Set Decorator & Buyer, Shannon Hart talks to REEL Ladies. Shannon has worked on films such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Tears of the Sun, What’s the Worst that Could Happen, and more! Shannon talks about the misconception of set decorators, her “ah ha” moment, and her latest role as Producer on the film project, Ladies Who Lunch.
RL: Tell us your story of how you got involved with film?
SH: I had just finished building a dinosaur exhibit at a children’s museum in Vermont which included replacing one side of dinosaur “skin” on a large prop Tyrannosaurus head supposedly used in the first Jurassic Park movie. On opening night, a patron of the museum said that the exhibit looked like it should be in the film and mentioned there was a film company in town. I was immediately intrigued by the idea and somehow found the number to the local production company and soon went to work in the art department as an intern.
RL: How did you know that this was what you wanted to do?
SH: It wasn’t that I knew this is what I wanted to do…it was more like “oh, so this is what I should be doing”. Working on my first film was one of those moments in life where all the work I had been doing up to that point finally made sense. I had a weird combination of skill sets; fashion design and pattern making, graphic design and construction management. I could upholster furniture, hang wallpaper, arrange flowers and always had a knack for getting the best deals at local antique auctions. On my first film every one of those skills came in handy. It was definitely one of those “ah- ha!” moments.
RL: A lot of set decorators have an interior design background, did you go that route?
SH: I always seemed pretty crafty in the interior decorating/design arena, but had no formal design training.
RL: What is it about being a decorator that calls to you?
SH: It’s really fun to be able to create a multitude of interiors in a short period of time. I think set decorating and art department projects in general fit my personal need to be a creative multi-tasker. It’s also really fun to get involved in projects that require extensive research (such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Tears of the Sun). It’s a great creative challenge to get into someone else’s territory and work to create realistic sets that fit an entirely different time or place. It never seems to get dull because there is always something new to do or learn.
RL: Your very first project, what was it and how did you book it?
SH: The Spitfire Grill, starring Ellen Burstyn and Marcia Gay Harden, was my first film. Offering to work for free was the way to go for me. I was put on the payroll 2 weeks after the first day of my intern position. From then on I was very strategic about building my resume – getting into the East Coast IATSE Union on my second film (which included a significant pay increase) then joining the LA IATSE Chapter on my 3rd project.
RL: Can you explain to the ladies exactly what a set decorator and buyer does?
SH: This depends on the film and budget as well as the team you are working with. For example, on a larger film the buyer is often the one who is out pulling much of the set dressing items from the prop houses, spending the money at the stores and helping organize merchandise pick-ups and returns. Sometimes, you get specific direction and sometimes you don’t other than being told to buy a lot and to make sure that what you buy will work. Decorating a larger film is less about picking out throw pillows and more about managing the monumental task of organizing a large crew and budget to make sure that everything gets to where it needs to be when it needs to be there and looks the way it’s supposed to look. It’s also about being prepared for last minute changes and obstacles. In my case, I’ve had the incredibly good fortune of working with the same few people for most of my career, so we know each other well enough to be able to switch on autopilot and just go for it…and that covers every aspect of set decorating whether it be making drapes, building a refugee camp or buying period-appropriate fire buckets for a pirate ship. We often divvy up the projects being pretty confident that what needs to be done will get done right (and on time) since we tend to know who is best at what task. On smaller films, the buyer and decorator often are one in the same. The decorator does most of the buying.
RL: Is there any specific training or classes that one should take if they are interested in this area of film?
SH: Most of my home construction, decorating and sewing skills really come in handy, so I would say that knowing as much about that sort of thing is a good thing – especially on low budget films where you typically do a lot of the work on your own. I also recently took an intensive visual effects class that taught me how to produce green screen shoots. This has really helped me understand the mechanics of designing scenes where the sets are CG and created in post.
RL: Is there anything that you wish you would have done early on in your career?
SH: No. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunities I have been given in the industry. I was a single mom for several years and working on union films gave me the opportunity to do one feature a year (late spring to fall) and make enough money to be a stay-at-home-mom for most of the school year. I managed a bi-coastal existence choosing to raise my son in a quiet little town on the coast of Maine and work on films in Los Angeles. So, a huge ” thanks” to those who originally hired me (Larry Dias, Peter Borck and Howard Cummings) and continued to hire me over the following 10 year period.
You’ve worked on some pretty big projects, how do you find your work? Most of my projects were booked through the original group of art department guys from my first film as well as additional work relationships created through them.
RL: Where are some places that you buy from?
SH: I shop everywhere. Depending on the project, that could mean anything from thrift stores, high end furniture houses, antique markets to a local Target. I have also shopped international markets.
RL: What is a misconception about set decorators?
SH: That we are mainly there to fluff the pillows and make things look pretty. In reality, the job is more about budgeting, scheduling, dealing with design input from a multitude of sources and knowing how to pull together anything from an authentic African village to an onscreen celebrity wedding… overnight. Often times, we’ll be working like crazy to get something done on time when, at the last minute, the producers will announce a sudden schedule change which requires us to drop everything and move onto something else and rush to get that ready on time. It can get really intense.
RL: You’ve also worked as a Production Designer, that’s a lot more responsibility, how do you handle that?
SH: I really enjoy production design because it gets you closer to the core of the production. In my case, it has meant having close, creative relationships with some very talented people who have taught me a lot about successful filmmaking.
RL: What was your favorite project to work on?
SH: In the Bedroom was my favorite film of all. It was one of those rare, small projects where the core group of people were all brilliant – Todd Field, the director, brilliant!! His wife Serena, brilliant! Sissy Spacek, brilliant! Ross Katz, the producer, was also really great and the rest of the cast were incredibly talented. It was a rocky production for sure, but when I saw the film on screen, it took my breath away – like Andrew Wyeth meets Alfred Hitchcock. To me, Todd’s movie was a piece of art. The film wound up being nominated for 5 Academy Awards and I felt so proud to be a part of the project that I decided (then) that if I never did another film again, that would be okay.
RL: Were there any moments in your career that you wanted to throw in the towel?
SH: Yes, there have been several times that I just said “That’s it, I’ve had enough!”. It’s really hard to have any life outside of filmmaking when you’re in the middle of it, but after a break, I always come back. I really love it.
RL: How did you get past that?
SH: I would pass on a few projects, turn off my cell phone and take a few months off to tend to the other things in my life.
RL: You’ve recently written and produced your own project, tell us about that.
SH: I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in an intense feature length project that was the vision of a group of Polish women all in their mid-eighties. Ladies Who Lunch, is a film that tells the real life survival stories of these women who were all taken from their homes as children during WW2 and sent to Siberian labor camps. We are animating the historical recreations to better portray their stories through the eyes of a child – so this is where my visual effects training is really coming in handy. Our fund-raising promotional trailer can be seen at http://www.aparatfilms.com, but keep in mind that the animation in the actual film is much more stylized.
RL: I went to the website, it seems like an intense project, what spurred you to do this one?
SH: They found me actually, and I am thrilled to be involved in helping them tell their incredible stories. Plus, I get to art direct the project as well and art directing animated segments is really fun – the sky is the limit.
RL: Do you like the role of writer and producer?
SH: I really love it and my “type A”, multi-tasking personality traits (a direct result of working in feature film art departments) are really coming in handy. I’ve recently been asked to help produce an independent horror/suspense film project called Shadows in the Dark, and I think I’m going to give it a go.
RL: What is your ultimate goal in the industry?
SH: I seem to be gravitating towards producing, but still hope to do more Production Design and Decorating. Some epic, period piece would be fun.
RL: What would you like to see from women in film?
SH: I would love to see more women directors.
RL: How can the ladies get a hold of you for projects?
SH: The best way to reach me is through my LA voice mail service which is at #323-769-5300.