Behind the Scenes of "Army Wives": Creating Fort Marshall
Do you have a favorite set you’ve designed on the show?
Missy Berent: The scenes that take place in Iraq are some of my favorite sets, where you can get into the mind of a character the Iraqi tent interiors, specifically. We imagine these soldiers decorating their bunk areas. They’re filled with things like cookie tins and other items their families have sent from home to provide comfort. It allows us to get into our imagination so we can get into theirs.
I’m sure authenticity is important to you when you’re shooting scenes that take place in Iraq. What is the research process like for you leading up to that?
John Kretschmer: The set will present itself to you if you do your research. In this particular case, we’re shooting a desert country in a swamp. We watched a lot of documentaries, some shot by soldiers from their point of view. HBO has some out too. We combed through journalists’ books, and photographs, and had access to actual soldiers. We could collect additional photos by freeze-framing videos, and parts of the set do come forth to you this way.
Interestingly enough, the front lawn worked quite well when we trucked in the sand, which has a certain character to it. And then there are the technical requirements. We have a great working relationship with the cinematographer, so it’s complementary to what we’re doing.
Again, the show is a challenge across the board because of high aspirations. We’re all working together.
Wow, there are a lot of nuances to a set that you just mentioned that I didn’t even think of initially.
Missy: Sometimes you may not see it on screen, but I do believe that the actors see it and feel it. Those top-layer elements inspire them and complete the illusion for them. They sometimes can respond to that. You may or may not catch on to it, but they do.
Have you ever had to completely nix a set or big prop because a scene had been cut?
Missy: Episodic television is so fast! We’re working on a set one week before it shoots. Rewrites may change something, but you sometimes need to take a chance and just move forward with the task at hand. As a result, I now have 12 beautiful church pews! It’s one of those sets that just went away. We’ll figure out how to use them again somehow!
How did you become involved in “Army Wives”?
Missy: I first decorated for John Kretschmer 12 years ago. We worked together off and on, and quite a bit more recently before “Army Wives.” We have a great working relationship.
I’ve been based in North Carolina for several years. I have a feature-film background and worked on other movies in the Wilmington area and the Carolinas. We’re really lucky here. The Carolinas have so much going on with film and TV lately, so there’s a lot of work!
John: I was doing small features and just finished “The Strangers” that summer, which did quite well. I became aware of “Army Wives” through my agent. The pilot was shot in South Carolina, and my agent called to say that it got picked up for a season. I had an interview with the Mark Gordon Company and with [Co-Executive Producer] Marshall Persinger, and she explained that she wanted the look and feel of a independent film for “Army Wives.”
[Co-Executive Producer] Harry Bring also has a great manner of conducting his job to set us artists free, and we are expected to reach our highest aspirations each day.
Say you’re shooting a scene at the Holdens’. Are you using the interior of an actual home, or are they sets?
Missy: Interiors are built on our soundstage a warehouse. We build all of our interiors there. We remove walls when we need to and have cameras on cranes to get the shots we need. If we were to shoot inside of real homes, we’d be limited. Lighting and cameras can’t get into those places because of the angles. But we do have lots of gorgeous homes establishing our exteriors.
What’s your background?
Missy: I have an MFA in photography. I began doing props for the Virginia Opera, which got me started in theater, and then I migrated toward film as a set dresser. Later, I worked my way up to decorating.
John: I grew up in North Carolina, so Hollywood seemed very far away, but then Hollywood came to me! We are the special unit of the crew, and as a production designer, I end up pulling a lot of things out of my hat on the job.
Explain what the role of a set decorator is and what his or her responsibilities are.
Missy: The obvious is decorating the set, window treatments, et cetera. It goes beyond that. Technically, I’m a department head, so I have help from buyers (who help to research and buy items) and set dressers (who pick up purchases, bring them to the set, and deal with installing lighting and window treatments). The more un-fun parts are tasks like budgeting and clearance issues like original art and things of that nature where we need permission from the artists or magazines we’ve used. There are many layers.