The Oscars didn’t need to sell it quite so hard last night (what with all the ‘theatre nostalgia’), because everyone loves to lose themselves in a great movie. But when the story unfolds in a particularly rich setting, my eyes tend to stray off the mark and wander over to the soft leather sofa, the perfectly threadbare antique rug, the sundry on the windowsill or the art on the walls.
The set of Tower Heist, Arthur Shaw’s penthouse suite.
“When set design is particularly great, it’s beautiful to look at without overpowering the story”, says Diane Lederman, who outfitted wunderkind financier, Jake Moore’s (Shia LaBeouf) condo in Wall Street (2010), and the various low- and high-life interiors of Bradley Cooper’s romp through Limitless (2011). Her latest work, the ultra-luxe penthouse of a crooked billionaire, played by Allan Alda, in the action comedy, Tower Heist, was out on Blu-ray February 21st. I had the chance to put some curious questions to Ms. Lederman about her work, her style and her insight into this year’s best sets…
Elana Safronsky: How did you become involved in the film?
Diane Lederman: Kristi Zea, the Production Designer on the film, brought me on. We collaborated very successfully in the past and really enjoy working together. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps was another film we did together that also focused on the ultra-rich and needed a very high-end look.
A private elevator opens onto the ‘suite’ set. A three-story fully functional elevator car was built for the set.
ES: How did you do the research for the penthouse in Tower Heist?
DL: We looked at New York’s wealthiest bachelor apartments and drew from there. A real empty penthouse in New York City’s Trump Tower, though under construction, gave us our layout and helped us define the size and space of our set.
ES: Was the movie penthouse a set? How big was it?
DL: Our Penthouse was a built set on a Brooklyn soundstage. The set itself was approx. 3000 square feet.
The reproduction Ferrari, the real version of which was once owned by the actor Steve McQueen; a reproduction of Roy Lichtenstein’s Peace Through Chemistry,1970.
ES: How do you balance lavish displays of wealth with what you would assume would be at least discerning tastes of billionaires? Aside from the car, what were some of the real outlandishly ritzy features of the Tower Heist penthouse?
DL: Apart from the car, which was a reproduction of a rare 1963 Ferrari 250 GT Lusso, I really don’t like to think of it as outlandish. Our penthouse was decorated with very tasteful choices, and sophisticated palette: ebony hardwood floors, soft grey walls and a range of neutrals with hits of red. Granted, many of the choices could only be afforded by the very wealthy, particularly the artwork. For this set we chose reproductions of very expensive paintings that played a big part in defining Allan Alda’s character, Arthur Shaw: Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat and the pièce de résistance, a triptych by Francis Bacon.
A reproduction of Francesco Clemente’s Alba, left, and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Eyes and Eggs, right.
ES: Where did you get the reproductions?
DL: The reproductions were made by our scenic department. I procured the right to reproduce the work from the artists or artists’ estates and fees were paid for the rights to reproduce the work. Had the pieces been the real thing, the value of the art alone would have been over one hundred million dollars.
ES: What are the most reproduced artists in films? How much do reproduction rights run on average?
DL: Andy Warhol and Picasso are the most reproduced artists. For a Picasso or a Warhol, reproduction rights cost around $5,000 to $6,000 per piece. The Francis Bacon triptych cost us 30,000 just for the rights. Then we had to pay the reproduction artists on top of that.
ES: Where did you source most of the furniture? Is set furniture usually bought, rented or reproduced?
DL: A lot of pieces are rented and much of the furniture is bought. It’s not common for furniture to be reproduced unless it’s something very specific that I can’t find. I shop the decor, mostly. For Tower Heist, I sourced most of the pieces from Lillian August and Newel Antiques in New York. If this was a real apartment, the cost of the decor and all the fixtures, without the art, would have been approximately two million dollars.
ES: What did actor Allan Alda think of the apartment? Was any of it to his taste?
DL: Alan loved the apartment and told me it really helped him get into his character.
Set decorator, Diane Lederman
ES: Which film would you have given an Oscar to for set design?
DL: Though Hugo was probably the most demanding to execute, I wouldn’t have given it the Oscar. To me, the magnificent visuals overpowered the story. We were too aware of it — it was distracting. The Tree of Life and The Help were both period films that were so beautiful to look at, but I was completely lost in the story. Their worlds felt real, while at the same time, perfectly executed, perfectly period-correct (I notice these things, of course). If I had to choose I would have given the Oscar to The Help.
ES: Would you say much of the decor in The Help was real vintage pieces or reproductions?
DL: I know the set decorator who worked on The Help and most of those pieces were sourced. They didn’t build a lot of things, particularly because they were on a tighter budget than you would expect. The fabrics and the linens and such are mostly sewn custom but but the furniture is found, and a lot of the time worked on by the scenic department.
ES: What happens to the furniture after the wrap?
DL: The rentals go back but the bought pieces are the property of the studio. Often times it’s sold off — some directors have been known to buy a lot of the furniture for their own homes — to the crew and others.
ES: Did you watch the Oscars last night?
DL: I’m ashamed to say I fell asleep!