Ester Kim, Set Decorator


Featuring tufted velvet seats, white linen tablecloths, and wood paneling throughout, Taylor’s Steak House in Koreatown feels like a movie set, a vestige of old Los Angeles. The dim lighting gives the windowless interior a coziness underscored by its curved, dark brown leather booths. I half expect Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin to walk through its doors, but Ester Kim saunters in and slides into the booth where I’m nursing a dirty martini. The faded glamour of Taylor’s seems like the perfect environment for our interview, given her love of The Grand Budapest Hotel and its “controlled aesthetic . . . saturated color palettes . . . [its] time periods and setting all make for a visual feast,” she writes in an email after our meeting.

Kim has been back in her native Los Angeles little more than a year, having relocated from Albuquerque, where she was an active set decorator, dresser, and buyer in the city’s bustling film and TV industry. When we meet, she’s still accruing the needed hours to gain entry to the local IATSE because her union membership in New Mexico doesn’t qualify her to work in California just yet.

It’s no worry — Kim has been in the business for a decade-plus, with titles such as Breaking Bad and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot under her belt. She always carries furniture blankets and ratchet straps in her car in case she discovers the right treasure for whatever set she’s currently working on, and she has quick answers to questions like where to find the best lampshade for a 1960s-era fixture or how to re-tile a mid-century tabletop.

By the time this is published, Kim will have collected the required hours for IATSE, wrapped a film starring Salma Hayek, and begun production for a TV series she can’t discuss. I catch her before all that, though, and we spend a leisurely dinner at Taylor’s chatting about the traits that best serve someone pursuing the type of production roles that are Kim’s bread and butter.

The following are edited excerpts from our conversation.

Cielo Lutino: How did you get your start?

Ester Kim: I had been taking some film classes, and I knew there was a production company in town. I asked my friend who was starting to work in the business, “Can you help me get a job?” He wrote a fake resume for me, and I interviewed. I was sweating bullets. I was, like, “They’re gonna know. They’re gonna know I’m full of shit.” But I had basic production knowledge from film class, [which] helped me not be in the wrong place.

My first time I was so excited by the energy of the set, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do because there was just so much going on. But I knew that there was going to be a place for me somewhere there, because [sets encompass] every part of life. If there’s a zombie apocalypse, I’m going to look for a movie set, because they’re gonna have everything. There’s people who build, people who take care of your appearance, your physical well-being. There’s a medic, gasoline, lights, weapons, clothes, body care, food. Tons and tons of food. There’s everything you could possibly need in the event of shit going down.

Exterior shooting for Sweetwater (2013), starring Ed Harris, January Jones, and Jason Isaacs

Cielo: What does being a set decorator involve?

Ester: No matter what it is — a TV show, film, commercial, still shoot — you want to know what the story is. What are we trying to say? In a very short amount of time, you have to express all this stuff. That’s where the decorator comes in, and you really think about what’s going on. You try to express that through colors, textures, objects, and furnishings.

Cielo: Where do you do your research?

Ester: The Internet. Lots and lots of Google.

Cielo: But what are you Googling?

Ester: Whatever the script calls for and, if not on Google, out in the real world. Go into that community.

Breaking Bad, for instance. We had a guy with the DEA who we were working with to get information. When you do a drug bust and you walk in, what does the place look like? We got some really amazing reference materials from our contact, and you can assume, yeah, it’s a bunch of crackheads making meth. It’s going to be shitty, but the truth — you cannot make it up. I can imagine what it’s going to be like, but the actual place is way cooler, way more interesting, and even crazier than anything I could have ever imagined.

“If there’s a zombie apocalypse, I’m going to look for a movie set, because they’re gonna have everything.”

But reference materials — Flickr. I like Flickr a lot because it’s actual images from actual places with geotagging, so you can pinpoint the culture or subculture.

There’s a lot of photographers we look at, a lot of art books and photography not just online, but actual books. I’ve gone to libraries to research.

My favorite, though, is meeting real people. Because Breaking Bad was set in Albuquerque, you would see a lot of this crackhead-ass shit going on. You take mental pictures: This is what it actually looks like. You’re checking them off the list, recreating those environments.

Cielo: Seems like you could fall down a rabbit hole and it could take weeks, months. How much time do you usually have?

Ester: Not as much as you’d like. It’s always a very short amount of time. On a feature, a couple of months of prep would be ideal.

Cielo: Is that prep for research or to actually purchase the items?

Ester: All of it. And you’re dressing it as you go. There’s a construction crew that builds, then paint goes in after, then set decoration, and then you dress it all out. After us, the shooting crew comes in, and we hand the set off to the director and actors. As soon as the camera gets set up, we’re good. We’re off to tomorrow’s set. You don’t get to wait around and enjoy everybody shooting the set, because everywhere the camera goes, everything behind it has to go away. You’re constantly assembling and disassembling and reassembling. It’s a massive effort.

Cielo: Tell me the difference between decorating a set for film versus TV.

Ester: The main difference is the time. A feature, you’ll have 90 to, say, 120 pages — works out to about one page a minute. On a feature, it’s locked off: These are the amount of sets they’re expecting of you; this is the amount of time [you have to finish them].

On TV, you get a new script every eight working days or so. You have very little time. You’re also trying to use existing locations as much as possible. You want a windowless steakhouse? You go find a windowless steakhouse. It’s more on the location department than the set decoration department in a way. Maybe that’s the big difference: On TV, you’re finding the locations. In film, you can build the set. It just depends on budget.

Kim on the set of Passion Play (2010), starring Mickey Rourke, Megan Fox, and Bill Murray

Cielo: Walk us through the process.

Ester: It all depends on the overall picture budget and, from there, how much they’re going to give you. I’ve worked with just under $1 million just in my department to “Here’s $500.” It depends on the scale of the project. That Tina Fey project was a lot larger — we were building Afghanistan — so it was a lot of money. And I was working as a buyer so was constantly sourcing. Twelve hours a day minimum, just sourcing. Where can I find this? Who has this? Just digging, digging, digging.

Cielo: What’s the difference between a buyer versus a set decorator?

Ester: The buyer works with the decorator who’s working closely with the designer. The decorator leads the charge and says, “I want this kind of pepper mill and this kind of ramekin.” They dictate the style, the vision. The buyer is basically saying okay and sourcing it all. Hopefully, it’s somebody that you have a good level of communication with, that you see the same picture in your head, and you’re getting the same thing.

I remember doing the job before the iPhone and then doing the job after the iPhone. The communication became immediate. [You could] send a text that was a good picture that wasn’t on a tiny little flip phone, if you even had a flip phone that could show a picture. It changed the freaking game.

I was on Breaking Bad, and I had a Yellow Pages, white pages, my big file of business cards of sources, and my library of all these window treatments and tile, blah blah blah. All this crap. I had my backpack, and then I had my box with the wheels on it. This is all the shit I needed all the time to do my job, and then the iPhone comes along, and it’s, like, “Oh, goodbye, old box of books!”

You’re not just dressing a set; you’re making a movie.”

And the images. I remember communicating at the end of the day about all the stuff I saw. Now it’s, like, “Send a picture,” which I don’t actually like. It’s good when you’re in a pinch, but where you’re in the beginning stages, you want to shop and look and discover stuff. You don’t want to waste time operating a phone.

So the decorator and buyer work really closely together on the overall look of every set. Each feature will have fifty to almost 100 sets. On a weekly episodic, it’s a lot smaller, but it’s very fast.

Cielo: Where do you think creativity fits in with fidelity? I’m thinking here of Breaking Bad — “We want a meth lab that looks like this” — and being true to life, but a certain amount of creativity is about the character.

Ester: That’s a really interesting question, because I’m always surprised by how creative real life is. Real life is so much more vivid and beautiful and interesting. There is no fidelity to the truth. That’s how I feel when I’m watching something. If the set doesn’t look right, if it’s not truthful or honest, it’s a big distraction. That doesn’t serve the story. It’s not doing the job. You’re not just dressing a set; you’re making a movie.

Cielo: How do you think about audience? Not everyone has spoken to a DEA agent, for instance. How does that factor into your thinking when you’re decorating a set?

Ester: It’s one of those x factors. Does it feel good? Does it feel right? We’re working on these sets and looking through tons of stuff, and I’ll get this feeling in my stomach. I’m, like, “That is the plate. That’s it! That’s it!” I’ve been looking through all this other stuff; nothing else made me feel that way. It’s hard to explain because I just walk around like I’m method-buying. I’m method-sourcing. I am the character. What does this fictional character want? I’m obsessed with that.

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Cielo: What kinds of personalities are best suited for this then?

Ester: Someone who’s not 9-to-5. I’ve never had a regular job ever, and a lot of my colleagues have never had those kinds of jobs. I was surprised to realize it’s a unifying theme for us. It’s at minimum a 12-hour day, so somebody without a lot of commitments. It will swallow your personal life.

It’s funny because I’ll bring somebody young around, like, “This is our assistant. I’m showing him the set.” The joke is: “Get out! Turn around! Do something with your life. Save yourself!” But we all love it because we’re sick in the head. [You have to be] somebody who gets off on the adrenaline rush of a horrible, impossible task. The person who says, “Oh, my god, how exciting. Let’s do it!” That’s the person you want.

Cielo: You’re a problem-solver.

Ester: You’re constantly solving problems.

Cielo: Is it a profession you age out of?

Ester: You could. It’s so physical. Every single thing is on wheels. You bring it in, and you take it away like you were never there. It’s taxing.

The first third of any movie, everything’s awesome, and you’re energized because the adrenaline is just kicking in. Then there’s a middle third, which feels like dying. Everything sucks, and this is never going to end. Then there’s the last third, where it’s like, “Oh, look! We made a baby movie! I’m going to miss you guys! We had such a good time!” Then there’s a wrap party and everything’s fine.

But that middle part is really hard, even though it could be a week or two or several months. You’re suffering because it’s waking up at 5 a.m. every day for months on end. It’s not fun.

Cielo: What else would you warn someone about? Where do you see people in your field say, “Man, this is messed up. I gotta walk away”?

Ester: In your personal life — that’s where the toll is. Doesn’t leave room for anything else. It’s all about the project. You have to create boundaries but, at the same time, handle everything that they’re asking you to do. It’s a really great place to escape from your personal life if you need to, because there’s no room for it. Not that nobody wants to hear it, but there’s so much to do. There’s no time to think about the things you need as a person.

For someone trying to get in, it’s not just the set. It’s about the story. Do you have a passion for storytelling? That is first and foremost.”

Cielo: When I think of film crews, I think of them as mostly male. Talk to me about that dynamic.

Ester: It is a very male environment. A lot of set decorators are female, and before Title IX, I understand that a lot of them were gay dudes who had amazing taste.

Cielo: If I’m a woman interested in getting into this profession, what should I expect? What would you advise?

Ester: The same thing as any other profession: A willingness to work way, way harder than you’re getting paid for. And you have to be passionate. It’s the only thing that’s going to carry you through those twelve- to sixteen-hour days, because it’s horrible.

It’s all about the people to me. I think about my film life, and I think about all these people that I really love working with — I love being with them. Even if we’re not friends on a social level out in the world, it’s somebody I would trust my life with, honestly. I know I could because I’ve been on the line, and they’ve come through for weird things, like, “Oh, my god, those drapes! You hung them so perfectly. We had no time to do it, and you did it, and it was so full of grace and beauty.” I don’t know. For someone trying to get in, it’s not just the set. It’s about the story. Do you have a passion for storytelling? That is first and foremost.

Cielo: What kind of schooling or preparation does someone who’s interested in this field need to have?

Ester: So many people come from so many different [backgrounds]. I know a lot of interior decorators, interior design people, and I don’t think they’re necessarily the best people. They know how to make something look really good, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily —

Cielo: — about making it look good.

Ester: Yeah, sometimes it’s about making it look like shit, really bad, terrible. You’ve got to get down and dumpster dive and get crazy, like whatever’s happening in the story . . . but I came from an art history background.

Cielo: Does someone in your line of work need to know where the best thrift stores are? Are you checking them out on weekends for professional intel?

Ester: It’s not limited to shops. There was a decorator I worked with who said, “Don’t limit yourself to stores. The world is your store.”

Talk to the lady in the alley about those crates that look amazing. She doesn’t care about them. She’s waiting for the trashman to take them away, but oh my gosh, they’re perfect. They have fish guts hanging out of them, all of the stuff that makes it absolutely perfect. Offer her money. The world is your store.

Kim at the Universal Studios prop house

In Los Angeles, it’s really amazing because there are these prop houses, and each one has a flavor, and you know what each one offers. Then, when you’ve exhausted that, you go to the antique stores, and you’re on the phone. You’re calling everybody. You need to find an individual who has all the amazing stuff, who’s down to rent to you or sell.

Estate sales; it’s not just limited to stores. I cannot tell you how many times I was driving down the road and said, “That’s a cool, creepy barn. Let me see what’s going on.” You knock on the door and hope you don’t get shot at, but it’s a really nice person who’s waiting for their wife to come home. He’s chatting you up, making you dinner by the end of the day. It’s unbelievable.

People are so interesting in general, not just characters in movies. Real people where you’re going out into the world and looking for stuff. If you call somebody or you’re at the store, you always have to ask, “Do you know someone who has what I’m looking for?” Even if they shut you down, you have to ask because maybe they know somebody who knows somebody else. I cannot tell you how many times that has proven to be the most successful way.

Cielo: Which departments do you work with?

Ester: In set decoration, you work with all the departments. There’s the construction guys, for sure. Paint always — what kinds of textures, finishes, color? They’re so good at creating this illusion of time and age and funk. It’s amazing.

Then you work with the electrical department. I provide the fixtures; electricians make them turn on.

And then the grip department, which I respect so much. Electricians provide the light, and grips texture the light to tell the story of where we are.

And then hair and make-up. Who is the character? What do they look like? If I’m going to fill a closet with their stuff, it should be something that’s their size, not a pair of double XL pants for a petite actor. If they’re feeling inspired to walk into the closet to pull something out, I don’t want it to be something that’s going to screw anybody over, even in a weird improv moment. Everything I do, I do for the actors, the performance. I’ve been thinking about the character as much as the actor. I’m not a performer at all, but I know my imagination. When I’m reading a story, what am I seeing in my head? I’m breaking that down into elements of this kind of meth lab, these kinds of curtains, these kinds of flowers on the table.

Cielo: It sounds like such a collaborative effort.

Ester: Very collaborative. Filmmaking is a huge collaboration, and [the crew’s] opinions have different weights, some obviously more than others. There’s times I’ve felt so invested, but it’s ultimately not my thing. I have to let it go or fuck off or move on. I can’t spend too much time dwelling because it’s over. Tomorrow we’re shooting something else, and you have to move on. It’s a combination of a lot of things. Salty and sweet.