Jimmy in a minute). LITTLE WOMEN was shooting in Boston at the time, and most of the EQ2 crew were on it
Shann Whynot-Young did an absolutely amazing job as our lead person. His calmness created an environment which encouraged and fostered creativity. Everyone on the team contributed ideas. We had many “special” projects and Shann always matched up the right Set Dresser for the specific adventure. Rebecca Greene dressed the little crime scenes and the Wheel of Knives…more on both later.
Jimmy Luc worked with me as the coordinator on EQUALIZER 2, and KNIVES OUT. He is the glue that held all the pieces together. Between Shann and Jimmy, going to work was like going to a meditation retreat or luxury spa. Calm and joy dominated everything we did.
Amy Morrison was the Assistant Set Decorator. She led to me to many amazing resources, particularly Cindy Allen Lighting.
Working with PD David Crank
This was my first adventure with David. We have talked over the years, have several mutual friends, one common enemy, and it was terrific to finally work with him.
David also contributed to the meditation retreat feel of the job.
The Designer-Decorator relationship with David was my favorite kind. He set an overall tone, created the geography of the movie, interreacted with Rian, and was a great sounding board/editor of ideas I had. We had a great collaborative process.
What was key/were keys for you?
With so many pieces of Set Dressing, I was afraid of visual noise. I focused on objects with scale and that had colors that would stand out from the background of the set. Objects for purely decorative reasons irk me, especially on this film. Everything we put on set, needed a story behind it.
During my first meeting with Rian, he suggested displaying Harlan’s
books alongside a key object involved in the Mystery. I gathered up a selection of Key Objects, and Rian created book titles to coordinate with it. The Art Department created the hero books, along with 2 titles for every year Harlan
had been writing.
Tell us about your sourcing.
We shot in the Boston area, and did the bulk of the shopping in Massachusetts.
The first folks that came to mind, before I even arrived in Boston to start, were George and Judy Jagg. The Jaggs are one of my favorite vendors, and this was the perfect project for them. Many of the Knives and Oddities came from them. Sometimes you just get lucky as a decorator. The Jaggs had a beautiful bronze sculpture of two German Shepherds (Harlan
has two German Shepherds), and it ended up dressed in on the coffee table living room.
Truckloads came from Newel Antiques in New York. Besides having the most wonderful collection of furniture and objects, they are a delight to work with.
Let’s talk Automatons.
Rian referenced the movie SLEUTH to David Crank and me, particularly the life-size Laughing Sailor
automaton from the film.
There are a number of Automatons in SLEUTH, and I was determined to have them on our sets.
Automatons are moving mechanical devices made in imitation of a human being. Primarily from the 19th
Century, they are beautiful, and as I quickly learned, expensive, delicate and rare.
Delicate, expensive, and rare…all the things you learn in Set Dec 101 not to put on a set. If you added in extremely heavy, it describes the perfect object I like to put on a set. “Schlesinger shops by the pound…” has been recited by many a set dresser. I digress. Back to Automatons.
I contacted as many collectors and museums as I could track down. Eventually, I found the Guinness Collection in Morristown NJ. They have one of the best collections of Mechanical Automatons in the world. However, the museum’s Charter would not allow the pieces to leave the museum. They put me in touch with a restorer who had their own collection. They were going to play ball, and we started the process of logistics.
Museum Crating, Technicians to travel with the devices, Art Transportation, Rental fees….it was all becoming very complicated and costly. We needed the Automatons for basically the duration of the shoot, which meant paying and housing a technician for the entirety of production.
I was excited to have the opportunity to rent these amazing objects, but discouraged that the process would be as complicated as the devices themselves. Ram Bergman, the film’s producer, was exceptionally supportive of the concept, but rightfully concerned about the cost. In the back of my head, I knew once all the costs added up, we would likely not be able to make it happen.
In the meantime, I was looking for Magic-related objects and we stumbled upon a local collector. The many original magic posters in the movie came from him. He was traveling and it was a lot of back and forth before we actually could talk. A Set Decorator should always ask questions…and I asked, “What else to you have?” He rambled off a long list of things, including vintage Ferraris, Wedgewood, Music Boxes, Coins, and Automatons. It was a shocking moment, because he was ½ mile away from our production office.
We made a deal with him, and I asked that he handle the transport and installation of the Automatons. He brought them to set in a cardboard box from the grocery store. No damage, all went well, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief when we finished with them and he picked them up.
You must have had certain pieces made for plot and story – Tell us!
We fabricated the Wheel of Knives, Harlan’s Literary Awards, Harlan’s Books, Doll House Crime Scenes
and the base for the Stash Clock
Initially, the Wheel of Knives was meant to be a display over the mantel in the library. When we tech-scouted, Rian and Steve [DP Steve Yedlin] blocked the scenes with the idea that the knives would form a halo/background behind the various characters being interrogated. They specifically wanted something that would not be solid, so light would come through. Rian wanted a sense of movement in the knives, as if they were all being thrown toward the center.
It was a challenging set of problems. We created several prototypes, but nothing was really hitting the mark with Rian. Eventually we came up with building an armature to hold the knives and hanging it off of chain from the balcony. Rebecca Greene was really responsible for making it all happen and was able to find a preexisting metal circle. My only real instruction to her was “treat it like sculpture”, which she did. The end result was beautiful, and of course it has a huge part on the movie.
Back to getting lucky…the Stash Clock
The Stash Clock
was scripted, and I started looking for clocks which had a drawer or enough room inside of it to hide items. I stumbled upon a clock with a figure holding up her hand as if to say “shhhhhhhh”. Wow. It was the perfect object. Sometimes in Set Dec we worry about an item being “Too Spot On” and this was certainly that item, but the fun of KNIVES OUT made it work. David Crank designed the Plinth/Drawer unit that the clock sits on. The clock makes a nice appearance in the movie.
I have always loved the crime scene dioramas created by Frances Glessner Lee in the 1940s. What a perfect object for Harlan
. We created several using doll houses, and a few just free form. I initially bought the large Doll House which plays in the library with the intent of using it as a crime diorama. It morphed into being the Library’s Bar
Your interest in chess...how did that serve you here
As I write the answers to this, my son Oscar is playing at Grade Chess Nationals. He has won his first 2 games and is currently playing his hardest match…
I started playing chess about 5 years ago, when he did. I am not very good, but love the game. I almost always dress-in a chess set somewhere on my jobs. On KNIVES OUT, there was a small board dressed into Harlan’s Study
, and a Chess table dressed into the Library
Chess has an opening, a mid-game, and an end game. I view Set Decorating with the same Strategy.
The opening is research and establishing the look and feel of the show. It sets everything up.
The mid-game is the sourcing and planning.
The end game is the Dressing
Rian talks about the importance of “fun”
Do you want to speak to that?
Every Project has its own internal personality.
The KNIVES OUT personality was “fun”.
Anywhere we could have a playful moment, we did.
Daniel Craig says,
“Rian is really good at managing the energy on the set. He’s incredibly well prepared and, as the writer, he knows exactly what he wants from each person. But he also isn’t an intrusive director. He understood that there had to be a playfulness at work. And I think the delight that he encouraged in the performances comes across to the audience.”
How did that apply to set Dec
Rian and Ram Bergman were incredibly supportive and informative.
Rian’s clarity of the look of the film and who the characters are was exceptional, and more importantly he effectively communicates what was in his head.
He was clear about what he liked and disliked.
Did Christopher Plummer have a reaction to his sets? Did the others?
He loved the upstairs study and was extremely complimentary.
David and I received a lot of praise from Cast and Crew, especially the upstairs study.
When a director walks onto the set for the first time, I try to give them space to absorb it. Harlan’s Study
was built and very small. I stood on the other side of the wall while Rian walked thru it. I could hear him chuckling, and knew we knocked it out of the park. Rian was pleased.
David Crank said his design plan was to build to a crescendo,
“The idea was that with each level you go up, things get stranger and stranger, each room getting more eccentric and more colorful than the last until you reach Harlan's domain...his hallway, bedroom and study...”
David Crank did a brilliant job of laying out the film’s geography. Designing how the actors interact with the space they are in is equally as important as how the set looks. In addition to creating a stranger world as we move up floors, I saw the top floor as the most personal spaces.
According to the studio, to ensure the Thrombey clan would feel like a real family, Rian Johnson invited the ensemble to spend weeks together in a real gothic home, located just outside of Boston, that became the film’s main set.
How did this impact Set Dec!
estate consisted of two separate locations and a built set. We spent weeks shooting in each of the locations. Each of these spaces had unique challenges. The Living Room, Sitting Room
with the Stash Clock
, Exteriors, and Harlan’s Office
were shot in a private home that had many truly priceless items in it. That was a monumental task for Shann and his team.
We inventoried every item in the areas of the house we would be shooting in. We then identified with the homeowner which items would be removed be Art Handlers, by Set Dressing, or we would keep and use. Many things had to be removed just because of their importance to the family and delicate nature of old objects. The removal process took a couple of weeks. Then we started dressing.
It’s always challenging to maintain a set when you shoot over a period of time, but the crew was really understanding of the nature of things and remained well-behaved. I give a lot of credit to our on-set dresser, the fabulous Kip Bartlett.
Riki Lindhome, who plays Donna Thrombey says,
“One of the most fun things about working on KNIVES OUT is that every time you walked into a new room, there were wild treasures everywhere. I remember the first time I sat down in the chair in the library when I realized the chair had two owls for arm rests...
The closer you would get to any object, the more you’d realize something was just a little bit off.
I love that. It reflects the whole tone of the movie, where you think you are in this beautiful estate with a family that has everything, but then you realize there is something amiss with them.”
Thank you Riki Lindhome! Everything with the look of KNIVES OUT is about the details and layers. Just like a good mystery, the more you look and explore an object, the deeper the mystery becomes. The owl chairs are from Newel, and I have wanted to find the right spot for them for years.
Don Johnson recalls...
“I don't think that there was a day I showed up for work that I didn’t see something new in the house, something I didn't notice the day before. It was not only a fun place to explore. It had a remarkable ability to snap you right into the time, place, and the spirit of the material.”
Thank you, Don Johnson! That was the desired effect!
Jamie Lee Curtis also notes...
“David created something truly beautiful out of all these macabre tones and colors. Everything was so unique, it felt like a work of art.”
Everything we put on set is a choice. We spent a lot of time and effort choosing the perfect objects.
What was most challenging?
How did you deal with it?
KNIVES OUT was a joy and delight to work on. The producers were supportive and created an environment to foster creativity. We really did not have any major challenges, other then getting all the shopping we did picked up. Our drivers had their hands full!
When the stress level got high, Jimmy Luc and I would play chess in the office.
Were you ever able to surprise Rian with your choices?
I hope so.
What was most delightful for you?
I do love the 19th
Century (the vendor told me 18th
century, but I doubt it) Full-Sized Folk-Art Carving of a Woman Knitting. She plays in Harlan’s upstairs Study
You’ve handled such a variety of films, from TWILIGHT to THE IMMIGRANT to the JOHN WICK trilogy and more...
What was the whole experience of this like for you?
The process is the same on all shows, but the challenges are very different.
Rian and Ram insured we had a calm vibe in every department on this one.
KNIVES OUT was truly a delight.