Hello ladies and gentlemen, your pal Muldoon here with this week's peek behind the scenes. This week I'm excited to introduce an incredibly talented Set Decorator, Monique Champagne. With a title like "Set Decorator" - you might be thinking "Muldoon, you fool! Sounds like someone who decorates sets..." And you'd be right, but let's take it a step further and find out what all goes into the decision making, the daily duties, the responsibilities, and the artistry involved in that position. Today's brief Q&A is full of great answers, and great stories. Monique has worked on a number of fun films and has run the gamut of super low budget to decent sized budget films - so there's plenty of great insight. Before we hop on into the Q&A, I would like to genuinely thank her for taking the time out of her schedule to shed some light for me/us here at AICN - it really is appreciated.
MONIQUE CHAMPAGNE - SET DECORATOR
As a Set Decorator, when are you typically brought on to a given production and roughly how much prep time do you typically get before production kicks off? Once you’re hired on a show, what are some of your responsibilities? A step further – let’s say you’re on a film (not TV show) – what are you in charge of exactly?
Decorators are usually brought on for prep with an allowance of time dependent on the budget. I usually decorate tier 1-2 budget films (1-15 million ish) with anywhere from 8-4 weeks of prep. Some really small films like to bring you on with no prep at all, making for very interesting panic shopping usually resulting in the dress complete right before cameras roll!
Once I am hired, my responsibilities run a pretty wide gamut of strange and random things! First, I hire my crew- a leadsman, buyer, set dressers, graphics person... After that I sort out a ton of logistical things that are quite boring- I will break down the script- pretty much read it over and over and map out a game plan- makes notes on sets that will be contentious, pinpoint hard to locate items, consider a budget. Then more operational things such as, where will our warehouse be, (where we store all of our stuff) what are our man days (how long we can keep our crew) whats our preliminary budget, etc. After we tech scout the locations- then its all about revising the budget, researching, shopping, game planing with my staff, and working with carious departments to coordinate the actual dressing of sets.
What aspects do you find most rewarding when it comes to decorating various sets? Are there any tasks associated with set dec that you find tedious or unenjoyably? Perhaps it’s dealing with clearances or product placement; maybe it’s limitations placed on you in some regard from higher ups? In other words, what are some duties that fall on your shoulders that aren’t glamorous, but are crucial to doing a good job?
What I find most rewarding is making a character come to life. When I read scripts I always have a vision in my head of that characters world. Decorating for me is just as much about the minutia as it is the grand pieces you'll find on a set. Every once in a while an actor will say it really helped them get into character and thats always badass. That's what I am there for. To make them feel as comfortable as possible - to make them feel like they are exactly where they should be. The closer I can get to real life the better. I always take pride in the shooting company showing up and not knowing we actually created the set. I also take very seriously the job of working with designers I respect and helping them bring a vision to life.
How many people typically work in your department and what are their duties in relation to yours? Do you typically get an assistant, a set dec buyer, or a leadman? In that same thought, what are some of the other departments that you find yourself typically working with and who specifically with them do you work with in depth?
The size of my team is contingent on budget but I usually run with a leadman (my right hand), 4-6 set dressers (the ones who actually do all the furniture moving, storing of dressing, organizing, and dressing of sets) 1 shopper/buyer and a teamster and a 5 ton.
What’s your background as far as training? Did you go to film school? Actually, what are your thoughts on going to College for film?
I gave film school a shot and dropped out pretty quick. I was not really learning on set skills. On top of that I was never that great in school. In fact, I'm still amazed that I graduated high school. I'm pretty sure I talked my way out of it. :p I'm sure it probably does benefit those who get into that kind of thing, but for me- I needed to get my hands on it. I always ran around with a camera and shot my own shorts- even before it was cool. I forced my friends to do things they all regret I'm sure- but we had so much fun- and that was my film school. I'd say that was my background and also just being someone who always paid attention to details. It's the details that fascinate me. My thoughts on going to college for film are probably the same as my thoughts on a lot of things- if you feel it in your heart, go do that thing. If you feel like you can pick up a camera and make shit happen, go do it- because you can. It doesn't take some skill taught in a classroom- It takes an appreciation for the beauty of things around you. At least that's what I think. So no, I do not believe you have to go to college to be a filmmaker.
Can you give us an idea of how you came to Set Decorating? Had you always had that specific title in mind or did it call out to you somehow? What got you excited about filmmaking in the first place and how did that interest roll into a career for you?
When I was 15, I ran away to LA to work on movies. I had a can of asparagus (gross) and about $65 in my backpack. I met a DP who pretty much saved my life from mayhem and bad choices- and he sorta helped put it in my head.. you can do this. It's a real thing. I was so young that if I remember correctly he called the cops to see if there was any way he could keep me without getting roughed up by the fuzz- but they were like oh hell no- you gotta get this girl back to her parents!! He would send me to his friends houses when he would have things to do I guess to keep an eye on me. Eventually I was police escorted to a plane which took me to live with my mom in Guam (my poor mom!) - Funny thing is, that guy Steven Fierberg and I eventually sorta lost touch. One day I was interviewing for a production design job with a couple of directors and a producer. I got the job and ended up in the office with the producer. She was on the phone one day when her voice struck a memory with me.. I knew something was strange upon meeting her but couldn't place it. When she got off the phone I said, "hey do you know Steven Fierberg" - We both just stared at each other.. She said "yyyyes" - I was like "um.. did he drop a runaway off at your place like 16 years ago..." It was wild. She was one of the friends who watched me one day. That was a really cool moment in time. Life is a ride.
But yea- part luck, part tenacity. After that I knew I would work on films one day. I was in Austin Texas working with Davis Mclarty who was married to a woman named Kay Colvin. She was this bitchin sound chick who I admired right off the bat. She got me on the set of a job she was on, and I remember my task was to get some really good tequila for the sound mixer. Somehow that turned into getting a call to PA on something and one thing lead to another... Eventually I was getting paid to get yelled at by 1st AD's about background and what not- working like 12-14 hour days at least! I stayed in production for awhile until I finally made my break into the set decorating and art department. That was a huge deal for me. I hated production and wanted badly to have a more creative outlet. I haven't really looked back. It's been the only career I've had.
Can you walk us through a typical day of prep, production, then wrap for you? I ask as 99% of the time, the fun “behind the scenes” extras primarily focus on set life, so I’m just curious about the other (shorter) stages where you’re involved.
It's pretty involved. Hard to explain in a way because the scope is so broad and ever changing. Lot's of research and shopping but aside from that A LOT of meetings! Tons of meetings. Every department really has to coordinate with one another so it just takes a lot of communication. Meeting with the locations dept, the SPFX dept, transpo, electricians.. shopping- getting art cleared, working with product placement. The list kind of goes on and on. We also are the only department outside of locations who deal with homeowners. That can be especially tough. I don't think people who allow films to use their homes know what is in store for them. We go in and remove their stuff, put our stuff in, then come back and put it all back together after the shooting company leaves. Often the place is in shambles. It's not the easiest situation to be in haha. We are always a day ahead and a day behind the shooting company. While they are shooting we are on the move- either striking the set they just shot or setting up the one they will shoot the next day.
You’ve worked on a decent amount of films in varying artistic positions. Out of your films, which three are you most proud of and for what reasons?
Hmm... I'm proud of Leonie. Proud of Benjamin Button (although it was not my favorite movie to see- kinda boring) our department won an academy award for that one. I thought it was visually beautiful. Proud of all the little indie shorts and music videos I've worked on pro bono. Those are the things that keep me going.. I don't do those things enough.
Do you have any stories from the trenches? I saw that you shot in Alaska for FROZEN GROUND, for example, and I can’t imagine filming in that weather was all too easy. Do you have any stories wherein you (example) were given zero prep time and had to dress a set, or perhaps an unprotected set had a key piece stolen, or… well anything really! I just see the general perception as “movie productions are made of money! They just buy their way out of situations left and right.” I’ve seen firsthand where lack of money isn’t the issue, that’s kind of what I’m curious about here.
Man, I feel like I have been in many a trench. I don't know.. too many to go into. Working in Alaska was a complete brain melt. I was lucky enough to have my good friend Markus Wittman come out as the leadman and we often would just stare at each other with total confusion haha. We were working on a film about a real serial killer - filming often in the very locations whereto actual crimes took place. I had to recreate the killers home, his basement.. his world. It was freezing, dark, lonely.. I really started to trip on that one. After that movie wrapped I found a picture of an old wooden schooner sailing across the world on the internet, taking on passengers here and there. I had been working non stop for years. I was so burnt out on 80 hour work weeks. I had not been in the sun for months. I wrote the skipper asking if he would take on an inexperienced sailor. One who in fact had NEVER been on a sailboat. He wrote back unexpectedly saying sure- and if I wanted to meet them I could catch them in South Africa soon after the film ended. I bought a ticket and ended up on a journey across the Atlantic on a sort of pirate ship with 5 kids I did not know. We went from Cape Town to Brazil where I eventually ended up being deported, but that's another day another blog :)
Ultimately though, being alone, away from my phone, my family, everything I knew- changed my life in ways I don't even try to explain. It was a necessary shedding of skin. It was sad and beautiful and empty and full, fun and completely frightening all at once. The day I got home I jumped on a movie. The very same day. It was "Exists" shot in Austin. I had the more fun on that movie than any other. Nothing like perspective...
Let’s say tomorrow you decide you’ve dressed your last set and decide to walk away from film forever – what profession would you look towards as a replacement? Or, as a child, was there a different job you thought you’d be at when you were older?
I'd be a lawyer. Or a private investigator lol. All of the investigating into people's minds I do I think would come in handy :)
As we wrap up, I’m hoping you might have some advice for the filmmakers in the audience. Specifically, what are some tricks that you think zero budget filmmakers should keep in mind? Also, speaking to the directors/production designers out there working on big productions, what are a few crucial things you wish they’d be more mindful of? I guess I’m asking with the professionals, what are some areas where you see money wasted or time wasted – or flipside – any lessons you’ve learned from efficient filmmakers that you think more people should be aware of?
Advice for filmmakers: If you want to make films- just go make films..
Advice for producers: This could take a long time!! Listen to the people who have experience and don't step over the dollar to pick up the penny. This phenomenon is rampant in this industry. It's crazy.
Last but not least, what are you currently working on?
"Beyond Deceit" starring Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins - with the very cool and talented production designer Bernardo Trujillo :)
Thanks for including me in your column Mike!
And there we have it, folks - an insight into the world of a Set Decorator. If you'd like to read more about Monique, then head on over to her website and take a look around! Thanks again, Monique. Best of luck with your current project and each and every one after it!
If you work in film or television and feel like shedding some light on what exactly your position entails, then please feel free to shoot me an email with the subject line "MTC - (Your Name) - (Your Position)." I'm not here to get scoops or dirt on anyone, simply here to educate and ask for advice to any of our filmmakers in the audience.
If you folks are interested in finding out what other positions on a film are like, then check out any of the links below:
- Mike McCutchen