08/25/2014 05:18 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2014

All the Doors to Hollywood and How to Open Them -- Set Decorator

What does a Set Decorator do?
"Well", says Set Decorator TRICIA SCHNEIDER, "it's sort of like a perpetual scavenger hunt. I discuss with the Director and the Production Designer all the things that will add to the script, or fill in the blank spots -- all the between-the-lines elements. Objects that add dimension to the character or the scene -- furniture, carpets, drapes, washing machines, radios, books -- whatever might show how the character lives or has chosen to live, or the situation he or she is currently in. The mood, the era --. The script doesn't tell you everything.

I start by breaking the script down into sets, and what's happening in each, whether it's period or not, what era, and what I need. Then, if called for, I research the particular period, I look at old photos or paintings, I look in costume books --. In the movie All the King's Men, with Sean Penn and Jude Law, I needed a 'forties drug store with a soda fountain, a counter, and stools. Another time, I needed to do a strip club for the movie Ice Harvest. I went to a lot of them, I looked at personal photos people had taken. I'm a kind of detective."

How did you get started?
"I got a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree and then spent several years as studio manager for a still photographer. From there I managed to move into commercials, as an Art Director -- I did Nascar commercials for which I had to create an authentic Nascar garage, and worked for Dow Chemical on a commercial about desalinization. I had to learn all about the process. From there I moved into features as a Set Decorator. A film producer I knew from my work in commercials believed in me."

What was your first feature?
"Kissing Fool, with Jason Leigh and David Schwimmer, was my first movie. I've done Hardball with Keanu Reeves and Diane Lane, Ali with Will Smith, Barbershop One with Ice Cube, Normal with Jessica Lange and Tom Wilkinson. Ice Harvest had a terrific pair, Billy Bob Thornton and John Cusack --."

Any foreign locations?
"Aruba and Tortola in the Caribbean, Mexico --."

What actors have you particularly liked?
"Actually, I've enjoyed all of them. Diane Lane, for instance, John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton, Sean Penn -- I've never had a bad experience."

What are the some of the weirdest things you've had to find, and some of the craziest experiences you've had?
"I think the weirdest thing I've had to find, so far, was a set of matching stained urinals for the movie Ice Harvest, the one with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. They needed to be not only stained, but cracked -- which only comes with time. We searched all over junk yards for them -- found them finally in a place complete with the junk yard dog that bites, and the rats, and the grimy old owner in his falling-down shack with a sheet covering the holes in his floor. Another time we had to find an entire 'forties amusement park -- merry-go-round, Ferris wheel, all of it. We looked all over the country for that one. And there've been an iron lung -- it was heavy as a Volks-wagen -- surveillance vehicles, appliances of just about all kinds, from a range of eras.

One of the times that was most fun was on Ice Harvest, hanging Christmas lights and decorations along an entire set of streets in Waukegan, Illinois. We were all singing carols and laughing -- it was awesome! I think 'insanity day' was the time five different five-ton trucks went off in five different directions with set dressings we'd needed absolutely right away. And then there's the ridiculous memory of my Swing Gang running around catching huge rats in the warehouse we were working in -- the darn rats had been eating up all our animal crackers! And then there was the Director who kept repainting the set literally every day -- getting paint on all the equipment, and all our clothes --."

What is a Swing Gang?
"My crew. Another name is 'Set Dressers'. They go in before we set up anywhere -- make sure everything I want gets to its appointed place, and pick it up afterwards. There's a permanent 'Lead Man', and the minimum crew is five people. It can go up to twenty, depending on the situation. We often pick up the additional ones in each new city."

Where do you look for all the strange items you need?
"Everywhere. Antique shops, junk yards, flea markets, retail stores, the Internet and E-Bay -- and we ask people."

What do you enjoy most about what you do?
"I love observing people. Even in Laundromats. I love hand-painted signs, and all the things in peoples' old junk drawers -- they tell you who the person is. I love creating beyond the script. A lot of it will never be seen on screen, in fact, but it creates an environment for the actor that fills out the character. I love the enormous variety of people I meet -- the hours just fly by. I met my husband on Save the Last Dance!"


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