Nominated at the 81st Academy Awards in the category of Best Art Direction for her work on the film Revolutionary Road, it is undeniable that Debra Schutt is a very talented and accomplished set decorator. Lift Off spoke with her to find out about the process of working on the incredible musical, ‘The Greatest Showman‘, and her insightful advice for anyone looking to get started in the industry.
Interview By Lauren Macaree
When did you decide that you wanted to pursue a career in the industry and how did you go about making it a reality?
I moved to New York to work in theatre. I was backstage reupholstering a sofa in the dark w/ Howard Cummings, Bob Shaw and Sharon Seymour, and we all decided that we needed to get out of the theatre and start making a better living doing film. My first film jobs were with designers I had worked w/ in the theatre who started doing films – Vaughan Edwards, Howard Cummings and Sharon Seymour. Back then there was non-union work in New York and we all worked for American Playhouse doing period films.
Is there a specific film that sparked your interest in the industry?
I started in the 80’s when there were great films being made in New York by Scorsese, Demme and Coppola. The Godfather’s, Cotton Club, Good Fella’s, Married to the Mob.
What is the role of a set decorator? What day your day to day consist of?
My day to day has changed over the years as has my responsibilities. Now, it is more about budgeting, clearances and research. Before the Internet it was about going off and shopping to find the perfect character piece. It still is, but there is more day to day paperwork and meetings now. I always tell my crew that I am a working decorator. I like to physically see and touch everything. Dressing the sets is a big part of it. You have to find it, get it (pay, transport) and then you have to put it together. Hopefully it then looks fantastic.
How do you choose your projects?
Over the years I believe the projects choose me. I try to stay away from gratuitous violent projects. I also look at who the designer is and what their films look like, and what their reputation is.
You have an extensive list of notable credits, such as “A Perfect Murder”, “Changing Lanes”, and “Wonderstruck”, to name a few. Was there something in particular that drew you to any of these projects?
All of them are filmed in New York and all of them were working with designers whose work I respected.
You also designed the set for the recent film “The Greatest Showman”. How did you get involved with this film? What drew to this project?
I really wanted to work on this project for a number of reasons. The designer was Nathan Crowley, whose work I have a great deal of respect for. I had just finished “Wonderstruck” and had done a museum from the 1920’s. I was so excited to be able to do Barnum’s museum. Also, I have such great vendors for the period, and I really wanted to do a movie where they sing and dance. And, of course, Hugh Jackman who has the best well deserved reputation of being a fantastic guy.
The film looks absolutely stunning and just so magical. What was the process like of working on this production?
Hugh Jackman and Michael Gracey had been pitching this project for years. They had it mostly illustrated by the time I got there. Nathan had some very clear ideas. He did not want to make a “period” musical. The key here was that we were doing a musical, not a historical rendering of a period. Also, Nathan had a color sensibility that was going towards Russian blues and jewel tones. The locations were very important and once they were locked down we just went for it.
When coming aboard a project, how does the process generally work? What is the general working relationship and process between the set designer and the director?
Michael Gracey, the director, was great to work with. He had been working on the film for years so he had a clear vision, and once we had locations, Nathan was able to walk him through the look of the movie. The museum was built within a building at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn that had not been used as a stage before. We were able to use some of the architecture of the existing building and add to it.
What have been the most challenging and most enjoyable projects you have worked on?
The most challenging project I ever worked on was Darren Aronofsky’s movie “NOAH”. We created a whole other world. Darren once told me that it wasn’t now, wasn’t then and maybe not even this planet.
It was very challenging but fun. We made so many things out of crazy materials. I had rope woven in India. The set dressers made the tents. It was arts and crafts to the extreme.
From your personal experience, does it take you any time to adjust to projects that are quite different from each other, or do you simply complete one film, figure out your next approach, and go on from there?
I just keep moving forward. I like that I never get bored.
What would be your dream project to work on?
My dream project would be to do something wildly creative with people I really like working with at home in New York.
What do you think the biggest surprise about the role of a set designer would be to an outsider?
I think how grueling the job can be. You have to produce everyday. There is no down time. I am always ahead of the production, so rarely does my work get recognised, which can be difficult for people. I like the moment before the crew arrives and everything is how I want it before anyone else changes it or rips it apart for the camera.
If someone wants to pursue a career as a set designer, how would you recommend they go about it?
It is very difficult to do in New York. If they want to be a set decorator they need to get into the union, which is difficult.
What would your top three tips for aspiring set designers be?
Never stop learning and looking. Look at architecture, fashion, and street life. Do research. Always be curious.
(Any other advice you would like to voice in order to help the next generation of set designers? Or what is next for you?)
So much of life is what you fall into doing as a profession. My advice is if you don’t have a passion for it, don’t do it. It is a hard living. It takes a toll on family etc. It is a vagabond’s life. I have been very lucky because I can’t imagine doing anything else.
Thank you for your time!