October 26th, 2005 by Karen Burg with David Smith SDSA

Main Photo
photograph: Sam Emerson Shop Girl

Set Decorator: David Smith, SDSA
Production Designer: Bill Arnold
Buena Vista Pictures

All Photos have been reprinted with permission from SET DECOR Magazine (Fall 2005)

Set Decorator: David Smith, SDSA Production Designer: Bill Arnold Buena Vista Pictures    All Photos have been reprinted with permission from SET DECOR Magazine (Fall 2005) 
Through music, form or color sensation, art can elicit an emotional response or reflect an emotional state. So it does in the upcoming feature film SHOPGIRL, a funny and poignant story of love in the modern age. Set Decorator David Smith SDSA explains, “The film was divided into five movements, much like a symphony, reflecting the central character’s emotional condition via color in design and decoration.” The filmmakers assigned a distinct palette to each movement, in concert with wardrobe and artwork evolutions. They went so far as to repaint walls and change the decoration of the same room between movements. Based on the Steve Martin novella, the story revolves around Mirabelle (Claire Danes), a shopgirl in her mid-twenties. While dwelling in a fringe community as a struggling artist, quiet Mirabelle sells gloves in a haute couture section of Saks Fifth Avenue Beverly Hills to earn a living. Her artwork consists of very small drawings based on photos she has staged and taken of herself in the nude.

In the first movement, we are introduced to Mirabelle’s world. The famous Modigliani painting Red Haired Girl served as the inspiration for imagery that reveals her world. As Mirabelle attends an art gallery exhibition, she happens to stand in front of a painting that replicates the background of the Modigliani.* She becomes the porcelainskinned Red Haired Girl of the painting in this film-created tableau. For the first movement, we see beiges and ivory, then evidence of blues, greens, cool colors.

In the second movement, two men enter Mirabelle’s world. At Saks, she meets wealthy entrepreneur Ray (Steve Martin) and an emotional journey begins. Ray is older, has homes in the Hollywood Hills and Seattle, and is charming. A young, attractive, successful graphic artist, Jeremy(Jason Schwartzman), also enters the picture. Subdued Mirabelle blossoms under the affection of these men in her life. Her skin glows warmer, earth colors are evident.

But life soon proves too much for fair Mirabelle, and she begins to unravel in the third movement. She attends another gallery exhibit, with art that is more graphically LA themed: palm trees, bright colors, some valleyscapes. Her skin pales; her mood and clothes are dark, blue, cold colors.

In the fourth movement, Mirabelle rebuilds herself. She becomes more self-assured, brighter and cheerier. Ray finds that he has unexpectedly fallen in love with Mirabelle. She brings him into her
haunts, and she is taken to his. Ray flies Mirabelle to a top echelon party in New York where the hosts own the Modigliani Portrait of the Artist’s Wife.** We see the emerging artist wearing muted colors in a room filled with ‘original’ art by Gauguin, Cézanne and Gris.

In the fifth and final movement, Mirabelle, now much stronger, is included in a gallery exhibition. She is considerably more confident. We see her working at her art and enjoying her life. Primary colors are evident, evoking strength and vibrancy.

How to put this high concept across convincingly in just forty-five shooting days on a moderate budget? The formidable task was set before Set Decorator David Smith, Production Designer Bill Arnold and Director Anand Tucker. Smith’s background in costume design, textiles and theater fueled his ability to help develop the backstory and backdrop details of the characters and the setting within the confines of a limited budget. He says, “Theater is a great training ground, where one learns to look from the character’s
point of view.” Collaboration was key to the success of conveying the subliminal backstory to the viewers. Smith credits the great relationship that Arnold and Tucker developed prior to his arrival as having provided a clear foundation upon which the symphony of color and concept were built. They established the reference ‘bible,’ images of art and life, from which they proceeded to conduct their visual symphony. Enthusiastic cooperation came from Saks Fifth Avenue. More than two-thirds of their Beverly Hills Men’s Department was given over for filming. Four display managers from across the country were active consultants and Saks Public Relations representative Laurie Richards provided Smith with their signature stylized mannequins. Couture designers provided exquisite gowns for use on the mannequins. Smith attended trunk shows researching for the film and discovered several designers, while others were suggested by Saks. Both emerging and established designers contributed elegant wear, the fashion colors varying to help reflect each movement of the film’s design. The presentation of the ghostly mannequins in couture gowns in a plush setting gave a nod to the 50’s, where couture was never bought off the rack; a personal modeling presentation was made to each guest. Couture fashion, carefully chosen paintings, living spaces both bohemian and high end, art galleries and elegant stores were among the many physical elements of the décor for the film. The unusually specific parameters defining each choice gave physical expression to the arc of the story, and all flowed into the final symphonic vision of SHOPGIRL.

Photo 3
photograph: Ken Haber Shop Girl

Photo 4
photograph: Sam Emerson Shop Girl

Photo 5
photograph: Ken Haber Shop Girl

Photo 6
photograph: Sam Emerson Shop Girl

Photo 7
photograph: Ken Haber Shop Girl

Photo 8
photograph: Ken Haber Shop Girl