—Director/Writer/Actor Tyler Perry
The chance encounter with someone so far outside his usual circle ignites something in successful, wealthy businessman, Wesley Deeds [Tyler Perry]. This one good deed may finally spark his courage to exchange the life that’s expected of him for the life he’s always really wanted.
Multi-hyphenate Tyler Perry stepped out of his comfort zone to create GOOD DEEDS, an uplifting drama about coincidence, courage and the defining choices we make on our paths to happiness. The writer, director, producer also starred in the film without the trappings and safety net of his usual outlandish characters. Thus, he relied even more heavily on the design & decoration team that has created most of his feature films, and many other Tyler Perry Studios projects, Set Decorator Lance Totten SDSA and Production Designer Ina Mayhew, and their crews.
Totten chats with SET DECOR about the film, the experience of creating San Francisco in Atlanta [home of Tyler Perry Studios], and of the long term working relationships with Mayhew and Perry.
The phrase “A well-ordered life” seems to apply to Wesley Deeds' apartment. Please tell us about your parameters and key for this set.
Production Designer Ina Mayhew and I agreed that it was important to sell the fact that Wesley Deeds is wealthy, but in an outside-of-the-box way. His environment had to be high-end and sophisticated, not at all flashy or new-money…more of an eclectic contemporary look. We also wanted there to be a nod to the setting in Northern California, so we came up with the idea of "sleek organic" texture. You see this in the wood grain of furniture that's earthy without being rustic. The texture is there, but it's smooth. This set was a nice opportunity to mix things up in a way that I find appealing, like using a muted Persian rug with an Italian leather sofa and a tree-trunk table-base.
Was there a specific piece you built around?
I loved the double-sided fireplace that Ina designed, and the ability of the wall to divide the spaces while still keeping it open. I was happy to juxtapose it in the bedroom with a vintage Lane dresser that had a similar chock-a-block feel which worked perfectly with the wall. On the living room side of the fireplace, we all loved the tall leather chair as an earthy, curvy counterpoint to the clean lines of the architecture and the sofa. I think the staircase works in a similar way. Again, the goal was to show subtly how this man could be so wealthy and successful in business, so controlled, but hiding a very soulful interior. To that end it seemed important to mix styles and contours. It shouldn’t look like he just bought out a showroom of contemporary designer pieces. We were also conscious of not making the interiors "retro". You do see a few mid-century pieces in his apartment—in perfect condition, of course—but we felt the mainstream mania for period furniture of that era was actually too common for a guy like Deeds.
Please tell us about the palette and your use of geometrics and curves…
The palette was muted and earthy, with pale blue as the main accent. I went off-palette a bit when I sneaked in a little pop of orange in the planters, but it helped pull some of that color out of the antique prints. The shapes were almost sub-conscious decisions…once you’ve got the overall scheme worked out, you just see things and know instinctively “That’s it!” It’s only later when it’s all put together that you notice there’s a definite counterpoint established.
And the symbolism...crossroads, life contained…?
Buyers Mary Stacy and Rachel Goodman and I discussed Deeds' desire to travel as a major character point to weave into the sets. He's suppressed his adventurer's instinct in order to run the family business, so we had antique globes and framed vintage travel posters and maps throughout. Quiet notes that seemed pertinent to his inner spirit.
Please tell us about the art, particularly the paintings + b/w photography…
The original paintings in Deeds' apartment—all by local Georgia painter Bill Turner—had sort of a haunting loneliness to them that reminded me of that wanderlust Deeds was feeling. With all the talk of motorcycles in the script, Turner's foggy landscapes seemed to be of the places where you'd want to be on a bike.
What a find he was! My assistant Michelle Sink went to the websites of the artists participating in the Arts Festival in Piedmont Park, Atlanta, printed out anything I’d indicated interest in, and then contacted the artists re: the work I liked best. We honed it from there until we came up with the right pieces.
The B&W photo wall was something that I was conscious of doing in a way that didn’t seem clichéd, which that sort of thing can be at times. The images themselves were from a variety of sources and were strong individually, but for me it was really the grouping that mattered most. I spent quite a bit of time on the floor of that set taping out the arrangement, and I’m sure I drove the poor set dressers crazy over the installation of that one.
Furnishings and lighting…
Most of the big furniture and some of the lamps were rented from the local showrooms of Italia Furniture and Roche-Bobois. All the rest were purchased in local shops, including several great items from a store called Decades. The chair was from Restoration Hardware. The hanging “artichoke” fixture in the living room was from the Lighting Loft.
Ina and I agreed that it was time to give chrome and polished nickel a rest. When you're doing high-end modern it's kind of kneejerk to use silver as your go-to hardware finish, so you'll notice more bronze in the lighting and door hardware here. That led to a lot of discussion about brass and how to use it in a manner that didn't seem traditional or common, like avoiding polished brass.
So we have the brass chandelier from Jonathan Adler over the kitchen table, the floor lamp in the bedroom and the round side-table in the living room, which carried over to an aged-gold patina seen in the tables at the foot of the bed and in the circular wall-sculpture between the kitchen and living room. That being said, there's still a lot of stainless steel and chrome in here—it's unavoidable, I guess!
All rented locally from Designer Rug Warehouse. A couple of them were silk and couldn’t be cleaned once they got Georgia red clay tracked onto them, so we had to buy them in the end.
The buffet is mid-century, as are the dining room chairs, all from a wonderful store called City Issue. We tried pairing several different styles of chair with that amazing glass-top table, and these seemed the best all around. Another Bill Turner painting grounds the modern kitchen.
The bed was one that Tyler Perry responded to in my initial presentation photos: a leather designer piece from Roche-Bobois. It was actually very simple, and like all Italian contemporary stuff, very low to the floor. Mr. Perry likes the style of Italian furniture, but I've learned over the years that because he's 6'5", he doesn't like being low to the ground. So we had a wooden platform built to raise it. Then, because Ina and I had wanted the bed to be even more of a statement, we had the giant headboard made.
The bed coverings and linens are mostly Calvin Klein. Bedding is so important on film and most people don’t think about how expensive it can be. Especially with doubles on everything for make-up stains!
The low dresser was the epitome of that smooth/rustic dichotomy I described earlier. Wedged into the corner where it is, I was worried it wouldn’t be seen, but that was the only place for it, and it seemed to have a soothing effect in front of the busy-ness of the wall-divider.
What touches show Deeds’ fiancé Natalie’s [Gabrielle Union] influence or presence in the apartment?
Hardly any, but that seemed a function of the script. We often joked that since Wesley had the walk-in closet, she must either not live there or have an entire wing upstairs for her closet. The vanity in the bathroom and a few other things in there were our nod to her, but it’s clearly Deeds’ place.
What was the feedback from Tyler Perry when the set was completed?
He liked it very much, making only a couple of changes that would ease the shooting of it for him. He decided that he wanted a desk in the living room, so on the day of shooting we ran out and got one and put it between the two bookcases. That meant the light-colored sofa had to move…we put it behind the dining room table, which worked out well. You always hate to see last minute decisions compromise something you’ve been working on so thoughtfully, but you just make the best of it and move on.
What direction did you receive from him before and during the set decoration process?
He was involved in only the broadest sense, and that's actually a good thing. He gave Ina general instructions about the offices and Deeds’ residence…the primary built sets of the show…as he was writing the script, probably in a 5-minute session. She had a single page of notes and doodles for us to go on. She and I then poured over references to show him what we were thinking of doing, along with a small sampling of furniture choices I had culled from thousands of my buyer's photos.
This was my 12th consecutive movie as Mr. Perry's Set Decorator (Ina's 13th as Production Designer), and we definitely had developed shorthand with Tyler Perry by then. As his career and business involvements increased, we had less time to run things by him in advance since he’s always so busy. So putting together a package like I described, which was delivered to him on the road somewhere, was quite important. You want to be certain you're going in the right direction, but you'll lose his attention if you bombard him with too many options. That's not specific to him, nor is it a criticism…the more busy and creative someone is the more a focused approach is necessary.
The great thing for Ina and me as his design/decor team is that he trusted us so much to leave us alone and let us fight the budget battles and make the right choices aesthetically. He might walk onto a set and want to move a couple things around or ask for a bigger window or something, but he's never been unhappy with any of our sets that I recall.
The Deeds Corporation
Please tell us about reception, the bullpen and the public spaces in the building…
The offices were a huge challenge. Although there's plenty of empty office space for rent in Atlanta, we had to factor in the views of San Francisco we needed, which meant using giant trans-light backdrops outside the windows, which meant we couldn't shoot high up at any location. Plus, Mr. Perry was determined to have an open floor plan with a lot of transparency between rooms, and we just weren't finding that on location. You have to realize these movies are shot rather fast and the prep period isn't long either, so if you can't find a location, then the decision to build is made fairly quickly.
There was a bullpen, several long hallways, Deeds' main office, two other principal exec's offices, a boardroom, an elevator and the storage closet where little Ariel sleeps. All on one soundstage! My team dressed all of them in about 3 or 4 days, including electrical installation. I have to say my dressing crew did a fantastic job on this fast-paced and ambitious schedule, which would not have been possible without my Leadman Shun Jester. I might have three people out shopping for my sets, but there’s only one Lead who has to pull it all together, which is why that job can be so tough.
The office furniture was a nightmare to source, as usual. The high-end stuff is all built to order and takes lots of advance time to manufacture, and the pieces that already exist in a warehouse and can be rented are usually awful looking. I was fortunate to have some great office furniture contacts here in Atlanta. The majority of the desks and case-goods (laminate, due to budget constraints), the reception desk and the task-chairs were rented from a local independent rep who found me great-looking pieces. I jazzed that up with a number of Knoll accent chairs we rented from an office furniture showroom. Art Department Coordinator Brenda Findley actually got Herman Miller to give us 3 new task chairs as product placement, a first for a Tyler Perry movie. Believe it or not, we rented quite a few accent tables, floor lamps, and chairs from Cort Furniture! They have some great pieces if you look closely.
Please tell us about Wesley’s office…
We rented a credenza for Deeds' office from Room and Board that I loved so much; I had a matching desk built. As is often the case with Tyler Perry, we could not find a desk that was high-end enough for him that we could also afford, so we custom built one. If you think about it, decorating a set for a billionaire character that was created by a real-life billionaire can be rather daunting! These are mid-budget movies, so it's not like we have the time or money to create interiors as if they were actually for Tyler Perry, the person, but you've got to sell the illusion. Having said that, I still spent over $10,000 on the sconces and hanging pendant fixtures throughout the offices. That's not including table or floor lamps that came from all over. We'll mix a $400 lamp from Bungalow with a thrift-store vintage one or a $40 lamp from Home Goods.
All of the artwork here is by Anthony Liggins, a well-known young painter based in Atlanta, with gallery representation all over the world. His stuff had the right mix of edginess, color and sex to still be believable in a corporate setting. And he let us take whatever we wanted.
The sculptural greenery used in Wesley’s apt and throughout the corporate spaces...
Local florist, Blushing Blooms by Brennan, did the amazing florals & greens for us and they are just terrific! Silks can look so bad on film and these were the perfect hip blend of texture and color for this environment. I can't say enough about them.
Please tell us what we learn about Wesley’s brother Walt from his office. What did you purposely include/exclude from this set?
Tyler Perry says, “I wanted to write Wesley’s brother Walter [Brian White] to speak to so many people who may be in his position. Walter’s creating his own destiny, and it's really sad. He self-sabotages everything he does. He has a pity party every day. He doesn't know he's creating his own world, his own horror.”
I wanted to give Walt more depth than just “he’s a womanizer and a substance-abuser.” Noticing the leather recliner by the bookcase in the corner, the iHome mp3 unit and the barware on the side table, one of my dressers commented it was like he was a jaded existentialist…drinking, listening to jazz, and reading Sartre. Plus, the most overtly erotic of all Liggins’ paintings is in there. Probably not exactly what Mr. Perry had in mind, but you’ve got to have fun with this stuff too.
Mark Freeze Fashion House
Please tell us about depicting both the glamorous side of fashion and the working side of fashion.
It was important to Mr. Perry that the place had a real bustling feel to it and to show the workings of a fashion house. I initially put more effort into the sitting area, as the script read that way…the ladies were there drinking champagne and watching models come out in bridal wear. The work-room was just intended as background, but when Mr. Perry came to see the location the day before shooting, he wanted much more behind-the-scenes material, so we quickly put that together. He was right of course, and the extra dressing in the work-area looked great.
The other side…
One set can tell us so much…what do we learn about Lindsey from this set?
You should know that the same analysis of character and attention to detail for Deeds’ world was extended to the other principal sets, too. The cramped apartment that Lindsey [Thandie Newton] and Ariel [Jordenn Thompson] live in was especially painstaking to get right. This was a small apartment in a pretty nice part of Atlanta, and we worked hard to not make it trashy or pitiful. They were going through a rough time, with her husband being killed in Iraq, but they were getting by somehow. When you read a script and characters are described as "poor", you have to define it further. I believed it was mandatory to show them as dignified and hopeful in their struggle. How many of our fellow citizens are a paycheck away from that situation right now? The horror of getting evicted and having to live in a van isn't going to register as profoundly if we can't see ourselves in these characters. With all that's going on in our economy at present, it was an especially important point to depict in a mainstream movie.
Please tell us about the furnishings and art…
Buyer Rachel Goodman threw herself into this head first, as she does with everything. She sourced the primitive-but-sweet artwork from someone in North Carolina, as well as local painter Virginia Daniel, and I chose the major furniture and lighting from her pictures. The bedroom was particularly crucial to us, since Ariel sleeps in there with her mom…it defines both of them and their relationship.
The van and the homeless shelter…please tell us about these heartbreaking sets.
There are plenty of homeless shelters here in Atlanta, but shooting in one didn’t seem feasible, so we created this from scratch in an empty room at the old Norfolk-Southern railroad building. We brought in over 75 cots and bunk beds, all of which had to be painted. We bought all of the bedding and other dressing. It was a lot of work for the set dressers just in all that hauling they had to do, then the set-up and eventual wrap. And they really committed themselves on the van. I gave them the stuff and the background story and they just got totally into it. The level of detail was terrific and telling.
How was this film different/like the other TPS films you’ve done? Were you able to do most of it on the studio backlot?
They were all hard, but the last few I did were especially so because the budgets and schedule stayed modest while Mr. Perry’s scope of vision increased dramatically.
The only film we shot entirely at TPS’ soundstages and on the back-lot was I CAN DO BAD ALL BY MYSELF. The subsequent projects I did there were largely location-driven, with a few big builds on stage. We built and dressed a lot of stage sets on FOR COLORED GIRLS, but we shot a lot of locations too. I personally think the TPS back-lot is underused. It’s got a lot of potential.
Please tell us about your collaboration with Production Designer Ina Mayhew.
We’ve just always clicked, from the very beginning. Somehow we always end up on the same page. I think for her, it’s empowering to have a decorating team that she can trust and rely on to get things done and make the sets sing. Not having to worry about the dressing takes a lot off a designer and allows one to focus on all the rest. For me, she’s an awesomely creative collaborator who can encourage me and help narrow my focus at the same time. And she backs me up: always. As I do her. Ina gave me my first break in features after I’d decorated a couple straight to DVD movies, and that was huge for me. Of course, the vision had to click, too! But we’ve worked together on lots of different projects over the last 7 years. We did something like 6 movies, 3 TV shows, and 2 major corporate renovations for TPS in only 3 years!
Please tell us about your collaboration with Director Tyler Perry.
He’s an immensely imaginative guy who goes with his instincts, and if he trusts you, will let you run wild and do your thing. He showed huge trust in me countless times, and I’ll always be grateful for his confidence in me. He’s very smart, but incredibly direct, whereas I tend to overanalyze things. And that confidence of his is infectious and empowering.