Diary of a Set Designer: Happy Massee’s Book of Polaroids

05 October, 2016

Happy Massee is one of our dear friends and a hell of a set designer. He’s worked with luminaries like David Lynch, Wes Anderson, Inez and Vinoodh, and Peter Lindberg, to name a few. Damiani just published Happy’s book “Diary of a Set Designer,” documenting his journey around the globe. We were fortunate to chat with him recently about the making of the book. (During the course of our conversation, Happy shared that this is his first interview after the passing of his brother, to whom the book is dedicated.)

How many years of photos are included in the book?

I would say it covers a good 20 years. Actually the core group of photographs were from 1990 to 2002. That was the pool I gave Fabien Baron [the book’s designer] to choose from.

In the preface you explain your love for the Polaroid, and how it was the first thing you packed to take on-set. But there actually aren’t many photos of your sets in the book.

Of sets, no. The whole thing about the book was that I tried to make it many times, when people still used Polaroid cameras back in the late ’90s. But people were like: ‘there's not enough nudity, not enough celebrities, and there's not enough set design.’ I kept telling them the book isn't really about that. The book is more a story I want to tell about the life of a set designer. Even though I took many pictures of sets, props and locations, it was what was the behind the scenes that I often found more interesting.

Were they taken during your downtime, or as part of scouting and reference?

Some are while scouting, some are references, and many other things. The title of the book is misleading in that you think you're going to be seeing a lot of pictures of my designs, sets, construction and all of that, when in fact, it's more a journal, a photographic essay if you will, of a 15-year span of my life while traveling the world on film productions.

And about someone who really loves his job and doesn't draw a line between downtime and scouting.

Exactly. When I say the first thing I packed was my Polaroid, I mean it went with me everywhere.

It's also a book about getting lost and having strange encounters. For example, can you tell us a little bit about Vila Mimosa?

I flew to Rio for a commercial, and got there a few days before the rest of the crew to do some preliminary work. One night, my assistant was like, “let me show you around Rio." I was like, cool! We went to a different bars around town, but as I don't drink, going bar hopping, unless there’s something special about them, it’s kind of boring for me. He kept taking me to samba bars. I love samba, but after the third or fourth bar, I was like okay, enough with samba. Later that night, as we were walking around, we ran into this half homeless guy that he knew, and they start talking (in Portuguese) and the words Vila Mimosa kept coming up. I'm like, "What is Vila Mimosa," and he goes, "Oh, you don't want to go there. It's not for tourists." I'm like, “that’s where I want to go. I’m not a tourist. Take me there.” We all three get in his little car and drive towards the airport and into a suburb where we park on a dark street. There's no electricity, no nothing. I see this three legged mongrel hop down the street. It was drizzling…

Good sign.

Yeah, it was very promising [laughs]. We make a left and there, there were two blocks, completely lit up in the colors of the photographs. Turquoise and oranges, Christmas lights strung everywhere, jukeboxes on the balconies blasting music. In the distance, I see this guy tattooing another guy's back. His inks were laid out on a working Pacman machine laying on its side. At one point, the tattoo guy senses me behind him, he turns around and looks up. He has a patch over his eye. It was right out of a David Fincher movie. It was so surreal, right out of “Seven" or something. Basically, Vila Mimosa was a street a couple blocks long, with prostitutes but just for locals. I was the only gringo there. It didn't feel sleezy though. Girls were sitting on mens laps, were laughing and everyone seemed to be having a good time. There was a great vibe about the place, maybe because nothing was out in the open. I did take a picture of one of the rooms they would used to fuck in, and it was pretty depressing and gross, but there was still something about this street, these two blocks that felt safe and magical. Oh, and there was also this one guy walking around with a stack of clothes in his arms that the girls buy off of him. Old t-shirts strategically torn, super short cut offs, stringy apparel. It was all his own fashion. The girls modeled it form him. It felt like a great party.

Could you tell us a little bit about the Michael Jordan photo?

It was in Chicago doing a Nike commercial with the director Mark Romanek. We built this set within the United Center, so it's not a real gym. The late Harris Savides was the cinematographer, and his sets were always beautifully lit. I just caught this moment of Michael Jordan, by himself, sitting, pensive on the end of a bench press. I just walked in to the room with other people in it doing their own thing, found this angle, got on my knees, took the picture, and then just walked away. Fabien decided to put the wider shot in as well next to it.

What about the Timothy Leary photos?

I was doing this job with a dear friend of mine, Jake Scott (Ridley Scott's son). We were doing this music video for Blind Melon, a sort of grunge-rock band, from New Orleans. The singer was Shannon Hoon. The video was for a song called “Galaxy” and Shannon was out of control on the shoot. I remember my assistant saying at one point, "This guy is not going to live through the end of the year." Sure enough, Shannon died two or three months later. Jake wanted a sorcerer in the video, and he got Leary to do it. I’m not sure how he got him, but I was psyched as he was one of my idols growing up; I had read a few of his books and was like, I can't believe I'm going to be meeting Timothy Leary. It's like the day I had the opportunity to work with David Lynch. It's one of those very rare moments, but thats another story… The pictures of Timothy Leary were actually continuity pictures as the set was fairly involved with a lot of moving parts. It was a science lab. He’s not wearing it in the picture, but he wore a hat like Merlin's. He was such an icon, an underground celebrity of the counter culture, the man who invented L.S.D! I feel very lucky to have met him, and have him in my book.

What about the Malibu Creek photo? It’s so strange.

Oh, the airplane crash. That's a movie set, but not one I designed. I was scouting with a director and a producer and I'll never forget, we were driving through Malibu Creek on these winding roads in and out of coves. At one point we go around a bend and Michael the director and I see this plane crashed into the side of the mountain. Our producer Jim didn't notice it. I remember saying to the producer, "Hey Jim, is there an airport around here?" Jim goes, "No, why?" Michael goes, "I don't know, just asking.” at which point Jim sees it and goes, “holy shit!” We then we realized that it was a film set. The tone of the conversation was so matter of fact it was pretty funny. I think you had to be there in the car with us.

There are also photos of Madonna.

Yeah, I did several jobs with Madonna. Again, the only picture that I really wanted to put in the book was the one that's on the cover. Right before we shot that take, I remember sneaking under the dolly and snapping that picture. I think it's an amazing picture because she looks so beautiful and natural. She has that satin bra, bleached hair, classic beauty. There's just something about that picture that I adore.

There are also some moments of solitude or contemplation, some empty apartments, or for example, this photo called “Barcelona 2000.” We don't know if it's dawn or dusk.

It's actually dusk and I love that picture. When I first was going around trying to make this book, those were the kind of pictures that meant a lot to me. I can remember the stories behind each one and what they meant to me at the time. It's funny because when I show the book to certain directors that were with me, they look at the pictures and they remember everything exactly as I do.

It’s like your job took you on a journey and you embraced everything: the light, the sunset, the solitude, your interest in the subjects, and also having fun, getting lost, and eventually falling in love.

Again, it's a diary. In a diary you write: ”Dear diary, today I met someone, we had a wonderful time, we went for a long walk on the beach, we kissed….” This is part of my story. A lot of the women [in the book] are women I met on location, and some of them are girlfriends that came to visit me. The book spans twenty years, and they’re a lot of stories to tell. I’ve lived a bohemian life at times, and my relationships are somewhat reflected in the book. Right now, i’m in a hotel room in San Francisco, my brother just passed away, and my girlfriend just came up for the weekend. It was so nice to have her come up from Los Angeles and spend a few days here. When you live the life that I live, those are really important moments.

What about the phones on the Budapest wall?

I'm glad you're noticing that picture because its one of my favorites. Its just a simple picture of a bank of telephones that are of all different shapes and styles. If you were in America, they would be the same phone, at the same height, same distance apart. I remember the location welI. It was an underpass in a subway station. I saw them, stopped and took two or three pictures, people stared at me, I walked away.

There's a lot of joy, too, with kids pictured in the book. Like this young kid in New Orleans with his trombone.

The beauty with a lot of these kids, is that they’ve never seen a Polaroid before. So you’d give them this shinny gray piece a paper, and suddenly their eyes would turn into saucers as the ghost of their image would start to appear. The smile on their faces would grow and grow, and turn into laughter when the picture would reach its peak. It didn't matter whether I was in New Orleans, or in Mexico, they all had the same reaction. They looked like they had just seen the best magic trick ever.

Tell us about “The Bahamas 1998.” It feels like “Blade Runner.”

Yeah, it totally was. I’d snuck into Cuba with two or three people to make a short film. I bought the tickets on Pan Am and while we were in Cuba, Pan Am went bankrupt. When we flew back to the Bahamas, we didn't have any tickets to fly home, so we got stuck in Nassau for one night. We checked into this hotel, I cant remember the name, and in the evening when I opened my door to meet everyone for dinner, the atrium was all lit up like this and I took a picture. I never thought it would end up in the book but Fabien put it in there, and I think it actually works really well.

Which picture is your favorite?

One of my favorites is of this woman in Argentina with a broom and orange gloves. She was the janitor at the studio where i was building this set for a Jello commercial. Everything about that job was awful. The best thing was this amazing looking woman. Every time there was the slightest thing that would fall to the floor or needed to be swept, she would get up, put her gloves on and clean it up. She had her eyes on everything and everyone, but she never said a word. She would just sit by herself in the corner, waiting for her next chore. She was the sweetest person I had ever seen. So one day I asked if I could take her picture, and she was sort of like, "Why in the hell would you want to take my picture?" but she acquiesced. I loved her bleached hair, blue eyes, and those orange gloves. She was very touching. But there are a lot of other pictures that I like. I love the picture of Keith Richards…

Feels like you stole this one somehow, didn’t you?

Yes. We were shooting this scene downtown LA and we all had to hide to get out of the way of the shot. I hid behind a classic picture car we had rented. I “dutched" the camera, so it was vertical instead of horizontal, and he just kicked his leg up right in the dent of the bumper… Just one of those lucky pictures.

Words by The Editors. Photos by Happy Massee.

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