Thursday, February 23, 2012


Tips from Hollywood set decorator: Hang ‘what speaks to you’ on your walls
By Karen Hawthorne
Financial Post Feb 21, 2012

The penthouse living room in Tower Heist includes a 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Lusso replica from Steve McQueen's collection.

Who can afford a Warhol or Picasso for their condo? Or maybe a replica of Steve McQueen’s 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Lusso in lieu of a sculpture for the living room? If you live in a penthouse suite in a famous tower, money is no object, so certain collectibles might just fit the bill.

That was the starting point for set decorator Diane Lederman for the film Tower Heist, now out on Blu-ray. The story, shot in New York on a film stage and on-site at the Trump Towers, is about a group of hardworking guys who find out they’ve fallen victim to a wealthy businessman’s Ponzi scheme. They conspire to rob his high-rise residence. Comedy, special effects and dreamy Casey Affleck — not a bad way to spend 90 minutes.

The penthouse living room has the soft, muted less is more look to showcase the art collection.

Ms. Lederman had the budget go-ahead to go big for the set, and says there are pointers for decor that even flea market shoppers can take away. Here’s our Q&A:

Q: Great cast! Judd Hirsch, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Ben Stiller … How did they react to the penthouse set with the replica of Steve McQueen’s Ferrari smack in the middle of the living room?

A: Everybody was pretty blown away by the set. The car certainly was the centrepiece and it was integral to the story. Actually seeing it in the space was very personally and professionally satisfying because it had such an impact and it was a set much larger than most stage sets get to be. It almost felt like an old Hollywood set, it’s grandeur and size, which was really fun to be a part of.

Alan Alda [who plays rich swindler Arthur Shaw], I had a lot of interaction with because it was his apartment in the story. He would come to the office and have a look at what we were doing and as we were choosing things, mostly the art which was a very important part of the apartment and really helped to show the wealth of the environment. He was very impressed and, walking around on set, I could see him really start to get into his character, which for me was really exciting.

Q: Part of the beauty of your job is how the set enhances the actor’s experience of the role?

A: Exactly. That’s the most important part of it, getting into the mind of the character that you’re trying to create an environment for, and have that reflected so that when they get there, it’s like ‘yes, this feels like my apartment, this is how I would have someone decorate it.’ It really fit, i just saw him settle right into character.

The Tower Heist penthouse set is modeled after the penthouse in the Trump Tower in Columbus Circle, now in construction.

Q: Are you on set during some of the filming, in case the director says, ‘Oh that’s not working, can we change that?’

A: Pretty much standard, when we are opening a new set, shooting for the first time, I will always be there. I always attend the first two hours, give them the chance to shoot part of the room before I move on to my next project in the movie. That will happen, for blocking, this doesn’t quite work, can we switch things around. Film is a very organic medium, so many people, so many ideas, you have to be ready to move and think on your feet, that’s part of the fun.

The morning we were to shoot the Tower’s Security Office set, there was an exterior and then just a few hours later we would come inside to shoot the office. [Director Brett Ratner] first saw it that morning, and even though this was the Trump Towers real security office, Brett felt as if it wasn’t high-tech enough and wasn’t happy. I had only three hours to completely transform this very real existing security office into a high-tech fantasy. I came up with the idea to use sound-proofing insulation foam. We covered all the walls in it, which really helped hide any and all sins. I called a computer friend who showed up with a van-load of high-tech equipment. Then we transformed the room with wire and staple guns.

Q: How did you get into the head of the Arthur Shaw character?

A: You always want to go back to the script. The clues that I was given was the apartment had to exude wealth, and he had this collectible car in the middle of his living room. so he’s a collector. That’s what he is. What would he collect that would show his wealth? Recognizable art, a collection that’s worth millions and millions of dollars.

Q: Which piece is your favourite?

A: Art expresses personality much more than many other things. This collection had to be so powerful, so I picked many of my personal favourites. The Francis Bacon triptych in the hallway. It was very important to Brett that we had a Francis Bacon, we both love his work, and on a reality-based idea, there was a piece that sold a couple years ago at auction for a hundred million dollars, so very highly collectible. He is mysterious and soulful, his work is breathtaking.

The art was a big part of that set, many months of work, clearance rights to use the work, we asked the artist or their estate for high-res images. We made copies and we had to film the works being destroyed, so it’s a long. arduous process.

The kitchen in the Tower Heist penthouse set — modern, muted and fabulous.

Q: Back to the car. Does it actually work and did you get to drive it?

A: No. the prop masters wrangled the cars more than I did. These were all built for us. Because of a lot of the stunts, the guts were taken out of these cars. It had to hang on the side of the building, so special effects, a new challenge for me because I hadn’t had much experience with special effects, that was great. Colour is very important, so there are colours you can’t use because it will interfere with the process — any greens because everything was done with green screen. You have to be really careful with reflective surfaces, and we had a giant wall of glass, so we had to work that out.

Q: For research purposes, have you ever stayed in a penthouse suite? This larger than life feel with the magnificent view — how did you translate that with your set?

A: I have to say I live in one, it’s considerably smaller, and I have a miraculous view of Manhattan. It does make life a little more interesting. That particular apartment was modeled after, when it’s completed, the penthouse suite in the Trump Tower in Columbus Circle.

For me, tasteful choices usually mean less is more. I think we tried to stick to that in creating this apartment … modern, minimalist look, muted tones, dark wood floors, natural textures, stone, metal, beiges, grays, neutral tones are the bones of your environment. Then filing the room, get the colour, get the interest through the furnishings — through the decor, the textiles, rich colour through carpet, throw pillows, then create interest with the collection.

When I work with people in their personal homes, that’s what I try to do as well. To make the space theirs. Pick things that interest you, that express your personality. Don’t worry about the design as much. You can create the design through the walls and floors. When it comes to personal decor, pick things that express who you are. That goes without saying about art as well. You don’t have to be a millionaire to have an interesting art collection. You can go to a flea market and find a $10 painting. If something speaks to you and it’s meaningful to you, it will express that when you hang it on your wall.

Make a statement in the hallway with art, even if you can't afford to shell out the big bucks.

Q: That said, for the film, you did extensive research about how the very elite live?

A: We looked a photographs and we were invited to certain people’s homes. It was exciting to get behind those closed doors. One person had an extensive snow globe collection, like hundreds of them.

Q: What did you love about work on this film?

A: Building these amazing sets made this job different from others, especially when there’s money to recreate- picasso, richard priince, warhol, you don’t often get that opportunity, the size of the set, the complexity, buidlng a facade of the building, building an elevator shaft with two working carriages, the pool, we built the pol and then special effects inserted it in the top of the building.

Q: What’s your next project?

A: A pilot for ABC called The Gilded Lillies, set in 1895 New York.


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