The art and craft of set decoration – interview with Niamh Coulter

November 25th, 2015

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it gives me great pleasure to welcome Niamh Coulter. In the last few years she worked as the set decorator on feature films such as “Easy Virtue” (read interview with the film’s art director), “Inkheart”, “Dorian Grey”, “Good People” and, most recently, “Before I Go To Sleep” and “Far From The Madding Crowd”. In this interview Niamh talks about the art and craft of set decoration and its interaction with the rest of the art department, the importance of surrounding actors with physical objects on set, what happens for her during the various production phases, and what stays with her after a production is done. In addition, Niamh takes us on a deeper dive into the details of her two most recent feature productions, “Before I Go To Sleep” and “Far From The Madding Crowd”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and your path so far.

Niamh: My name is Niamh Coulter and I am a set decorator, based in London and working in feature film and commercials. I have been in the industry now for over 20 years. It was a very fortunate set of circumstances that brought me here though really it seems like the path was preordained.

I studied History of Art and English at university and followed that for a time working as a fine art journalist.  I ended up traveling extensively in the far east and ultimately living in Indonesia where I worked for an English newspaper in Jakarta for a time. During my time in Jakarta I helped out a photographer friend and started styling shoots for him during the day and working the paper at night.

When I eventually returned to the UK an old school friend got me into the commercials end of the industry and introduced me to a designer and decorator whom I very quickly began working for full time. Commercials is an excellent ‘in’ into film I think, or it certainly was, as we worked with very high production values and very extreme deadlines so the art of making the impossible happen is what we lived and breathed. As it turns out History of Art is an excellent foundation for set decorating – it gives you a great knowledge of period, color and composition and an excellent visual recall.

A few years in I met the designer John Beard, with whom I have now collaborated for over 18 years, and he took me into my first feature which was a Chris Menges film called ‘The Lost Son’. Everything since then I have learned on the shop floor and every job teaches me something new. It’s one of the things I love most about the film industry.

On the sets of “Before I Go To Sleep”. Courtesy of Niamh Coulter.

Kirill: What drew you into the industry? If you go back to the time when you just started on your first production and some of the expectations that you had, how close or far has the reality of working in the industry turned out to be?

Niamh: When I got my first glimpse into the industry I was totally hooked, I couldn’t believe that the idea of working in the industry hadn’t either occurred or been suggested to me as it was such a perfect fit for me and my skill set but I guess that I had been concentrating on fine art and writing. I think by the time I did my first feature I had been doing it long enough in commercials for that there were not too many surprises.

The one thing that constantly surprises and disappoints me as I get older is still the inequality between the sexes in film and how patriarchal the industry fundamentally still is and the pay gap that exists above and below the line between the sexes. Also given the freelance nature of all our contracts there is never adequate HR support in film and I think a lot of people get treated unfairly as a result.

Kirill: Was it a bit disappointing to peek behind the “magic” of the cinema and see how those things are actually done?

Niamh: No never, it just made me enjoy it all the more.

On the sets of “Before I Go To Sleep”. Courtesy of Niamh Coulter.

Kirill: You meet a new person at a party. What’s your 10-second description of what you do for living?

Niamh: I am responsible for everything you see in frame that is not an actor! Everything from the glasses on the table to the paintings on the walls to the curtains at the windows and all the things that tell you who the character is by the things that they surround themselves with.

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?

Niamh: My role within the structure of the art department is beneath the Production Designer and on parity with the supervising art director. The relationship of the production designer and set decorator is a very special one as, when it works, you are totally in sync with your vision of how the film will look. I am very lucky in that with John (Beard) and Kave (Quinn) we have worked together so long that we have a great shorthand and they both trust me implicitly to manage my team and get on with what I do so that they can worry about the bigger picture.

Kirill: How important is it for you to surround the actors with a complete physical set?

Niamh: Incredibly important. For me I love showing an actor round set and pointing out all the practical nuances of the set so that they have freedom to really be the character in the space. For example if  there is a desk the drawers will be filled, even if there is no action on it. If there are CDs or records they will be choices that I feel the character would have made even if they are never going to be played. If it’s a really key character set I will ideally have had a meeting previously with the actor to see if we are both on the same page as to who this person really is beyond the costume and the dialogue so I can create that world and the actor can inhabit the character within it.

On the sets of “Before I Go To Sleep”. Courtesy of Niamh Coulter.

Kirill: And on a related subject, what are your thoughts on digital tools that allow extending, augmenting and, in some cases, even creating complete sets during the post-production phase? Should I as a viewer be hoping for a world where stories are made in an all-digital environment?

Niamh: The tools that allow us to extend and argument sets digitally have been real game changer for the art department and it’s not that unusual now for a whole set to be chromakey with just a few key props for reference. With the growth of digital creation there are a whole new set of challenges for how VFX and art department can work together and I think there is enormous scope for these relationships will develop.

But this kind of film-making does not suit every production and I would hope, as should you that this is not where film is ultimately headed, I think there will always be a place for live action and real sets as digital has its place but is not the be all and end all. There can be no substitute for the magic of creating real imaginings.

Kirill: How does the process of joining a production work for you, for the specific example of “Before I Go To Sleep”?

Niamh: Kave Quinn rang me up and told me she was going for a meeting about the film. She had not yet read the book but I had and was a big fan so I told her I thought it would definitely be a good one for us! She got the job, she asked my to do it with her and I managed to leave the other film I was on a week early in time to start pre production. That’s normally how it works if it’s a designer you work with all the time.

Often otherwise if it’s a designer you don’t know, or have not worked with before, you will be called into interview and present a portfolio and discuss the job. I always say that there are going to be lots of people who can DO the job but very few who you will want to do it with and get the end result you really want. Personality is key and you need to get on, be able to laugh and support each other and know that you can adapt and overcome the obstacles and the stress together and still be able to enjoy a glass of wine together at the end of the day.

Production design of “Before I Go To Sleep” by Niamh Coulter.

Kirill: What did you do during the pre-production phase, and who are you working with as you map the script to specific sets and their physical dressing? How deep into the details of each set does a script usually go?

Niamh: First stage of pre production is breaking down the script into sets, then breaking the sets in to scenes, then scenes into action etc etc.

Usually the designer and an art department will have started pre production ahead of the decorator so there will already by the designer’s references for the look of the film which we will sit down and go through together and discuss the sets. Then myself and my assistant will compile further more detailed references with regards the details and decoration of the set and the palette. If there are key props we will go about sourcing these or getting drawings done if there are going to be made as it often takes time to perfect a few prop especially if it is a ‘make’.

Scripts rarely go in to too much detail about the look of set or the specifics. Action props are all part of the breakdown stage and anything specifically mentioned is obviously top of our lists but generally a script will paint in fairly broad visual brushstrokes.

Many directors have very clear ideas about certain aesthetics and how they see their film should look – many don’t and are worried more that the sets work and support the actors. There is no hard and fast rule here and every film is different.

Budgeting and planning are a massive part of the set decorating corner and once we have a set list and we know whether the sets are builds or locations my production buyer and I will make our budget, remake it, remake it and remake it, then negotiate it to get us to a point where we think we can deliver what we need and come in on the money. The production buyer is my right hand at all times and good resourceful assistants are vital. I like everyone to contribute and everyone to get credit where it is due.

The prop master is also a very integral part of our set decorating world and the decorator and prop master should work very hand in hand at all times – under pressure that one can be quite an intense relationship as once you start shooting and dressing sets it can get quite hectic the prop master is often the person I spend most time with.

After budgeting (in theory – sometimes the budget does not get locked till quite far in) we start to put the creative bones of a set together – I like to start with fabrics and wall papers and colours to establish  base texture for what I want to do. Next comes furniture – hiring, purchasing, reupholstering etc. and then the layers of dressing. Especially on a period film I like to spend a lot of time at the antique markets and contact all the dealers I know as I get constantly inspired by my finds and like to build up a good stock of lovely things and dressing props for the prop room even if I don’t always know what set they are for when we buy them.

As key in preproduction as visualising and creating is the fine art of planning. Once a film starts shooting it’s a hungry machine with wheels that do not stop turning so you have to get your team tight and your logistic framework locked or else the machine will crush you!!

Production design of “Before I Go To Sleep” by Niamh Coulter.

Kirill: And how did your typical day look like as they were shooting the movie? Was it less hectic because “Before I Go To Sleep” had one very major set (the main characters’ house)?

Niamh: It’s always hectic! Every film presents a set of  challenges and though it appears that we had one major set the opposite was true. The interior of the house was 2 composite sets on 2 different stages. The upstairs was the first set we did and through a number of other department set backs with the build and the lighting rig, my 3 day dressing window to get this very key first set ready turned into an afternoon, an evening and a very late night!! It was very stressful as there were a lot of factors to consider other than just how I wanted it to look and feel. For example the shower needed to work, as did the bath, the wardrobes needed to be totally filled with character clothes, all in our very tightly controlled palette for the film. In addition production had installed a heating system on the stage which they were testing as we dressed so along with the massive lighting rig it was about 40 degrees onset!

For the ground floor set we worked though the weekend with no other departments getting in our way, which is how it should be so you have clear, calm control to place everything just how you want it with a good play list to work to. Music for me is key when dressing a set. I am very hands on when it comes to dressing and will only leave it to the prop team with a dressing plan if I really cannot be there. I like to see it take shape and tweak it and work on layers of dressing. I have overseen the collating of everything for a set so I want to make sure all the good stuff gets in and it looks exactly right.

Typically when we are shooting I will start on set, especially if it is a new set, so I can walk it though with the director and iron out any emergencies. Then to the office to see if there are things I need to approve or action or dressing plans that need done and then probably to oversee the dress of a new set or perhaps go to the hire companies to prep an upcoming set.

Production design of “Before I Go To Sleep” by Niamh Coulter.

Kirill: How much work went into decorating that main house that features so prominently in the movie?

Niamh: None! – we dressed the inside of the garage and added some exterior lighting as the house was only used as an exterior location. Then we matched up the window dressing to what we had on the stage on our sets.

Kirill: Did you make any changes in any of the rooms as the story unfolded?

Niamh: Not so much in this instance. Often one of the biggest challenges on a single set is showing the passage of time but with ‘Before I go to Sleep’ almost the opposite was true as every day is the same yet every day is new for Christine.  Also part of the controlled nature of her circumstances meant that I felt her ‘husband’ would always be resetting things to keep the situation static. Like he does with the photo wall in the bathroom – its all very controlled

Kirill: Did you have any special approach to decorating the hotel room for the “before” / “after” sequences?

Niamh: This was a  really challenging set. Unexpectedly so – often when you read a script there are sets you know instinctively are going to be tricky and those you are going to love – but this one blind sided us somewhat. We wanted it very much to feel like the viewer could understand it was the same room though had had a big refurbishment. Also  all the special props for the ‘after’ scene and the fight sequence took a lot of work as the director wanted lots of options of things for the actors to work with and obviously that also means a lot of repeats for numerous takes. We had to get quite creative with how many items you can use as a weapon in a hotel room!

Also we ended up in an unavoidable scheduling scenario that meant that on wrap on the first incarnation of the hotel room we then had to leave the other sets we had been dressing and go and do a very late night redress into the ‘after’ hotel room. This meant prepping and doing a dry run of  the ‘after’ first to make sure it was perfect, then undressing it and redressing it to the ‘before’ so we were confident we could achieve the ‘after’ in an incredibly short dressing window.

Kirill: How would you compare decorating location and stage sets? Is there any difference worth of mention as far as the scope of what you do?

Niamh: They are very different animals. For me the physical logistics of a stage are so much more preferable. We have space to get our truck to the door, space to unload, space to lay out etc etc.  We also have more control over every aspect of the look of a space as often on locations there are restrictions about changing lighting or fittings, or hanging drapes or paintings. On the stage we can own it all.

On the sets of “Far From The Madding Crowd”. Courtesy of Niamh Coulter.

Kirill: Is it more interesting for you to decorate sets on period productions such as your recent work on “Far from the Madding Crowd”?

Niamh: I love doing period films. I find it much more interesting and I love all the detail and beauty you can find in the small things. “Far from the Madding Crowd” was an exceptional film to work on and probably one of the hardest I have ever done as so many of the sets were exteriors and we were constantly battling the elements but when I look at it now I am immensely proud of what my team achieved as I know how hard won everything was for us. We all wanted to make something beautiful and lasting and I think we did.

Kirill: Has it ever happened to you that you read a review of one of your productions and somebody pointed out that one of the pieces could not exist in that era?

Niamh: No and I’d be surprised if they could as I endeavor to be meticulous about that as are all my team. You have to be. Even if sometimes it means standing up to the director who wants something that is definitely not right but they are not concerned with period. Very occasionally when you are not on set or nearby an onset standby might put something on set that they have found at the location that is wrong and it ends on film. That’s maddening but it happens and you can’t be on set all the time. Generally Set Dec have to be the guardians of the period – we may not always get it right but for me it’s really important to be as accurate as you can be.

On the sets of “Far From The Madding Crowd”. Courtesy of Niamh Coulter.

Kirill: Now that you have monitors attached to the digital cameras, and that you don’t have to wait for the next morning to see the dailies, is it easier for you to monitor and tweak your sets?

Niamh: It does make it easier though its hard to see real detail in the on camera monitor and there are, and always have been monitors on set so you can dress to camera. I’m generally more one for actually looking though the lens to make sure I am happy with everything.

Kirill: Are you doing anything differently in the last few years where we have high definition cinema projectors and high resolution TV screens and it’s much easier for viewers to notice imperfections?

Niamh: I think with HD what becomes more of a challenge is the patina of objects within a set. Anything too new can look too zingy, anything too old can look too worn. It means we just have to try even harder to get it just right.

On the sets of “Far From The Madding Crowd”. Courtesy of Niamh Coulter.

Kirill: As you look at the productions that you’ve been involved with a few years ago, what stays with you and what fades away?

Niamh: What stays with me is when we achieved the unachievable – the market and gypsy fair in ‘Far from the Madding Crowd is the prime example. We had so many set backs from logistics to crewing issues with these 2 sets that we shot back to back with a redress – the most awful weather – sets collapsing and turning sets round and redressing in the dark, cold, driving rain. It was hard graft, but we did it and it worked.

I particularly loved the bear. I had badgered production for months on end – arguing that you would not have a Victorian Fayre like that without a bear – especially as a foil to the bare knuckle boxing in the scene. For weeks I was knocked back – it was too expensive. So I renegotiated with our animal handler who in turn renegotiated with the bear handler and so on and so on until eventually I wore production down and they agreed to the bear just to get me off their back!! On the day of the bear the crew were all cold and exhausted and frankly a bit fed up but despite that there was a real buzz as everyone was excited about the bear. The producer (Andrew MacDonald) pulled me to one side and joked that even if the bear never made it to screen it was worth every penny just to rally the shooting crew and the artists.

On the sets of “Far From The Madding Crowd”. Courtesy of Niamh Coulter.

Another thing that stays with me is some of the most magnificent properties in England that I have shot in. One of my most favorites was the main house we used for “Easy Virtue”. The Glasshouse attached to the house was simply magnificent. We shot in winter and the house and grounds were so atmospheric, every day was a bit of magic.

Also all the great people I have worked with, talented, brilliant people who are now my friends – one of the best blessings the industry has bestowed upon me.

What fades away always are all the things that you get so wound up about when you are stressed and the arguments that arise when you are all so worn and tired. Once the camera has rolled and the set is struck – whatever the off set drama was is wrapped with it.

Kirill: What are your thoughts in 3D productions? Will it continue to be confined to tentpole sci-fi productions, being more of a marketing gimmick? Do you see this enhancing the art of story-telling?

Niamh: For me I think its a bit of a gimmick – I don’t feel it naturally or inevitably enhances the art of telling the story but it does have a place. For example in ‘The Walk’ by Robert Zemekis,  the combination of the digital effects and the 3D were so compelling in making you feel that you were right there on the wire. I actually had vertigo for most of the sequence. It was an incredible piece of work in that regard.

Kirill: As a professional yourself, can you relax and enjoy a movie when you go to the theater, or are you always looking at what your peers are doing at the technical level?

Niamh: Generally I can relax and enjoy though it doesn’t mean I’m not looking! I can recognize exceptional work that my peers have done and try to learn from it – equally I can recognize ‘lazy’ set decorating which serves to remind me how hard I have to try to keep my work fresh and visually exciting and not fall back on set pieces or short cuts. If it’s a film that I have done it will take me 2 or 3 sittings to be ‘watching’ the film as a whole and not just looking at it and dissecting every frame.

Kirill: What’s next for Niamh Coulter?

Niamh: Let’s wait and see. I’m happy for now spending some time at home and designing and decorating commercials and waiting to see what comes next that excites me. A film is such a big commitment time wise that, for me, it has to be a film I really believe in to justify the time that I miss out on with my kids.
In the meantime ‘The Lady in the Van’ is out this week which is exciting as it was another John Beard collaboration and has turned out really well – another great team and another job well done!

On the sets of “Far From The Madding Crowd”. Courtesy of Niamh Coulter.

And here I’d like to thank Niamh Coulter for graciously finding time in her busy schedule to answer a few questions I had about her art and craft, and for sharing the background materials for the interview.