The art and craft of set decoration – interview with Leslie Morales

September 23rd, 2013

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, today I’m pleased to welcome Leslie Morales. In this interview Leslie talks about the art and craft of set decoration, why Oscars are awarded to the team of production designer and set decorator, the differences between working on TV series and movie productions, and her work on the recently released movie “Stoker“.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and how you started in the industry.

Leslie: My name is Leslie Morales and I’m a set decorator. I started as a starving artist / painter. I had a painting studio in Santa Monica and like most artists, I was looking for odd jobs to pay the rent. I started scenic painting and then costuming, and very quickly ended up decorating a film, probably within a year or so. Years before that I had considered being an actress, and decorating to me fit that profile – reading a script and creating a character. This is how I saw set decorating – between acting and painting.

I never studied – or even considered – set decoration in that it would be my career. I learned from directors, production designers & the directors of photography which I thought at the time was all fascinating, guess it was sort of a self taught process. On my first job I had no idea what a decorator did, and I’m glad that I learned that way. It was intense & crazy & fun.

Kirill: When you are considered for a job, is there any kind of process where people look at formal education? Or perhaps after a few productions it matters much less and they look at your body of work?

Leslie: For me the educational background doesn’t seem to matter. It’s far more what you’ve actually done on film. If someone’s interviewing me for a show, they know my eye and my style, they know the directors & production designers I worked with, and that’s where it’s coming from. For most decorators that I’m aware of, it has much more to do with the work that you’ve done than any specific education that you have, though I think a fine art background is very helpful. I’m not sure that there’s much educational curriculum geared to film art. You look at film schools and their focus is on writing, directing, photography and acting – all very important but you don’t see many courses on production design or decoration.

Kirill: What’s your role in the overall structure of the art department? I’m looking at the list of nominees for the Oscar awards for production design, and it’s always the team of the production designer and the set decorator. What makes this relationship so special?

Leslie: We’re considered the visual heads of the art department. The way I see it, the designer – along with the director – will create the overall visual design of the film. For example, “Stoker” had a very specific color palette, with a distinct symbolism defined by the director Chan-wook Park. So Thérèse DePrez (production designer) and I, or any designer and set decorator, start the dialog on how you take that conceptual discussion to screen. The designer is always the creative head of the art department, and the decorator would be, I guess, the next creative head. Ideally it is a very collaborative effort. We’re constantly having discussions, building our canvas on screen, talking to the director & the director of photography clarifying the mood and the texture of each set.

The art department has many people from art directors, set designers, painters, construction & props. And in my department I am supported by my lead person, my buyer & set dressers. We, the production designer & the set decorator are the two people who are responsible for getting the look on film.

Kirill: How soon after the production designer is hired do you join the pre-production stage?

Leslie: Usually a couple of weeks. And often the designer will call as soon as they have the film so you remain available for their show. With Patricia Norris I’m often involved from the get go, we scout the locations together. As a decorator I normally am not involved in the initial scouting but with her I start from pretty much her first day. But in general I would come a couple of weeks after the designer.

Kirill: What are you looking at during the scouting?

Leslie: You are looking for the sets described in the script. For “Stoker” the house was the main set, and we looked at it as a character, almost as an actor in the film. The process starts with the location manager searching the area & photographing & then “show n tells” with the director, DP, producer, production designer & if I’m lucky me. If the director and the designer see some potential they then physically scout the location. Sometimes houses that look fabulous in photographs end up with all sorts of shooting problems and other technical issues that eliminate them as the set.

Depending on the budget of the film you can tell what sets will be on location and what sets we would build. A lot of sets are relatively small rooms and you have to build them – it’s important to create the set for camera angles, lighting – give them the freedom to tell the story.

And with “Stoker”, after we found the house we completely emptied it, we more or less changed everything – it’s quite a transformation. We’ve repainted the walls, changed the floors, changed the windows, all the lighting, window treatments & of course designed & selected new furniture; and the fundamental geography of the house remained the same. It was very important to the director to have the geography specific to the story. I’m not sure if people are aware of the differences between the floors, but it was very important as we moved around the house, speaking about different characters.

Kirill: It absolutely looks that every room has its own character, from colors to textures to furniture to lighting to the overall mood.

Leslie: Exactly. We’ve had the main floor with living room, dining room, piano room with very French mint colors on the walls – the rooms you show to the public. And then you have the dark interiors of the father’s office, and India’s room that is very connected to her crushing the egg yolk – the yellow is the connection and the blood red of Evelyn’s bedroom.

India’s father was an architect, and in the film we did a certain amount with architectural pieces that related to his profession. And we tried to do distinct pieces. So the headboard you see in India’s room was part of the exterior of the house. We didn’t want to do a store-bought headboard and in her mother’s room the headboard was from a façade of an historic Chicago building – it weighed almost a ton. I thought they were both very effective. We wanted to do something that spoke louder, but was also one simple structure. We always tried to do more with less and less with more. We had a few pieces in each space & they needed to define the room.

Kirill: What happened to the house after you were done?

Leslie: We restored it back to the way we found it though they did keep some of the changes. That was one of many homes on a family estate. There’s a flashback scene in the movie where it goes back to India’s father and uncle being young boys. We did the mockup of the main house, an old Southern mansion & placed in the playhouse.

Kirill: Going back to the overall structure and flow of the art department, can you talk in more detail on the process of “Stoker”?

Leslie: On this production it started with director Park, as he was very specific about the imagery, symbolism and colors. Thérèse and I discussed the furniture styles, from French Art Deco to modern pieces, and then myself and the buyer – and also Thérèse as she was very hands on – would just go out to wander in Nashville looking for pieces and photographing them, going online & contacting showrooms. We had buyers in New York pulling fabric samples. Thérèse and I would meet every day and discuss different options, and from there we would take it to the director a couple of times a week. He literally signed off on every piece of furniture, fabric, color, wallpaper – which isn’t always true of the director.

In my process it’s generally photographs and discussion. With India’s headboard – my buyer found the piece & I went to see it. I liked it but was not quite sure where it could work, and then I showed the photograph to Thérèse and she liked it, and we went back & forth & lots of chatting & eliminated it seemed millions of other possibilities & it won – it became the headboard. It really depends on the type of the movie. Some movies are only built on stage. But with “Stoker”, and I think with many independent films in the $15-20M range, they’re not going to be building lots of sets. And if you’re in the city – like Nashville where we shot it – there’s very little stage space, so you wouldn’t even have that opportunity to build major sets.

Kirill: Apart from India’s mother’s room, the rest of the rooms had very few pieces of furniture in them – and no paintings on the walls. Is it more challenging to imbue a room with a certain character when you have very few pieces to work with?

Leslie: I find it more challenging when it’s highly controlled color-stylized film. With this film every inch was tightly designed. It is much more challenging because whatever piece you put in the set has to hold the room, hold the wall, hold your eye for much longer than if you’re doing a country store with lots of tchotchkes. From the art viewpoint you’re creating a composition, drawing.

We had storyboards for almost every shot, even though we didn’t always follow those. But we knew how we were going to cut the picture frames, say with the circular stairwell and the flow of the sheers on the stairwell for the closeups of the shoes. We were always very conscious of framing. There are many movies that are not trying to do that. For me it was a bigger challenge to do a set with imagery and symbolism and visual color control than it is, perhaps, to do a character set, a more literal set i.e. a dentist’s office.

Director Park was always part of the visual discussions. By the time we got to the actual shooting, he had seen & approved every piece, the fabric and the upholstery. So there was never a surprise for him in the main house. Sometimes it does happen, but with the Director Park it was so important for him that the house told the story. Also he was always involved & I’m glad, he has an amazing eye. We were dressing the house for quite a while, and he would visit often.

One set that evolved a lot was in Nicole Kidman (India’s mother)’s bedroom. It was originally more minimally dressed, and then he came by and saw these giant flower arrangements. And he told us through his interpreter that he wanted it to be like a jungle. That’s when we brought in those layers upon layers of plants. He wanted to see the sense of confusion and overgrowth as you come into her room. When you’re in the jungle, there’s a certain sense that things are over-ripe.

Kirill: Were those live flowers? How do you handle shoots spanning multiple days when they decay?

Leslie: Yes, I do my flower arrangements. We were constantly changing them. I’ve done this for a lot of years, so I’m very aware of what flowers will last longer for film. I did mix some dry stalks, but 90% were live flowers and live plants. They did pretty well, but we probably changed them out at least every day, and sometimes more regularly for certain flowers. The way we shot that particular set was over a couple of days. They did not have to be maintained the entire shooting schedule. We shot there, it was over.

Kirill: Were you moving from room to room, completing all the scenes in each one?

Leslie: It wasn’t as much room to room, but maybe floor to floor. Most of the sets were on the first floor, so we’ve spent most of our time there. India’s bedroom and Nicole’s bedroom were on the second floor, and then ended in the basement.

Kirill: It’s hard to place the house itself and the story in any particular time. There are very few pieces in the rooms, and the appliances such as the big radio or the wallmounted telephone or even the big freezer in the basement are not quite modern, yet not quite derelict. Was that done on purpose to divorce the story from any moment time and lend it a certain timeless aspect?

Leslie: Certainly the timelessness. The radio/stereo you refer to is a collector’s item worth $50,000 or more, and a lot of the choices were made from the point of view of old money and having the finest – the rare. You wouldn’t have a regular stereo, but rather this amazing collector’s item of a stereo which we’ve spent a lot of time on trying to find, to get somebody rent it out for us.

If you’ve noticed there is no signage with words in the entire movie. Certain choices like lack of technical stuff were visual decisions. There’s not anything particularly visually wonderful about my laptop that I’m looking at right now. Part of it is visual, a classic look, and there was the nostalgic feel of this small town somewhere in America. The New Yorker review said that we referred to Nashville, but actually I don’t recall identifying any particular place.

A lot of the furniture was extremely contemporary, but there was sense of timelessness, classical, a bit eclectic elegance. So even though the dining room chairs were contemporary, they still had the sense of lines from the 1930s. A lot of the furniture was either French or French-inspired from the 1920s and 1930s. We all come to what we do with an eye and a preference, and I love those clean classical lines.

The chair that Nicole drapes herself on in the office had a certain predatory sense. You could see it move in the same way that insects are moving, and we felt that it was so distinctive in that quality. And it was the same for India’s chair in that small room when she cracks the egg. It was very much designed to be oversized, to be very linear, to frame Mia Wasikowska so well in that scene. There was a certain sense of Alice in Wonderland, to create a sense of otherworldliness.

Kirill: Where did all the shoes and the shoeboxes in India’s room come from?

Leslie: The costume designer got them out of New York. We made the boxes and aged them, put some tissues. He knew someone in New York who had that collection, so we were able to bring them in. They were birthday present from her uncle that she got every year without knowing who she was getting them from, or that she even had an uncle.

It’s so important to have color and texture be a visual conversation between the set pieces and the costumes. You don’t want an actor to walk onto the set with a color that is completely wrong for the intended mood. Thérèse has worked with the costume designers on Stoker before & they talked all the time. The costume designer is absolutely always in the loop and they’re masters in texture and fabric and color. It’s the matter of communicating what the colors and textures are going to be, so there are not surprises and the actors look as wonderful, horrible or spooky as they need to.

Kirill: How much time did you spend on other sets, like the motel room for Aunt Gwen or India’s high school?

Leslie: The motel existed. We repainted it, added neon, changed the furniture outside, landscaping and added the phone booth. And the motel room was actually their storage room. We repainted it, changed all the furniture and lighting. Because this film was so controlled – in a good sense – we didn’t leave anything to accident. Even the exterior landscaping was changed. There was nothing left to chance visually. And the same applies to high school.

It does exist in Nashville, and we used the art room, but we completely emptied it and created our own. And we also changed the exterior courtyard. We’re also adding a sense of being caged in to certain sets, so to intensify that feel we took the fencing along the walkway where you saw India and intertwined green tape throughout. You’re always seeing a combination of our colors – red and green pretty much on every set, reinforcing them sometimes very subtly. So the green tape through the chicken wire was one of those times. There was never a frame that wasn’t considered for the color, the texture and the patterns.

Kirill: Stepping outside the specific production and to your earlier work. You’ve spent a few years working on various TV shows. How would you compare the scope and the pace of movie and TV productions?

Leslie: Television was a learning curve for me. I did television for about 2.5 years. You’re doing more sketches with your sets, as you don’t have much time for detailing each set. Sometimes you get the script the night before and you shoot it the next afternoon. It depends on the series. I did a season of Rizzoli & Isles, a season of Hawthorne, a season of Raines and some episodes of Everybody Hates Chris. The last two had more to play with. Hawthorne is always in the hospital, and we really never left the grounds, so it was pretty straightforward. And on Rizzoli & Isles we never left the Paramount lot, it was always stage work. And I love working on stages.

There are sets that they return to every episode – the permanent sets. You have a fair amount of prep time on those sets, to create and detail them. And after that, you shoot an hour of TV every seven or eight days so you’re running and sketching sets the best you can.

Also on television you’re shooting it differently. If you look at it, most of the time it’s medium close-up, and in film it’s completely different, there’s hardly any comparison to me. Very different mediums – what you do, how you prep, how you shoot. You hardly ever see a wide shot on television. In film your camera angles are so much more complex & that helps determine how you design & decorate sets, and generally you don’t have the luxury of that on TV.

Kirill: But then on TV you have more on-screen time to define, refine and explore the permanent sets.

Leslie: It depends. Television is a writer’s medium and not a director’s medium. From the visual viewpoint you’re not honing in on one person’s vision of a subject. You’re talking about four, five or six writers on every episode that have created the characters and the network input, of course the designer & decorator are also part of the discussion. The director is different in every episode while the writers are constant, so they’re making most of the decisions. Perhaps if you’re doing more seasons you see more sense of development, but it was not my experience. Perhaps because I started in film, I feel this is where I do my best work, or at least I can attempt to do my best work.

Kirill: And going forward you see yourself focusing on movies?

Leslie: That’s what I’ve mostly done through the years – the art independent films, and I love it when I can work with people like Wim Wenders, Stephen Frears, David Lynch, Andrew Dominik and Chan-wook Park. I love directors that have an individual voice that they want to put on film.

Kirill: What are your thoughts on digital tools that allow extending, augmenting and, in some cases, even creating complete sets during the post-production phase?

Leslie: It’s not taking over as much as I expected. Around ten years ago I remember there was much talk about virtual sets taking over, but I do not see that that has happened. We always had visual effects people, even on “Stoker” – for all these little things like spiders. But again, I am not doing your major action or sci-fi movies where they are using much more visual digital effects in the sense that you’re asking about.

Years ago they seemed to think that it would take over, but as it has evolved, I think it’s more of a genre thing. For movies that I do – art film or drama or stories about human living – it doesn’t call for it. When you’re extending sets or creating other worlds, that may or may not call for it, but I tend to work in films that are much more intimate. You really don’t see much of it, nor do I think that it’s called for. Those effects work best when you’re going bigger than life, not when you’re doing something intimate and close.

Kirill: And actors do want to have something physical around them.

Leslie: Absolutely. It’s so important. I’ve decorated sets where the actors would spend a night there before shooting the next day. They really wanted and needed to be at home there. It’s important for the actors to have the set surrounding them. I’ve worked with green screens. If you’re in a frame with a monster, then it’s a different thing. I just don’t see it. It may be just me but I have not seen taking over the industry like people thought it would.

The most recent film I’ve seen that illustrates this is “Pacific Rim”. Obviously that had huge effects, and yet it was interesting to me to see that its touchstone was 1930s industrial revolution. Visually you were in this factory, with all the gears moving and everything. Very old school – I found that so interesting that it was important for the director to ground it, so that when he took off with these fantastic effects, you were still somehow grounded in this mechanical time.

I believe in the sensual nature of sets to enhance the storytelling. When I compare that to sets where they say that they’re going to do everything on green screen, it just doesn’t work out so well. But again, that’s not the genre that I normally work in. But even today you see it – as a visual person I never get lost in the effect, I see the effect.

Kirill: Do you see the seams between the physical and the digital?

Leslie: Yes. Part of it is because I work in the business, and part is because I’m an artist. Maybe other people can go in and not see that, but I immediately see the extension. You can see the way they move through the set, what’s part of the set and what has been added digitally.

Kirill: That brings me to the last question rather nicely. When you go to the movie theater to watch a movie – your own or done by other people – can you relax and just enjoy it, or do you always look at more technical aspects of it?

Leslie: Almost unconsciously you’re always looking [laughs]. There are films where you get carried away, and maybe the art department doesn’t look that good to you, but it doesn’t matter because the directing or acting is so amazing. Do I love film? I love film, and I enjoy film. I’m also being critical when I’m watching a film. It’s been my profession for forever, so it’s hard to look at it through the eyes of somebody else. I see things that probably nobody else sees, except other people in the profession. It can be distracting, but it doesn’t keep me from not really appreciating film.

And here I’d like to thank Leslie Morales for graciously agreeing to this interview and taking the time out of her busy schedule to talk about her craft.