Never Eat the Set Dressing


I learned some valuable lessons when I worked in the film industry.

One afternoon I was working on a set dressing crew as their artist. I would age stuff, make stuff looked used or create objects that looked real, but weren’t. This particular day I was working with Stinky Larry. Everyone called him that because he didn’t wear deodorant. By the end of the day he really earned the title. I wonder though if anyone actually called him this to his face? I dunno. I didn’t.  

Larry and I were to create a masterminds laboratory. We had to make human specimen jars, though we had no human parts to put in them. I decided we should go to the grocery store to make do with what we could find in the meat and vegetable department. I bought cauliflowers and carrots, beef livers and chicken gizzards and a plethora of human-like objects to put in our large specimen jars. We added food coloring so the idea of rot and deterioration would be assumed. Our scientist was a mad one. Outside at the location of our pretend lab I was busy filling the jars with water from a garden hose as Larry set up a table to dry the jars and add authentic looking labels.

Our location was the old Timme Corporation building. Inside this huge building were other movie sets being built and construction and paint crews from various productions in town. When you walked inside the building was massive. Most of the inner bones had been removed to make room for machinery and crews to erect their own fly-away walls and interior scenes. Our lab was in the front of the building near the entrance where some of the old offices had been left intact.

Hugh Scaife was the Production Designer on this film. He also ran the prop house that was located on the back-lot at the film studio. He had provided the lab with authentic looking lab specimen jars. They looked like the ones you’d buy bulk pickles in. I was daunted at the thought of making them appear full.

I filled each jar halfway with water from the hose. Then I unpacked my various items right there on the sidewalk. I took great pains to make the cauliflower look like a brain by splitting it with my packing knife and then putting it back together backwards with toothpicks. I feel I was quite successful. I made more than one brain. To me these jars were a macabre art project and I wanted people to really feel like they were seeing human body parts. The beef liver and the chicken parts became a man’s liver and eyeballs. I was delighted and tickled with creativity.

Once I had the parts looking the way I wanted I carefully finished filling the jars with water. I then squeezed drops of yellow and blue and red food coloring and gently rocked the jars until the colors were uniform.

Voila! Specimen jars any Production Designer could be proud of.

As I completed each jar to my satisfaction Larry would take it from me, dry it off and then place a carefully hand-printed label on each one. He would take it inside to our lab and find a nice spot for it to be displayed on the counter-tops and shelves. We made about thirty jars of fake body parts. They completed the look of the lab. It gave me goosebumps.

When we were finished we got called away to work on our next location. The production crew, which consisted of locations people, Hugh and the Director, were touring sites that day and the lab was on their itinerary. I walked away proud and quite full of myself.

Close to the end of the day the Leadman, Steve, approached me. He wanted to know if I had anything to do with the labeling of the jars in the lab. Well, I hadn’t, that was Larry’s job. It would seem Larry had labeled one of the jars “David’s Brain”. David was the Director. I secretly hoped it was one of my better looking brains, but I didn’t tell Steve that. Hugh was furious! He said he had never been so embarrassed by a set dressing crew in his entire career. He told Steve to fire both of us.

I can’t remember if we got fired, or not. I think perhaps we got punished though. Or maybe we were fired and punished. The wrath of Hugh was famous and long lasting. If memory serves me well, I heard in later years that David, upon seeing his brain, actually laughed. He thought it was funny. Props to Larry for being such a renegade.

Another film had me meeting the Set Decorator one morning on a Hot Set. A Hot Set is one where the shooting crew is still working. Because of continuity nothing on the set is to be moved or touched until they have finished shooting a scene. For the Art Department to enter a Hot Set is taboo.

He asked me to bring along my handy spray I used for many things when I performed my craft. I had a concoction of baby oil and glycerin mixed with a bit of soap in a spray bottle and when someone said “make it shiny” I could do so with a few trigger pulls. The soap added in made it easier to remove the oily substance from set dressing items we had rented and would need to return unscathed at the end of production.

He led the way through the forbidden set and pulled a bakery bag out of his pocket. He had stopped that morning and picked up fresh baked black and white cookies. I was thrilled that he had brought a snack until he opened the top of a beautiful glass cake plate and began to arrange them. That’s when I figured out what the spray was for. “Make them just a bit shiny” and so I did. He told me that for the past few days he had to constantly replace the cookies and have them shined because some idiot in the shooting crew was EATING THEM! Oh my, I bet that person was right regular if not completely “diarrheal” throughout that whole movie. Cookies covered with glycerin, a bit of baby oil and soap can act like a supersonic colon cleanse on the heartiest of folks.

He told me that one rule of decorating a set was “Never eat the set dressing” because you never know where it’s been or what they’ve done to it.

My friend Angie  came to visit me a while back and we got the chance to look through all of my old photo albums and reminisce. She told me that the worst movie set she had ever been exposed to was my pretend lab with those awful specimen jars. Shooting on that production had run behind so that set had to remain intact until they were complete. The jars, which were not hermetically sealed, had begun to rot. As big as the Timme building is, you could smell my handiwork in every corner. It was putrid. She said the other film crews repeatedly called our production to dismantle that set and finally someone did. I don’t know who got that honor though because I think I had moved on to another production out of town. I’m sure though had I been close by, Steve would have made me come in and clean and pack those jars up, off the clock.

It’s funny how the Art Department can take the oddest of items and transform them into the focal point of any room. I look at films differently than someone that has never been behind the scenes. I can appreciate the effort taken in any location to take the watcher on a journey planned and executed by any means possible. I know the love and dedication involved. I have been privileged to have worked with these artisans.

I guess there are beautiful things in this world of film making. Artfully arranged cookies, sparkly colored body parts and delightfully shiny objects. The nuance and skill of anyone working in this mysterious, yet glamorous and coveted business is out of the box on any given day. They can take the smallest and the most insignificant and make it explode on your screen at home with color and beauty and heat. They can dig into your soul and make you cry with just the flip of a window treatment or the color of a wall. They shop and they agonize and they plan and all of their efforts are rewarded with the final shot of their contribution to a project well done.

There might be movie stars on board any film. But they can’t hold a candle to the members of the Art Department. They are the backgrounds of our lives. They put together our existence with rainbows and give us fantasies in technicolor. The Art Department comes like a ghost in the night and works magic beyond any fairytale. The shooting crew shows up in the morning and they are transformed to another land or to another time. The Art Department returns when the project wraps and they gather their work, their illusions, their commitment to make this project gold. They clean it and they pack it all up and ship it to the far corners of the world.

They are the dreamers.

They are the artists.

They are the bones of every film ever made.

Dedicated to Hugh Scaife. He is missed.

About Madeline Scribes

A writer with a sense of humor. If anyone can laugh at life, it's me.
This entry was posted in All kinds of Advice and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Never Eat the Set Dressing

  1. He was definitely a great source of really good stories too. 🙂


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