• APDG Interview: Bev Dunn & Set Decoration on 'The Great Gatsby'

The opulent world of The Great Gatsby – production designed by Catherine Martin APDG – is indeed a vibrant and detailed visual feast. The APDG was fortunate to chat with one of the key crew members behind such details – Bev Dunn, Set Decorator….  
APDG: How did you get started in the industry? When you left high school, is this the field you imagined yourself in?
BEV: When I left high school I studied Economics at Macquarie University. When the Village Roadshow studios on the Gold Coast first opened, crews were flown from interstate to service the productions that were being made. A friend of mine was offered a job in set construction and re-located to Queensland. I deferred from Uni and my first full time job was washing dishes on the studio lot in the commissary. That was my introduction to the film industry and I could not believe the amount of people involved behind the scenes. I was intrigued by the Art Department, determined one day to work in one. I worked as a Construction coordinator, Art Dept. runner, SFX runner before I was offered my first props buying role on a TV series ‘Animal Park’. My next Props Buying job was on another TV show ‘The new Adventures of Skippy’ and from here I have continuously worked in the Art Dept. as a props buyer, set dresser and now as Set Decorator.
APDG: “The Great Gatsby” is a global box office success. Please tell us about your collaboration with director Baz Luhrmann, production designer Catherine Martin, associate production designer Karen Murphy, and your crew on “Gatsby”. You’ve worked with them before, haven’t you?
BEV: Yes I have worked with Baz, CM & Karen before. I was Props Master on ‘Moulin Rouge’ and Set Decorator on ‘Australia’ . Baz is a such a visual director, quite obvious from his past films and that the imagery of the film is used very seriously as a story telling device. I had a great team of Prop Buyers and Set Dressers, most of whom I had worked with before on other productions.
APDG: This was a massive-scale film, to say the least! How did you stay on top of it all, for months of pre and production, at every level!?
BEV: All Bazmark projects are massive but that is also the beauty of them! The research that has been conducted before I had even started is incredible. The server is filled with references from libraries, museums, facts about Fitzgerald, essays describing the people of the time, the environment, the décor, photo imagery, and written works. A decent pre-production is required to be able to get up to speed quickly. I had 4 months pre but Baz & CM had been researching for years before. The level of detail in the set design is extraordinary and it became evident very early on that you had to be extremely well prepared if we were going to achieve the tight time lines.
APDG: Was it challenging to find items, such as furnishings, drapery, lamps, for 1920’s Long Island and New York? If so, supposedly you had them made from scratch?
BEV: It was difficult to find ‘American’ furnishings of the period, the majority of items here in Australia are of an English heritage & our research showed there were differences. Props Master Richie Dehne travelled to the US and purchased some amazing items. Glassware, cigarette lighters, fans and crockery sets were all shipped back to Australia. We paid for a shipping container and also shipped American toilets, hand basins and also a few kitchen sinks! The problem with working on any period film is that you can rarely find the quantity of items required. You find a great door handle but you require a pair x12 of the same for a corridor.
Pete Wyborn led a very talented team of props and model makers sculpting and casting an array of objects from light fittings to door handles, ashtrays, American street lights and my favourite – the floor standing sterilizers in the Barber Shop. All the drapery had to be created from scratch to suit the set height requirements. The height of the windows on each set meant it was impossible to buy anything off the shelf. Genevieve Blewitt and her team were kept extremely busy. We were very lucky to be able to work with such beautiful textured fabrics.
APDG: The story describes the geography of Long Island: divisions of various areas of East Egg, West Egg, Valley of Ashes. How did this influence your set decoration choices?
BEV: We always referred back to the novel for direction. Fitzgerald’s novel was the primary source and inspiration. Fitzgerald is very descriptive in his writings and the book set the overall tone. The New York that was created had to feel as vibrant, modern and as cutting edge as it would have felt to Fitzgerald in 1922. All props and dressing had to have a period background but we could use modern touches. The book is set in the summer of 1922, published in 1925 and foreshadows the crash of 1929, and we were actually allowed to use the whole decade as a reference base. Valley of Ashes was all about finding period machinery that was of a grand scale so as not to get lost in the set with the huge ash mounds.
APDG: Please tell us about set decorating the interiors of Jay Gatsby’s and Tom Buchanan’s sprawling homes – two vastly different characters.
BEV: Jay Gatsby was creating a past or history for himself that did not exist. He had acquired wealth and had no class standing. He was creating the ‘American Dream’ and collecting items that would help tell his story. His mansion was dressed with old money furniture with new money elements. We hired original 18th Century tapestries from Melbourne, a couple of knights in armour, manufactured hallway carpets which were screen printed with the Gatsby crest. Over 60 paintings were ‘cleared’ and printed on canvas and then the frames were built to suit. 3 x large chandeliers were designed and manufactured with crystal provided from Swarovski. Of course this crystal arrived on pallets as loose stones of various sizes, which meant it all had to threaded onto strands, quite a time consuming job!
Tom Buchanan came from an ‘enormously wealthy family’. He was a successful athlete and came from old money wealth. CM visited many stately homes on Long Island, the Vanderbilt mansion & Westbury Gardens were key references. Hollywood Regency style, Deco influenced furnishings mixed with Contemporary Art. The book mentions the enormous couch that we manufactured. We basically cut a great original Swedish deco lounge in half and extended it to the appropriate size and then had it re-upholstered. Degournay were contacted to manufacture the hand painted silk wallpaper. Again, the furniture used was period but had modern elements. The extravagant floral arrangements, CM designed large deco rugs, the chandeliers used are from a current range manufactured by Schonbek.

APDG: How did you approach decorating and dressing Myrtle Wilson’s Apartment and Nick Carraway’s Bungalow?
BEV: Myrtle’s Apartment was one of my favorite sets, I am so glad you see quite a bit of it in the film. The contrasting colours, the hand screened wallpaper, the painstakingly beaded curtain shaped to fit the room divide, the heavily decorated walls, all work so well together. Again, we followed the brief from the book. In the book it says the couch is upholstered in something that looked like the 18th century painting of a girl in a swing by Fragonard. We found the image, and the pattern was digitally printed onto the upholstery fabric. The colour scheme totally clashed in this room but also creates a sense that it is room for a mistress – it has the giddy gaudiness of Myrtle’s character.
Nick’s Bungalow was a rented bungalow – an eyesore, says the book – and was in stark contrast to the over the top splendor of the Gatsby mansion located next door. He was paying $80 a month, in those days was still a large amount of money compared to an average monthly wage. The house had an ‘arts & crafts’ style about it and we dressed only the bare minimum – light fittings, lounge suite, dining table and small desk. The next layer of dressing were all the items Nick Carraway ‘the educated man’ brought with him: suitcases, classic novels written by literature greats and of course the brand new set of bonds books. Nick rented the house furnished so we needed to give the house a history so most of the furniture was from the early 1920s. The amount of white orchids that is depicted in Nick’s Bungalow when Gatsby first meets Daisy represents Gatsby’s extraordinary wealth but even I did not image we would require that amount! You literally could not move in that set! The quantity of flowers was requested by Baz and as such it has created a very distinctive visual image.
APDG: Please tell us about decorating for “The Great Gatsby” in 3D – were there specific compromises or factors you had to take into consideration for the stereoscopic camera?
BEV: Texture, texture, texture! The majority of fabrics we used all have a texture to them which ‘popped’ on screen. Curtain fabrics and upholstery fabrics tended to be selected if in they had a pattern, watermarked silks, raised velvet prints. Upholstery fabrics used on the Buchanan Sofa was actually a drapery fabric but was chosen due to its spider web texture. For 3D you consider everything could be in the shot, you have to dress the sets like there is no background, all items could be seen as foreground pieces depending where the focus of the camera was in the room. We did not use a lot of plain dark colours as they did not read too well on camera.
APDG: What aspects about your job do you enjoy most?
BEV: The fact that every job is totally different from the last. Each script is so varied, one job you are working on a period piece set in the 1920s, the next a contemporary cyber drama. I do enjoy the variety and the research that comes with learning about each era. Due to time and budget requirements you will never be able to fill a room with period correct elements or original antiques, so if you have researched the era appropriately you begin to see what can be substituted to create a similar feel. You tend to build up a group of great suppliers and when you walk into their showrooms – whether it be for fabric or furniture – the first question is, “So what year are we pretending to be in this time?”
APDG: Now you’re in Jakarta! What project are you working on?
It’s known as ‘Untitled Mann Project’ – a contemporary action flick being directed by Michael Mann. The film is being shot in LA, Hong Kong, Jakarta & Kuala Lumpur. I am only involved in the Jakarta section. It’s another world away from the glamour of the Great Gatsby.
APDG: As you just said – every job totally different from the last! Many thanks indeed for being so generous with your time and information, Bev.
After an exceedingly successful box-office run, The Great Gatsby now has a post-cinema release date. Fans of the film can own it in a variety of formats, including a Blu-ray 3D combo pack, a Blu-ray combo pack, a 2-disc DVD Special Edition set, or via digital download beginning on 27th August 2013.

Director: Baz Luhrmann
Production Designer: Catherine Martin APDG
Associate Production Designer: Karen Murphy 
Supervising Art Director: Ian Gracie APDG

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