Did you catch Part 1 of our interview with Halt and Catch Fire Set Decorator Lance Totten? When the ’80s design knowledge is this good, you can’t contain it in one interview…which is why today we present Part 2! For the past two seasons, Lance has brought his expertise to the beloved AMC drama Halt and Catch Fire, meticulously recreating the 1980s with the help of his team (which consists of 10-20 people per day, depending on the workload). Read on as he tells us how he tracks down those amazing retro computers, how he covers the walls of the set with amazing artwork time and time again, and how the 1980s have influenced his life and work. Enjoy!…
Thanks again for chatting with us, Lance. I’ll start with a basic question that we’re all curious about. Can you give us an overview of how you source your decor for the sets? Do you go mostly through vendors who send over options? Goodwill and local thrift shops? Online shopping? Custom-built pieces? All of the above?!
We do all of that and more! Lots of physical shopping out of antique stores, flea markets, thrift shops, used office furniture warehouses, and yard sales. We also do very well with one-off items on Craigslist. We occasionally rent items from Prop Houses both here and in Hollywood. We shop a lot of items online, too.
eBay has been a huge source for us since the beginning, especially for all the computers and technology and telephones and modems. We found several great sources for period computer technology in other parts of the country through eBay too, and we ended up dealing with them en masse, sometimes arranging freight-line pick-ups for bulk purchases. Sometimes we’ve borrowed items from technology museums in other parts of the country as well. I can’t imagine how we would have done this pre-internet. I’ll go into more detail later in the interview!
When it comes to a period drama, is it more difficult to create a set for a character’s home (where there are many layers of items/personal belongings) or to create a polished commercial set such as a doctor’s office, a lobby or a hotel room?
Well, they all have their challenges, like finding specific period-accurate medical equipment, but I think in general the personal sets are always more difficult. Polished and impersonal is usually much easier because in an actual character-driven environment, you need to have a much fuller understanding of the characters. You have to factor in their age, class, income level, regional specifics, educational background, tastes, interests, hobbies, etc. And then to find a large enough volume of period-correct items to “sell” all of that information in a subtle and intuitive visual manner can be rather daunting at times.
On an episodic series like HCF we are more likely to see the main characters’ sets over and over again, so the need for authentic details of the period is even higher than in a bar or restaurant or doctor’s exam room, as important as all of them are. That being said, the venture capital firm in Season 2 was one of my favorites, as it was meant to be very stark and sterile. We actually cheated quite a bit there and went with a contemporary sectional sofa in the waiting area. Sofas seem to be one of the most difficult 1980’s items to find, and that space was so vast that we would have needed matching multiple units, which are nearly impossible to come by and would have certainly needed to be reupholstered.
That set was done for Episode 202 in a 3-4 day period during which we also had to create Jacob Wheeler’s voluminous private airplane hangar, the heavily layered Austin cottage, an outdoor scene in a park with matching seating and a custom fire pit, the first appearance of the Mutiny backyard location, and the front half of Tom Rendon’s house. So with understandable time and budgetary limitations we just went with a locally rentable leather sectional, that in spite of being non-period, at least had the necessary element of drama and a sense of scale appropriate for the setting. As the place is supposed to be so on-trend and of the moment, I think we pulled it off with accent tables and artwork and big aggressive lobby plants. I’m very happy with how the small seating area turned out, where the meeting actually takes place, as the items in there are so perfect for the period!
I know I’m not alone in saying that I love the look of computers and electronic equipment from the 1980s. I imagine that tracking this equipment down has been challenging. Can you share a bit about that process (choosing items based on aesthetics vs. historical accuracy, etc.)? You mentioned tech-related vendors and suppliers…
It has been very challenging at times, yes. But thankfully with the internet now it’s much easier to find everything! Even with 2 Buyers and an office coordinator and assistant, I still personally did an enormous amount of “technology shopping” online for both seasons. Many of the computers and printers and telephones we use on the show come from eBay or other online retail sources.
I’ll often find someone selling, say, 10 IBM Twinax mainframe terminal monitors from 1982, and when I start bidding on them the vendor will sometimes contact me directly (since my purchasing is so unusually specific and in high volume at times). Occasionally it has turned out the sellers run a refurbished computer warehouse in another state, and actually have tons of other items that we (but hardly anyone else) need. This is rare though, and didn’t really start to pan out for me until the second season. The first year was much more piecemeal.
Even so, of the 40 or so Commodore set-ups we acquired for Mutiny this season, I probably didn’t get more than 10 or 12 from a single vendor, and even then it was all peripherals without monitors, or monitors without computers. So we literally had to piece together all these various elements from hundreds of different eBay purchases. And sometimes I don’t even win the auctions, since I do have to sleep at times and sometimes get outbid! I spent most of the winter holiday break on my iPhone bidding and paying for computer parts; when we came back to work in January it was hard to get into our office for all the packages that had arrived.
We also had a very big telephone technology hurdle to deal with in Mutiny this year, as the characters are breaking new ground with nascent online gaming technology. I had to learn a lot more about modems and biscuit blocks circa 1985 than I would ever have wanted to. Fortunately, one of our local Atlanta computer tech advisors (and vendors) also had an amazing knowledge of phones and modems from having actually built the same type of networks that Mutiny employs in our storyline. Thankfully I was able to hire him to design and build the giant phone/modem wall in the Mutiny house hallway, and have it make sense and be something correct to the era that could have worked using a crude mainframe of IBM XT’s off in a bedroom closet.
Technology is a huge part of the job for set dressing, props, and the art department on HCF, but we are fortunate to have found a couple of experts in the period technology here in Atlanta to help us with these big story elements the writers come up with. I often remind folks on the show that I can’t only think about computers; I need time for curtains, artwork, and furniture too!
Luckily, the Production Designer and I figured out in the first season that we needed more staff to help us in the second, so we have been more successful this time around with all aspects of the show (tech and otherwise), as we’ve been allowed to bring on more crew to handle specifics. I think we were all a bit overwhelmed first season, and as the second season kicked everything into high gear, we would not have survived if not for the additional crew the producers let us hire.
You’ve featured some amazing ’80s art pieces in the show’s office spaces, homes, hotel rooms and more. Are most of these works retro, or are some of them new creations with an ’80s feel?
Thanks! It’s a mix of all these things, actually. The Buyers often find terrific 1980’s pieces in local antique shops, online, and even in thrift stores. If the signatures are relatively legible we submit them to a clearance company who then researches them and tries to track down the artists or their estates for the necessary signatures that the network requires. Often this doesn’t pan out, as the artist is deceased and they can’t locate their heirs in time. This season we found a lot of killer pieces that we just couldn’t clear for us, so they never got used.
In other instances, the vendor selling the piece has info on the artist and we’ll go to them directly for a signature and find they have other pieces that we can then rent or purchase subsequently. This is the case with the piece in Ellis Mortimer’s office at West Group in 204; after tracking the artist down we purchased some more of her work to use elsewhere in the West Group offices and hallways. We also rent and purchase items from local galleries that carry vintage artwork and original pieces that “feel” period enough for us to use in certain settings, and they can also sign clearance forms for us on behalf of the artists they represent.
Towards the end of the first season I started using a local company called Elk Creative to custom manufacture digital “paintings” in the style of late ’70s – early ’80s mass-produced corporate art (this started in the Las Vegas hotel suites). I showed them references of the type of pieces I wanted and they just created original versions in those styles, which were then manipulated and printed and framed at will. Elk also created all of the original “silkscreen” artwork in the venture capital firm, which allowed us to coordinate the colors into the design process (as they would have done at the time). Proofs were made and tweaked and then we had them printed on canvas and stretched onto custom frames.
They also did all the original paintings in Jacob Wheeler’s office, which were custom-stretched canvases and real honest-to-god oil paint. For the mid-century vibe of Wheeler’s old oil-money office suite we went with the style of Rothko, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. Most of the pieces in this season’s Dallas Apartment were also done as custom digital prints by Elk. A notable exception is the piece above the bed, which is vintage and by an artist who we paid in exchange for clearance rights. The diptych landscape in the dining area of the apartment was mass-produced by a company that’s been out of business for so long that the clearance company gave us the ok to use it, which is a real rarity.
The vintage tacky owl prints in the motel room where Bosworth meets his ex-wife for a tryst in Episode 203 came from a prop-house in LA that we shipped in just for that scene. That sort of low-brow period-correct “artwork” is the hardest type for us to source and clear quickly. We can find it locally, but we can’t usually get approval to use it, and unfortunately, the cleared art houses that have sprung up in Atlanta to service the film industry seem to focus on fine art for the most part.
Any advice to those wanting to break into set decorating?
Well, I think one of the best ways is to come up through the ranks of the Set Dressing department and work in as many different positions as possible (Dresser, Lead, Buyer, On-Set Dresser, etc.), including working in other related departments like Art or Props. Or you can start as an assistant to a Decorator, and learn the craft while assisting someone in all the various areas of the job. This is less common nowadays with the decline of apprentice programs like in the old studio era, but I believe it would still work if someone were willing to try it.
Regardless of what path one chooses, I believe the following to be sound advice: Show up early every day and pay attention. Details count, but follow-through is the most important trait in every task you do. Be patient; you don’t need to move up before you’re ready. If you find something you like and are good at, keep doing that. Gather research and look at it, no matter what the project. What’s hip and hot right now isn’t necessarily right for the set you’re dressing. It’s got to be shootable too, no matter how pretty it is.
Tell us about your favorite….
Music is a huge part of my life just as a person, but I do try to incorporate it into my work when I can. This works especially well with HCF, being it’s a period show. Early on in both seasons I went to my music collection and started pulling out albums from the years in which the show was set, first 1983 and then 1985. I listened to those albums a lot during prep, and sometimes well into the shooting (especially when driving around between locations every day). I also tended to re-discover music from that era that I either didn’t like then (like the Cure or New Order) or really care about at the time (pop like Madonna), often with a new appreciation or fondness for it (all of the above).
I will say that at the time, when I was in high-school, I was heavily influenced by the late ’70s punk and New Wave movement, which lasted for me well into the mid-’80s. The Clash, the Jam, the Specials, Elvis Costello and the like were and are still favorites of mine. I was fortunate that by ’85 or so I also got turned on to “indie” post-punk bands (it was called “college rock” at the time, prior to the ’90s “alternative” tag) like REM, The Replacements, The Smiths, and the bands on the SST label (Black Flag, Husker Du, and the minutemen).
I liked some of the hardcore bands too, like Circle Jerks, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains. This was great in high-school, because so much of that scene was still “underground” in those pre-internet days, so it felt very special to know about it. There had to be at least one hipster at the local chain record-store ordering this stuff, so we could buy it! And we had ‘zines then too, of course, which helped spread the word.
Anyway, most of the stuff I really loved then still holds up and I still love it now. During this season of HCF I listened to a lot of early REM again, and the entire Husker Du catalog, often venturing off into live bootlegs and endless YouTube clips too! I never get tired of the minutemen, either. Of course, the mainstream British bands of the time like U2 and The Police had a big impact too, because they were popular with almost everyone.
And don’t forget Prince! From about ’82 to ’87 that guy was untouchable. I’d put that 5-year run up against anyone’s. And regarding Madonna, I have a much greater appreciation for her as a true pop artist now, in retrospect. My rock-snob friends hate this, but I think in some ways she’s as important to the ’80s and early ’90s as David Bowie was to the ’70s and early ’80s. As a mainstreamer of underground trends for sure, and always working with the best people too.
It’s become something of a cliche to say since he died, but John Hughes really was the most archetypal ’80s filmmaker for me personally. I was oblivious to this statistic at the time, but he produced or directed a big teen movie each year I was in high school, from Sixteen Candles my freshman year on through Some Kind of Wonderful when I was a senior. So in hindsight those movies have a lot of resonance.
One recent Sunday morning at home during this season of HCF, I turned on the TV and Pretty In Pink (from ’86) was on, and of course I started studying it for little period details, but I was struck by what a sweet film it is. And reassured by how many things in it that we always obsess over getting “right” at work haven’t changed much at all! By the way, one of the first things that really impressed me about Mirror 80 was your piece on Pretty In Pink; so many great observations and stylistic notes. I truly enjoyed that one. Of course later on in college it was all about David Lynch! Blue Velvet is probably my favorite movie of the ’80s all around.
I make it a point when researching a project NOT to look at movies about that topic or period, because movies and TV are art-directed and are stylized, and unless it’s an intentional homage or something I don’t want to copy the art/entertainment of that era. I want research of the real thing, not the screen version. And movies are usually about the time in which they were made more than when they take place y’know?
That being said, once things are under way on a job it’s fun to stumble across something like Pretty In Pink again, or Risky Business, or American Gigolo, or Body Double. All those are great-looking movies. But Valley Girl and The Big Chill are big ones for me too, because I remember so clearly seeing them both for the first time and they seemed so new and “now”, and of course today they are incredible time capsules! I love both of those films still and will watch them any time they’re on.
’80s television shows
I was strangely out of it regarding most TV in the ’80s. Probably because my Dad wouldn’t spring for cable and we had an old B&W he begrudgingly replaced with a color set in 1986 when the old one finally went. I remember liking Hill Street Blues a lot (and still do, but that was about it. The Cosby Show was on a lot as I recall, and Family Ties. Cheers was pretty unavoidable, but I never much liked any of that stuff. Alf still seems an abomination to me, on every level. I loved MTV early on because I could see bands I liked, but my friends got very annoyed when I’d come over because all I wanted to do was watch MTV, and since it was on 24 hours a day I would just stay up all night at sleepovers and ignore everyone in the hopes of seeing The Pretenders again.
But, I have to say that my wife is a living encyclopedia of 1980s pop culture. She actually knows the difference between Glass Tiger and Icicle Works. She also seems to have seen a lot more TV in the ’80s than I did, so it’s helpful to have someone around the house to explain what Who’s The Boss was all about. She was a huge Duran Duran fan, and of the whole New Romantic movement in general, so she can tell me about every video ever shown on MTV back then. In detail. We’ve deconstructed Footloose on more than one occasion, too.
Thank you, Lance, for spending so much time sharing your knowledge of ’80s design with us. What a dream come true! We can’t wait for this Sunday’s Halt and Catch Fire season finale!