NEWS OF THE WORLD
April 19th, 2021 by Gene Cane & Karen Burg
Set Decorator Elizabeth Keenan SDSA and Production Designer David Crank are Academy Award nominees, honored for their soulful depiction of NEWS OF THE WORLD.
A journey of 300 miles and 2 hearts, NEWS OF THE WORLD takes us along with Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd [Tom Hanks], an itinerant news reader bringing the news of the world to small communities in Texas in the devasting aftermath of the Civil War. Suddenly charged with the responsibility of delivering a twice-orphaned child to unmet relatives, it becomes a journey of progression, from town to town, each different, each its own lesson...and an inner journey of healing from profound loss and isolation to the opening of hearts.
Set Decorator Elizbeth Keenan SDSA generously shared some of her experiences in the making of the film in a fascinating conversation with Executive Director Gene Cane and SETDECOR Editor Karen Burg. Photo captions provided by Gene.
Excerpts from a conversation with Elizabeth...
A Western...a story...
“I looked at this more as a story. A “Western” can have a rather limited visual vocabulary, so that really pushes one to do the research and determine what was really happening in those towns, in those people’s lives at that time. You have to rationalize every set decision with an idea that makes sense, politically and also sociologically, with what took place in that specific time frame. So, you’re not just picking up something, ‘Well, it looks Western. It looks old.’ You’ve really got to do your homework, because you'll break the story if you don’t.”
Blacksmith & Livery, Wichita Falls...In addition to smithing, the livery rented horses and tack and vehicles. Here we see saddles, bridles, horse blankets. Yokes for plough animals hang from the rafters. Around back, would be the haymow. These buildings are standing bare until Production Designer Crank defines what they are to become, with Set Decorator Elizabeth Keenan SDSA and her teams filling both interiors and exteriors with time-appropriate set dressing. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.
“I was in NY right after I committed to the project, so I went to the New York Public Library’s visual archive and spent all day there. It seemed like I looked at 6000 photographs, just to reacquaint myself with what happened post-Civil War. I’m from Texas, and yet I couldn't possibly remember all of that history. Not that specific period. To look at photos of people’s families and to see the everyday, ordinary aspects of how they lived was profound. People were dirt poor. They lost the Civil War. They lost almost everything. There were thousands and thousands of people and soldiers missing, which we don’t really think about. Dead, or gone, or separated and trying to find ach other again. This is Clara Barton territory, right before she founded the Red Cross in 1881.”
Red River Station Dry Goods...Having lost so much, the Boudlins converted most of their home into a store, so the bed now sits in a corner of the kitchen, the unusual pillow perhaps a family heirloom. A cross and Madonna & Child hover over the bed for protection. The bobbin turned bed sits next to a floral 'curtained' window we also see from the street view. [Photo gallery] Inset: Doris Bouldin [Mare Winningham]. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.
“Then there’s the politics of that time, the numbers of immigrants coming over and ending up in Texas, some perhaps on their way to somewhere else...a lot of German, Dutch, French. It was fascinating to learn all of that, and that whole backstory.”
“Many of those people coming over wanted property, so you had all of these land surveyors in the more populous cities, like San Antonio and Dallas, many taking advantage of immigrants who couldn’t speak English. And widespread prejudices. It was so interesting to see the similarities between back then and now.”
Collaboration with Production Designer David Crank...
“Of course, David Crank was so lovely, brilliant, and we quickly got in sync with the esthetic for the film. It doesn’t call attention to itself. A lot of the dressing in the towns, you don’t see, you don’t notice. It’s definitely there, but we didn’t want the stuff to shout out.
The director comes from a documentary background, and he wanted the journey to be about these two people and what happens to them, the reality of the towns, the places they go to. They change, they progress...the settings, and the two people on this journey.”
The dusty roads of the old West...Kidd [Tom Hanks] has just discovered the twice-orphaned Johanna [Helena Zengel], who prefers to walk, in Kiowa dress and robe, among the filled wagons and saddle-bagged horses. He is charged with taking the girl to her distant relatives over a long arduous route, making stops along the way for news readings, his limited income source. Photo by Bruce W. Talamon © 2020 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
The way David chose his landscapes really followed the 300-mile trek Kidd makes, from Wichita Falls all the way down to San Antonio. That was a long, painstaking process for him to do, but he and Darius Wolsky, our DP, found some amazing locations throughout New Mexico, and he was very strident about making sure they were accurate. We used a couple of Western town locations on remote ranches to build several of our towns and outlying sets. Some historic buildings in Sante Fe became our San Antonio, and we covered a huge, paved parking lot with dirt to create the basis for the large market square.”
Collaboration with Director/Writer Paul Greengrass
“Paul was so specific, but he also gave David and me a lot of room to do our jobs. We dove deep into the research. We knew they had little, and what they had was often more about function than decoration. David would figure out what the movements were going to be in these towns. From there, we discussed the shops and buildings, and then I would start to find those pieces. Anthony Whitman, my incredible key Buyer, had been an antique dealer. He knew a lot of unusual collectors and had a lot of connections. Oh, the things we found! We had more than we needed, which is rare.”
Dallas Masonic Hall set...Director/Writer Paul Greengrass and actor Tom Hanks discussing an upcoming scene. Greengrass started in documentary film and is known for his emphatic desire for authenticity and depiction of everyday life throughout his films. He had great appreciation of the sets, and the historically correct details provided. Photo by Bruce W. Talamon © 2020 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Along the way, I would make style sheets, and once I started sending those to Paul, who was in London, he knew we knew what we were doing, and he just let us go and do our thing. He really wanted to push the envelope and for us to be original and to try to do something genuinely different that’s not the staid old Western stuff. That I loved, because that’s what we would do anyway! It was really great working with him that way.”
“Sometimes he wouldn’t want to see the set until the day of shooting. He would spend about an hour figuring it out and just absorbing everything. Then they would start their day. That was scary at first, I wasn’t used to that. The first set was the wool barn, and he hadn’t seen it. He hadn’t seen that whole town of Wichita Falls that we had created, much less the wool barn. So, when he arrived, we just stood back and gave the guy some room. And when he was ready to talk, we had to change nothing! Maybe, ‘Let‘s move this buggy here, and add this guy here.’ Some blocking, but that was it. So, from that day on, that was the pace. He rarely changed anything. This is the way he works. Fine by me!”
Wool barn, first news reading...Director Paul Greengrass goes over the scene with Tom Hanks (as Kidd). In the hazy yellow lantern light, a rustic table on a raised platform serve as ersatz dais and lectern for the reading that can seem like biblical heralding. Inset, Kidd shows the audience one of the many newspapers he will read from that night. Photo by Bruce W. Talamon © 2020 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“As they go on this 300-mile journey, each town is different from the next. We researched what the commerce was at that time and created each according to the economics, who the inhabitants would be, how they would live. We would always have blacksmiths and liveries to house, feed and care for the horses, plus inexpensive rooms for the men, feedstores, dry goods stores. But there’s a wide variance with the more established settlements.”
“We started out in Wichita Falls, a tiny little stopover town, a pass through for those heading across the state, east or west, transporting, moving goods, or simply itinerant. So, we really limited the vocabulary there. There’s a flophouse where he stayed while he did that first speech in a wool barn...bunkhouses and flophouses because it’s so transient and they have so little.”
Wool barn, corner...A close look at the tools of the barn: large plate stencils, hand carts, bail hooks, weight scale, and the various ladders to reach the wool loft. All these items painstakingly researched before finding the actual pieces. Square design of the wool pack also historically correct. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.
“The wool barn was a warehouse where they processed the wool, bagged and prepped it for transport. Since there’s no civic space where an audience could gather to hear the news read, the wool barn seemed like the perfect place to have a group of people in a wide-open area that was super functional, they just shoved everything out of the way for the night and brought in some random chairs and benches. Also, that night, it’s raining, and people are running inside. There are tufts of wool floating in the air and scuttering along the floor. It’s steamy and stuffy and smelly in there. These people are beat-up and tired, the poor women are so weathered, we can’t imagine how difficult it was to survive like that.”
Wool barn...Mismatched seating and small benches face the improvised stage in the wool barn, a rustic structure for a hard-working group. Set dressers spent hours pulling wool thorough the floor of the loft with all the patinaed tools surrounding the floor. This daytime shot does not fully convey the darkened nighttime scene in the film with the smoke from pipes, soot from lanterns and bits of wool swirling together in the in the dimly lit space. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.
Red River Station...
A border town along the Red River, a waystation, a little more populated, still dealing with the devastation of the war and its aftereffects. There’s a military encampment near the river crossing.
Boudlin’s dry goods store, Red River Station...Kidd has passed this way before and has become friends with owners Simon and Doris Boudlin.
“Because the Boudlins have lost so much, they’ve turned part of their home, most of their home, into a shop and a little dance area. They’re so broke, they’ll sell anything, and it’s almost all used stuff. Some pickled and canned foods are new, but most everything they have is used, or found...old carpets, used workmen’s gloves and boots, little storybooks with worn covers, part of a tea set, a little purse with the handle broken off, still ‘treasures’. It was so much fun to find all those things, and others, like a few nicer porcelain pieces or silver. There were also staples such as flour and sugar, candles, tobacco plugs and penny candy.”
Red River Station Dry Goods...This is where we begin to see some color. Owned by Kidd’s friends, Simon & Doris Boudlin, the store sells mostly used items, from blankets, carpets and clothes to odd bits of “treasures”. Vitrines boast the best of the lot. Used work gloves on the table. Keenan sourced each item for every set, from silver spoons to large crockery and wood furniture, sometimes cleaning or sometimes leaving the dust and patina of the elements to help tell the story. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.
Mrs. Boudlin is giving ballet lessons as well, just to make some money. It seems so incongruous but reminds us that their life had been different before the war. And it allows Johanna, who Kidd has just rescued, to look in on these other girls that might have been her, had things turned out differently.
The bed was in the kitchen at this point, because that’s the warmest room. They used quilts as a draft curtain to keep the warmth enclosed. That’s why there are a lot of textiles. They just tack one up on the window next to the bed, and one on the back window. It’s very functional. The curtains were either nailed up or sewn together and tied onto a rod. And I loved the simplicity of that, because drapery is a big thing in films, as you all know, so it was so interesting to find and use all these incredible textiles in simple ways.”
“The Red River Station reading takes place in the church, there is more of a sense of community here. And this is where it is alluded that most of the people in these settlements are illiterate. Simplicity, again is key.”
Red River Station Military Encampment...See photos & captions.
Dallas, Texas 1870...
“Dallas has a much bigger population, and it’s booming. It has millinery shops, saddle shops, it’s much more diverse and much more up and coming. They’re starting to have electricity and a telegraph system, so you’ll see street wires.”
Mrs. Gannett’s Boarding House & Livery, Dallas...
“They finally arrive in Dallas. Kidd has a friend there, Mrs. Gannett, a Civil War widow who owns a livery and a two-story boarding house. They obviously know each other very well, and it’s a much nicer place, quality furnishings and well kept. For the wallpaper, what we really wanted was just a little whisper of paper. A gentle stripe, nothing crazy over the top. Sometimes when you see the right thing, it just talks to you and that was it. [Editor’s note: A visual sign of the elevated status of the town, this is the first time in the film we see wallpaper.] The quilts are actually antique Amish work. The geometry on those quilts is incredible, all done by hand.”
Mrs. Gannett’s Boarding House, Dallas...Much more upscale than Red River. The well-lit hallway leads to rooms to let. Reflective plates on sconces spread the light for visitors to find their way. Paintings and polished furnishings give a feeling of a graceful home. Porcelain wash basin and vanity mirror atop regal dresser in each room are amenities which allow visitors the privacy not afforded in flophouses or bunkhouses. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.
“She has a dining hall for her lodgers, there’s a huge service buffet, with an antique water cooler and so many other beautiful details in that room that you didn’t see. You see the smaller area, not a lot of depth there, but the reverse was beautiful and rich looking in detail. There were real window coverings and a green degrade pullback curtain that went into the pantry. The oilcloth nailed onto the tabletops was standard then. [See photo gallery]
Masons’ Hall, Dallas...
Kidd, having been a successful printer before the war, was likely also to have been a Mason, and thus able to rent the hall for the evening. “The artwork was via the Library of Congress. Masons were established so long ago, there’s plenty of amazing imagery. We also found a Masonic Hall a couple of towns over from where we were filming that was closing. We were able to rent antique books and so many of the right elements from them, it was a boon.”
Dallas news reading event, Masons’ Hall...Kidd [Tom Hanks] does his reading among the Masonic designs of symmetry and the wealth of matching seating, pendant lighting and well-heeled patrons. A significant change of venues. Photo by Bruce W. Talamon © 2020 Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.
An ugly fiefdom dedicated to the commerce of buffalo slaughter and one man. Kidd is forced to read the leader’s own version of the news to a restless crowd packed into the town square...
“It’s indentured servitude. It’s slavery, really. This guy has his own little fiefdom in an evacuated military camp that he turned into buffalo slaughter and processing. He’s enslaved people to do all this work for him. And it’s awful. We built a huge camp, with all of the various areas for the horrific processing and transport.”
“In the town square, there are very specific shops, all company owned and directed of course. There’s also a buffalo press. In the processing of hides, which they call ‘robes’, they would fold robes, stack maybe 20, and then use this giant press to bundle the robes for transport. It’s huge, probably 2 to 2½ stories high. Ironically, we don’t see that because there are so many people all over the place, crowded into the square. We also brought wagons in, to kind of close in that space so it felt really claustrophobic. On some of these big schooners, we would place piles of the green robes, which were hides that hadn’t been tanned. One side is fur and the other side is raw skin, with salts poured all over, to help keep the smell down. This was a lot of work for our guys. We probably had 400 of those things. And we tucked the wool bags under some to add height. I had such an incredible crew, they were amazing. They had done a lot of Westerns, so they knew what they were doing, and were always willing to jump in on whatever the task was.”
“We also had benches and seats in the square, but again, you couldn’t see because of all the people, many who ended up standing on them and on the wagons. It was an ominous scene for Kidd to do his reading. I also found unique antique lights that had been used in a lighthouse. Made of iron, with big spouts extending out, they burned whale blubber which could last for at least 24 hours. They were a dramatic presence in the square. We also had 40 buffalo heads, all mounted up on the exteriors of buildings, with blood dripping down. It was a fear tactic that this guy used to control people.”
Leonberger farm, Castroville German settlement, home of Johanna’s aunt & uncle...
“They’re so taut and severe, and harsh, as if they had seen a horror and lived through it. They needed the extra hands, they needed the labor. They needed that kid. This was a farm that required hard work all day every day.”
Leonberger farm, near the German settlement of Castroville, Texas...The rustic Leonberger home is basic, utilitarian, but well-kept. Woven rawhide seat chairs sit around the plank table. A dainty crocheted doily under the crock, along with the curtains used instead of doors on the cupboard, an attempt of civility. The bench settle against the wall folds down to create a table. In the corner is a dough table, a staple of western and frontier homes. Pewter-topped steins and the trunk beneath the window, treasured pieces from their homeland. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios.
“It’s a farm, so they used branches as rooftop covering for insulation, it’s literally covered with branches. That was from our research as well. For the interior and their German background, we had a few special pieces: hand-worked linen, a small carved box, a painted bread box, and family steins. Those were so old. Some were 17th century steins that they had bought over that had been their father’s or their grandfather’s.” [See gallery for additional photos]
Kidd’s home, San Antonio...
“Kidd is going back home for the first time since he went off to war. He had married a very wealthy woman, and she was used to a bit of prestige, so they had a pretty big house, with antiques and many beautiful things. He’s slowly going back into a more cultured, more evolved world. But his wife had died, and he blamed himself for everything. He walks into this place, and it’s ghosts there, made more so with furniture shrouded with dustcovers. He pulls off the dustcover and sits on the bed, lovingly touching the beautiful bedspread. I remember walking with Paul through that room, I pointed to different objects and said, ‘These are things that were hers. He’s coming back to where his wife lived, he would have picked up something of hers and smelled it, as we do with our lover’s clothes, or our baby’s clothes.’ So, sure enough, he picked up the gloves at the end. The powder, too.”
San Antonio Cathedral’s private cemetery...
Kidd’s wife is buried in the private cloistered part of the cemetery.
San Antonio Cathedral’s private cemetery...The austere cloistered cemetery where Kidd’s wife lies. The weathered walls and bare trees represent the worn and weary Kidd. Just before the cameras rolled, snow fell, leaving small white tufts on the bare trees, serendipitous to announce the desolate can bloom again. Tom Hanks. Image courtesy of Universal Studios ©2020.
“Kidd walks through a mausoleum, where people were interned in the wall. To accompany the proper plaques, I used antique automobile flower holders that were originally mounted to dashboards; I needed vessels to hold the rosaries and flowers on the wall. The search was on to find a couple dozen of those! A section on the ground had red candles flickering near a statue of the Virgin Mary. I rented some sconces from Omega, and two beautiful plaques that I continue to use when I need a church or a chapel or a funeral, they’re so beautifully aged. You don’t really see them, but it’s just enough in the background to put the set in the propeer context. Just a hint, an impression, you don’t want it to be too much, “Oh, look at that.” Decorating is so fun and wonderful, but you have to really pull yourself back. I’ve learned that the older I get and the more projects I do. Learning to use less takes time and experience to know when...”
Darius and I were really tight on the lighting. It was such a big part of the film, and I love lighting. So, we were constantly talking and meeting. I was finding these amazing lamps and would show them to him, and he’d get all excited. It was fun. It was like two kids. The most beautiful sets in the world could be ruined by somebody who over-lights, or they do too much top light, so it was wonderful to have someone so attuned. And the gaffer, Orlando Hernandez, is very involved in set dec, and I really appreciated that. We worked closely because we had so many lights that needed to be converted to electricity. He was very good, so it was a beautiful, collaborative project to work on.
Working with David Crank, Paul Greengrass, and my amazing crew, was just a beautiful experience, all the way around. Also, the delightful Mark Bridges, Costume Designer, so funny and always fun to chat with, and the incredible special effects department. The wranglers were one of the best parts of working on this film, because they were the real deal. They’re all cowboys, they were raised on ranches. They’ve been doing this in New Mexico and Colorado their whole lives.
Re: Being nominated with David Crank for an Academy Award...
“That whole ‘Just being nominated is an honor’...I know, but it is. It really is. To have that recognition, because there are so many phenomenal filmmakers, set decorators, production designers that are so good that I admire so much. And just to get the nod from somebody who is so much better than I am is humbling. And I feel like it’s a little bit of validation for me, the kid who would stay up until 2:00 in the morning making apartment buildings out of paper and boxes, a little bit of the black sheep. I’m just so grateful. Completely grateful and honored, and it just makes me want to keep working hard and keep going!
Editor's note: For an even deeper look into the immersive sets, click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!