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Interview with Katha Seldman

An art director sets the scene for this historical documentary.

Katha Seidman, Art Director

I'm Katha Seidman and I'm an art director. For the Grant project, I worked on helping set up the scenes and choosing what they would look like. I've been a painter for about 30 years, so I know a lot about composition and a lot about color relationships and objects. So I have a sense of what kinds of objects will do for what scene and what kind of character they describe.

My husband works for NOVA. The first project I worked on was a documentary about The Scarlet Letter, the one that I was really an art director for, and we shot it up at Pioneer Village in Salem, [Massachusetts] and so that was at a museum, so they had all the objects we needed, just about. And the next one I really worked on was the NOVA Einstein Revealed. And so I got involved through my husband, and his friends. I needed a job, and I needed something besides painting to make a living and because I could make aesthetic choices pretty quickly, it was pretty straightforward. It was a very simple transition, although obviously I still paint.

Julia's party
This was a dinner party that Julia gave every couple of weeks to people who were -- she and Grant were cultivating them. So Fisk and Gould came a lot. And some of these people were very involved in the scandals that Grant was later involved in. So one of the things we were trying to show is that Julia was really engaged in impressing other people, enjoying her wealth, enjoying her position, and Grant was a little uncomfortable with that. He didn't quite know what to do in that situation.

Dinner Party Shoot Location
We filmed this scene in Dedham, Massachusetts at Mabel Herwig's house. She and her husband have lived in this house I don't know how long, but they've collected many things, so it was full of all kinds of Victorian objects and chinoiserie, and we had to move everything out of her living room into the rest of the house. Fortunately, it was summer, so we could be outside and not in her way while we were filming. I found her originally because she was recommended to me to do period flower arrangements, which I thought was really important because they actually looked quite different from anything we would imagine as flower arrangements now. The vases were different. They were very tall and thin, and the flowers were much more delicate. They didn't have big hybrids the way we do now, so I wanted to make sure that that was reasonably accurate, that we didn't get too far afield in that look.

Planning the Overhead Shot
We had a series of shots that we wanted to get. We knew what they were, and I had to build the set around those requirements. One of the shots we were going to do was while the camera was on a rolling tripod on tracks there's a big arm that comes off the camera. And the cameraman sat on top of that jib arm and was pushed along so that he was looking straight down at the table. And what was significant about that is the table couldn't be too wide, but it had to be wide enough to accommodate the stuff. If it was too wide, you would see too much on the sides of the table which we didn't want to do, and if it was too narrow, we couldn't get the stuff on. It had to be the right length and so on, so we built it out of plywood and put it up on sawhorses. And another thing that we did was we were going to use chairs, but chairs have backs, and if you're shooting horizontally across people's backs, all you're going to see is the chair backs. So everybody sat on apple boxes.

Laying the Tablecloth
In this scene with the tablecloth, we actually used a real table because you can see the surface of the table. It's not a very big table, actually. It looks very big because of the way it's shot, but it's actually not very big. It took five people to make that tablecloth come down smooth. The person who lifted it up, she gathered it up towards her on the end of the table, and she threw it, and two of us had the table ends, one on either side. Two people with fans blowing underneath it lifted it up and caught with the wind of the fan and laid it down. We shot it in slow motion, so that it has this really lovely lift and fall and it was really funny. We said, God, it took us five people to lay the tablecloth.

The Dinnerware
We wanted to set the table so we could set the scene of Julia living in this White House and this was her dinner party, and were fortunate. We chose the location partly because a lot of these objects were there. We wouldn't have to rent them. Renting period objects is very expensive, so Mabel was very generous in allowing us to use her china and her silverware and she had the period appropriate stuff. We couldn't really get White House china because it has a crest on it and it's - it's very complicated to do that, and very expensive. So we chose something that wouldn't be too distracting. It would be very simple but was period appropriate.

Setting the Table
When we started to do research for this scene, we looked at what kinds of place settings they would have had, and we also looked at what kinds of serving dishes and what kinds of things they would have eaten. And in the middle of all the tables at this period, they had lots of things that we wouldn't necessarily assume would be on the table throughout the meal. They had tiered fruit bowls. They had tiered things with nuts and cookies and stuff, and they were just sort of there, maybe not the cookies throughout the meal, but nuts and fruit would have been there as part of the centerpieces, so I wanted it to be really colorful. I mean, I'm a painter. I like color. And one of the ways that I do art direction is I use color to paint with. It's really important that if you're going to have a white tablecloth, you have other colors to put in relation to them, unless you really are choosing a white on white image, which sometimes is appropriate.

The Name Tag Scene
In this scene, we had a group of people who were vintage dancers, the equivalent of re-enactors, but they're dancers, and they make their own costumes. All the clothing that you see in these scenes were made by the people who are wearing them. They came to us because we had originally thought we were going to do a ball scene and we didn't. We did this dinner party scene instead. And the woman who's wearing the maid's costume fabricated that costume using books that she had from the period. One of the things that was really interesting, the story that they told, was when they introduced hoop skirts to the house staff, many generations of china were broken because it's very hard to maneuver with these hoop skirts. These were very crowded spaces, and lots of stuff got crashed. So she made her costume and we wanted to use the place cards to indicate that there were specific people at this party. We have Fisk and Gould. We had people who would have been at any given dinner party, and we wanted to identify them.

Julia's Clothing
We didn't use Julia Grant's clothing as a model because we didn't really have anything to match it to. But we looked around for a period dress of the right color, and we chose blue because it's a very elegant color, and we were going to have a lot of reds in the scene. There's a lot of pink and red Victorian glass, and I wanted to make sure that it wasn't too red or too warm, and it turned out that that color actually looked beautiful on her, so it worked very well. The vintage dancers that we worked with are very interested in accurate materials, and this was a chiffon silk over a regular silk. The layering turned out to help us a great deal because it gave them something to do when we took a full-length shot of Julia and the maid to include them both in the same frame. She could lift up the upper layer of silk and fluff it down, and it looked very believable.

The Necklace Scene
We had the woman who made the dress for Julia also bring some of her period jewelry, and she has very lovely jewelry. We again didn't want to try to match anything that Julia had. We didn't really know what that was. There aren't any lists of her jewelry. So we used what she had worn, and it turned out to be this beautiful pendant that you could put on her and it would look beautiful. A lot of what we were doing was, again, just establishing that she was loving where she was.

Julia Getting Ready
In this scene, we wanted to set the stage for the dinner party. Julia hadn't been introduced much in the film, and we wanted to make a place for her. She loved to be in the limelight, in the wealth of the center of the country and so we wanted to show her getting ready and enjoying that whole process. And one of the ways you show people enjoying that process is they have lots of objects that they can be surrounded by.

The Boston prop scene
In Boston, we don't have prop shops. You have to go to antique dealers. If they have them, you have to convince them to rent it to you, usually for a period of a week, and it's a percent of value. So often it's 20%. Some people are very generous and it's 10%. Some people love public broadcasting and let you borrow it, which is always nice to find. But finding it is very complicated, and one of the things about working in the art department is that you have to explain to people, producers, that every object has three costs associated with it -- finding it, renting it, returning it. And it seems as though you shouldn't have to pay three times for the same object, but that's how it works. In other locations, London, New York, LA, they have big prop shops where you can go and they have multiple floors of all different kinds of props and you can just pick and choose. It's a different situation in Boston.

Finding the Props
Getting ready for this scene, I had to go to western Mass[achusetts] where there are these antique dealers who have warehouses. And they have a warehouse full of all kinds of stuff, the most amazing stuff. And they had a floor with boxes of Victorian glassware, and I got to go and unpack all this glassware and choose the pink stuff, the yellow stuff, did this sit with that? And then of course we came to how much it was going to cost and I didn't quite get as much as I would have wanted, but it was really fun. I felt like a kid in a candy shop. That is one of the most enjoyable parts about being an art director. You discover these sources and they have everything you want plus some.

A Successful Shoot
This shoot actually went really smoothly. We had a wonderful time. Nothing bad happened. I've never been on a shoot where really bad things have happened, partly because I spend a lot of energy making sure that everybody is very careful, people don't go too fast. There are a lot of very valuable breakable objects, and I make sure that when people are bringing in lights, that they stay far away from the props. You are bringing in somebody else's very valuable things to film, and you have to be really careful not to let them get broken. And as an art director, you want to be able to rent from these people again, so you don't want to have a lot of damage.

Click next for an Interview with editor Bill Lattanzi.


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