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 "And Mom is a woman who would not get rid of a perfectly good TV no matter how ugly or out of date it was."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."