A Mad Dash To Decorate 'Mad Men' For Amy Wells, set decorator for AMC's Emmy-winning show — set in a 1960s advertising agency — life is one big scavenger hunt. She goes to great lengths to get the era's details just right — right now she's hunting for vintage Halloween decorations.
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A Mad Dash To Decorate 'Mad Men'

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A Mad Dash To Decorate 'Mad Men'

A Mad Dash To Decorate 'Mad Men'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Madeline Brand.


I'm Melissa Block.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: And that angsty theme music foreshadows the return this Sunday of the hit show "Mad Men." This will be the third season on cable channel AMC. "Mad Men" is set in the early '60s, the world of ad execs on Madison Avenue, their troubles lives and unhappy families and lots and lots of cocktails, and surrounding them, the most impeccably designed 1960s sets and fashion.

Amy Wells is the set decorator for "Mad Men," working at a frantic pace to find just the right vintage fabric or Brillo box or Formica.

Ms. AMY WELLS ("Mad Men" Set Decorator): It's a seven-day shoot, Melissa, so you can imagine it's like being on a constant scavenger hunt.

BLOCK: You mean one episode shot in seven days?

Ms. WELLS: One episode. So, like, today, we're having the production meeting. Earlier in the week, we had the concept meeting, and that's when we get the script. So I'll get the script maybe four or five days ahead of time, and it's like the race is on.

BLOCK: You know, I'm picturing you at the beginning of the scavenger hunt like poised on runner's blocks, but somebody with a starter gun, and it's like…

Ms. WELLS: Yeah.

BLOCK: …you know, just go, go find it.

Ms. WELLS: And I think that actually during that meeting, my blood pressure goes up really high because I'm like - and I'm writing really fast and going, oh, my God, oh, my God, oh, my - and sometimes I'm texting other people to start looking for things right away, you know? Sometimes I'll just buy something at a thrift shop not even knowing if I'm going to need it.

BLOCK: And you know it'll come in handy?

Ms. WELLS: Oh, yeah, or I'll walk in there and find an old stereo and you buy it immediately. You see a TV, you get it right then and there. You don't even kid around. An old refrigerator that's squared out is the hardest thing to find. So the minute that comes up, you just like - you're inside the refrigerator going through it and, you know, smelling it, unfortunately, but…

BLOCK: I bet.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WELLS: That's kind of what - those are the kinds - old stoves, wall ovens. Oh, good wall oven is something that'll make me just practically faint with joy.

BLOCK: Well, we're starting season three.

Ms. WELLS: Right.

BLOCK: And how would you describe what's different about the set and the decoration of the set now compared with the first two seasons?

Ms. WELLS: Actually, you know, we'll see if the audience notices it, but the carpets are dirtier. We weren't allowed to have them cleaned.

BLOCK: Really?

Ms. WELLS: Yeah. The desks are more worn out. Everything has actually gotten the wear and tear of the last three seasons, and Matt loves it. And the more real, the better for him.

BLOCK: Now, Matt is the show creator. Matthew Weiner.

Ms. WELLS: Matt Weiner is our creator and producer. And…

BLOCK: And he is known as a - well, would you call him particular, obsessive, fanatic about detail? What would your word be?

Ms. WELLS: He's all three of those, but he describes himself and what he wants so clearly and with so much joy that you just embrace it.

You know, like, last week, he asked for gum under the desks. He said, I don't want this place to look clean. I want it to be real, real, real. You know, he doesn't want it - he wants to show decay.

BLOCK: Gum, like wadded-up gum?

Ms. WELLS: He wanted gum under the desks. And, you know, of course, I'd shut up at that point, but I felt like saying, we're never going to see the gum under the desk. And believe me, if we wanted to see the gum under the desk, I'd put it under there, you know? But he really wants that feeling of reality.

BLOCK: Amy Wells, I have to ask you about the turntable that's in Pete Campbell's office, the young ad exec.

Ms. WELLS: Uh-huh.

BLOCK: And he has a turntable, it looks like it's sort of a suitcase turntable.

Ms. WELLS: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: And that's…

Ms. WELLS: Another hard-to-find little thing.

BLOCK: It's great. It's green.

Ms. WELLS: (Unintelligible) thing.

BLOCK: Dark green?

Ms. WELLS: Uh-huh.

BLOCK: Tell me about that. Where did you find it?

Ms. WELLS: I think I found it in my hometown of South Pasadena. And I think I've paid, like, 150 bucks for it and wondered if I could get it for less, you know? That sort of thing, because we do this on a very tight budget.

BLOCK: What is your budget?

Ms. WELLS: Am I allowed to say my budget?

BLOCK: Yeah.

Ms. WELLS: Yeah. I think I can. I think I've said it before. For my department, it's 25,000 a week for rentals and purchases and manufacturing. So imagine getting all the drapes made and buying all the fabric to make the drapes and renting all the furniture. A lot of times, I'd buy the furniture because you can't find it in a rental house.

BLOCK: There's a scene in the premiere of season three coming up…

Ms. WELLS: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: …that is set on an airplane. It's on an airplane flight from, I guess, New York to Baltimore…

Ms. WELLS: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: …it's a TWA flight.

Ms. WELLS: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: And it's upholstery, like we just don't see anymore in the interior of that airplane.

Ms. WELLS: Mm-hmm.

BLOCK: Where did you get the plane or what became the plane?

Ms. WELLS: Well, we got the seats from a plane rental place here in Hollywood, and there were very few available. So we had to create the shot in such a way that we wouldn't see a lot of seats all at once. And then that upholstery fabric, I bought and I reupholstered it.

BLOCK: Oh, you did?

Ms. WELLS: Yeah, because the planes are really beautiful and really elaborate, just fantastic, the designs of them. When we did the research, it was just awe-inspiring. You only wish that planes look like that.

The detail that people went through in those days was just so well worth it. I mean, when I look at it, I just - I really appreciate it.

BLOCK: And wish it were back.

Ms. WELLS: I do. I do. You know, I see the lack of detail, and I think it's those details in life that make life more interesting. It seems like everything is so homogenized and bland compared to how it used to be.

BLOCK: Well, Amy Wells, it's fun talking with you. Thanks so much.

Ms. WELLS: You, too, Melissa. Thanks.

BLOCK: Amy Wells is the set decorator for "Mad Men." The third season premieres on AMC this Sunday.

And you can see what some "Mad Men" sets look like at the new npr.org.

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