John Lister [SET DRESSER]



MATRIX: Have you always been a Set Dresser?

JOHN: No. When I was in high school, I worked as a stagehand on a high school musical with the teen club that toured the Bay area. Then I went off to college at USF, and after a year there I looked around and thought, being a computer science major is okay… little did I know in 1969 where that was going to lead! Everybody else was reading Scientific America each week, and I was making home movies and trying to pass them off for a philosophy paper and a theology paper, so I decided that I wanted to be in that business.

I changed to a theatre major and worked as a carpenter to pay the bills, then I went to graduate school at San Francisco State, because I thought I was going to be a television Director. When I finished I went to Los Angeles, but they didn’t need any new television Directors at that time, instead I built scenery, PA-ed on a lot of shows, and worked with Adrian Lyne who did Flashdance.

At the time, I was making half of what a union employee would make because it’s very hard to get into the unions unless you know somebody at least it was in the seventies. So after five years I came back home [San Francisco] and freelanced for a bit doing Set Dressing, PA work and set building. After about two years of that the union here in San Francisco took an active role at bringing people into the union who were already working in the industry.

That was twenty years ago. I spent the first ten years being a carpenter building a lot of scenery, the first three years out at ILM I did a couple of the Ewok movies, which were a lot of fun. I did some other films for Lucas and then I moved off to different movies. My favorite one was Tucker: The Man & His Dream, by Francis Ford Coppola, because I got to build some really gorgeous sets for that, he spared no expense. Dean Tavoularis was the Production Designer on that, he designs really nice stuff to build, he’s a carpenters’ favorite. I also worked as the Construction Foreman on Midnight Caller for a while, and then I started doing Set Dressing for a couple of years, then I went to the San Francisco Opera, where I was an electrician for five years.

MATRIX: Why did you return to Set Dressing?

JOHN: I like it because you have more input into the movie – you’re actually doing something that usually shows up on the screen – although fifty per cent of what you do is not in the shot, or they don’t use it. That’s okay though, because with the cost of filming you can’t be waiting for something, you always have to have more than you need. In fact even in the Park set, for four or five truckloads of junk that we had spread all over the place, we still had another truckload or two sitting behind the set in case the Directors said it wasn’t enough.

You’re always ready for somebody to say, “I need something more,” and that’s really the part that’s a little bit more challenging – to try and guess what’s going to happen. Directors are so busy with so many things going on – I‘ve worked shows where they don’t even see the sets before they show up, especially the location shows that fly through San Francisco for a couple of weeks. Nobody sees anything in advance, they just they tell us what to do, we go do it, then they show up and film it. But they’re always likely to ask for something else.

MATRIX: Do you have any examples of changes that Larry and Andy asked for?

JOHN: One example was the furniture we put in the apartment windows on the Park set: once the whole set was built and aged, and all the other items were put in, they decided they’d rather keep the windows mostly closed and dirty. All you see is a couple of lights, for which we bought actual standing lights and desk lights. We had walls back there with wallpaper for a lot of the rooms, which was a good idea, but it just wasn’t necessary. It’s always hard to guess.

A similar thing happened with the drums on the Zion Temple set. We were given some beautiful illustrations, and the guys made them just from those renderings, no blueprints. The renderings all had people in them for scale, but when we finished building the drums, and they finished building the cave, it didn’t look like we were going to be able to fit all the instruments in. It looked like we were going to have to throw some away, so we made the set bigger, and they got them all in.


MATRIX: What is the role of the Set Dressing Department on a film?

JOHN: Usually we come into either a rented room that we empty out, and then start to put in the carpeting, the paintings, the sofas, the ashtrays, the cigarette butts, the newspapers and everything that makes it look like whatever it’s supposed to be, and that it has been used as such.

On this show there are no lamps and none of the regular things… we’ve got guns, and we did a lot of signage on the freeway, and all the lights. Lights are a set dressing piece when it’s a light that you see in the show, as opposed to a theatrical light. One of the signs used in the freeway scenes is kind of unusual: we took a twelve-foot tall, or maybe taller, sign, which was blue and all rusted and empty, and made it into the sign we see in the movie, then it was aged beautifully.

Out on the freeway we also put up all the crash barrels, and we made five thousand little reflectors for the streets. We took care of that equipment and borrowed lights from the tunnel, so we could put them in our tunnel on the freeway where the cars come in.

MATRIX: What was your first reaction to hearing that they were building a freeway?

JOHN: I couldn’t believe it. I came out here in January to say hello to everybody and I just couldn’t believe they had hundreds of sixteen foot by sixteen foot walls built. They were going at it for weeks straight to make a thousand sixteen by sixteen walls. It was dirty and it was messy, it was cold and it was wet.

MATRIX: What is one of the most challenging things you had to do on this shoot?

JOHN: Well, I’ve never put up light poles on a freeway before, which was very different. It took us a good day to get the methodology together so we could put them all up. That was interesting, especially the ones on top of the overpasses, because you’re up twenty feet in the air, then another twenty feet in the air… it was a very beautiful view.

MATRIX: Talk about the method you devised in order to get the poles up.

JOHN: We had the contractors who laid the K-Rail – the concrete bumper rail on the freeway – make up saddles that went over the rail, then we drilled all the way through the concrete rail and bolted the poles into place. We used a snorkel lift, an articulated arm lift with a basket that goes up thirty to sixty feet, to pick up the poles, then we tried to get them down just right and bolt them in, and not squeeze anybody’s fingers off.

MATRIX: How many of light poles were there?

JOHN: There were twenty-nine light poles.


JOHN: I’ve never made so many candles as for the Zion Temple set. They wanted big flames to show up on screen, so we’ve been taking the regular candles and putting triple wicks in them, which gets a good flame out of them, but they don’t last too long. We asked a candle manufacturer to give us triple wick candles and they said, “Sure. Eleven dollars a candle.” So we got the ones we used for under two dollars a candle and put our own wicks in.

MATRIX: How many candles would you say you used?

JOHN: The first order was for eight hundred candles, and we went through those, then bought another four hundred, which we will probably go through as well.

MATRIX: Do you still get a charge seeing a finished set?

JOHN: Yes. It’s so much fun to see it all come together; it’s like a big puzzle. You do your little part, and if everybody else does their little part they just look great. The Zion Temple didn’t look like much until the lighting came in. It looked like something, but it didn’t look like a cave, so I think the candles helped tremendously, as well as the torches.

Figuring out how to do the torches was interesting. Although the Special Effects Department built the torches, we did the R & D on them. For years, the San Francisco Opera had torches that were a cardboard tube with wicking and wax around it that they went all the way to Austria to buy. They were pretty good, but every once in a while they’d fall apart and you’d have live fire around. In a two or three hour Opera they’d go out once or twice so you could control that, but here where people are using the torches all day long and they wanted a hundred of them, we had to find something better.

The Opera recently made some torches out of propane that were self-contained, but cost maybe five hundred dollars a torch, so that wasn’t an option, we couldn’t make a hundred of them at five hundred dollars a torch. So we went to the hardware store, bought some of this, bought some of that; we spent probably about a week on and off, trying to find just what we wanted. When we found something right, we bought a hundred of them and gave them to Special Effects. They worked out the mechanics of the kill switch, so if someone let go of it, it would immediately go out, which was the most important part.

MATRIX: What sort of hardware created the torches?

JOHN: We bought lawn torches and tried that for a little bit, then we tried to find just the right butane torch, and finally we found a butane lawn torch that was going to work, then the Effects Department worked out all the mechanics of it. The flame was also part of it, because the flames were not usually that big, but for film they had to be huge.


MATRIX: Was the Park set a big set dressing job?

JOHN: Yes it was. We bought a lot of junk for that because all the fire escapes needed to look like they were in a tenement building. We went to second hand stores all over the area and even cleaned out the parking lot behind a property shop to get an old sofa and other old stuff… even sweeping up leaves and things. We spent a couple of days trying to find the right kind of dirt and gravel to put around the edges of the set – it all adds up to a lot of little touches you don’t usually see.

For the almost four hundred windows in the Park set, we were prepared to make little apartment scenes inside about eighty of them, with lamps and furniture. As with most of this work, it evolves, so cleaning the windows to see inside was then decided to be inappropriate, so you can’t really see much. We spent a lot of time with the drapes in all four hundred windows: we bought new material, old material and old drapes, then we stained them and dyed them. Even newspapers were put in the windows – we poured coffee on them to get them all nice and yellow.
We tried to think of every kind of way people would have windows. The funniest days were when we broke windows – we spent two days breaking windows and then taping them together so the glass wouldn’t fall out and hit anybody. Breaking windows is a fun thing to be paid for!

MATRIX: Did you break them in an artful way, or did you just let loose?

JOHN: We just let loose on them, although some of them didn’t want to break very well. Afterwards, jagged edges were hanging down, and the wooden windows were not really puttied in, so all those pieces had to be taped back so they wouldn’t come falling down, especially with people getting thrown against buildings and things like that.

MATRIX: What are some of the tricks you use to age things?

JOHN: We actually took some furniture out in the parking lot and torched it, which was also a fun day, I’d say that was right up there with breaking windows. Most of the time we just take burnt umber with a little paint and a lot of water, and spritz it on to the items, letting it run and be dirty and ugly. We also smash things up, breaking chairs and cutting the cane out of chairs, so there isn’t really any method to the madness.

When we beat something up and make it look old and used, we call that distressing it. Typically, chains are involved, and hammers and things like that, and a lot of gray paint or brown paint. That happens a lot, we’re often distressing things.

MATRIX: How closely do you work with the Paint Department?

JOHN: Many times we have the Paint Department do the distressing on items. Little things take an amazing amount of time. On the Park set there needed to be Stand Pipes, which would be for firemen to get water to each floor of the building, so we bought black PVC pipes, and real valves, then we put them all together. The Paint Department makes them look old and red, rusted and all corroded, which is what really sells it. The Paint Department is the best, they are so creative, right down to the cracks in the sidewalk on the Park set.

MATRIX: Was the Set Decorating Department involved with the floor of the Park set?

JOHN: No, Construction built the floor in the Park set, and the On Set Dresser helped the Standby Construction worker to replace the tiles. We had a set of about twenty tiles that were made of foam instead of plywood, so when they did the stunts, we would run in and pull up the wooden tiles and put down the foam tiles. This was so that the stunt people could get through the day without any broken bones.


MATRIX: You have a lot of Chinese bits and pieces and religious icons sitting here, what will they be used for?

JOHN: They originally wanted to shoot a Chinatown scene here in San Francisco, but the logistics of it all just became crazy, so they decided to shoot it in Australia. In the Chinatown scene they wanted a street market with religious icons etc, so they asked us to go out and buy a bunch of stuff because they weren’t sure of the variety of things in Australia, and we certainly have a wide variety of stuff here.
We have the day-glo Jesus, we have the giant day-glo rosary beads, we have this picture that changes when you tilt it, and we have a bunch religious scene fabrics, I’m not sure if they’re towels or tapestries. We also picked up a little Elvis on the way thinking we could always have that repainted into something. This is one of my favorite objects, a plastic scene of the Last Supper with a rose, playing some corny music. We also have a little Mary clock here, and a lot of different candles.

MATRIX: Where did you source these items?

JOHN: One of the people in the Set Dressing Department is the Buyer, it’s her, Kris Boxell’s, job to go out and buy things. Everything we needed, Kris would go out and buy, whether she’d get on the phone looking for candles or we’d send her to a store to look for this and that. She went to about one or two dozen shops all over San Francisco to find the items for the Chinatown scene.
In this case, she bought a few of everything and put them on display, then the Art Director [Hugh Bateup] and Production Designer [Owen Paterson] from Australia came and looked at them, and I assume they gave feedback. It’s pretty typical in a movie to buy a bunch of things, not knowing how you’re going to use them, or where you’re going to use them, but just to get the things and let the boss decide what he or she wants.

MATRIX: Thanks John.

Interview by REDPILL
May 2001