We have now spent nine months under a kind of house arrest, and that reality has been tough enough. Many have spent the time upgrading their basements, garages, attics, kitchens and home offices. Not to mention, backyards have been transformed into amusement parks and “firepit” dining experiences. We also have been drowning in movie streaming, and suddenly people have been taking Hollywood sets and production values more seriously. I always wanted a set designer to be my interior decorator (much less asking famed Edith Head or Ann Roth to do my wardrobe).
I saw this trend starting in 2003 when Nancy Meyer’s Something’s Gotta Give caught everyone’s eye over Diane Keaton’s character’s Hampton Beach house (actual location 576 Meadow Lane, Southampton). Keaton won an Oscar but THAT house was the real star with its perfect beach front and interiors awash in sea blue. It represented THE Hampton lifestyle at that time. “It had the Hampton’s perfection of space, simplicity and austerity,” as described by set designer Beth Rubino. Everyone lusted for that house. Director Nancy Meyers soon became known for her housing interiors — all homey and familiar.
But the real feature of that movie was the “Hampton Kitchen.” Most Meyers’ movies have great kitchens, and she is supposedly a great cook. It was the Something’s Gotta Give kitchen that became the talk of New York stylists’ interior fanatics. As Beth Rubino says, “In a movie set, as opposed to a residence, you have to intrinsically build the entire lives of the characters. In a regular residence you’re creating the top layer of the environment; in a movie we do that but create the subtext as well.” Ah … movie magic!
Obviously, the actual Southampton house was used for exteriors — the interior and backyard were built on a Hollywood soundstage, and set designers created much of the furniture. The kitchen islands were built on casters so they could be wheeled out of the way as needed. The countertops were plywood painted to look like soapstone. And when filming wrapped, the entire set was dismantled. Props were auctioned off on eBay for charity. If only I could “strike” much of my actual home décor and closets in an hour.
If Something’s Gotta Give started New Yorkers craving movie sets to live in, Amazon’s recent The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (which won an Emmy for Production Design) got them reminiscing about certain great mid-century apartments. Especially the lead character Midge’s “Regency-meets-mid-century” Upper West Side pre-war apartment. It was complete with Dorothy Draper España chests, chinoiserie mural folding screens, and of course the perfect retro kitchen.
Maisel production veteran Bill Groom created a love affair with vintage in the apartment alone, much less the whole series. As he sees it, “The audience needs to feel at home and wants to be in a space you’re asking them to be in for an hour. Plus, good design is great no matter the period … remember you can’t pull off things in your actual house as you see on screen. We have tons of people involved. All that detail comes to life at the hands of far more assistants than you could ever have access to. I use a lot of rugs on rugs which doesn’t work in a real house — the corners get kicked up — but on a movie we have set dressers going in and out adjusting every detail. No one is tripping over any rugs. We get a second or third take if they do.”
The popular Maisel apartment building (used for exteriors) was the Strathmore (404 Riverside Drive). The series designers actually used the apartment floor plan and layout. It became so popular that Maisel fans would go visit the Strathmore like a shrine. The apartment created in the show would have run $462,000 in 1959. Today the value is $9 million. It was a deluxe ten room apartment and after “Maisel” appeared, people were asking for the availability of that 12N apartment (the model plan used in the show). It was never up for sale. Not even in the current Covid NYC exodus. But one can dream!
The ultimate set designing bonanza recently occurred with the popular Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit. Get this … the story is set cross-country in the 1960’s from traditional mid-century modern home in Kentucky … to a glitzy Las Vegas hotel room … to a basement brownstone in New York. And it was all shot in Berlin!
Without stepping a foot in the United States, Uli Hanisch (Berlin based production designer) decided to film the whole show in Europe (he used Toronto exteriors for American exteriors). Maybe Berlin and Hanisch gave the show that surreal “bluish” distant overtone. “A lot of this is not supposed to be beautiful, sometimes it’s a little bit terrible and sad.” Which is what gives Queen’s Gambit its remarkable edginess and genius. People were caught up in its weird landscape in general. The production pushed this series up and over in popularity.
Finally, we have the most popular HBO series (since Succession and Game of Thrones) — The Undoing. No question the Upper East Side high-end locations and sets became THE major focus. Not to mention seeing New York City pre-Covid (the series wrapped last March) in all its luxe and beauty.
“My initial thought was capturing the experience of walking in Central Park and looking at all those grand apartment houses and wondering what it was like,”explains director Susanne Bier. “Often times wealth is described in a very broad un-nuanced way so I wanted to make sure it felt individual.” She succeeded. Fans were obsessed with Donald Sutherland’s ballroom of a living room. His place was a mix of 1215 Fifth Ave (they used that canopy exterior) and a soundstage. His apartment looked like a gallery at the Frick Museum (which they also used). The enormous living room with wrap-around terrace overlooking the reservoir was based on a real apartment, but the homeowners “didn’t want 150 people walking in and out of their apartment, though they loved the idea of Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant in their living room,” says Bier.
Everyone I know who followed this series wanted to live in Sutherland’s interior for its sense of space, darkness and gorgeous art — very severe — it was a murder mystery after all. It conveyed Sutherland’s coldness and calculated personality.
This was a series of extreme close-ups. We all fell in love with Sutherland’s Mount Rushmore face — his giant white dragonfly eyebrows and his distinct pronunciation of the word “cocksucker” was a showstopper.
Hugh Grant did the performance of his life as a charming “aging” psychopath. He is still attractive, but his age has given him a new gravitas.
However, Nicole Kidman was another story. True, she plays an Upper East Side chic (who walks around town in a $4000 midi-length green velvet coat all day?) psychiatrist. The problem wasn’t her acting; It was her face work and, at times, her giant mass of hair (her trademark) was all you saw.
Unfortunately, her duck-injected mouth became a major distraction and people remarked about it constantly on social media. Maybe this was part of her portrayal since many Upper East Side women live on facial injections. But it became too much.
Kidman should take a cue from 86-year-old beauty Sophia Loren, who is the talk of Oscar buzz with her current Netflix film Life Ahead. Not only does Loren make a great return after ten years to star as an aging Holocaust survivor and childcare worker, she does it “au naturel.” No makeup! Aging spots, wattle and all. No hint of injection needed. Directed by her son Edoardo Ponti, her performance and sheer courage is spellbinding.
Especially with The Undoing, great New York City set designs make you want to live in one and to remember the glamour of pre-Covid memories. But sets are created for actors and camera angles — not real life. They are rarely livable. We know that!
Perhaps only producer Robert Evans ever really got to live in a movie set. It was the Woodland Estate built by John Woolf — THE architect of Southern California Regency style. Evans was 36 years old when he bought it. “Paramount put a million into it. An army of 60 studio engineers, carpenter, painters, electricians, and bricklayers expanded the pool house into a state-of-the-art screening room. It took them 3 months. It should have taken them 3 years.” In the end, he called his house “the best prop I ever had.” Last year he died at 89 and the house was sold for $16 million to David Zaslov, President of Discovery Inc. Zaslov is planning to restore the mansion to its former Hollywood glory days via White House decorator Michael Smith. Can you really restore Hollywood history? Time will tell.
And speaking of living in a set, in 1975 I was asked to interview director Alfred Hitchcock by French Vogue. He was the guest editor of an issue. He lived in a perfect replica of an English cottage in Bel Air. His living room had that “lived in” tufted old English style of giant armchairs and sofas.
I remember how his “barky” black Scottie bit me upon hello. Hitchcock looked approvingly at the dog and I awkwardly laughed it off. Apparently, that was part of the script. He showed me his enormous walk-in closet of 60 black suits — all the same. He assured me he never ever wore “leisure” attire. The man was in his black suit and tie during our Sunday afternoon interview.
After what could only be described as a brief conversation, he led me into his all-white lab of a kitchen. Not a single appliance was visible on any surface. Everything was hidden or put away (including his wife Alma who didn’t appear out of her room until my driveway exit). He told me he liked “clean and tidy — no telltale hints.” Finally, he directed me to his refrigerator and insisted I open it. Inside was a severed head. His own. No food, no drinks, no condiments. Just the severed head.
He laughed in a way that only Alfred Hitchcock could, while I croaked a queasy “Oh my God.” After which I planned my speedy departure. With Hitchcock I was a guest on his set, and after that I never really fantasized about living in a movie backdrop again.
Cut! Print it!