The things we see in different scenes of films are all organized to fit what was written in the script. Jan Pascale works in a profession where she creates these scenes for films. Pascale recently worked on the film Velvet Buzzsaw and discusses with ATM art and the hidden messages within the set decoration.
ATM: How did you take the inspirations that were around you to help breathe life into the set decoration?
JP: We knew we had to create the Miami Art Basel. We went to LA Art Show/Basel here in Los Angeles to get ideas. The folks who run the LA Art Show rented us the walls and lighting. A lot of the art work was scripted that related to Dease, who is the mysterious character. The pieces that were scripted were very much in Dan Gilroy, our Writer/Director’s mind. We expanded from there. It was interesting because we had to do five art galleries including LACMA (ours was LAMA, representing LA Museum of Art). We had to find something interesting for each gallery, with something that was a step above to make it worthy of a legitimate art museum.
We approached Jeff Koons for permission to use two of his pieces for our LAMA Museum set. We found a local artist, Marc Chiat, whose work was quite interesting. His work became Piers’ character’s work. The character of Piers is played by John Malkovich.
To create he art that is at the center of our story, I had four scenic artists working on my set decorating team to create Dease’s art. In the script, it read that Dease had created thousands of pieces of art. This was a little horrifying to create in a short period of time.
With art, you have to worry about legal clearances. The pieces cannot be copies of anything. It all had to be original. It was daunting, but it was a lot of fun.
ATM: How are you a raconteur with set decorating?
JP: We have only a few minutes or seconds to tell you, the audience, where you are and who the character is that we are presenting to you. We have to have the story cleared in our minds. We had to create two different archivist offices and several art galleries. The galleries have their own personalities. Jon Dondon was a high-end gallery. He was in competition with the Rene Russo character, Rhodora. and her gallery space and resident artists. He was searching, reaching for the unusual, and attempting to steal her artist Piers. Everybody in this world is searching for the next artist that they can showcase and monetize. We try to help our Director tell this story. I try to dive deep into the characters to find the best way to present them. We helped further the story along by putting things into each set to give you as much background of each character as possible. Dialogue cannot always achieve this. This is the fun part of what Set Decorators do. We subliminally tell you where you are and who the character is.
ATM: When you put a lot of materials together in your line of profession as space for the actors to work in, I feel this is tapping into the unknown. You are bringing the dialogue that was on the paper to life. For example, INT- Walk into the kitchen. You are bringing and giving this kitchen life.
JP: Who’s kitchen? What is this person like? Are they clean or messy? Are they gourmet cooks? What kind of equipment do they have? We work out how to communicate this. Thanks for understanding this. It makes me happy. Our main artist, Dease, was a hoarder. The hoarder’s apartment was a challenge. He was prolific with paintings. He was trying to work out the demons of his life. He had thousands of paintings, sketches, and images. In the story, it says he was in a mental institution for over thirty years. We started with the things he collected. He was not always painting with standard paints. We wanted to communicate that in his janitorial work, he would make use of any scraps of paint and surfaces. Anything he would find– even a little paint left in the can, he would bring this home and paint with it. He was possessed by painting. We had him painting on cardboard and drop cloths. We collected partially used cans of paint, normal paint, and tubes of paint. He had a variety of these things. He was not a rich man. He lived in a small, inexpensive apartment. He collected things that inspired him or because he could not bear to throw them away. He used materials that were available to him. He would find them in the trash and from work.
We had a lot of wooden toys and remnants of a childhood from the early 20th century. These were from the 20s, 30s, and 40s. He collected unusual pieces of nature, small branches, toys from his childhood, art books and papers to paint on. He was exploring and trying to get past his youth, which was not a happy one.
We tried to incorporate these things into the set. Dease was working out the demons of his childhood. I had a child’s night lamp beside his bed, and one of my artists painted an illustration of a nursery rhyme on the lampshade. I am not sure if you ever saw it in the movie. I get obsessed with these small details.
ATM: I did. Dease sounds like a modern-day Vincent Van Gogh.
ATM: Van Gogh had a troubled childhood. This showed in this work. He lived in an apartment. He worked day and night being obsessed with his work and ONLY sold one painting in his whole entire life. Just like Dease, he was poor. No one believed in his work. All he did was paint.
I have been analyzing what the real definition of the word “passion” is in its truest form. I thought I knew, but my theory was proven wrong. Now, after observing, I think I know what it is. The definition written in Webster dictionary is wrong. I went through and felt the person that wrote it never had passion or knew what it consists of.
ATM: This theory is called the Passion Theory. Passion is something we as humans were innately given to handle voids in our life. It is the medicine to handle traumatic experiences or events in one’s life. People who do not effectively tap into it, go to drugs or alcohol. Passion was given to all of us to fix the voids in our life. When you are so deep into your passion you do not know or understand what’s around you. Dease and other real artists they became obsessed. The harder the pain derived from their life, the greater and more successful they became with it. When they became obsessed with it, it was deemed genius work. They do not see it as genius. They see it as an outlet.
JP: This is true. We based Dease’s apartment partly on Francis Bacon. He was obsessed. He would clean his brushes on his walls and doors. They were mixed colors. It is like you said, “everything else becomes a blur.” You must get out whatever you are trying to get out art wise. He needed to create. He was oblivious to his surroundings. He would use anything as a palate or brush cleaner. We tried to bring this in Dease’s apartment. There is an outsider artist who was a hoarder. I believe he was in Chicago. His name was Henry Darger. After he passed away, his landlords found all his art work. They brought it out, created an exhibit and recreated a room that represented his hoarder’s apartment. This was a bit of inspiration for our director. This is where he took the character. Dease was trying to burn his work before passing away. He did not want his work to be seen.
ATM: Maybe his obsessive nature in his work transferred over. So, this would mean the work embodied him. Typically, his work did mirror his life. When he dived deep, it became a reflection.
JP: In a way, set decorators are like this. We get deep into each character and story. Like you were saying, “you kind of forget your other surroundings and people in your life.” You focus on what is ahead and the characters. It takes a while to separate this at times.
ATM: All the artistic beauty that was driven into this film and other people who dabbled in art were original. I do not understand why people try to be this or that. People do different things as outlets.
JP: Yes. They needed to get it out. It is almost like a possession. They have to get out what they have expressed. With Piers, we took it to a different degree. He felt that his work was exploited. He decided to exploit himself. He made bags, and small prints of his own work. He made piles of poop. They were bright colors. Some artists have taken bits of their work to commercialize it. This is what it was all about. Our artist, Marc Chiat, who agreed for his work to be the Piers art did a project with his son making these little piles of poop. This was perfect for our movie. We took a few of his paintings and scanned them, and printed material and made bags.
It is like the Andy Warhol. The four different faces that now everyone does this. It was harking to this type of commercializing. This is how the guy made a living. When he was by himself, he was in a giant empty space. All he had was two little blobs painted in the canvas. He had nothing left to create, so he commercialized himself.
Overall, this was a difficult story to tell on a limited budget on a short time. Our artist, Piers was monetizing his own art himself. When approaching Marc Chiat to loan us his art for this character, I was nervous about whether he would allow us to use his pieces, but he was totally on board and even created more pieces for us.
ATM: Dease represents the Van Gogh Effect. I just had an epiphany. The Van Gogh Effect is when you never live to see your passion in a celebratory way. This is not just in art, but in any entity. Does this make sense? Do you believe Dease was a part of this effect.
JP: Yes. I think he was also a troubled genius. He was very troubled and seemed like a quiet man, but there was anger just below the surface. He painted to get it out. It was his only outlet. There is the painting of the angry father, the family trying to pray at dinner. He looks cowardly. There is a bit in the self-portrait where there is a happier time when him and his sister were having a picnic. It looks lighter and rosy, but later you see the paintings get darker. Some of these paintings were started by a digital artist who was commissioned by a friend of our director. Our graphic designer cleaned them up digitally and made the edges not sharp. He blended the edges. We printed them on canvas that we treated by building up layers of paper. We glued and collaged a lot of textures onto a canvas. We sent this to the printer with the digital files. We printed the digital onto these textured pieces of art. So, we built up the texture, then my amazing scenic artist Alex Panov brought them to life and enhanced him. He painted some from scratch in the same style he developed as Dease.
ATM: Which time period of an art movement or era would you label Dease’s artwork in?
JP: Oh my gosh. Wow. Probably Francis Bacon. He was probably our biggest influence. Bacon did a lot of painting where the face looked smeared and were not always clear. Whenever we painted, Alex would add a smear to it. His paintings were generally very dark and mysterious. He was Irish and painted around the 1950s. We referenced a book of his studio in Ireland, 7 Reece Mews.
ATM: He was a part of the Abstract Expressionism era. He was an Expressionist. I just had an epiphany. It is interesting after a while how there stopped being periods or eras to classify art.
JP: You are absolutely right. I had not thought of this until now.
ATM: Why did it stop?
JP: Right. What do you call anything that is happening now?
ATM: Right. What is this era called?
JP: Very true.
ATM: Where is art history? There is no art history of this era.
JP: This is kind of depressing isn’t it?
ATM: Yes. Has it moved to film? I am not sure. Maybe. There is no era. Pop Art was the last era.
JP: Wow. Yes, and then it just became contemporary.
ATM: You have to separate it somehow.
JP: I know. It makes me want to go find an art teacher and say, “What are you teaching? How are you defining it?” You are absolutely right.
ATM: You can teach the art, but sometimes people get tired of it. We respect it, but we want new things. There are so many things happening today in society, and they do not have titles or definitions of eras. Where is the art world of the early 21st century?
ATM: Thank you.
JP: No, thank you. This was great. I love what I do. I always have time to talk about it. I am kind of this obsessed and passionate person.
ATM: It is okay. I understand. I didn’t mean to fall deeply in love with my career. It is a heavy addiction and an obsession. It found me. Trust me I did not find it.
JP: I feel the same. This is what happened to me.
ATM: It feels good when you are so immersed into it. The blur feels very nice. I am currently in it. If you really know how to control it, then you know how to come in and out of it as a you please. Like a door.
JP: Yes. I feel very fortunate. I never knew what I wanted to do, but it did find me.