Master storyteller, but first-time Director Aaron Sorkin relied on tops in all the fields of filmmaking to bring the quixotic true story of MOLLY’S GAME to life, including last year’s Oscar winners Production Designer David Wasco and Set Decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco SDSA [LA LA LAND] and Toronto expert Set Decorator Patricia Larman SDSA. Sorkin knew that putting together the right crew would be key to his success. He credits his collaborators on MOLLY’S GAME as “nothing less than co-authors of the film.”
We asked the set decorators for an inside look at how the team helped the story unfold, and while they were both graciously accommodating, Patricia was in the throes of another film project and asked Sandy to speak for both of them. As always, it’s fascinating to step behind-the-scenes with SRW...enjoy!
...from Set Decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco SDSA...
MOLLY’S GAME is the story of an unlikely hero.
At 32, Molly Bloom was arrested in 2013 by the FBI and faced a Federal Judge on RICO charges. [Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act] She was made famous by tabloid headlines and morning TV talk shows proclaiming her “The Princess of Poker” for having run very high-stakes poker games on both the East and West coasts.
Molly’s story is also about a driven over-achiever who at 16 was third in US Women’s Moguls and later entered into the Olympic Trials for the XIX Olympic Winter Games, which were to be held in Salt Lake City in 2002. She was an elite athlete on her way to Harvard Law school when injuries forced her to make other choices. Her path forward through those choices to success in the overwhelmingly masculine worlds of Poker and the Federal Court system proved her to be an elite survivor as well.
Hers is good story made great by Aaron Sorkin, our writer and Director.
These were the elements that intrigued Co-Set Decorator Patricia Larman SDSA and myself, and brought us to the project with a mutual interest in helping tell Molly Bloom’s story on screen. And we were intrigued by the possibilities of telling Aaron’s version of Molly’s version of the tabloids’ version…
From his script, we could tell that Aaron liked and respected Molly. In her life, she was always surrounded by others who she either learned from or competed against, but ultimately, she relied on herself, her own decisions and her own integrity to guide her. We’re introduced to her childhood home and overbearing father, the diatribes of her first boss in Los Angeles, a manipulative “Player X” in the poker games, prosecutors’ condescension, and her own lawyer’s skepticism, but above it all Molly is always true, and in control.
Often she “kept her hand close to her chest.” Aaron emphasized this key to her inner workings through a script that was 50% voiceover. Hearing her thoughts throughout makes Molly’s story unique. Even if her lifestyle is questionable, seeing each episode through her eyes makes her someone we can surely empathize with.
The script Aaron wrote was 195 pages long, with a correspondingly lengthy list of locations and sets.
We shot 99% of what Aaron wrote.
It was a challenge, but not as much as you’d think.
Aaron hired department heads he could rely on, and he did so.
Charlotte Bruus Christensen was our Director of Photography
Walter Gasparovic, our 1st Assistant Director
David Wasco our Production Designer
Susan Lyall, our Costume Designer
He was very specific with all of us in both our production meetings and script read-throughs, but once we had our specific department notes, Aaron involved himself with preparing his key actors and ensemble cast, leaving the Set Decorating Department to our own devices, with three specific requests:
His first desire was to ensure that Molly’s rise and fall was emphasized by the set decoration. He wanted us to emphasize how far she’d fallen from her days of success and excess in the glamorous suites and penthouses she inhabited in L.A. and Manhattan to the basement conference rooms and impoverished bureaucratic courthouse corridors of her later prosecution. This was done through our usual tools of color, quality, distressed finishes, reflective surfaces and lighting.
Secondly, he asked that in all the venues where Molly held poker games, Molly’s position, her location in a room, be one of power. She should have a view of the playing table and the entrance door and should have the option of sitting in a high place at an elevated position. This place should increase in importance as her players become more wealthy, more international, more dangerous.
Lastly, Aaron wanted the poker tables, all things Poker, to be right.
It should be noted that MOLLYS GAME is not a movie about poker, it is always a movie about Molly, but the games were important bits of business in the script and had to be hyper-real. (Poker was our biggest research pleasure!)
Patricia and I had another self-imposed parameter to emphasize, which was to make it clear that all the sets and locations in the script were the environments of a dominant male: Father, Coach, Boss, Prosecutor’s Office and Court...or they were rooms designed to attract A-List and A-personality male players to the poker games Molly organized. For this aspect of the design, Patricia and I paid attention to color palettes by eliminating pastels, pinks, yellows and using mostly brown, grey, blues and black. For textures and finishes, we used lots of wood, leather and metals, and we kept furnishings large and their profiles strong.
An additional Set Decorating concern was the time limitation of our short prep and shooting schedules, a new normal for films of a certain budget. Time limits seem to be always a challenge these days and we focused on ensuring that our designs incorporated everything needed to keep the day’s shooting schedule on track.
There was no time for pre-blocking of scenes other than the moments spent on our 5-day tech scout or over floor plans and models during lunch breaks. Patricia and I relied exclusively on the script and its description of actors speaking long sections of dialogue while moving around a room or moving around a room through long sections of voice-overs. This meant concentrating on entrances and exits, providing places to sit...in chairs and sofas, obviously, but also on their low arms and backs, table and desk edges, window ledges…all lit with choices of practical and built-in fixtures.
We had to make sure eye-lines across rooms or between rooms were clear and interesting if the angles were “hero”. We had to provide non-scene-stealing objects for actors to pick up or move—“business” for them to occupy themselves through pages of script. We provided alternate choices and triplicates of anything that might become a hand prop.
We also built scene specific layers of set dressing to change with the passage of time in organized, off set storage spaces so that the On-Set Dresser wasted no time with a turn over. We tried to think of everything that might hold up the work and provided for it before it was requested.
MOLLY’S COLORADO HOME, 1995
Molly’s childhood home was in Loveland, Colorado. It was a home where monies were spent on the children’s education and their participation in competitive sports. Father and mother put everything into their 3 children’s achievements. As Molly said in her book when describing her father’s strict hand, “nothing was recreational in our family, everything was a lesson in pushing past the limits and being the best we could be.” They skied, skated, cycled and ran. The boys played Pee Wee Football while Molly learned gymnastics.
At 12, in a 5K race, Molly’s back gave out and the operations resulted in 12 fused vertebrae and a steel rod running up her spine. Undaunted, Molly continued to ski in competitions, making every effort to reach her dream of gaining a place on the US Olympic Team at 18. There was no quitting. There were no quitters in the Bloom family…
The family’s Colorado home was a serious place, yet family warm. We looked for and found a 1960s house with a natural interior of wood-paneled dining area and brick fireplace to reflect their outdoor activities. We brought in used wood furnishings, aged lighting fixtures and natural colored drapery. We then accented with muted Mountain State colors like green and gold. We dressed with used schoolbooks, sports equipment and games of strategy, like chess. We tried to convey aspects of her father’s tough love and Molly’s resolute stubbornness, her beauty and her smarts.
Colorado represented the beginning of the arc, a proud place without ostentation or excess.
The office of Molly’s first real job in LA and The Cobra Lounge Bar where the early poker games took place were equally practical places.
DEAN KEITH’S OFFICE, 2003-2004
Dean Keith, the man who hired Molly away from waitressing to run his front office, had a simple third floor walk-up on Sunset Boulevard in a building that had only been minimally renovated since built 40 years before. His businesses were primarily real estate, but he had a finger in many quick-cash schemes and an eye open for opportunities.
His office functioned as much as a man-cave hangout for him, and his friends, as it did a place to impress potential clients. Here again, we used muted colors but with a more modern, crisper look. We painted the walls a light brown and added wood furniture, black leather, sports collectables and a mini bar to reinforce the boys’ club aspect.
From her desk, Molly may have made coffee and arranged for Keith’s hookers, but she also learned first-hand about some not-so-safe routes to success in business, and she learned spread sheets, real estate and investing. A quick and alert student, she knew her boss was a ruthless role model, but she couldn’t help but respect his abilities.
THE COBRA LOUNGE, 2004-2006
The Cobra Lounge was a built version of the actual Viper Room VIP Lounge of Johnny Depp and River Phoenix fame. It was where Molly’s now infamous early games actually took place. We researched the original, but did not copy it, per Aaron, who never requested "reality" as long as the tone was right. Aaron did request that The Cobra set look as if Keith had re-opened it after being closed for a few years...an abandoned feel that would emphasize its contrast to the glamorous games of Molly’s future.
The room was masculine and dark, using the black and brown of Keith’s office along with a worn, blood red floor and distressed green leather banquettes to match the cash color of the table. The walls and shelves were aged, abandoned glassware dusted, overheads dented and dirt broomed to corners. The poker table we chose is the most basic portable model, one Molly might have rented or bought on the cheap.
Main considerations here were to make the room just large enough for the camera to circle the table without having to move walls more than necessary and to provide Molly with various positions to oversee the game. One of her “positions” was a high bar stool and table by the entrance with a ceiling, wall and table light. Second, on the banquette surrounding one wall of the room, again with specific lighting. And third, her place at the bar. All three allowed Molly to oversee the action and gave Jessica a variety of choices over the week that we shot on this set.
We provided different colored light sources: green LED/fluorescent strips along the ceiling, blue and red fluorescents in bar coolers, and orange sconces, along with mirrored and painted surfaces to keep the backgrounds alive.
In these scenes, we see Molly’s growing knowledge of the game, her gracious support of the players and her rise in position with the blessing of one particular client, “Player X”. We also see her tips grow to over $1 million per year, thanks to a roster of movie stars, producers, directors, European playboys, real estate magnates—all high-rollers who gave her a taste for the high-life and a desire to go for it.
From these early days, Molly puts everything she’s learned into growing The Game, growing her star-studded guest list, styling 5-star venues, grooming her A-team support staff and perfecting the service that would make her games the most sought after on the West Coast, and later on, the East Coast.
With funding from Player X, she moves the game from The Cobra Lounge uptown to the penthouse suite of a landmark Beverly Hills hotel.
LOS ANGELES LUXURY HOTEL SUITE
Based on the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles around 2006, and distancing ourselves from the homey ad hoc of earlier interiors, this set’s design is sophisticated with an international urban flare and West Coast palette of blue and cool silver.
Rare liquors and food, cigar humidor complete with Cohibas and Montecristos, comfortable chairs for the players, a custom poker table, low lighting and luxurious drapes to block out the morning sun are in evidence.
Designed with the camera and actors’ moves in mind, there is room for further cast members to watch comfortably from a number of seating areas, also space for room service or a buffet set up, and a sizable built-in bar.
The poker table here is slightly Deco with a pair of demilune black wood and chrome bases, a black leather rail with chrome buttons and a custom-patterned cloth. Here we see the “Shuffle Master” accessory cut into the table at the dealer’s right hand. This is a pricey machine, $18,000 back in the early 2000s, that shuffles decks randomly and legally. In our story, it’s “rented” to the game from Player X, who always takes every advantage.
Molly’s desk presides over the room per usual. Placed within feet of the poker table and opposite the door, it is flanked by her safe, and topped with a matte-but-reflective off-white surface and soft lighting.
The Buy-In is now $50K, pots reaching $3 million and more.
Molly has now incorporated and has her own lawyer.
We learn more about how poker is played, how to win and how to loose, sometimes badly. We see how Molly goes after potential players outside of her circle of regulars, how she controls the room and how her power has grown to the point where she has become a threat to Player X, who in his mind is “boss”.
She’s made every effort to make herself irreplaceable, but in that position there was danger and Keith and Player X succeed in turning her out, making it impossible for Molly to run a game in L.A. again….
THE PLAZA HOTEL SUITE, 2007-2010
No fool, Molly moves to Manhattan to avoid stepping on West Coast toes. She attracts a new group of sports and business celebrities, European playboys and Russian mobsters…
The money flows, beautiful clothes, penthouse apartments, cocaine…the Game’s not run completely legally any more.
Aaron scripted the location of Molly’s NY Game to be the Grande Penthouse Suite at The Plaza, a Saudi Arabian version of a British men’s club, reflecting the tastes of its present owners and an upper-class clientele. Gold and exotic wood ormolu furniture, sparkling crystal chandeliers, barware and accessories, red and gold brocade upholstery and drapes accent the room.
Our location was the 19th floor of the Fairmont Hotel in Toronto, where the Art Department built walls and doors to section off a series of meeting rooms and give us the geography of this Luxe Suite. We added art and sconces, our own chandelier and draperies for practical purposes. We brought in all the furniture, opulent reds, blues and golds.
The Plaza’s custom poker table was designed with two maple pedestal bases, a brown leather rail with brass studs, a maple “racetrack”, and a green custom cloth with a brown bet area. An upgraded metal dealer’s tray completed the design to suit the set.
Molly has two desks here, one across from the entrance with a triangulated view of the table and the front door, and another just inside the master bedroom where she can continue business in a more private place while keeping an eye on the table through the dining area. Both are elegant with ormolu trim and inlay and scroll back chairs, and are framed with intimate lighting and traditional paintings of New York scenes.
MOLLY’S NEW YORK PENTHOUSE APARTMENT
This built set continues to describe Molly’s life at the top of her game and it’s also the place where her world begins to spin out of control.
In real life, Molly used her apartments as a location for additional Game Nights. This apartment was outfitted with video screens for sports betting as well as an ever-present poker table. From conversations with the real Molly Bloom, this was a penthouse she decorated to please her guests, not as a comfortable personal retreat. The palette here is based on greys and blues, no pinks or creams. And even though it’s sexy, the cool palette and simple modernity make it a lonely place when clients aren’t around.
Chapter 3 begins when the FBI goes after the gamers and the game runner. After Molly’s arrest, we again find ourselves in sets that describe the low end of her journey. They are in the same color palette of her beginnings, but shabbier.
This section shows:
...a cramped Deposition Room where Molly meets bankruptcy lawyers...
...a basement conference in a worn Federal Building where Molly and her lawyer Charlie Jaffey face her prosecutors...
...and Federal Courthouse corridors.
In these sets, chairs are mismatched, as are tables. Lighting is institutional, dated and often dirty. Pipes, radiators and water stains are in evidence, metal venetian blinds regulate dim outside light. Per Aaron, all are typical strapped-for-cash government issue. These sets remain, in a sense, part of a masculine world because they were "built" between the 1920s-1950s when these rooms were traditionally utilitarian, used by male counselors and agents.
CHARLIE JAFFEY’S OFFICE AND FEDERAL COURTROOM, NEW YORK CITY
Not speaking so much to how far she’s fallen but more to what she will be facing at her trial, Defense Attorney Charlie Jaffey's office and the Federal Courthouse reflect potential obstacles to Molly by speaking to the power of Law.
Jaffey’s law firm’s lobby and his corner office incorporate expensive art, towering views and sophisticated angular architectural design to describe their gravitas. The use of grey was a nod to grey flannel suits, and the use of wood reflected a bond with the Courtroom set. Charlie’s position is at the top of his profession.The architecture of the set was Miesian, with steel mullioned windows
The Courtroom’s power is in its sheer size and classical elements, referencing the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse in Manhattan. The classical pilasters, Roman window grating and monumental murals depicting Justice...along with oversized furnishings, the gridded carpet, and bronze and alabaster pendant lights...work in concert to overwhelm Molly, which turns out to be a hard thing to do.
MOLLY’S GAME was filmed almost entirely in Toronto, Canada, with just 2 days each in Manhattan and Los Angeles for exteriors, so I guess we should add a final Set Decorating concern to the list, that of hiding the fact that we were nowhere near the story’s scripted locations.
Initially, Production requested that we look for brick and mortar locations only, intending to move forward without construction. So we scoured the city for courthouses and law offices, potential Cobra Rooms, hotel suites and apartment buildings. For so many reasons, this plan of attack did not prove feasible, and all key ultimately became built sets.
Matching L.A. and New York wasn’t so much of a problem, but Toronto’s courthouses were not large enough, nor their schedules flexible enough for our needs. Bars could never provide space enough for a crew when temperatures were falling to zero and they’d have to assemble outside, and the logistics of elevator access to high-rise offices and apartments was daunting. So after a bit of lost time, we focused on constructing these sets and getting set dressing imported and built on time for our deadlines.
Other locations that didn’t involve long page counts were easily found in and around town. There were secondary characters' houses, a grocery store, 5 additional bars/clubs, restaurants, and most challenging of all, an Olympic Downhill Moguls qualifier, which we filmed in the mountains of Beaver Valley, 100 miles north of Toronto. This was a complete build where we added a starting gate, 2-story Judges building, moguls, parameters, scoreboard…and snow, but that’s another story…
In these efforts, Patricia lead the way with her numerous sources for local fabrics, drapes, upholsterers, floor coverings and lighting, and her knowledge of import/export criteria. For my part, I can’t thank her enough for the hours shared on budgets and hiring, for dividing and conquering all the work within a small window of time, for catching curve balls, celebrating every small victory together, and for working so graciously!
Buyers Naomi Allan, Carol Greaves and Kari Measham somehow completed wonderful work while contending with blizzards, ice and miles of roads to cover in a day’s work.
And our Leadmen David DeMarinis and Jesse Hutchins were relentlessly helpful at keeping the crew scheduled and happy, and the work completed on time and done beautifully.
As Aaron Sorkin always reminded us, Molly is the center of MOLLY’S GAME and set decorating as a team provided a backdrop to support her unfolding story, never competing with Jessica’s character and always putting Molly in a winning position.
Luxury hotel suite,
Co-Set Decorator Sandy Reynolds-Wasco SDSA describes,
“Based on the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles around 2006, distancing ourselves from the homey ad hoc of earlier interiors, this set’s design is sophisticated with an international urban flare and West Coast palette of blue and cool silver.”
Luxury hotel suite, Los Angeles…
Structuring the sets entailed pacing for dialogue.
Production Designer David Wasco notes,
“A lot of the design is dictated by how much time it takes Molly’s voiceover to start and get her to a certain place. So the hallways were measured by the beats of Aaron's words. And because we have so many pages of dialogue that have to happen around poker tables, we had to make each angle of each room visually interesting for the audience.”
Luxury hotel suite,
Molly Bloom [Jessica Chastain] during one of the aforementioned voice-overs...
Photo by Michael Gibson
All rights reserved.
Luxury hotel suite,
The poker table is slightly Deco with a pair of demilune black wood and chrome bases, a black leather rail with chrome buttons and a custom-patterned cloth...for more details, see article below!
Luxury hotel suite,
Los Angeles, 2006…
Molly’s power has grown to the point where she has become a threat to Player X...”
For more, see below!
Photo by Michael Gibson
The Cobra Lounge,
Los Angeles, 2004…
Stepping back, this was the setting for the first poker games that Molly’s boss had her set up.
“Aaron wanted The Cobra to look as if Keith had re-opened it after being closed for a few years...an abandoned feel that would emphasize its contrast to the glamorous games of Molly’s future.”
Dean Keith office,
Los Angeles, 2004…
The sleazy, ruthless businessman also could charm and was a dealmaker...his office had a dual function as a hangout space for his friends and a place to impress clients...
Attorney Louis Butterman’s office…
Molly’s enigmatic LA attorney advises,
“You don’t want to break the law when you’re breaking the law.”
Molly’s family home,
Loveland, CO, 1995…
The family’s Colorado home was a serious place, yet family warm...Colorado represented the beginning of the arc, a proud place without ostentation or excess.
Molly’s NY penthouse…
Molly’s city penthouse is a significant contrast to her childhood home!
Here, we see the set being readied...the table will obviously have a floral arrangement, and the green screen will provide a cityscape...
Molly’s NY penthouse…
“Molly used her apartments as a location for additional Game Nights. This apartment was outfitted with video screens for sports betting as well as an ever-present poker table. This was a penthouse she decorated to please her guests, not as a comfortable personal retreat,”
Again these two photos give us a behind-the-scenes look as the sets are being readied for camera.
For details, see article below!