SET DECORATOR’S ROLE
MATRIX: How did you come to be working on THE MATRIX sequels?
RON: I come from Los Angeles, California, and I interviewed there with Owen [Paterson, Production Designer], along with other Set Decorators. Owen asked me to do the project back in November , and I started during the first part of January , we’re now going on our seventh month in July. The US Art Director [Mark Mansbridge] had been on this project for six months when I began, so I tried to catch up and see where their vision was, along with the Directors’, regarding each set, and then get everything up here and start putting it together.
MATRIX: What was your first reaction to seeing the original MATRIX film?
RON: I’ve seen it many times, it’s a fantastic film. Just the opportunity to interview on this was an honor. This is one of the things you dream about being a part of, it’s a legendary film. In fact, last night on the AFI [American Film Institute] awards, I think it was #66 in the top 100. It’s an incredible film; the vision, the look is just incredible. To be a part of is considered an honor in my book.
MATRIX: Could you outline the role of a Set Decorator within the Art Department and the artistic areas of a film?
RON: The role of a Set Decorator is to help bring the Directors’ vision, and the Production Designer’s vision, into reality. We try and locate those pieces to come together, whether it’s a living room with fabrics and furniture, carpeting and drapes, or a cave, such as this, with the entrance with shields and guns, and the instruments. We have a meeting, we discuss what everybody’s vision is, and then it’s a matter of trying to pull that reality together. That’s the fun part. Then when you do it and you see it, with everything in the set, it’s lit and there are actors working with it, it’s very rewarding.
MATRIX: What kinds of materials did your department work with to enhance the look of the Zion Temple?
RON: This cave itself, as a decorator, is not really what I’m involved in. The Art Department designed it, and the Construction Department built it, put it together, and carved it, then the Paint Department came in and gave it its colors, its layers, and its texture. I brought in the elements, which would be the candles and the candelabra stands, which are on the columns, and the instruments. We put the instruments together, brought them in, put them in place, made sure they worked scale wise, and that, scope wise, they also fit. We also worked on the entrance here where the I Beams and the shields are. For me as a Set Decorator, I wish there was more on this particular set, I wish there was a sofa and a chair, but it wouldn’t be here.
MATRIX: Was it a bit of a challenge to get the candles the way you wanted them?
RON: The candles were definitely a challenge. On film, a normal candle with its normal wick isn’t bright enough, it’s too small. So for camera purposes, and to throw off a bigger light, we tried to figure out how we could achieve a bigger, brighter flame. We bought some candles, drilled them out, put some rope inside and filled them back up with some wax, then lit it, and it was a great flame, but it created too much smoke with the nylon in the rope.
We went back to the candle company from whom we had bought 500 candles, and asked them what they use for wicking and if it’s for sale. They ended up having this big ball of wick, so we bought that, cut three strands, tied that together and put it in a candle, and it’s a great flame. There is a smoke element to it, but the flame is a perfect size, it should show up on camera really nicely. Initially it was a bit of a problem, we’re still a little concerned as to the smoke element on set, because we’re going to have a lot of candles, and how much smoke they’ll throw off and how much of a haze, we’re not sure, but the flame will be perfect.
MATRIX: A number of extras will be holding lit torches, were you involved in producing those?
RON: Yes. We went to a hardware store and started investigating the torch scene. We found long garden variety torches, so we cut them, and they worked pretty well. At that point, we went to the Special Effects Department to see if they could rig a handle on each torch so the background people could hold it in their hands, and as soon as they released it, the flame would go off. It would be a little safer with all the people on set. If the torch was to continue going, and someone was to put it down, we would have a fire problem, but now, with the way special effects has rigged it, as soon as your hand is off it, it goes out.
Again, that will create some light and some smoke, although I don’t think it will be that bad, it’s a cleaner element. It’ll have a nice big flame at the end of it, they should look pretty cool. We gave the torches to the Paint Department, and they put a graphite finish on each one so they actually look like rusted out old metal, but underneath, it’s really just plastic.
MATRIX: There will be so many people and naked flames on set, what other safety precautions have been taken?
RON: We did a couple of tests. We took the foam this set is built out of, and lit it, and it didn’t catch fire. If you kept the heating element on it, it would continue melting, but as soon as you took it away, it would stop. We had an Alameda Fire Marshall [Capt. J. Michael Edwards] come over, we showed him our tests, and he said we were fine. The Wardrobe Department has also fire proofed all the costumes, so everybody will be safe. As far as the candles go, we’re not too concerned, it’s really the torches we had to take particular precautions with because those are in someone’s hands.
MATRIX: How is it working with Owen Paterson?
RON: When I first met him we had an incredible interview, it lasted an hour and twenty minutes. I walked out of there going, wow, I hope I get this picture. He was very pleasant, very easy to talk to, so when the opportunity arrived it was great. Owen is very mild, very calm, there is no ego involved, the man is very easy to work with. He knows what he wants, he has a great vision, and he’s just a pleasure to work with. A lot of times, in this business, there are a lot of egos and people that can be difficult. His son’s friends call him the ‘Matrix Man’, and that’s what I’m going to name him, that’s what he is to me, the Matrix Man. He’s just great. If I could work the rest of my career with him, it would be great.
He has a great eye, good vision, is very focused and he’s a pleasure to be around. He has a great eye, good vision, is very focused and he’s a pleasure to be around. He’s very supportive of other peoples’ ideas, as long as you’re within the color pattern, like our instruments. The instruments were drawn by an artist [Simon Murton, Concept Illustrator], Owen gave the drawings to me, we sat down, discussed them, then I went out and started to find pieces we could put together. He never once said, “You can’t do that,” or “You can’t do this.” He was able to envision these things as they were in pieces, and he didn’t make any changes.
MATRIX: How difficult was it to make the instruments?
RON: The instruments were tough to find pieces for here in the San Francisco Bay area. You have to find a salvage yard, and then it’s looking at the pieces and seeing if they work. If you find an exhaust fan and we turn the exhaust fan upside down, take the hood off and bend this and paint it that way, will it look like a drum head? That was the hardest part. The other part was finding the right person to put this together. The gentleman we found was working in the Construction Department [Katsuhiro Okada, Propmaker Gang Boss], an incredible artist with a great eye, he’s remarkable, I wish I could take him with me.
He could look at different things and say, “If we put it this way, and put some bolt heads here, we’ll have this drum head.” He was very instrumental in the success of the instruments. The ultimate compliment was the artist who drew the instruments came up to me and asked, “What did you do, go in and Xerox these things out of a machine and here they are?” They look exactly as they are drawn. Owen was extremely supportive in our endeavor, our finding certain pieces, and letting us work with these pieces and putting them together. He’s a man I’d like to keep working with.
MATRIX: The sets here are larger than average, what would you say has been the most challenging aspect of this production for you?
RON: There were a couple of elements. For the Freeway set, which was right up front, we wanted to find some street lights that could go down the center of the freeway and light both sides, not that they’re ever on in the film, but in reality, at night, they would be on. We found that 25 light poles are very expensive to buy, and we didn’t have time to purchase them, and who wants to rent these things, so that was a huge problem. We finally found somebody in Los Angeles. Then, once we had them, how did we install them on the cement K-Rail? We went to a company here that builds freeways, talked to them, and they manufactured saddles for us to mount the poles on, and everything worked out fine. Actually the street lights went up pretty easily, and with the high winds we’ve been very lucky everything has stayed up. That was probably the biggest push.
As far the freeway signs go, we’ve had a lot of support here in the local area. Caltrans [California Department of Transportation] gave us the big ones, then we found a company who would make signs for us, and we had them made up. On the freeways, call box signs are blue, but in THE MATRIX there is no blue, so we had to custom paint all the signs. Everything was green with a touch of yellow, a little amber yellow caution sign. If you’re on the Freeway set, you can see there’s just a little bit of color, but not much, everything is gray and black, and it has a terrific look. When the lights went on down the center and the signs went up, you could be anywhere in America, or anywhere period, on a freeway. It came out pretty cool.
MATRIX: Were you involved in the specific naming of the streets?
RON: No, that was the Art Department. We sat down and went through a book on Chicago, and kind of looked up what was in Chicago, as far as off ramps and signs and street names, and then just started adding. We took a few from there and came up with a few of our own, then had them printed out. We showed the Directors and they thought they were fine, so we went with that. They look pretty good I have to say. When the signs went up it was, “Wow, we have a real freeway here!”
MATRIX: Is that the largest set you’ve ever worked on?
RON: We were talking about this about a month ago, and as far as we know, a freeway has never been built before for a movie, especially a mile and a half long. Construction had a huge job, they started in January , and with the weather problems, there was the question whether they would be finished in time. The overpass was a big challenge, although that wasn’t my area, that was the Construction Department, they did a remarkable job.
THE PARK SET
MATRIX: Here in the United States, three sets were built, can you tell us about the Park set?
RON: The Park set was another big set. We tried to make it look like a ghetto environment, a rough environment, which is kind of cold. There are obviously no green trees, but yet we wanted trees, so we stripped the trees on set of their leaves, which kept on coming back – we just kept on top of that. Each building has fire escapes on it, so we tried to bring some personal life outside onto the fire escapes to show that humans do live here, that there are people here. We also put in a trash element – pieces of trash lying around on the ground and in corners, the way the wind would have created the trash. We put lamps and furniture in the windows so, if you could see in, you’d see the back of a chair, a TV with antennas on it, a lamp, a hanging lamp, or a standing lamp. This was to bring some reality to the set so it had some depth to it, and it looked like people lived in that environment.
MATRIX: As a Set Decorator, was the Park the most enjoyable of the US sets to work on?
RON: The Park set was a challenge. First of all we had to find the furniture here in the Bay area, and I don’t live here, so it was difficult to locate the pieces. Then it was a matter of how much we needed. So we went out and loaded a couple of trucks, brought some furniture in, then went out and got a couple more loads, and ended up with the right amount. Again the color aspect was important, you can’t have blue, and you don’t want a bright color, there’s a certain color tone and variety of colors in THE MATRIX.
If something was too bright, we took it to the Paint Department and had it aged down and dyed. We dyed a lot of the fabrics hanging in the windows so they didn’t stand out, or jump out, or were too bright. When it came together, and the Directors walked on the set and didn’t change one piece, that’s when we knew we did our job, and that they’re happy. So far it’s been good, everything we’ve done has pretty much stayed as is.
MATRIX: What is your background?
RON: I started in this business in 1975, just working set dressing, and I did that for a while. My Dad was a Set Decorator, and after about 8 years I started working with him, just in the gang dressing sets, following and listening and trying to observe. When he retired, I decided it was time I give it a try, and at that point I started decorating. I tried to stay out of television, I did not want to do TV, I wanted to do the big pictures, the features, because they’re the most fun. It was hard, a lot of people don’t want to take a gamble on a new kid or a new person, so I just kept plugging away, and my big break was Twister. When I got that, it seemed to change my career, as far as being accepted in the feature film world. I did some smaller pictures before that: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, and a couple of action films, but Twister was the big one. It was a lot of fun, and you knew you were on something very special.
From there I just kept plugging away doing features. The Postman was another great picture, probably my most rewarding. The look of that show was very difficult, everything was built, everything had to be brought in. It was filmed in three states in America, and five different cities. Having crew, different personnel, working in different cities at different times on every set was huge. That picture was probably my hardest and most rewarding. There have been some fun ones in between: I did an Oliver Stone picture, Any Given Sunday. I love football, so it was great to be a part of that and be on the field. I discovered what it’s like to be on the defensive side when the quarterback says hike, it was really interesting. It’s a lot different than sitting in your living room watching TV. I hope to stay in the feature end of it, although it seems to be getting harder and harder, as pictures are leaving California. Pictures are going to Canada for example, this picture is going to Australia, so the business is becoming more global.
MATRIX: The Postman was a large production, how would you say it compares to THE MATRIX sequels?
RON: The scope is bigger, the size, everything, these three sets here in Alameda are huge. In The Postman, everything was big and everything had to be brought in, just like this picture. THE MATRIX isn’t a normal picture where you have a dining room table and chairs and a break front in the background, it’s more creative in its thinking, its positioning of things, how you’re going to make these things, and make them look old and rusted. It was the same thing in The Postman, where everything was very old, untouched and things were rotting and rusting away. There was an extra layer there that, when you’re doing an interior living room, you don’t have. It gets boring with your furniture, your chairs, and your sofas, this is where it gets creative, the details like trying to decide on what the metal would look like. Is it rusted? Is there a blue hint or a green tint to it? What instruments would they hide behind? You’re more creative on a film like this.
MATRIX: Do you still get a rush when you see a completed set?
RON: Very much so. To watch a movie you’ve worked on, to see it on the big screen and see your work up there, along with the work of the Wardrobe Department, the Camera Department, the Lighting Department, when it all comes together and you watch it, it’s a great feeling. It’s an art form – a lot of people putting a lot of effort into one thing, it’s not just one individual, it’s everybody. When it works like THE MATRIX worked, it has an impact. As an example, I have some friends who live down south, and my daughter went to spend the night at their house. This family has a daughter my daughter’s age, and she has a sixteen year old friend who is a huge MATRIX nut. He came to the house just to meet my daughter because her Dad was working on THE MATRIX sequels. This movie affects a lot of people, there’s a huge, huge following on it. Working on this picture, like I said before, is an honor, it really is.
MATRIX: Are the sets you’ve worked on here as you had imagined?
RON: The sets are great. The size of these sets is incredible, I don’t know if a cave this size has been built before. To be a part of this set and to watch it grow, from the day the foam came in and was laid out in the parking lot, to when it was brought in piece by piece, to where it’s now looking quite incredible. The Construction Department should be extremely proud, it’s really something. It should photograph really well. It will be interesting to see what happens in Australia when they do the other part of the cave, and put the two together. I’m looking forward to this picture coming out.
MATRIX: Have you had the opportunity to read the second and third scripts?
RON: They gave me the pages that were strictly for the United States shooting part of it. I wanted to have some continuity and a feel for what was about to happen, what the look was, and what takes place, so I asked if I could read the whole scripts. I sat at my desk in the Art Department in Los Angeles and read them, the scripts never left the Art Department. I think they have a hit. Sometimes sequels are not the best, but I definitely think this is in line and in character with the first film, and story wise it’s perfect. I think they’ve got something.
MATRIX: Thanks Ron.
Interview by REDPILL