(Set Dresser)

- How did you get involved in THE 13TH WARRIOR?
- I was living in Vancouver. My wife had just taken a transfer to Campbell River. Our next door neighbour worked in "The Business" (I coined this term for the television and motion picture industry), and he told a friend of his that our Vancouver place was available (we were renting). George came by to look at our place and mentioned he was in Set Decoration and that there was a "Viking" movie being shot somewhere "up there". He gave me the name of the Decorator, Rosemary McSherry. After a phone call to her, I faxed my resume over to her and she referred me to her Lead Dresser, Joanne [Quirk]. A couple of months later, after moving to Campbell River, I met with Joanne and she hired me, at first as a Assistant Dresser at union scale, which subsequently became less money, but I took the job regardless. I had been chained to a desk for four years, and the job gave me what I wanted for a summer job, essentially: outdoors, physical labour, and no pressure, learning something new, working in the movies.
- The first title of the movie was EATERS OF THE DEAD. When hired, weren't you surprised by the association of Disney with such a movie (and such a title)?
- Yes, most definitely. I could not imagine Mr. Eisner allowing this movie to be released under the sign of "The Mouse" (the term I coined to denote Disney). I came to learn that it was actually under a subsidiary of the Disney Corporation, Buena Vista, I believe.
- When exactly and how long did you work on this project?
- I started in April-May of 1997 and worked until mid-August, was laid-off for 2-3 weeks and came back in early September to early October. I did not travel with the company to either the Lower Mainland (i.e.: Vancouver) nor to Williams Lake, which is in North-Central British Columbia.
- What is (usually) the task of a Set Dresser, and what was yours on this show?
- A Set Dresser follows the vision of the Set Decorator, who follows the vision of the Production Designer and the Art Director, who follow the vision of the Director and the Producers and so on up the food chain. The Set Dresser takes all of the elements given to him/her and creates the scene.
For instance, if you saw THE FIFTH ELEMENT, when the story shifted to the apartment of the priests, that whole set was created on a sound stage, and after the carpenters and the painters had done their thing, the dressers would move in and place and move a lot of furniture until the upper powers were satisfied and then the dressers would have added all of the flotsam and jetsam of a futuristic priest's abode. There are instances where there are specific pieces placed in specific spots and the dressers have but to follow orders, however, there is lots of latitude to allow them to create as they see fit and the materials they get to use are sometimes available to them or are made available to them upon request.
My job on EATERS was essentially grunt work; I moved massive amounts of fire wood, erected lookout towers, hung tapestries and, by and large, assisted the dressers in doing their jobs. Very right brain activity, with lots of physical labour! I was the oldest member of the crew at 42, and worked myself into tremendous shape: I loved it.
- Did they make any research for this show? Were they concerned about historical accuracy? (or, at least, about some fidelity to the original Crichton's novel?)
- There was extensive research done. The historical accuracy was in keeping with typical historical accuracy attitudes that prevail in Hollywood, and I believe the film follows Crichton's book pretty well.
- Working with McTiernan, how was it?
- I was not privy to working with the shooting crew (please remember this was my first feature film; hell, it was my first film, period. It would be better to ask a member of the camera department...). I was either working ahead of the crew, preparing the next sets for them, or coming up behind them, to wrap sets that had been used. I did hear that there was a falling out between McTiernan and Crichton and I think it shows in the final product; I think McTiernan just wanted to get it done and go home.
- Do you know the reasons of this falling out?
- I heard that Crichton was having a fling with a costume designer and that she went crying to him all upset because McTiernan allegedly reamed her out in front of the costume department. The story goes that the pair of them got into a shouting match on "The Hill", where the Great Hall was, and that the 1st Assistant Director called a half hour break, essentially shutting down the shoot. The two boys went at it quite loudly for some minutes and it apparently ended with Crichton going back to L.A. and McTiernan petulantly finishing the shoot. It is alleged it ended a five-picture deal that they apparently had with each other...
That's all I know. One thing I have learned: in this business, everyone has a story, everyone has a script or a pitch to sell, and the key to success appears to be your ability to entertain or tell stories, and of course, how to listen and ooh and ahh at the right times to the right egos. Your ability to perform your job is not the primary requisite for getting hired; it's how well you fit into "The Family", and how well you get along with people, how well you tell stories and keep people amused during the dull periods, which can be frequent. I adopted the attitude early on that whatever story I listened to, I always kept them to that; if it's true or not is irrelevant: if it's a good story, it's a good story!!
- Could you elaborate on the Wendol caves? As far as I know, they didn't shoot all the cave scenes (interiors and exteriors) in the same location, right?
- The interiors were shot in a set that was constructed in Elk Bay, near the Grand Hall set. Apparently, some aspects of the interior were recreated on a sound stage in Vancouver. The exteriors were shot at Elk Falls Park, where the Wendol village was created. The cave interiors were covered in mountains of bones, real bones, still wet and fresh from their crates; it stunk to high heaven in there! And then I had the pleasure of cleaning them out!! All told, there was at least ten days work involving the bones alone.
- Elk Falls being some Provincial Park, were you told to take specific precautions when working on this location?
- There were certain areas that were off limits to us and certain areas in which we were required to wear fall protection. It was a very sensitive environmental site and working procedures had to reflect that. There was a liaison from the environment ministry and wildlife officials as well however, the company got away with a lot to shit that upset most of the local hire workers. The waters around the falls flow into a sensitive salmon spawning area and much work over many years had gone into bringing the salmon back and in a very short time the company put all the work in jeopardy. I don't know what the long-term effects will be.

- In the production notes, one of the producers says: "McTiernan wanted the warriors to be able to walk in and out of the buildings, all in the same continuing shot. With that in mind, our production designer Wolf Kroeger had to design almost every building on the site to work as an interior and exterior set and not simply as a facade of scenery." I was wondering if they did so with the longhouse, because, in the movie, when the actors are shown entering the Great Hall from the outside, there's a cut, then a shot of the interior...
- That was the most anticipated shot from the locals stand point, because the doors into that hall, these huge massive things, were worked on by many different artisans and the shot called for the doors to swing open majestically as the Vikings entered. Well, you saw the result of all that work, not to mention all the work that went into creating the interior of the hall. Once inside, all of those scenes are headshots and very dark lighting and quick cuts: they could have done that anywhere!
- One scene (people hiding during the battle...) is supposed to take place in some place underneath the Great Hall (several others were also supposed to be shot there, but were not included in the final cut). Did they construct such a place underneath the longhall, or did they shoot that/those scene(s) in another place?
- The basement of the hall had areas constructed and dressed to accommodate the shooting script that changed dramatically as shooting progressed and was never fully utilized.
- Could you elaborate on these script changes?
- I know nothing of the script changes, although the movie was getting to be quite long, from what I've heard. Also, there were continuity problems that required cuts to some elements that were kept from the book, such as more stuff on being in court and how he learned the Viking language...
- The production designer credited in the film is Wolf Kroeger, but I have heard about some other person, Graham Grace Walker. Do you know something about this?
- No, I do not.
- Did the actors bring ideas (for instance, about the sort of props their character would use)?
- I don't know... I did meet some of them, at a pre-shooting party, and they said they had been training for months and were in fantastic shape because it was a very physical film for them.
- Shooting in remote areas, on location, out in the mud and dirt and the miserable weather: was it a nightmare?
- Yes, it was a nightmare, but I did not really grasp it until later, when I more experience on other films. What I have learned is there is a tremendous amount of no or little planning done and that the problems or crises the big cheeses feel they have to solve are of there own doing and easily remedied. It is my opinion that, in Hollywood anyway, there are a lot of stupid people in charge, who don't know shit about anything!
- Back in early 1997, there were rumours circulating about Arnold Schwarzenegger doing some cameo appearance in the movie. Did you hear about this on the set?
- Yes, repeatedly! He was supposed to be flying in for two days maximum and do a couple of things, but he never showed; at least, it never made the version I saw.
- They obviously spent a lot of money on the main set (Viking Village with the Great Hall). Do you know what was the final budget of the movie?
- I have no clue, but there are numerous third world countries whose Gross National Product are dwarfed by the number!
- Did they really burn the main set (Viking Village) as seen in the film?
- Yes, parts of it, and under very controlled conditions.
- They used a lot of horses on this film... Some of them belonged to the director himself, didn't they?
- I don't know... Most of the horses came from Alberta.

- Did you work on pieces that never made it in the final cut, or were barely seen? Sometimes, people work really hard on things that are not included in any significantly visible way in the film...
- We spent a long time preparing the tower that Antonio Banderas climbs to get a better look at the Wendols in the distance, but that's about all; maybe the Great Hall: all the detail work we did never showed up, and all the lashing of pillars and such. There was this magnificent Stonehedge-like piece made out of wood, wire and plaster, painted and etched with runes, that Crichton felt was too religious looking; it took over three weeks to construct, at a cost we estimated to be around $700,000, and it came down in 20 seconds, all except one pillar! All because of one man...
- Have you heard about additional photography on this movie? (There seems to have been several reshoots during 1998, officially because of Antonio Banderas' back problems during original filming...)
- I had heard there were lots of reshoots done, and the production got an unexpected long-weekend because of Antonio's back. That's all I know.
- Do you know why they finally changed the title of the movie, from EATERS OF THE DEAD to THE 13TH WARRIOR?
- Because audiences were expecting a horror film and were not happy when they realized what they were actually seeing! It was also said Disney ordered the change because they did not want to be associated with cannibalism, which is illegal in the USA, so far as I know.
- What was your biggest challenge on this show?
- Trying to keep enough food in my system because I used up so much energy climbing up and down those hills! Also, keeping my temper when I got treated like shit; I took a lot of it, but I never cracked.
- Finally, did you enjoy the movie?
- I went to the Campbell River premiere with my wife and it was great. The place was packed, everyone cheered when it started and, for the first 20 minutes or so, we were all really into it. By the end, we could not wait to get out of the theater and, at the party, later, a lot of us were asking if that was the same movie we worked on. What a piece of shit, but, that's Hollywood! Hollywood does not make films; it makes money, and it always has.
- Anything you would want to add? Any anecdote you would remember?
- One day, early on during shooting, we were on the Hill, finishing up some last minute stuff when, all of a sudden, this entourage sauntered by. There were three women and a bunch of kids and they were out of place, in the grime and the mud. I saw them later and, this time, a blonde woman caught my attention; man, did she look rough: too many cigarettes and scotches and late nights. Then I recognized her: Melanie Griffiths! And that was only because she spoke. Until then, I had no idea it was she!
There was a story that Melanie caused a huge ruckus at the Campbell River Airport because she wanted to escort her kids to the plane, but was prohibited by security as it would have violated a Transport Canada regulation. Well, she was said to have raised holy hell but never did get on the tarmac. Years later, my family and I were flying off somewhere and a mother escorted her two kids to the plane, no hassles, and no fuss. Apparently, it happens all the time. So, what's the truth? Who knows? Who cares?
Overall, I had a great time, learned a lot, it helped me get into the Vancouver IATSE film union, I've been working in the business since 1998 and have enjoyed most of it, especially the money, the work and a lot of the people. I've done mostly features: DOUBLE JEOPARDY, 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND, BEST IN SHOW (my favorite), MISSION TO MARS (such a disappointment)... I love the pace of features and the quality of workmanship you have the time to work on. It's so much better than television work, although some projects are interesting. However, last year was very stressful and I had a heart attack January 2nd and a quadruple heart by-pass operation; I was living a very poor lifestyle, and I'm going to try going back to work, gradually, around mid-August, this time with a new attitude and mindset. I want to take my family to Europe one day and work on a film with Luc Besson; I think he is fantastic! We all have Irish citizenship, so I can work anywhere in the EEC. So, if there is anything you can do to help me realize my dream, please do! In any case, you are welcome in my home anytime; it would be a pleasure to have you as my guest.
- Well, thanks a lot, Lawrence!


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© 2002 - The John McTiernan Central