Meet Mad Men’s Set Decorator, Amy Wells

29 June, 2017

When we saw Julianne Moore walk through a tunnel made of orchids in Tom Ford’s A Single Man, we had to sit through the credits to find out who the set decorator was (it was that good). Amy Wells has done set decoration for films like Clueless, The Master, and American Pie, and TV series like Mad Men, Little Big Lies, and Sharp Objects. We sat down with her in L.A. to get her perspective on what objects say about who we are, and how flowers can light up a set.

What got you into set design?

Often people call me a set designer, but I'm a set decorator. And these titles make a big difference in what your job is on a film or a TV show. What got me into it was a friend. I was very inspired by her work, and one day she asked me to come work with her. I took up the opportunity and went with it. It all happened very quickly… but I grew up surrounded by artists.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Rockland County, which is north of New York, a little ways upstate. There were a lot of alternative communities up there in the ’50s and ’60s. The people from Black Mountain College were there. All these people from the Bauhaus went during the war, and created a community and a college that was very revolutionary. (There were just big exhibits on it, one in Boston and one in Los Angeles.) It was a really amazing place where people like Buckminster Fuller and artists like Jasper Johns and John Cage ended up. When the college disbanded, they created a community in upstate New York. I was very close friends with them. I went to a Free School where many of the kids from that community went, so that was how I got my artistic bent. That's why I went to film school and eventually got into what I did.

So a little bit of nurture… and a little bit of nature?

It was very organic. When I finally became part of the art department with the set decorator that I worked with, whose name was Gretchen Rau, it just came out of the blue. Rau later won an Academy Award for Memoirs of a Geisha. I see that Chandelier’s founder is Australian; I spent my early 20s in Australia. That also influenced me. I lived in the house of an artist named Martin Sharp, who was a very well-known pop artist who did the cover of Wheels of Fire and Disraeli Gears and lived with Eric Clapton.

“Memoirs of a Geisha”

Can you pinpoint a way in which Australian taste or perspective on design influenced your work?

Well, I would say that just being in Australia at all influenced my whole worldview. I found Australians to be much more alive and positive than Americans. They had a curiosity. I just loved it there; I just absolutely wanted to stay. I thought it was the most magical place I'd ever been. There were magical people everywhere for me, and it reminded me of what I thought life was going to be like living in the States, and it turned out that I found it there: lots and lots of artists.

Where were you living?

I lived in Sydney, mostly. And I worked on movies there and just had a grand old time.

Let’s talk about your movie work and also the stuff you’ve done for TV. What’s the main difference between the two?

I think every project, whether it be a TV show or a film, is just its own entity and every project just has its own spirit, its own way of being. There's so many different kinds of TV now, and I feel like TV is where the most interesting projects exist, right now, in my line of work. This HBO show (Sharp Objects) is like working on a movie. It's very organic. The director, Jean-Marc Vallée, is a filmmaker, not a TV guy. (He directed Dallas Buyers Club.) So everything we do goes through him. When you work on, let's say, a TV show like Mad Men, everything goes through the producer. The producer is the creator, whereas in film, usually you go directly to the director when you want a decision or an opinion, you don't go to the producer. This particular project I'm working on, we go to the director first, not the producer, even though it's TV.

How was working with Tom Ford?

Tom Ford was exacting, demanding, specific and knew what he wanted. George's House was a John Lautner house that was perfectly restored and quite small so we had to carefully curate his life and all of his books, art, furniture and other possessions. There was no space for anything superfluous. Tom had a very precise vision for how he was visually going to work out his movie. Charley's house reflected her character - she was au courant, very very stylish and loved beautiful things. Her house also oozed femininity just as she did.

“A Single Man”

What's the most challenging set or décor or design you've worked on?

That's a good question. I mean, all things are challenging for different reasons. Sometimes it's the people that make it challenging. Sometimes it's the actual set itself. If you tell me to do a restaurant with a thousand seats, that to me is not a challenge because it's not a personal space for a character. When you make someone's personal space and you need to tell their story through what they have around them, that's always that hardest thing. It's the biggest challenge, even though it's tiny little bits of things, even if it's whether or not they have books on their bookstand, or if their house is clean or messy. You're telling something about who they are by how they live. That's always the most challenging thing, I find.

Trying to envision the character…

Well, yeah. What happened on Big Little Lies is we had to differentiate all these different women by how they lived. Each one of them had a different house, so that was a challenge. Sometimes though, if you're doing a period movie, that's the challenge, because sometimes it's really hard to find just the right things that define that character. It’s like visual adjectives, you know.

You were talking about period movies. Besides the physical furniture, what are your tricks for capturing historic charm on a set?

Well, sometimes it's not charm. Sometimes it's less than charming! You just try to capture the reality of the time, instead of trying to capture just a postcard of it. I think what people saw in Mad Men was that we weren't just creating this perfect ’50s diner or some idealized version of that time. We were creating it as it would have been. I said, "If there was a fly in the light above your head, there would be a fly in the light above your head." Not everything was a idealized version of that time. We were trying to create reality, not perfection.

Does that mean using the electrical bulbs from that time?

I mean, I would provide the lighting, but the actual light that comes out of it? The cinematographer would create that, right? I would give him the right shade. You just have to be really careful with what you use and you have to use things that would have only been there. It's very carefully layering in what they would have had.

“Memoirs of a Geisha”

What are you working on now?

Well, right now, I'm on Sharp Objects, with Amy Adams. The director is French Canadian, so there's a lot of French being spoken on the set! He's a very creative soul. I love him and he doesn't use any movie lights at all. He only uses his small camera and he doesn't use a tripod or a dolly. None of the usual things that you use for filmmaking. Basically, he uses available light. If I put a light on the set, that's the source. It's really interesting in that sense. He's a very unusual, interesting filmmaker.

Could you tell us about the orchid room in A Single Man? Was is your idea? Was it Tom Ford's idea?

It was Tom Ford's idea. It was a very unusual house. You would walk into the house, and there were bedrooms on both sides and the kitchen was kind of hidden and then to get to the big room that had a baby-grand piano (even though it didn't in the movie) — to get to that room, you'd have to go through this long hallway of a room that really didn't seem to have any purpose. It was a very odd kind of transition to the living room, so he wanted what was called (it's a French word), orangeraie, where you would keep the orange trees. But instead we did orchids. I mean, I think I did get a few small orange trees, but he wanted orchids. It was a great thing. It was so much fun to find orchids and put them in.

Do you often work with flowers?

Always, yeah. They say different things about people, you know, what kind of flowers they choose. On this project, I'm doing roses, they're very important. They bring life to a room, when you have flowers and plants, and I use them all the time in my work.

“Mad Men”

What was your inspiration for Mad Men?

In Mad Men we used many, many, many, many sources of research. I would spend hours finding old magazines from that time. But you don't only get magazines from that time. You get them from earlier because people kept things for a longer period of time. When your parents decorated their house, they had things from your grandparents probably, that they might have gotten from them and your great-grandparents, and then they would have things that they bought together. It's the same thing. You layer in the past with the present. You don't just have what they would have had at that very moment in time.

Is that where authenticity comes from? Mixing and matching across the age?

It's a question of doing that, of creating that complexity, where that's where the reality comes in. The reality doesn't come in by looking at a Sears catalog from 1960 and just having things from that catalog. You would have to layer it in. I would collect. My favorite prized possessions were old Architectural Digests, super hard to find, and old decorating books and things like that. I would collect them and spend hours just staring at them and, you know, old movies, seeing what they looked like. But we did it every week, because we had new sets all the time, so it's not just one set. Every seven days you have to create and tell another story and the characters may go to a farmhouse or they may go to somebody else's house, who doesn't have as much money. How do you create characters that are not as rich as other characters. You're having to do all stratus of society. It's much different than decorating.

Words by The Editors and Amy Wells.

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