While viewers enjoy the detailed authenticity behind television shows that take place during another decade or century, a lot of effort goes into creating vintage sets that make the audience actually believe they have been transported back to that time period. This is why a production designer’s job can often be challenging! Mediabistro interviewed Emmy-Award-winning production designer Michael Wylie and Emmy-Award-winning set decorator Halina Siwolop for Showtime’s provocative series, Masters of Sex. Based on the lives of research team William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, the period drama returns for a third season this summer.
Wylie is a veteran production designer, working on shows like Grimm, Californication, Pushing Daisies and The Tick. For Masters of Sex, his job is to create a look from the late 1950s and early 1960s — even when the series is shooting exteriors in modern-day Los Angeles. He collaborates with Siwolop and her shopper, Eva Firshein, who buy and rent all of the show’s set dressing.
How did each of you get into set decorating?
Michael Wylie: I got into the business completely by accident. I came to Los Angeles to try and get into show business on the production side of things. I ran into a friend from high school who was working on one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and he said they were looking for people in the art department. I worked a couple of days and was hooked. I worked my way up from the bottom of the department. At some point, I moved to New York City and presented myself as an art director. I had never art directed anything. I got work in commercials and that led to work on television and that led to meeting [filmmaker and TV director] Barry Sonnenfeld and that led to working on “Pushing Daisies” and — voila! — a career is made overnight!
Halina Siwolop: A few years after graduating college and feeling unfulfilled working in marketing, I enrolled in the UCLA Environmental and Interior Design program offered through their Extension Program. Towards the end of my schooling, I had the opportunity to be a production assistant on a commercial, and that’s when I decided I wanted to pursue set decoration rather than interior design. I loved all the energy of working on a production crew and the fact that you have the opportunity to create and decorate such a wide variety of environments. My first few jobs were unpaid until I could prove my worth to those who hired me. I am thankful that a few people took their chances on a recent design graduate.
What does a typical day on set consist of?
MW: My day consists of getting to work around 7 and meeting with the crew. There are several art directors who, once the sets are designed, go about making sure all the work gets done. They oversee the construction department and make sure the sets are getting built on schedule and answer all the questions as they arise. The rest of my day is generally spent in meetings with writers or directors and scouting locations for the next episodes. I’m always one episode ahead. We have a different director for each episode, so I work with that person and prep while the rest of the crew shoots the current episode. It never ends.
HS: I usually have to juggle the creative side with the logistical, practical side of set dressing. I have a variety of meetings and scouts for each episode, and I also have to manage my buyer and leadman, who runs the set-dressing crew. Then I have multiple budgets that I need to generate and negotiate. Between all these responsibilities, I have to find time to design the set dressing and decide what items to put on a set. This also includes any manufacturing of furniture or drapery that comes up.
What is the biggest challenge of working on this show?
HS: Finding the appropriate set dressing for the period that is still in good condition. In television, there isn’t a lot of lead time. Luckily, we have wonderful vendors in Los Angeles who have great stock to pick from or can manufacture items for us within a couple of days. We use Etsy and Ebay — without them, we wouldn’t have been able to find some specific pieces of set dressing.
MW: I want to say the biggest challenge is budget. But it is actually time. There is never enough time. You want to make something look perfect and you know the camera is going to see every square inch of it and linger and you just wish there was another day or even another hour.
How would you describe the dynamic among the cast and crew?
HS: After two seasons, we have gotten to know each other and everyone really helps each other out. I especially work closely with the prop master to ensure that both he and I cover all bases. We also interact with almost every other department — construction, lighting, grip department, wardrobe and the assistant directors. It is definitely a collaborative effort.
MW: Since I am ahead of the shooting crew by a whole episode, I don’t get to spend much time with them, so I don’t know the actors very well and don’t have much of a relationship with them. In fact, I try to avoid them sometimes, because they sometimes have ideas about what their character would or wouldn’t have! If I took any of their input, I’d have a hard time keeping the show looking consistent over 12 episodes. I’d rather the writers tell me those things, because they know what’s coming up for a particular character, usually before the actor does.
The funny thing about this show is it would seem that with all of the sex [scenes] that we have to shoot that the crew would feel weird or odd about it. Nobody cares. It’s just another day on set.
What is the most fulfilling part of being on the show?
MW: Getting to work with this amazing team of technicians and crew members. A lot of us have been together for a while. I’ve worked with the same director of photography — Michael Weaver — and all our teams know each other’s needs really well. There is also the subject matter, and the period that is very gratifying. It’s a real pleasure to come to work every day.
HS: Being allowed to create a beautiful environment in an interesting time period. I enjoy the research and trying to capture the social and cultural atmosphere of that time. It makes me want to travel back in time — to when, on the surface, life appeared so simple.
What advice do you have for anyone interested in a similar career path?
HS: If you’re interested in set decoration, you need to wear a lot of different hats. You need to not only be a good designer, but also to work quickly and under pressure. You also need to be a diplomat. The main thing to remember is that you are part of a crew and that you need to help fulfill the wishes of the director and the writers, even if it means changing your designs. And then you need to be a numbers person and generate budgets. Finally, you should have a working knowledge of design and art history so you can communicate your ideas effectively. I’m a social history buff, and I love to know what was used when and for what reason.
MW: I see my job as a sort of writer. I come up with backstory and give visual life to characters. The way I see it is that my interpretation of a screenplay is mine. I can’t visualize something in any other way than it appears in my head. So I have learned to trust my instincts. It might be wrong sometimes but it is my interpretation and that’s what I was hired to do. It’s a hard lesson to learn. You want to please people. You want to be on-budget and be the hero, but sometimes you have to serve the story. I’m from the Midwest. Sometimes it’s against my nature to be assertive.
Susan L. Hornik eats, sleeps and drinks television and film. Follow her on Twitter @slh2346