In "Sideways," the two main characters, Miles and Jack, stop by Miles' mother's condo, ostensibly just for an hour or two to wish her a happy birthday. But from the moment they walk in the door, you know they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
Right inside the doorway is a sofa; across from that stands an enormous console television, circa 1970. Robot-like, Miles, played by Paul Giamatti, sinks into the mushy pale print cushions, lulled instantly into glazed-eye silence. There he sits, surrounded by the bell-shaped lampshades. The curio cabinet. The tissues on the coffee table. The beige soft-pile. You can almost smell the place, a closed-window, overheated combination of perfume and 409, and feel the torpor descend — that druggy, dutiful boredom of a thousand visits to Mom's.
Now, that's a good movie set.
Most people want the décor of their home to reveal the better parts of their character — love of family, an appreciation of good books and modern art, perhaps an eye for the baroque or the streamlined ultra-hip. What we don't want on display are the more untidy bits of the picture — the neurotic ties to our parents, the inability to manage time and mess, any ambivalent feelings toward our spouse, a much-denied need for social acceptance through conformity.
But for filmmakers, those are precisely the things an apartment or house or office should reveal. Along with a character's hopes and aspirations, socioeconomic status, education, romantic past and present and general relationship to the environment.
"We picked that TV because it was old and clunky but it still worked," says Jane Ann Stewart, the production designer of the film. "And Mom is a woman who would not get rid of a perfectly good TV no matter how ugly or out of date it was."
The rest of the condo was a layered assortment of new and old, the choices arising from the history the filmmakers created for the character. "Our back story was that Miles' sister moved her into the condo to be closer to her, like many families do," says Stewart. "So there would be some good old pieces and some new, sort of not-so-great pieces. She would shop in Oxnard and around there, so that's where we shopped — at stores and thrift shops and garage sales."
Six domiciles and one motel room compete with the strange and lovely landscape of the wine country in "Sideways," and all of them provide exquisite windows into the characters' lives and the process by which a set becomes a home.
Director Alexander Payne sent Stewart, the production designer he has used on all of his films, the galleys for "Sideways" as soon as he purchased the rights, so she had been familiar with the characters for years. But it wasn't until early 2003 that she and Payne began discussing the location and back stories that would illuminate the interiors.
"At first I thought Miles' mom would live in a big house in Santa Barbara," says Stewart. " But Alexander really wanted her in one of those sprawling suburban condos. We had to think, 'OK, if she's leaving a big house, what would she take?' "
They put Miles in an apartment in Ocean Beach, a community where most of the residents are surfers or kids right out of college.
"So if you're still there in your 40s," she says, "that's something right there."
They didn't film in Ocean Beach; the actual apartment building they chose was in Goleta and was occupied mostly by retirees. Barbara Haberecht, one of two set decorators who worked on the film, redid one man's apartment from top to bottom to reflect a depressed, divorced English teacher who thinks he is a failure as a writer.
"We brought in that ubiquitous brown shag carpet," she says. "We made sure all of the furniture was pretty bad because he would have given up all the good stuff in the divorce. Except one really nice piece, a bookcase, that he got from his parents' house and hung onto."
The apartment is dim and messy because Miles is an introvert who literally does not want anyone coming in. But like the home of Maya (Virginia Madsen), the woman he falls in love with, it is specifically on the second floor.
"We wanted to show that the two were on the same level," says Stewart. "And that they had both worked to get there. So there was hope for them."
There is a definite hierarchy in the homes, reflecting emotional health as much as socioeconomics. "Maya's is the homiest home," says Stewart, "since she is the most 'normal,' then Stephanie, then Miles, then Jack."
Jack (Thomas Haden Church) doesn't actually have a home in the film; he is launched from the Brentwood mansion of his soon-to-be in-laws, who are Armenian. Their house, with its marble floors, high pale rooms, folk art and chrome-and-glass shininess, reflects the taste Stewart and Haberecht found after months of interviewing Armenian women and their families.
"If you don't have marble floors," says Stewart, "you aren't really Armenian. And all of the art in that house, I am proud to say, is genuine Armenian art because the community really supports its artists."
Payne is famous for his attention to detail and insistence on authenticity — only one soundstage set was built for "Sideways," because the cameraman literally could not get his equipment down a hallway for a certain shot. The rest were created on location, in the apartments or houses shown in the exterior shots — even the windmill-themed hotel, where they took three rooms and just cut through the walls. "We fixed them before we left," says Stewart.
Payne and Stewart eschew "rentals." Most studios have enormous catalogs of furniture and props; you can order a "college student's bedroom set" if you want. Which explains the stagy, unreal ambience of many cinematic apartments and homes — how many times have you seen a house that allegedly contains three small children yet not one toy is underfoot, not one wood surface is marred and the carpet is spotlessly pale?
"I don't like the easy way," says Stewart, "because it doesn't work. You need people to follow you into the story, so they have to believe you. I don't even like doing 'the refrigerator,' which maybe means I'm crazy."
Doing "the refrigerator," she explains, refers to the biggest short cut in the set-decorating business — a shot of a character's refrigerator to which are affixed telling photos, notes and pictures.
"That's a fast, and cheap, way to do it," she says. "But I don't know. I don't have anything much on my refrigerator, and I don't think that says something about me."
The only refrigerators she was concerned with were the mini wine models that Payne felt Miles, Stephanie and Maya would have. Stewart spent six months in the wine country with the director, scouting locations and interviewing people who mirrored the characters. She talked to wine pourers and was disappointed to find that most lived in pretty boring apartments. "So I met with a few female winemakers, and they were much cooler. They lived in guesthouses on ranches, which is how we found Stephanie's place."
Of course, she adds, the ranch they chose was owned by a former stunt man, "proving you can't go anywhere without bumping into Hollywood."
Stephanie, played by Sandra Oh, is a free-spirited single mother who seems to put a lot of stock in whirlwind romances like the one she has with Jack. Her home is a messy hodgepodge of poster art, lamps with scarves draped over them, secondhand furniture and some kids' stuff.
"We wanted to show that she was a mother," says Haberecht, "but not a very responsible mother."
"She dates a lot of guys from the Air Force base," adds Stewart, "and is not very mature. So she wouldn't have real art or nice, nice furniture. She would shop at the Santa Maria mall, which is where we shopped."
In one scene, all the characters gather around a low coffee table and smoke marijuana; it is the perfect stoner coffee table, long and wide, covered with a forest of burning candles, coasters and ashtrays.
"We were all very happy when we found that coffee table," says Stewart.
"Alexander told them to move off the chairs and onto the floor, I think because he liked the coffee table so much, "says Haberecht.
Deciding what the characters would have is mostly a function of deciding who the characters are. A lot of purchases were made and Polaroids taken of potential items, but most of the work was conversation, not shopping. Stewart and Payne spent months together talking about what sort of place each character would live in and what it meant, and, as in the case of the mother's house, they didn't always agree.
"For Cammi [the waitress with whom Jack has an unfortunate encounter], Alexander wanted an apartment complex," she says. "But I wanted to go downscale from that. Doooowwwwnnnnscale. Which we did. We found a widow with two grown sons living at home, and they were," she laughs, "troubled. They had punched holes in the walls, and the place was just a disaster. We added a lot to the disaster, though."
So much so that when the woman went to a screening, she approached Stewart and with a quavering voice asked if her house actually looked that bad. "I told her we had made it much worse. And then we fixed the walls and the carpet and some other stuff," Stewart adds. "I mean, this woman was trying."
After the character and general layout of each room is discussed, Stewart and Haberecht began talking in more detailed terms — about fabric and styles and specific pieces of furniture.
"Rex Pickett [the author of the novel "Sideways"] sent us pictures of his apartment," says Haberecht, "and we used some of that in Miles' apartment. Rex had framed all his rejection slips, which we didn't do, but we had a few visible."
Much more than some directors, Payne is very hands-on when it comes to even small matters of décor.
"Alexander always likes to be the last person who touches a set," says Stewart. "He'll move stuff around right before shooting. Which has been known to make set decorators a little upset."
Haberecht, who had to leave the project a few weeks into shooting because of health problems, had no problems with the intimate nature of the director's involvement. Payne, she says, clearly had an actual person, and house, in mind for the character of Stephanie, "which actually made things easier."
Sometimes, though, the realities of filmmaking trump the most creative visions.
"We spent a lot of time wondering about Maya's bed," says Haberecht. "She's trying to make a real life for herself; her home is the most warm and open of all of them, and it was important that the bed be really, really comfortable. It's supposed to be the first time Miles has a good night's sleep in a while. We were lucky that the bed that was there [in the actual apartment] was big and very comfortable."
Stewart remembers it a little differently. "The thing was huge; I don't know how they got it in, and there was no way we could get it out. So we went with it. Fortunately," she adds, "it was a really nice bed."
Mary McNamara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.