STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Think of some famous movie backdrops, like Rick's smoky cafe in "Casablanca" or "Lincoln"'s cluttered White House office. A production designer came up with the overall look of those movie sets. But the details, like the booze on Rick's bar or the ink well on Lincoln's desk, required a set decorator to make them look just right.
NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg begins her annual series at Oscar time on Hollywood jobs.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: In the backyard of a pretty picket-fenced house in Los Angeles one chilly winter day, barren rose bushes start bursting with blooms.
KAREN O'HARA: White and yellow.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This will work.
STAMBERG: Set decorator Karen O'Hara and a helper wire silk roses onto the thorny branches.
O'HARA: Give me just one more, huh?
STAMBERG: This miracle in gardening is for the romantic comedy "Walk of Shame," with James Marsden and Elizabeth Banks. They'll shoot at this house the next day and everything has to be snip-shape.
As a set decorator carrying out the designer's vision, O'Hara can change the seasons at the whim of a script. One autumn, on location in Vermont to capture the glorious foliage, fall was late in coming.
O'HARA: So guess what? We flew in fall leaves and people were way up and wiring those leaves to the trees.
STAMBERG: Leaves, roses - piece of cake. Sometimes that's part of the set too. Set decorators usually start off at one of the big L.A. rental facilities, like the property department at Warner Brothers. It's vast.
(SOUNDBITE OF A PUBLIC ADDRESS SYSTEM)
STAMBERG: This is like walking through the furniture department of the biggest department store you ever saw and a lot of it has been really used.
Almost a quarter-million square feet, four floors. The dead bodies are in the basement with other medical stuff - gurneys, operating tables. There are miles of chandeliers, bedspreads, drapes, flags, everything you'd need to fill a movie set.
LAURI GAFFIN: So for the main character I think we have to look for the iron bed.
STAMBERG: Decorator Lauri Gaffin has to create 85 different sets for an upcoming film about artificial intelligence. Johnny Depp will star. Lauri's budget: $1.4 million. With her at Warner's today, Anthony Carlino, her lead man.
Does that mean you're the star of the film?
ANTHONY CARLINO: Yeah.
CARLINO: I work underneath the decorator and I hire all the set dressers.
STAMBERG: The dressers have a nifty title too: Swing Gang . They're the heavy lifters - riggers, gaffers, who physically put the set together. As lead man, Anthony Carlino also figures out how to get everything onto the set. Say a decorator picks out a huge desk but the elevator on location is too small.
CARLINO: So a lot of times, you know, we'll rent cranes or big lifts that we actually have to bring it from outside and put it through a window.
STAMBERG: This is Anthony Carlino's lucky day. Lauri picks a fairly portable lounge chair and slaps a claim tag on it before someone else does.
Wherever a movie scene is set - "Iron Man"'s sleek house, some honeymooner's fixer-upper - Lauri has to, well, set the scene.
GAFFIN: Each piece that's in the house would be something that represents who they are. What do they collect? What kind of food do they eat? That's not all written in the script. We create that.
STAMBERG: OK. But what if you have to create sets for Nordic gods. Lauri Gaffin and her assistant, Florence Fellman, met that challenge in the 2011 film "Thor."
GAFFIN: We had to do this giant banquet. Now, do these guys eat and what do they eat? They're big guys, you know. Is it like a leg of lamb or...
FLORENCE FELLMAN: The table was...
CARLINO: Thirty feet long.
GAFFIN: So how do you dress a banquet for a 30-foot-long table of Nordic gods. So we were looking for silverware - not silverware, but like...
FELLMAN: Carving pieces.
GAFFIN: Carving pieces.
FELLMAN: Reindeer handles, a big carving knife, and a big carving fork. It was Christmastime and we found out that Target was offering faux carving sets at a very inexpensive price. So we bought that for all our gods and goddesses.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THOR")
STAMBERG: Sometimes set decorators need to have objects made for a film by Hollywood's many artisans. At the Paramount Studios Archives, set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg came in to see one such item.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Right there in front of you in a little glass showcase.
STAMBERG: It's one of those sacred movie objects created for the first "Transformers" film.
ROSEMARY BRANDENBURG: The Allspark Cube.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)
STAMBERG: It's gorgeous, beautiful. It's a fabulous sculpture. An eight-inch lightweight cube, patterned with wavy lines and mysterious symbols, it was the treasure the good alien robots were hunting for to destroy the enemy and save the planet.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TRANSFORMERS")
STAMBERG: The Allspark Cube was technically a prop in "Transformers 1." An actor actually touched it. Rosemary thinks the cube might make a re-appearance in "Transformers 4" as just set decoration. It's too soon to tell. But Paramount archivist Randall Thropp says she can't use this one in the new film.
RANDALL THROPP: That's the only cube we have, is that cube right here.
STAMBERG: So Rosemary will borrow it and make copies. She'll have a million-or-so dollar budget, so could make lots of copies.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, guys. So we're ready to roll...
STAMBERG: New location, new set decorating crew. They're working on an indie called "The Paper Boat." The decoration budget here is 25,000 bucks. "Paper Boat" is shooting this day in a small house in North Hollywood, not the chicest section of Tinsel Town.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, can you guys move a little bit this couch, please?
STAMBERG: The swing gang, or set dressers - a few semi-brawny young fellows - inch the couch over a bit. They hang a mirror, place an ashtray. Lead man Jeffrey Sun says it's been staged for the shoot.
JEFFREY SUN: These cigarettes in the ashtray - we sprinkle a little ash on top, put the cigarette butts in. And then we kind of crumple them up a little at the tip so it looks like they were just put out.
STAMBERG: Everything just so. Director, writer and producer Los Angeles Barea - yes, that's her real name - is ready to roll.
LOS ANGELES BAREA: Action.
STAMBERG: Set decorator and crew back off into corners. The audio guy hovers over his control board. The cameraman peers through his lens. This basic sequence has been the backbone of movie-making since the beginning. And the goal of the set decorator, always, is to have the movie star, maybe Bette Davis, delivering her most famous line, really believe it, when she walks into a room and declares...
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BEYOND THE FOREST")
STAMBERG: In Movieland, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Love that music. You can tour the Warner Brothers' prop house at NPR.org. The series continues tomorrow with a publicist who's been working with Steven Spielberg.
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.