A Day in the Life of Mercy Street's Set Decorator
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Mercy Street's Set Decorator Marthe Pineau is the tireless force behind so many of the details that transport the viewer back to the 1860s. In this post, she shares her love of period pieces and her Season 2 field notes. Learn more about Marthe's work on Mercy Street here.
It has been revealed to me over the years, why I’m so captivated by the medium of film; it has been suggested that human beings create their own identity by way of the narrative form, by way of storytelling. Images have a powerful way of creating a narrative experience which can shape our memories for a very long time. The narrative is also an on going, living, breathing tool that has the ability to explore our world and give us fresh perspective and insight to the subjects which are being explored.
As Set Decorator of Mercy Street, telling the story of our collective history is as compelling today as it’s always been; I have the opportunity to tell this story by way of providing the visual setting, the visual details which are not only appropriate for the story but are also natural to the eye. The work is breathtaking in scope and exhausting in execution all the way through to each set’s realization. I’m grateful and respectful of the entire process; the creative work, the technical and logistical processes which make up the backbone of my department.
Our work is rigorous and demanding, but in the end, it is deeply satisfying. If I have achieved any measure of success through my work, it is because the sets which we have pulled together look natural, unassuming and yet support every aspect of the story which we are telling. I have drafted a brief outline of how a typical day unfolds in my world and how the processes mentioned are put into play every moment of our working day.
I often start my day at 4:00 a.m…sometimes earlier, depending on the day’s call time. A ritual pot of morning coffee is prepared: a ½ cup of freshly ground coffee is dispensed into my 30 year old Melitta white porcelain cone. This sits on top of its counterpart, the matching white porcelain coffee pot.
I watch bleary eyed as the hot water pours over the roasted grounds, turning it into a rich, foaming head of mocha cream as it drips into the pot…the deep aroma shifts my foggy head into my waking world.
Thankfully, this works to jumpstart my mind each and every day. With a fresh brew at my elbow, I begin to review the script pages on the day’s call sheet, compile all notes required for the day’s tasks, draft sketches for custom fabrication of set dressing needed in the days and weeks to come; whether it be the alteration of a 19th century carved bed, creating an exotic Chinese game board for a particular story point, the design and manufacturing of Union army cots and palettes for the Quarantine tent, a custom fabricated tin tub with specific dimensions required not only for modesty but for a specific bit of action required for the scene. The list goes on and on; the script requires free standing lanterns in the Quarantine tent both electrified versions and oil filled versions, a breakaway medical cabinet with all of the breakaway beakers and apothecary bottles contained within.
“A note to the buyers: we must get the breakaway bottles ordered today…the window on delivery is rapidly closing in on us!”
Furniture for a first class train interior must be fashioned out of a “found” Victorian parlor set, gimbaled interior train lighting was fabricated out of 19th century lamp parts and brilliant Leadman, Craig Taylor came up with the custom gimbal for these wall sconces.
The mind no longer has the luxury of focusing on a single moment before the day breaks; it starts to spin with the ideas, the details, the logistical planning and the daily mandates required of the job by way of the director, the writer, the cinematographer, the production designer...etc. etc. etc.
Before I head out to the Set Dec Warehouse, I send out a group text to my team; a punch list of notes, an outline of the days work, sketches for fabrication projects. I head out of my flat armed with a 40lb tote bag, my traveling office. I arrive at the warehouse at 6:00 am, with my team, my crew of professional set dressers, buyers, drapers and craftsmen. We cover the notes, pack trucks, begin and complete numerous and overlapping maufacturing projects. I check in with the scenic painters next. They’ve got a production line of custom work to complete; army cots, palettes, crates of all sizes, stacks of custom made ticking mattresses and rows of standing lanterns that need distressing, paint and patina.
We discuss all the nuances that are required to breath authenticity into a brand new bit of manufactured product so that it reads as something that exists in the world prior to 1862. After making the rounds in the warehouse, I head out to open set. Various points of continuity are discussed with our capable On-Set Dresser, Keith Jackson. I often compare the on-set dresser’s role to that of a Picasso painting; the sets are completely disassembled during the course of shooting, similar to an abstract piece of art, and in the end, put back together again during the editing process in such a way as to reveal many points of view in one scene. Keith works tirelessly with the unit to achieve this goal. When adjustments are made per rehearsal, the sets made ready for shooting, my team and I are off to dress multiple sets and locations spanning from Richmond to Petersburg.
As a creative team, all set dressing details are attended to within a very busy day, indeed. On any given day, my team and I are dressing and delivering multiple sets, working on custom fabricated items of set dressing required for a scene, a location, for our story. Back at the warehouse, draperies, upholstery, hospital linens, including the hand towels are constantly being made: all fabrics are washed, dipped and distressed accordingly.
“Note to the drapery team and the scenics: let’s re-dip and add more distressing, more blood spattering to all hospital linens from Mansion House Hospital and let’s go much further with our distressing and aging with regard to the quality of linens which will be seen in our Quarantine Tent this season.”
The design and fabrication of furniture, draperies, special lighting, lean-to’s, encampments, farmsteads, mansions, battlegrounds and plantations are crammed into our long days. After spending 12 hours out in the field, I often head back to the office to breakdown a script, redraft a budget due for the next episode…it’s already nipping at my heals…
‘”How can this possibly be? We’re over our heads with the roll out of the existing episode, with a multitude of rain cover sets which are due to accommodate the unit…and the unrelenting rain…when will it stop? The weather has been most uncooperative and now, prep on the next episode must begin!” Despite the gloom and doom scenario playing out in my head, the work always gets done…this astounds me, but it’s a fact.
As I recall the endless days of rain, I’m still grateful for brilliant Leadman Craig’s managing to wrangle the unit's only 4 wheel drive stake bed for Berkeley Plantation…it was the only way to ferry furnishings and dressing to our sets through the rivers of muddy roads located throughout the fields and woodlands of that rugged plantation along the James River. During the worst week of rain, Craig headed up the dressing of the battlegrounds and the Union Army Encampment. I was on the other end of Berkeley Plantation, dressing the Quaker Farm. The stake bed was called upon to pull out many a stranded production vehicle during the rainy, muddy days of shooting while at this location.
I’m grateful for the incredible team which I have the pleasure of working with throughout the course of the series, both from Season 1 and Season 2; Craig’s down to earth professionalism, armed with many years of skill, is instrumental in getting the job accomplished. The buyers, the drapers and the set dressers bring their A game, day in and day out, despite the on going challenges of this visually demanding series. The objects, the things, the dressing that we bring to each and every set, support not only the time period of our story but are part of a larger narrative which shape the atmosphere, the mood and the action of our story.
After 4 months of dedicated, hard work on Season 2, I believe we have a very interesting story to tell, indeed.
Season 2 sketches come to life