Outlander: Chat with Jon Gary Steele, Part 2 – Never Too Much Gold

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In Part 2 of my discussion with Outlander’s Production Designer Jon Gary Steele, he talks more about the process of building and designing the show’s sets, and the care and thought that goes into them. There may be potential spoilers below, so as always, read at your own risk.

TIBS: Have you ever come up with an idea for something that you’d like to do and were told, we can’t do this, either technically this won’t work, we can’t shoot correctly, or too expensive or just too much?

Gary: For almost every set we design and build a model and stick it in front of Ron – Ron has to approve everything – he has signed off on everything. Now there was one set in Season 1, the Thieves’ Hole, but it was basically a pit, that Geillis and Claire get thrown into. I made it bigger initially. I wanted it to be a long, circular stair that they had to work their way down but Ron poo-pooed it and said it’s too big, Gary, up and down. But other than that, he’s almost always signed off on everything.

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When we did the prison for Jamie in the final episodes, he had said I want no windows, this is a dark, dank, nasty place, this prison cell. I said got it, and then we did the models, he signed off on them,we started building, and then he’s got to go to LA to work with writers, and he was going to be back in a few weeks. The set’s going up, the DP (director of photography) and the director come in and go, there’s no window in the set! We have to have windows! And every day for several days, they come in and they’re badgering me. Now I love them both, they both do a great job, and I said no, I’ve been told no windows, dark, dank, blah blah blah. But they kept coming in, “we can’t do our job.” So I said fine, I’ll stick a little window on one side.

Ron comes back a week later, the window’s in, the plastermen are plastering over everything, and he turns and says, “this is looking really good, Gary, I love it,” and then he sees the little window, and he goes, “what the hell is that?” I broke out in hives. I go, well, the director’s been badgering me. And he says, “I said NO BLANKETY BLANK WINDOWS!” He said cover it up, I said absolutely. As soon as he left, the director and the DP come to me and say, “we heard you’re getting rid of the window!” I go “Yeah, I just got chewed out because you two convinced me to put a window after I’ve been told not to.”  “But we need that window!” “So you go walk down to Ron’s office, you know where it is, go down there and make a left.” It was hysterical. It’s all in fun, and they’re asking for it because they’re passionate about what they do too. So I’m not blaming anybody. We all need what we need, and we all come to a compromise.

Outlander 2014

Outlander 2014

TIBS: What then was the actual process? You’ve done a lot of research, you’ve talked about the research for the Star Chamber and for Geillis’ room. From research to final, did you do a model for each one? Were there drawings? And how much of this will be released in the behind the scenes book?

Gary: I’m trying to put some photos on my blog, I just started a blog a couple of weeks ago, and I’m trying to show pictures – for instance the Jamie and Claire apartment. I’m trying to show how big it was, because you don’t have any idea. It was humungous. And there was this giant courtyard in the middle of it all. They poured concrete and we had it stamped. So I’m trying to show photos to show it’s not a location, it is a set, it was built on stage, and it’s humungous. There’s a lot of work that goes into it. So for every set, yes, I’ll do a sketch, or sometimes just a quick drafting of a floor plan, and I’ll hand it to our model makers, and I’ll always say build a rough model – I want a rough model so I can pull the sides out and make it bigger, etc, but they think these things are going to go to the Louvre for display, so they spend a lot of time and make it perfect.

gary 3

And I’m saying, It’s just a study model, it’s just for me, no one’s going to see it but me and Nicki right now. So we get that, we look at it, we play with it. Then, we make changes, we take it to Ron, and Ron signs off on it, and once he signs off, it gets the working drawing started for it. Elevations and sections for all the details of the whole set, and then it gets handed to construction, and he hands it to all the different departments from scenic to plaster people to construction. And then it is built, we all move forward, the decorators look for all kinds of good stuff for it, and prop people are doing the props. Then I start picking the colors, that’s mine.

TIBS: And then do you have any regret once it’s all done and torn down? Or are you ready for it to be gone by that time?

Gary: To be honest, last year I hated to see the Great Hall and Geillis go down, some you like ‘em, but some you hate  to see torn down, because they’re big, or you like the detail in them or whatever. This year it’s the Paris apartment and the apothecary, they’re already being turned into other things for S3, because everything gets reused and repurposed. The only thing that won’t get reused is the Star Chamber, because I haven’t figured out how to turn that into anything yet. But I will! Everything gets repurposed because it’s very expensive. You try to squeeze as much as you can. Curves are expensive! The battles on the staircase! And the oval window above the staircase! Those were big battles, I can tell you. We fight to get those details.

OUTLANDER SEASON 2

OUTLANDER SEASON 2

Those are the expensive part. It’s quite a bit cheaper to put a rectangle window in, and a staircase that’s straight. The carpenter, I love him, he does an amazing job, he said couldn’t it be a straight run with maybe a little curve on the end, and then go another straight? And I said, no, that’s not Paris, we’re trying to make people think they’re in Paris! The same people who are complaining that it’s so much detail and interest, and then they’ll be spending two or three weeks building the curved part of the stair. And it has to go in chunks, because each piece has a different wood, and there’s metal inside, but they’re proud of it, they brought their families to come and look at it, because they’re like, look what I did! This is awesome, I built this staircase or this apartment, and they get really excited about it.

TIBS:  The models themselves are beautiful. I saw the Season 1 models in New York at  the second half premiere. They were really interesting, because you get a better feel for how you walk through it. And I’m sure that’s what helps Ron and the directors as they’re trying to plan too.

Gary: We build models for every set. Sometimes we’ll build them if we think it’s going to help, because they all said they can read plans, but a lot of them can’t. And I’m not putting anyone down, but I think it’s so much easier for everyone to plan their shot if they can look at a model and talk to the DP and the director, and say we’ll put a camera here and here, it makes it easier for them to figure out how they’re going to light it and on and on. Each department will borrow the models to figure out what they’re doing. We’ve even made extra models of certain sets to go back to Ron and the writers so that they can be thinking when they’re writing, oh we can have Claire come out of that.

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TIBS:  Season 3’s going to give you a whole bunch of challenges – you’re going to go from the 1700s to the 1940s to the 1960s, of course we don’t know anything about what the scripts are going to be yet, but the book has a huge range – from Lallybroch to a cave to prison to Helwater – the estate – and ships and everything else – is there anything that’s keeping you awake at night, thinking how are you going  to do this? How far along are you? Are you at the point of making drawings or doing research?

Gary: Oh yeah, well just like Season 2, any of the major sets, like the Boston apartment, that was already approved by Ron before we ended Season 2, so they could begin building that now. Prison cells, that’s already been approved so we can start working on that, I’ve been scouting quite a bit, I started scouting before we left Season 2, some distant locations and I can’t say where because I slipped and said where once, I posted photos one episode, I was supposed to be posting behind the scenes photos, and I got a call saying, Gary, we love the photos, but can you please wait until the episode airs? But everyone’s excited, it’s all good.

So many people are excited about this show itself – there’s all the fans of the book. And now there are fans of the book and the show, and we find, the people who work on it, it’s fascinating to us that people are so fascinated with it. Because a lot of shows don’t get the attention. And it’s really nice that people are sending you notes via Twitter or whatever saying how much the love the sets or the costumes or lights, whatever, the writing – it’s awesome! Who doesn’t want someone to appreciate what they’re doing. We’re already excited because we’re passionate people, and then people are getting excited because the show is being done by amazing actors and writers, and then it gets even more exciting because people are excited, it’s all clicking. It’s good for everybody and it keeps everybody excited, when you could get bored easily. Like on some shows, you get bored after a couple of years, you’re like, oh, God, I can only imagine. This keeps changing.

gary 1TIBS: The TV show Friends, they had two apartments and a coffee shop And it ran for 10 years, but …

Gary: And that show made more money than any show in history! Get a new set, for God’s sake.

TIBS: This show, the major components that go into a show – the writing, the acting, the sets, the costumes, the music – I think those are the five biggest components – I can’t think of anything that isn’t topnotch and that the fans haven’t really been taken by.

Gary: Isn’t that interesting? Because you know what popped in my head?  When I first started working on TV, I was doing sitcoms, and then I went to features, and they always said the same thing on sitcoms. There has to be a couch in the middle, and you can’t turn it on an angle, it has to be just like this. And every show I worked on, I tried to deviate and make it different and use different colors. But they were like, no no no, it has to look like all the other sitcoms, and you’re like, that’s why they all look like this. And that’s why they’re boring. And then you get to work on something like this, and you get to throw stuff out there, let’s try that. Now put more gold on it! It’s creative and people are responding to it, and why not? It doesn’t need to be boring.

TIBS: And this show, there’s nothing about this show that’s boring. I’ve looked at your website, I’m sure you haven’t had time to do a huge amount with it, but the photos you have on there, with the star chamber and the Paris apartment, are just gorgeous. And it’s fun to look at.

Gary: A bunch of those came from Starz, because I can never get photos. We always say, we need to get photos of this one, but the night before they come, you can’t take pictures because it’s not lit at all. And these sets, the period sets, need to be lit with fire – they’re going to have fireplaces going, chandeliers with candles, sconces with flames, and they don’t look as amazing as they do when they’re lit. And once they’re (the actors) there, forget it. They’re like, get out of the way! Gary, get out of the way!

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TIBS: That must have been a challenge in itself. I’m thinking particularly of when they’re at Leoch, when it was planned that there would be candlelight, and not a huge amount of artificial light, and Ron has talked about that. That must have been a challenge to design that set so that details would show and wouldn’t just be dark and washed out.

Gary: For instance… I upset a few of the Scottish people, because in Leoch’s grand hall, we had columns, and then we had let’s say cut out filigrees on the sides of the column. You walk in there, Ron wanted a fire test to see what it was going to look like with all the chandeliers lit, with all the sconces – we had three fireplaces. You could see, this is a dark show, we know it’s a dark show. So we walk in there, I said, oh my God, all the detail in those columns, you don’t see any of that. I was talking to the scenic artist, at one point one of the art directors said you’re not putting gold in there! Oh yeah! So I had them roll on gold to see what it looked like. And I said oh, that’s awesome! And he said, but you’re going to sand that down and dull it down and all that, and I’m like, no we’re not! He thought I was an idiot, but I knew we needed it because it’s going to read or otherwise it’s not going to show. And the next day, the DP came in and said can we put more gold on? And I said No! So it’s like a constant, well, is that too much? Is it ever too much gold? Come on.

Missed Part 1? Read it here!

Gary’s Behind the Scenes website

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Erin Conrad