THE LAST DAYS OF PTOLEMY GREY
June 22nd, 2022 by Beauchamp Fontaine SDSA
“Suddenly left without his trusted caretaker, Ptolemy Grey [Samuel L. Jackson] is assigned to the care of orphaned teenager, Robyn [Dominique Fishback]. When they learn about a treatment that will restore Ptolemy's memories, it begins a journey towards shocking truths about the past, the present and the future.” AppleTV+
This distinctive adaptation of one of Walter Mosley’s compelling novels offers such a unique perspective, and is exceedingly important visually as it pulls us into Ptolemy’s Grey’s life and mind. We asked Set Decorator Beauchamp Fontaine SDSA to give us a few notes on how they went about creating this exceptional mini-series, something Samuel L. Jackson had been working on bringing together for years.
SET DECOR: The hoarding and other signs of Ptolemy’s condition...The choices you made, and the changes you needed to convey along the way, as the storyline progresses backwards and forward....
Set Decorator Beauchamp Fontaine SDSA: When we meet Ptolemy, he is deep into memory loss and cognitive decline. His apartment is in such shambles that he has resorted to sleeping on the floor beneath a dining table. He has shut down, we later learn, not only from dementia, but also from heartbreak.
The base of his hoard are items of furniture from his earlier days as a bachelor and from the life he built with his late wife Sensia. We see some interesting pieces from the 6os and 70s, including a brutalist chandelier. Before he started to slip into dementia, Ptolemy was an avid reader. Samuel L. Jackson. Image courtesy of Apple.
As the story weaves from present day to a tragedy in his childhood and the early loss of his wife, we understand that his possessions are holding a secret that is beyond his grasp. His hoard, however, is far from a pile of junk. The base layer includes furniture from his years as a bachelor and then the life he built with his love, Sensia.
The book elucidates more of the story behind the hoard insofar as that Sensia would buy and buy, and Ptolemy could deny her nothing. We see a glimpse of her consumerism in their bedroom which is left as it was the day she died.
Robyn, a young family friend who becomes his caretaker, has unlocked Sensia’s bedroom - the sepulcher of Ptolemy’s love and passion for his deceased wife. Here the choice was made to decorate the bedroom to Sensia’s tastes. By locking away his pain, a time capsule has been preserved. Dominque Fishback. Image courtesy of Apple.
Given the structure of the story, we see many phases of Ptolemy’s life and environs. Working backwards from his hoard to his days as a bachelor, we carefully curated every layer from his collection of books — the titles impressed the author W. Mosley, himself, (thank you, Chizzy!) — to the first quality stereo he purchased.
Each and every item we placed had a backstory.
Ptolemy’s attachment to his possessions is not based in any sort of materialism; he is terrified of losing anything that could connect the dots to his past and crucial deeds left undone. Samuel L. Jackson. Photo by Hopper Stone, courtesy of Apple.
How you became involved in the project...
I worked alongside Greg Weimerskirch, the Production Designer, when he was an Art Director. We have a fantastic rapport, and I was delighted to team up with him for this series. He is a truly great talent.
Your collaboration with the PD, the DPs, Costume, show runner, your crew...
Greg has a great deal of respect for Set Decorators, and it was thanks to that attitude that I was very involved with both DPs, Shawn Peters and Hilda Mercado, and Costume Designer Megan “Bijou” Coates. We all worked in concert to make certain our palettes and lighting portrayed emotion, complemented our actors’ skin tones, and worked with Bijou’s wardrobe selections. Greg welcomes collaboration and that fosters a very convivial environment.
We did not have a showrunner, but Walter Mosley was very involved in the project, as was his producing partner, Diane Houslin.
At only 17, Robyn has been fending for herself long enough to know how to get the apartment in ship-shape.
Atlanta was busy — per usual — so I brought in my Key Set Dressing Buyer, Liz Chiz. My Lead, Chandler Vinar, and several Set Dressers came from Portland, OR. The rest of the team were Atlanta locals. Everyone did a fantastic job and embraced the novel challenge of creating a hoarder’s home.*
Stage builds. We assume that his home was built on stage, perhaps the exterior at a location?
Ptolemy’s apartment, in each and every iteration, was a stage build with a tie-in to an exterior in Atlanta. Greg had to be very creative in designing that set: not only did all the walls need to wild, but there were very specific angles needed to help with the dream sequences and flashbacks. Further, Greg and I were respectful of Walter Mosley’s novel and made sure that the flow of the apartment matched how Walter had envisioned it for so many years. Of course, there were compromises, but I know we were all pleased with the final results.
As Ptolemy’s faculties are restored, he and Robyn build a solid friendship. Samuel L. Jackson, Dominque Fishback. Photo by Eli Joshua Ade, courtesy of Apple.
Locations? We talked to you in depth for the film NEBRASKA about shooting on location. What were the pros & cons of doing this production in Georgia?
Georgia is a busy “town” and the local businesses and homeowners are suffering a bit from film-fatigue. Some neighborhoods disallow filming altogether and others have curtailed permitting to reduce the impact. I find, however, that the Southern graciousness prevails.
Biggest challenge and how you met it...
Block shooting was extremely challenging, as it meant my team and I had to go back and forth between the extremes of Ptolemy’s hoard and the post-Robyn stage where it was neat and clean. As the hoard was very curated and even “sculpted”, this was no small feat.
As Ptolemy regains his lucidity and his memories return, he starts to plan for Robyn’s future. Here we see her on the sleeper-sofa he bought for her. Samuel L. Jackson, Dominque Fishback. Photo by Eli Joshua Ade, courtesy of Apple.
For the first time in her life, Robyn is being cared for by an adult. Samuel L. Jackson, Dominque Fishback. Photo by Eli Joshua Ade, courtesy of Apple.
This was Apple for Apple, and the clearance hurdles are more stringent than with any other studio. Thankfully, our UPM was able to add a Buyer to specifically shop for cleared smalls. I recommend that approach for anyone who takes an in-house Apple project.
What you would want us to know about the series…
Samuel L. Jackson approached Walter Mosley many years ago after having read the novel. As a passion project for Mr. Jackson, it was quite moving to see the performances. It is a tough story in many ways, but ultimately it is one about love, family, and duty.
Exterior Ptolemy’s Apartment. Our paint and all storefronts. Image courtesy of Apple.
Were there talismans or personal favorite pieces?
Hah! Well, I have a personal talisman I hide in every project. A little Easter Egg that my team all know well! It is an image I have used in its original form (a painting), as a puzzle, postcard, fridge magnet, playing cards, and mouse pad. She (your hint) does not always make it on screen, but she is always with me!
What do you rely on the most?
I rely upon excellent communication inter-&-intra-departmentally. This was one of the shortest preps I have ever undertaken, and without excellent communication and teamwork, I do not know how we would have achieved what we did.
What have you gained/learned working on this production?
I learned about sharecroppers in Mississippi in the ‘30s. It was an exploitative system and its tendrils are still evident today in the disparities that remain. [See photos below]
And on another personal note, I would like to give special thanks to my entire team: *Lead Chandler Vinar and his Portland crew; Atlanta Set Dressers Marissa Korchak, Jessica Kuhn, Zack Wilder and Tynisha Scales; Buyers Liz Chiz, Shelley Zortman, Stephanie Allen, Laurel Surratt, Cassie Price-Bayles and Lindsay Glick; Coordinator Meredith Carroll and PAs Jessie Dubyoski and Adam Fuller. An additional thanks is owed to Propmaster Mike Scherschel for his fantastic attitude and great eye.
I would also like to acknowledge the invaluable help of SDSA Business Members: AMCO/American Screen and Window Coverings | Astek Wallcoverings | Omega Cinema Props | Warner Bros.
Editor’s note: Step into Ptolemy’s past and many more sets by clicking on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below. There is so much to visually experience from this production, do click on that button!
Post Robyn’s clean-up. The hi-lo shag, his old guitar, and family photos were all exhumed.
Dr. Rubin's experimental dementia therapy, effective but short-lasting with permanent accelerated damage. Samuel L. Jackson, Dominque Fishback, Walt Goggins. Photo by Eli Joshua Ade, courtesy of Apple.
Robyn struggles with Ptolemy's decision to undergo a drug trial. Here we transformed a private home into Rubin’s clinic. Lavish floral arrangements by Flowering Events, helped indicate a passage of time. Samuel L. Jackson, Dominque Fishback. Photo by Eli Joshua Ade, courtesy of Apple.