How do those seemingly perfect sets of your favorite movies come to be? That’s a question I’m often asked, and my answer always starts “at the very beginning.” When working on a film, it’s the script that first and foremost defines the people (characters), the places they live and how they live out their lives in those places. It’s my job to bring those words on the page to life by specifying the details of their surroundings. I’m not simply creating a backdrop for the movie, I’m telling the story of who the characters are through the spaces they inhabit.
I describe my approach as a “practical method decorator,” not unlike a method actor: I try to inhabit the characters and create the world the way they see it, the way we imagine them seeing it. After getting the script, I immediately dive into detailed, extensive research in order to explore what the real possibilities are. The final result is actually a balance of these three things—the script (with input from the director, production designer and actors), solid research and my own imagination—all blended together to create the final world seen on film.
When I work on private commissions in interior design for “real” people, my approach is similar. The people I’m designing for become, in a sense, the characters of a play. Their house and neighborhood are the sets. Their lives, how they’ve lived them, how they live them now, and how they hope to live them, become the motivations for how I design and decorate their homes. When you’re doing your house yourself, you have to remember to refer back to your own personal script to create a “set” that reflects your character and lifestyle.
We all have our likes and dislikes: things we’ve acquired and want to display, live quietly with—or even hide! Those personal preferences and items should define us to some extent and may lead in the direction of a particular aesthetic, like traditional, country, contemporary. However, ascribing to a style doesn’t mean that it should dictate our every moment. The old adage “form follows function” should never be forgotten and is especially true today.
As a designer, I want to make sure that the homes I help to create are lived in—from the great room to the kitchen to the master bedroom. When I start a project, whether residential or film, I start by breaking down the most important physical requirements and then focus on how the space will be used. Does the family include a dad that likes to cook gourmet dishes or a daughter that hosts friends for sleepovers in the family room? Those kinds of questions help determine the function of the space. And then, of course, I always ask myself how I can make it comfortable and beautiful by imagining all the particulars.
Many designers like to work in a linear progression, but I think about the big picture as well as the smallest detail simultaneously. Maybe this comes from my work as a set decorator—when you watch a film, you know who the characters are by the little things that are shown, and I’m constantly thinking of what those little details are in order to create that larger whole. I enjoy working form both ends toward the middle—it’s like picking out your new stove and envisioning a fabulous teapot on it or the spices near by.
This has been my method for every film I’ve done, from the kitchen of Something’s Gotta Give to the drug lairs of American Gangster. Those very different settings may seem hard to compare, but the process is always the same. The joy of designing for yourself is creating your own script: merging beauty with function—what functions for you—always results in an interesting and unique design.
About Beth Rubino
Beth Rubino is an accomplished set decorator, recognized by the industry for creating inspired spaces that instantly lead audiences into new worlds. She has earned Academy Award nominations for her work on the major motion pictures Cider House Rules and American Gangster. Her long list of film credits includes: Analyze That, Vanilla Sky, Original Sin, Twilight, Sleepers, Money Train, Baby’s Day Out, Romeo Is Bleeding, and A River Runs Through It. Her most recent work can be seen in Ridley Scott's American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Between films, Beth designs residential properties and is planning to produce her own line of furniture.
The sets Beth created for Something's Gotta Give, Diane Keaton's warm and inviting classic Hamptons home with the much-coveted kitchen, was featured in the July 2007 issue of Architectural Digest and is one of the most searched features on ArchitecturalDigest.com.