(Lead On Set Dresser)


- How did you get involved in THE 13TH WARRIOR?
- I got involved with the show at the last moment! I was supposed to work on another movie, but I couldn't make a deal with the production, so I contacted the Set Decorator for THE 13TH WARRIOR and was hired immediately, over the phone, as I had previously worked with her successfully.
- What was your task, exactly, as "lead dresser" and "on set dresser" (as you are credited at the end of the film)? Is this common to share both credits (kind of wearing two hats...)?
- A Lead Dresser is kind of a foreman, who runs a crew of set dressers in the various aspects of getting a set ready for filming (eg. creating bundles and boxes of cargo for the ships, building animal cages and totems, painting hides, building cargo packs for the camels, and much more). As lead dresser, I organized a workshop to build the setdressing we thought we would need. I would build prototypes; once okayed, they were mass produced by other set dressers. I was head of the shop for about 12 weeks.
As for being on-set dresser, the Set Decorator decided that I should work on set during the filming, as I have had a lot of experience in that position, and there were other dressers with lead experience who could take over the shop as the prep work was also slowing down, the rush to be ready for production was over.
The On-Set Dresser works with the shooting crew, moving dressing as needed, to facilitate each shot. For example, the Great Hall had tables weighing about 500 kilos; these were moved several times, to make room for filming equipment or represent different scenes. I designed and built two rigs to lift and roll the tables away, so 2 dressers could move one table rather than 10 men or a fork lift, which would have been too heavy for the Great Hall flooring.
It is not all that common for someone to be lead dresser and on-set dresser on the same project... Sometimes, we don't get credits at all, unless you are a head of department!
- How long did you work on this project finally?
- As I said before, I worked 12 weeks in prep. as a lead dresser, mid March to mid June 97, and an additional 17 weeks on the shooting crew, during filming.
- Working with McTiernan, how was it?
- McT was quite creative on the spot. We would make some pretty major changes to the set as we were setting up some of the shots. He stressed that we were to think broad strokes in our approach to things. Once I got used to his style, things were easier. We would chainsaw parts of the set away daily, rearrange and move on.
- Were there specific films whose looks he wanted to recreate, or avoid?
- I don't know, but Wolf Kroeger, the Production Designer, was keen on a gritty, raw look, more primitive than previous Hollywood films about Vikings...
- Did actors bring ideas (for instance, about the sort of props their character would use)?
- Actors always bring ideas, and there are always compromises. I couldn't tell you much about it, except that McT was a strong director!
- The rather unusual director's camera-work (lots of hand-held and Steadicam...) and lighting (fires and torches), were they taken into account when dressing sets?
- McT very seldom used more than one camera so, more often, we would be creating an area for a crane to be, or a dolly track, or filling in holes so the horses wouldn't break a leg as they ran by camera...
All of the setdressing that was built or purchased had to be as fire resistant as we could make it. This, actually, helped with the breakdown and aging of the various items. The large chieftains tent, where the spitting scene took place and the 13 warriors were chosen, was held together over a steel center structure, hidden by driftwood. The panels were zippered together, so that they could be changed or removed for lighting requirements. These were also very fireproof, as for the scenes in the tent require 20 or so flame bars hidden in various burners, some within 2 feet of the fabric. And many of the huts in the Viking Village had fire suppression equipment, which the crew was trained to use, as a precaution against forest fires that sometimes occur in the area of the main set...
- How did you "prepare" yourself for this show?
- When I started on the show, a lot of research had been gathered already. Wolf Kroeger, the Designer, had been prepping for many months, construction of the great hall had started weeks before. I watched a few Viking movies, some of the CONAN-type movies and sought out books on Vikings, celtic lore and runic symbols. I would meet with one of the Set Decorators, as to what was required for various sets and then create a prototype, embellish and paint it, we would discuss changes and, once it was okayed, we would make a lot of them, and move on to the next piece. It was a dream job, as I got to paint as well as do woodworking and craft making on a very large scale...
- Were you concerned about some fidelity to the original Crichton's novel?
- We all read the book, and a lot of our dressing was created in response to what our perceptions of Crichton's writing were. The set dressing took kind of a back seat to some of the larger or more featured elements, like the ships or the Great Hall, but unless we had a specific drawing to match, we would do our best to be accurate to the reference material at hand.

- How much freedom were you given to do your job?
- I was not a department head, but rather more of a foreman in our workshop. So, I did have a lot of freedom in that position, and a lot of my work made it to the screen. On set, there is more freedom yet. It is mostly about problem solving and pulling together the various people from different departments to make it happen. For example, one day, in the Great Hall, McT pointed to a large cauldron hanging from an iron tripod and said: "I would like this to be hanging about one metre over a feast table, in the centre of the floor, with fire in it, in about 4 hours time!" The cauldron took 4 men to lift, I had to find enough chain of picture quality to suspend it, I had to get Tommy Fisher's (SPFX) guys to hang the cauldron and plumb it for propane, the painter was there to age the new looking fittings, myself and my assistant moved the tables and benches in to finish the scene, et voila!
- How many different interior and exterior sets did the film require?
- The Village was the main set, with the Great Hall and many of the huts being dressed inside and out. The watchtower across the valley from the village, the ship landing beach and the homestead cabin massacre set were all around one area at Elk Bay, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The Wendol village was at Elk Falls, near Campbell River, on Vancouver Island. The Wendol cave was shot on many parts, on Vancouver Island and in the studio in Vancouver. Additional exterior locations were found close to the city of Vancouver.

- You said the Village huts were also dressed "inside". That reminds me some comment from the production notes, where 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." But, in the movie, when actors are shown entering the Great Hall (for example) from the outside, there's a cut, then a shot of the interior, but no "continuing shot"... Did they really shoot such a shot?
- Scenes were shot of people entering and exiting several buildings, but most of these were exterior shots: the actors would merely push aside a curtain or animal hide and go inside, not a lot to see. Interior shots of exiting were framed so tightly all that was seen was the doorway over someones shoulder. As for the Great Hall, we never filmed a continuous shot outside to inside. I can only guess that it would have been too difficult to light the interior enough to match the outside, without the interior looking too overlit, as the light level changed a lot from one extreme to the other...
- Tell me more about the shooting in general. Was it a logistical nightmare?
- Moving gear and supplies was a big job! All of the set dressing produced at the shop in Vancouver was trucked, via car ferry, to the set on Vancouver Island, at the end of a long bumpy logging access road, and installed by crews there in preproduction. During the shoot, it rained some, and when it didn't, we created rain, which you can see in the film that it was muddy under-foot. There were lots of small all-terrain vehicles to haul gear in and out and, sometimes, we had to be creative, my assistant and I, to be were we had to be in a timely manner. For the exterior of the riverside Viking village, everything except the livestock had to be helicoptered in from the plateau near the river set. We were shuttled in and out every day by chopper, except for the last day, when we finished shooting after sundown and had to hike one hour to buses and ride fourty-five minutes to get a ride back to the hotel.
- And what was the weather like, during principal photography?
- There were two bad weather days of note, one was when we were filming on the beach, with the ships near shore. The winds were quite high and, as the day progressed, the incoming tide rose faster than anyone thought possible. This caused a hasty retreat, and we lost a few hours of filming. The second weather day was caused by high winds once again and no filming was possible due to the danger of falling trees and the effect of the winds on the lighting towers, as this was for a nightime scene. We arrived for work in mid afternoon and were immediately sent away from the support area, as it was among 30 metres high trees which were snapping off and crushing whatever was in the way, several large wardrobe tents, makeup and hairdressing areas as well as a few small trucks. We convoyed back to a lower support area that was away from larger trees but the wind was very strong and almost blew away some of the workshop tents. Several crew members held the FX tent until it was given extra tiedowns. Production contacted the weather service and was told the winds would not die for several hours so, then, the crew was sent home. We had to move some trees that had fallen over the access road in order to leave the area and, the next day, several loggers were hired to clear dozens of large trees that were now blocking access around the set.
- Now, let's talk about the cavernous lair of the Wendol Mother...
- The Wendol queen's cave was shot for one day, at its first location, near the main Village set. Antonio Banderas was suffering a back injury he had from [THE MASK OF] ZORRO, a previous movie. So it was decided to shoot around him, and move the cave in a recycled mode to Vancouver, for additional scenes...
- To shoot "around him"?
- To shoot around an actor means you film everything you can without using him, all the work leading up to a specific scene or shot within a scene and then the scenes after that specific scene, sometimes using camera doubles or stunt doubles, sometimes other work altogether, not closely related to the specific scene.
The waterfall cave was built in a former ship yard shed south of the city. The heads scene [where Buliwyf discovers his comrades' severed heads hanging in the bushes] was shot in Los Angeles, as well as the Wendol Mother fight and death. The original Wendol Mother was a large actress. I actually got to help the standby painter with some of the paintings at the entrance to the Mother's cave. We had about 4000 kilos of animal bones for the cave and hundreds of skulls, styrofoam, plaster and moulded plastic, depending on how close to camera they were.

- Tell me more about the original Wendol Mother scene...
- We filmed a version of the Wendol Mother's death in Vancouver, in one of our cave sets. The actress was more the dimensions of the sculpture guarding the lair than the slim version of the Wendol Mother that was in the final cut, rubenesque plus!
- And what about the sculpture scene? Was it shot in Los Angeles too?
- No. The goddess statue was built and filmed near the main set, on Vancouver Island.
- Were did they shoot the interiors of the Baghdad opening sequence?
- The opening sequence was a set built next to the Wendols waterfall cave. It was changed to a garden, as well as a court, in addition to a sort of lounging area for the Caliph and his retainers. The hallway and older Ibn's study were adjoining the main area, and quite lavishly furnished, although you don't see much in the final cut.
- A garden? I positively do not remember seeing any garden in the final cut!
- The garden was background for the scene where the arab woman moves down the hallway and looks into the camera lens. There were potted plants, a working fountain and a lattice of vines and branches with flowers, alas not seen.
The court was the garden area recycled, the plants and fountain removed and the fabric we draped for the lounging area was flown higher to hide the fact that there was no ceiling, although the wall (which I think was to represent the tree of life) looked good. All we see as the camera moves up and away from Antonio and his counsel is a broad expanse of floor, some extras and the aforementioned backlit wall.
The lounging area was draped with sheer red and gold fabrics and had a raised platform which was covered with satin and silk covered pillows. The platform and steps leading up to it were carpeted with a maroon or contrasting brown carpet which had been hand painted in a border of leaves and birds, this taken from a reference of the period. There were also ornate tea sets, trays of fruit and dates and water pipes. Also unseen, when the wealthy man whispers to the Caliph, were guards, attendants with large fans made of feathers and several harem girls. There were several large lantern type lighting fixtures hanging above.
The study was carpeted with several Turkesh style carpets of all sizes. The walls were made to look as if covered with patterns of ceramic tile as a wainscotting. The doorways were arched and shuttered with ornately carved green wooden screens and screens of a different pattern covered the windows. There was a daybed with a bolster and a sitting area with small inlayed tables all richly upholstered and draped, alas, alas.
- I noticed the Arabian beauty is credited as "Sheharazad"! Do you know if McTiernan wanted some "Tales from the Arabian Nights" mood for these sets?
- Well, Antonios' character was an Arab, so I assume this was the designers take on what it should look like.
- How big was the film budget?
- I don't know the budget, but I know it was cut during prep. So it's a good thing that we made a lot of the dressing out of sticks and unprocessed sisal, hemp and coarse fabrics. We had a lot of animal hides and a seamstress who kept busy sewing sacks which were filled with rags.
- Did you re-use things, from one set to another?
- Many of the objects were used more than once. The exteriors tended to use up a lot of material. One of my jobs was to make sure it wasn't too obvious that we did that, although McT wasn't too worried about dressing continuity, as much as say costumes or weapons.
- Did you participate in the reshoots?
- No, I didn't work on the 1998 reshoots. They took place in Los Angeles, in the USA, and though I belong to the same film union as there, it is a different country and a different union local so, politically, it was not possible for me to work there. But Helen Jarvis, the On Set Art Director, was there for some of the reshoots.
- What about the McTiernan/Crichton professional dispute?
- McT and Crichton are both wealthy, intelligent, opinionated and used to getting what they want, that's all I know about that.
- 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 that?
- Sorry, no. I haven't heard of Graham Grace Walker.
- The movie was cut quite short...
- Yes, a lot of scenes were omitted! It could have easily been 30 minutes longer, and you might have got to know the characters better! I remember a Baltic seaport set, the funeral of the slain Vikings, some showdown with the son of the Viking chieftain, entering the river encampment, the caravan packing up and more shipboard scenes...
- Wow! That's quite a list! Could you please elaborate on the content of all these cut scenes?
- Sure. The sea port was where the Vikings acquired a ship, to travel to the besieged village. They loaded horses, and there was some character development, with getting everyone on the boat and ready to leave: one was carried on drunk, one fell in the water and one said goodbye to several women.
The showdown was when Ibn kills the plotting son of the Viking chieftain, and heaves his body onto the vikingship that holds the bodies of his comrades. The ship is then pushed offshore and set on fire, with a flaming arrow, as it drifts away, et voila "le viking funeral"!
Entering the viking camp, we see the largest of the Vikings [Halga] wrestle a horse and he greets them in a drunken manner, hence the Arabs feel uneasy.
Once it is decided that Ibn will go with the Vikings, the other caravaners pack up and leave in secret, when all the Vikings are sleeping off the effects of the night before. It was the last scene filmed on location, before moving back to the studio in Vancouver. It was a bit tricky, in the dark, and also horses hate camels, so the planning of the various movements of the animals became important for safety as well as camera!
There was a small scene where a whale is sighted by the ship and Ibn is very nervous. Also, some small daylight scenes of the men travelling on the ship by daylight, in fair weather, and Iben gets to know the various Vikings a bit more.
- Why do you think they finally changed the title, from EATERS OF THE DEAD to THE 13TH WARRIOR?
- The title change was probably a marketing ploy.
- Did you enjoy the final result?
- I wasn't too pleased the first time I saw the movie, although the second time was better. I thought some of what was left out could have enriched the story and made it easier to follow!
- Anything you would want to add?
- Working on THE 13TH WARRIOR was one of the most enjoyable projects that I have been involved with. It was exhausting, and there were new challenges every day, but it was easy to stay focused and come to work each day as the Producers, Director and first AD seemed to appreciate a good effort.


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