Experts discuss design secrets, Hollywood-style
If you’ve ever left an evening at the movies wondering how the filmmakers made each set look so perfect (remember Diane Keaton’s casually elegant beach house in Something’s Gotta Give?) or so fitting to the story (how about Michael Douglas’s sleek yet sterile post-prison perch in the third Wall Street film?), Thursday’s Capital Design Days event at the Washington Design Center was the place to be. The presentation, Interior Design on Film, showcased three industry professionals: Cathy Whitlock, who was there to discuss her book, Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction; Kristy Zea, set director for Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps; and Denny Dugally, the production designer for the TV series Brothers & Sisters.
The role of set design in film and television is integral to the success of a film because, at its best, it conveys the filmmaker’s message. “Really good design is narrative design that supports the movie,” said Whitlock, who gave a brief history of set design in Hollywood. She began with the Art Deco styles of the 1920s and 1930s, touching on Gone With the Wind (Tara was actually a façade that cost $12,000 to build in 1939), and the 1962 Rock Hudson/Doris Day picture, Pillow Talk, which she says gave us “the first bachelor pad.” The more recent Diane Keaton vehicle mentioned above contained, apparently, the most copied set of the century.
Set decorator Kristi Zea, an Oscar nominee for her work on 2008’s Revolutionary Road, shared insights into the set design for Wall Street as well as an upcoming Eddie Murphy/Ben Stiller film, Tower Heist, due out around Thanksgiving. She contrasted the style of artwork and furniture in the two sets, explaining how each reflected the sensibility and taste of the respective characters. “When I’m doing a high-end set, the art becomes a character,” she explained. “Every piece of art has to be cleared and reproduced according to its actual size. Then, we over-paint the surface of it for texture.” Each of the sets she mentioned took about six weeks to complete, start to finish.
By contrast, set design for television happens at a much more rapid pace. Production designer Denny Dugally has been with Brothers & Sisters since its premiere in 2006, and during that time she has created 983 sets, usually in the space of four or five days each. The show is filmed on a Disney sound stage, and a big, stucco-clad, California Mediterranean-style home in Pasadena provides the exterior views. She points out that while the sets look solid and house-like, certain book cases and the fireplace are actually “camera ports, literally on casters so they can be rolled away to create the right shot.”
Beth Kushnick, set decorator for the TV show The Good Wife, could not attend the panel, but provided a list of furnishings that are featured on the show and can be purchased at the Washington Design Center, including a chair and settee by Kravet, a sleigh bed by Henredon and a wallpaper pattern from Schumacher. It turns out that on-screen design is not so different from the real thing. As Dugally says of the Walker home in Brothers & Sisters, “We wanted it to be a home that you’d want to visit week after week, linger and have a glass of wine and talk.”