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Linda DeScenna Interview Wednesday 07-11-01
GW: Thank you for taking time out of your busy day for this interview, am I interrupting anything?
LD: Actually, its no trouble at all.
GW: The 20th anniversary of Blade Runner is approaching, I thought it would be wise to do a series of interviews. Seeing what memories, various members of the cast and crew had on the making of Blade Runner. I have interviewed actors, but I felt that you, being the" Set Decorator" for the film, would have a different vision of what actually happened, and how Blade Runner was actually put together. Does it seem like twenty years?
LD: (laughs) Yes, it does.
GW: Being the Set Decorator youll have different insight into the film. Did you work along with just assistants, just how does it work?
LD: Oh yes, normally there are many people, but they are not technically called assistants, they all have different categories. Sadly Tom had to leave after a brief period.
GW: Tom Roysden ?
LD: Yes, I have to say he did do some work, but after that he left, then it was just me.
On almost all movies there is usually just one "Set Decorator".
Normally on any movie, if I had started that movie I would have been the only Decorator. But no, you never work alone, I have a lead person, who is like the foreman and crew, but it has changed a lot. In these times there are buyers, and assistant decorators, there was no such thing when I was doing it.
GW: Then it has changed a lot in the last twenty years?
LD: It has changed a lot in the last ten years. I had my lead person, I had a huge crew, normally you have a crew of maybe four people and drivers then if you do locations you have extra people that can be "striking" while you are "dressing" and other people are "prepping" all that sort of thing. This was a huge, huge crew. Because we had to do things that normally you might have two or three months to do just prep we had to do it in a week. So we had a lot more trucks and a lot more people. We had one "lead person" and one Decorator, and tons of crew and teamsters.
GW: Why was the lead-time so short?
LD: For me it was short because, they had had someone on and two months before filming she was let go, then Tom came on, and there was a tragedy in his family and he left after the first set.
LD: It was Tyrells complex.
GW: Was that the Tyrell Office or Tyrell bedroom?
LD: The Tyrell Office, the Tyrell bedroom the Tyrell complex, you dont necessarily shoot in order but that was the first thing they shot. So when I came on, Tom was dressing "Deckards apartment, they had shot the Tyrell office, Tom couldnt go on because of what happened, so he left they put me on, they had hired me for the "exteriors" moved me to the "interiors" hired another person for the "exteriors", even before those were semi-prepped Ridley walked them he didnt like them, and that person was let go.
Then they said to me, we want you to do everything, and I said that I would.
GW: Certainly but it was probably more than twice the work.
LD: Yes, pretty much, I was awake a lot. I got an average of three or four hours of sleep a night, and for long periods of time that I went without sleep. There were some times we were up twenty-four, twenty-seven; thirty-six hours trying to get stuff ready. We were so under the gun. I even slept in my office at times.
GW: Because they were shooting at night?
LD: They were shooting day and night.
GW: Because they could shot the interiors during the day.
LD: Well they were. It depends if you are shooting an interior, or if you are shooting an exterior lets say, you start the week out Monday and you shot an exterior and its a night exterior, they try to shoot all the exteriors at the same time. If they cant do that, the call wont be for the stage or for any interior until twelve hours later or whatever the turn around is.
So they have to stay on nights regardless, because they cant say okay we are going to shoot Monday night all night then come in come in Tuesday morning. Nor will they waste all of Tuesday and Tuesday night and bring you in Wednesday morning. So the schedules is totally screwed up all the time because we had night and days. But that is the way it is with every movie. The reason we had so little time was not only because I started out a little later, but because they couldnt make up their mind what they wanted to do. Ridley was very particular about things, and very detail oriented, and we really didnt know what we were going to shoot. We didnt know when, and there were sets added we just didnt know what we were going to shoot.
The set that I remember the most is the one that we literally built from Ridley saying "I would like to do this", from that point to thirty-six hours later it was ready to shoot. And of course we stayed up all those thirty-six hours, one thing to remember is, we had twelve people with blowtorches. We had all these candelabras, and we had to make the candles look as if they had burned forever. It was the bar with the little worm that was in the glass.
GW: Oh, the Snake Pit.
LD: Yes, the Snake Pit.
GW: So the Snake Pit Bar was built in thirty-six hours?
LD: Yes from conception to completion in that time. Carpenters were building, painters were painting, we were on top of one another and they had to have it at a certain time, because they only had the actors at a certain time. As an art department you work around everybody elses schedule. You never ever follow what you think youre going to follow.
GW: Were most of the scenes storyboarded by Ridley Scott?
LD: Ridley had done many storyboards. Im not so sure about that because I was the Set Decorator. I wasnt the Production Designer, who is a lot closer to the story boarding. I know that Syd Mead did drawings, and Geiger did some drawings. I dont know if they were involved with the story boarding. But Ridley is a huge visual person, as well as he is from a commercial background. Commercials are storyboarded down to the letter, down to every single shot. So they probably had a lot of stuff storyboarded and probably Ridley changed that, because he would see something and he would come up with something different immediately, I thought it was genius, he is a genius.
GW: Did you work with Lawrence Paull and David Snyder?
LD: Yes, Larry Paull was the Production Designer and David Snyder was the Art Director.
GW: The twentieth anniversary of the making of the film is coming up. Ridley Scott will be bringing out another version of the Blade Runner film called the "Special Edition". His people had to find acceptable copies of the film so it could be re-cut and edited.
LD: You know I have never seen the Directors Cut, I dont know how it changed. Maybe Ive seen the movie twice, years and years ago. I wouldnt know how theyve changed it.
GW: To tell you the changes simply in a few words, they basically took out the happy ending.
LD: Oh that was a huge fight, as you can tell it was shot differently, the lighting is different. They shot that way after we were finished shooting. Lots of stuff is shot like that, pickup shots and insert shots. There was a big deal with his narration.
GW: I had heard that Harrison Ford was not happy with the narration, he tried to do such a bad job that the studio wouldnt use it, but of course they did.
How did you get involved with the film Blade Runner?
LD: One of the reasons that they called me as a Set Decorator I think is that my first movie, as a Set Decorator was "Star Trek the Motion Picture". The reason I got that was because it was one of the first science fiction movies starting the genre again in the 70s. The reason I got that was because I had done two of the science fiction TV series as a Set Decorator when I was a new Set Decorator.
Then they interviewed me for Blade Runner and the interviewed me for the Main Decorator they didnt hire me, they hired Tom Roysden. Then after a while they knew Tom couldnt handle all that work so they called me in to be the exterior Set Decorator. As I said he left and I took that over they brought another Decorator in to do exteriors and Ridley let her go after about three or four weeks, then I took over the whole thing. I think the reason they saw me initially was because I had done Star Trek and I got a nomination for an Academy Award for that.
GW: How many times have you been nominated?
LD: Five times, for the films, Star Trek, Blade Runner, the Color Purple, Rainman, and Toys, I never won though.
GW: Thats quite a resume!
LD: Im kind of like the Susan Lucci of Set Decoration.
She won after her nineteenth try, after nineteen nominations.
GW: Hopefully it wont take you that long.
LD: I dont think it will happen again because I dont take those kinds of movies anymore. I just like working with people I really love and making good money so I can get out of this business as soon as possible. (laughs)
GW: You were talking about the hours that you work.
GW: That film was from 1990 right?
LD: Actually 1989, in that one we worked probably eleven weeks, fifteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week non-stop to get it ready. This was all because they shot so quickly and moved so quickly. But Blade runner was like that literally, I would go home and sleep for three or four hours then come back. Then dress stuff and then open the sets then dress more sets.
GW: It seems like it would leave absolutely no time for any personal life.
LD: You usually dont have a personal life when youre working on movies anyway, except on the weekends or when youre off. You cant plan anything, you dont dare plan anything.
GW: So you cant say "honey we can go to dinner tonight."
LD: Oh no, no! And you have to be there and you cant say no.
GW: So you cant say Im sick or ill ?
LD: Oh my gawd no, you cant be sick, you cant make a doctors appointment. You have to be there because you could hold up the production and cost them a lot of money.
GW: Did you ever see the t-shirts that the crew had made?
LD: As you know they had t-shirts made up that said "Will Rogers never met Ridley Scott" and there were buttons that said "I survived Blade Runner". I was one of the fortunate ones I got along with Ridley incredibly well. I did another movie with him in fact, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME. I just adored him, if you get "Ridleys vision", if he tells you something and you execute it, if you "get it" hes a dream. But when he has this vision and you dont get it, he flips out, and you can totally understand that.
GW: Morgan Paull, the actor that played Dave Holden, he feels the same way too. He and Mr. Scott got along famously and Mr. Scott asked Morgan to stay around after Morgan scenes had been shot. He said he thought the world of Ridley Scott.
LD: So did I. We had started the last scene, the last day of shooting supposedly, everyday was supposed to be the day of shooting. They would tell Ridley "this is your last day, and he would say F you. " We were way over schedule, we just shot forever and ever. We were outside shooting the scene, which we started shooting at about three oclock in the afternoon, we had a one oclock call, for shooting at three, and we were going to be doing some night work and when the light came up in the morning we werent nearly done. So since it was day light they took the whole exterior roof and took it to the stage, got it soaking wet, ruined the stage, they had to pay dearly for that, and shot it until 1:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon the next day.
Harrison was completely blasted on Jack Daniels he was really drunk passing the bottle around. The crew was taking sips of the bottle, basically all they wanted to do was leave that movie, and they just wanted to get out.
GW: was that the final scene?
LD: No that was the final day. They basically said, "this is it you really dont have anymore time. Ridley said, "okay then Ill make the day as long as I want."
GW: The story line was wonderful, but I think what drew most of the fans to this film was the atmosphere, the vehicles and the sets that created believability to the film. A kind of visual sense of what 2019 would be like in Los Angeles. I think you personally created a kind of reality or a touchstone.
LD: I saw the movie when it first came out, because I went to the screening, then I saw it later and I think it has really held up in time as far as the look. There are a lot of movies that look dated and I think Ridleys vision holds up and is so strong. I use my instincts a lot and my job is easy for me, not the logistics of it, but just the actual visual portion. To be able to grab what Ridley wanted and to execute it once you got , it was pretty easy as long as we had the time.
GW: Did you use a specific prop house for the many miscellaneous items, or did you chose a specific designer who produced a lot of period pieces that were appropriate for the film?
LD: It was a mishmash I would go everywhere, we went to every prop house we went to electronics stores, we literally went everywhere. We were trying to scrounge up what we needed. We would come up with something, Ridley would come up with little drawings we would call "Ridleygrams". He would draw and say "this is what I want Deckards bed to be like" then I would go out and find the bones of it and we would give it to the prop people and then hire more prop people. We would tell them "heres the drawing on the napkin do it". Normally you have set designers who draw up plans for you.
A lot of the stuff for Blade Runner was retrofitted. You modify whatever it is by adding or subtracting from it making it look different.
GW: Did you prepare all the set decoration for the Snake Pit Bar nightclub ? I guess we already talked about that. You did the dressing area, and the hallway it was really believable.
LD: Thank you, I thought it looked pretty good.
One story I can tell you about is the "Chew set", when we were doing the cold area.
GW: Oh, Chews lab.
LD: Yes, we shot in a meat locker a freezer in Downey at the "Farmer Johns" meat plant and when we were dressing it, they had to turn the temperature down to what I think was four degrees.
GW: Four degrees above zero?
LD: Yes, it was something ridiculous because it had to be freezing when the crew came in. They set the temperature very low because once they set the lights in there it would start to heat up. So we were in there dressing for three days, they didnt give us suits or any kind of gear or anything, because we were the set dressing crew, they said they didnt have the gear yet. They gave it to the crew but they didnt give it to us. It was so gawd damned cold. I remember in Buckaroo Bonzai when we dressed the Firestone Building, it was the old rubber plant, we were black from the rubber and gook and gunk, we had to throw our clothes out, that was horrible, but this was much worse.
GW: How could you ever get warm again?
LD: You cant! We were in there; of course we had in go in and out, in and out. So finally when the crew came in Jordan, he was so our Director of Photography, was ill and he had a really hard time in there. I remember he was so sick they had to help him out. It was just horrible in there it was so cold.
GW: How did you do the ceiling, did you spray water?
LD: Yes, they just sprayed water, that was real ice, that wasnt fake. They tell you what you are going to do and you do it. No one really understands what it is like unless they work on a movie. You work a lot of hours and basically you give your life for the run of the movie.
In the Bradbury Building, the corridors part, not the Sebastian apartment, we literally dressed it as soon as we could get in there after the business hours, then undressed it in the morning before the people came in.
GW: I dont think people realize that the Bradbury Building is used every day. Its an office building and that you went in there after hours and dressed it every day after everyone went home. So all the water we see all the trash we see had to be put in then cleaned up everyday.
LD: For instance in the "Color Purple" do you remember how in the beginning how nice the kitchen was, then it was messed up? We probably dressed and undressed that kitchen twenty times. A mess, not a mess, because you never shoot in sequence, you put things back the best you can.
You have photographs but sometimes its really tough.
GW: Speaking of exterior dressing, I always wondered about those large columns outside the Bradbury Building, how were they made?
LD: Yes, those were foam columns, they were put up by the art department and we brought those down to the Bradbury Building and then they were removed. I dont know if they were removed every day or not because it wasnt my department and I dont know if they were forced to move those or whether there was a deal in the contract where they could leave those there.
GW: Oh, they were huge!
LD: Yes they were, if you look in the film they are other places as well. You know the whole town was just a back lot?
GW: Yes its kind of a small area, like one and a half streets. And if you look at the film it seems like that neon dragon appears in every scene.
LD: (laughs) Oh my gawd, Ridley loved that dragon, we would put up neon and he would say put up more neon. The majority of the neon was done by a shop in the valley, then because we needed more we had to farm the rest of it out. I also got a lot from the hand prop room. We had a lot of loss and damage on everything.
GW: Why because it was neon?
LD: Just everything got rained on and smoked, thrashed and dirty, broken, stolen.
GW: I asked Bill Sanderson if that colorful coat he wore in the film was for sale. If he was able to take it home after the film, he said someone stole it after filming.
LD: Yes I believe that.
GW: Sebastians apartment in the Bradbury Building had a scientific aire and a very sad and lonely feeling about it. There was a kind of clutter that we think that a scientist or genius might have around them. There were a lot of toys and automatons in the apartment, is there a story behind them?
LD: Ridley wanted a lot of toys. Thats what Sebastian was, he was an animatronic guy. Ridley wanted as many toys as we could find, I went everywhere called everyone I knew. The stuff we couldnt find to move, we moved ourselves. We had the crew behind chairs, hanging from the ceiling, twirling things around. They had sticks jammed into the back of toys and would twirl the sticks to make them move. He wanted everything to move.
GW: Im sure there were figures that were live manikins or models.
LD: I think there were. The women with powered wigs were the manikins youre speaking of.
GW: A lot of the exteriors that you did were kind of retrofitted from salvage from the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base scrap yard. I guess a lot of the buildings had high-density foam on them as part of the exterior. Did the rain and water damage the sets?
LD: Well that wasnt my area then because I was the set decorator, but Im a production designer now, so I can answer that. Foam holds up pretty well, it only lasts for so long and when you have foam on a movie set its always getting bumped into, hit by equipment, people are always leaning on it. When you do a movie you have a standby painter. With Blade Runner we had a standby painter and a standby plasterer, things had to be touched up constantly.
GW: On the interior, I think we touched on this before, did you use items that were located for their unusual character and purchased at local stores or were most things built by the prop department? Im thinking of the "Holden" thermos, the "Tsingtao" bottle and the "Johnnie Walker" bottle.
LD: Now that is a hand prop, things that are sitting around and not moved are set decoration, tables, chairs, pictures, rugs, dentist office equipment. Anything that is picked up and moved, a glass, tv remote, a bottle of wine, all that is the area of the "Propmaster". So there are hand props and set decoration, anything picked up and used by the hand is a hand prop. For instance in "Harry and the Hendersons" there is a chair that Harry sits down in and it breaks. Technically its a prop, and it was also part of the set decoration I did it because I wanted it to match the other furniture. But anything like watches, jewelry, guns, a lighter those are all hand props. However with all the exteriors and interiors that I did with all the objects you saw on the exterior streets the windows, the noodle bar we just went out and I just said "I want that, I want that, I want that." And I had crew following me.
GW: (laughs) so you would have you and your assistant and all these crew and drivers following you.
LD: I had a"Lead Person". He was in charge of the crew. A kind of foreman of the crew, he tells them where they have to drop the load off, when they have to pick it up and organizes them for the day, even when to go to lunch. The decorator is the one that does the creative end of it. I would be in my car with my driver he would drop me off, Id go in Id have people behind me, "okay, buy that, get that" they would load it in the truck follow me up to the set. It was pretty nuts!
GW: Thats amazing! I thought it would be great fun to track down some of the things the hand props that were in the movie. But it has been twenty years.
LD: Have you talked to Terry Lewis?
GW: No I havent.
LD: Yes he was the Propmaster.
GW: Okay thats another person for me to track down and interview.
I would like to cover what you have been doing recently.
LD: In 1993 after I did "Wolf" that was my last Set Decorating job, I had done thirty pictures as a Set Decorator. I moved up to Production Designer, Barry Levinson did that for me, because I had done some films with him. I think I have done eight or nine films as a Production designer. As a Production Designer Im on even longer, Im usually on a film for nine to twelve months. As a Set Decorator youre usually on for six to eight months.
GW: So you just finished the film "Dragonfly" with Kevin Cosner ?
LD: That was my third movie with that director, Tom Shadyac.
GW: I take it that it is a contemporary film?
LD: Yes it is.
GW: Are you going to be doing any further projects soon?
LD: Well, yes it depends on Tom, the director I just worked with, he has three scripts he is working on right now, he hopes to start in September. And another person I work with a lot has contacted me so I (knock on wood) never worry about that Ive been very fortunate.
GW: It seems that you have been doing all great films basically one after the other since 1979
LD: Yes actually 78, Star Trek was released in 1979, as I say, Ive been fortunate.
GW: I want to thank you for doing this again.
LD: Oh youre certainly welcome and Good Luck.
We received this post script from David Snyder in an e-mail from 9/9/2001.
"P.S. Harrison was drinking Johnny Walker Red on the last night of shooting. I'm going to remind Linda (DeScenna) when we have lunch on Wednesday."
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