Interview With ‘Nip Tuck’s Set Decorator Ellen Brill

Ellen Brill Photo

Chit Chat Gal got to spend a few minutes with the set decorator for 'Nip/Tuck' Ellen Brill. The new season of 'Nip/Tuck' kicks off this Tuesday, October 30th on FX.

You’ve worked on quite a few sets for shows that I’ve totally love, which one has been the hardest for you to get just right?
E. Brill :That’s an interesting question. I think 'Entourage' was very challenging, in that the creators of the show wanted it to feel so natural, that it was sort of an anti-style at the time.  I think it has transformed over the past few seasons to have more of a look.  But at the time, they were very intimidated by too much design.  So they kind of wanted this strange, no look look, which is one of the hardest things to do, because everybody comes from a different place in what they think an interior is.  

The executive producer, Doug Ellin, wanted it to look like guys just hanging out and a lot of times guys just hanging out don’t have very much style.  So it was hard to try and find the balance of what that really is, but also stick a little bit of art into it, too, because that’s what we like to do.  So that was quite challenging.  And then, of course, on 'Nip/Tuck', having to find a double-wide casket and a few other things have been quite challenging as well.

So do you have a different approach for each show or do you approach each show kind of the same way and then just kind of go with what you think is right?

E. Brill: No, I think you really have to approach each show in a different way, because the characters are so different and the executives are very different, so everybody has a different take.  For example, this show, our executive producer, Ryan Murphy, has very expensive taste and he knows the difference.  So if I’ll show him five different sofas, invariably he’ll pick the most expensive one.  He goes, “Oh, that’s the one that I like,” just because he has incredible taste.  So I’ve learned to spend a lot of money on the show.

Can you talk more about that?
E. Brill : Yes, Ryan has an amazing eye in terms of not only set decoration, but costumes and music and editing.  He really is kind of an overall visionary.  So a lot of times, the concept will come from him and then the production designer and myself will meet with him and discuss kind of what his feelings are and how he comes to the point where he comes to.  And a lot of times, because he is the creator of the characters, he has an innate sense of what it should be.  

For example, when I first started the show, I got a huge dialogue about how the sets really needed to be cold and simple and empty, because he didn’t want to give much away about the characters, and that there was a soulless quality in a way.  So the interiors have typically not been very warm and fuzzy for the main characters on the show.

Is there a show that you haven’t worked on that you would love to?
E. Brill: I was very envious of 'Six Feet Under.'  I just think that show is an amazing, amazing, show.  The writing it great and I like the characters, so I was envious.  I think Rusty Lipscomb is an amazing decorator.  As a matter of fact, I’m researching today mortuary information, because I have to do a mortician’s chambers.  So I’ve been looking through some of her past work.  It’s very interesting when you have to delve into the worlds you’ve never done before. 

The majority of people reading this article on your work are not crew.  Can you explain the art department hierarchy and the difference between your work as a set decorator versus a set designer for people who might not know?
E. Brill: Yes, I would love to, because there’s always a problem with that.  The hierarchy is as follows.  First there is a production designer, who is really kind of the architect of the set.  The set decorator is considered like the interior designer of the set.  We deal with all the furnishings, and then there’s also a set designer and the set designer is the drafts person.  The production designer feeds information of what the set needs to be, what the requirements are, and works along with the set designer to draw up the set.  And then as the set decorator, I’m given the blueprints and plans and then I flesh out the interior or exterior in that manner.

So basically, I collaborate with the product designer and then there’s also an art director, who is a person that implements a lot of the construction, that’s the liaison to the construction department.  So it’s production designer, art director and set decorator and then the set designer, who is the drafts person. 

The show is kind of undergoing major changes with the Miami to LA move and I’ve heard that the sets are going to be completely torn down.  I was wondering if you could tell us what is going to survive, if anything, from the existing sets and what’s going to be taken over.

E. Brill: Nothing survived, nothing.  Everything was completely torn down and we’re actually on our tenth episode of the new season, or of the fifth season now.  And we’ve been working on these new sets and they’re interesting, they’re very different, way larger.  

I might say there’s still a fish tank, but other than that, there’s not a lot that’s the same.  As far as some of my favorite set dressing, you know pieces of furniture that are iconic, that I love, I’ve renovated them a little bit here and there, reupholstered or relacquered the legs or something like that.  But for the most part, it’s pretty much a new look.

So is there anything you can talk about, what’s going to say LA or Hollywood to us compared to Miami, are there any certain aspects that you’re bringing in with that change?

E. Brill: It just has a little bit of a different feel, but for the most part, in terms of the sets, they don’t feel particularly Los Angeles.  There’s an element of the sophistication of some of the places in LA, but I think that’s somewhat universal.  I’ve been seeing, if you look magazines and great interiors in New York and Chicago and Miami, I think it’s still a look of minimalism and modernism.  But I’m not sure that you could say for the interiors, that it’s LA.  But the exteriors, the locations are definitely LA.  Like Grauman’s Chinese Theater and Pink’s Hot Dogs and a couple of those kinds of places that the guys have gone to really look like LA.

As a set decorator, is there a difference between decorating a set for a show compared to doing it for an individual or for a private person?

E. Brill: Yes, And it’s interesting that you bring that up, because I have just started — my degree is in interior design, but I haven’t really been doing much personal interior design.  But at the current time, I do have a few clients.  I find it very challenging, because there’s something about picking something for someone that they’re going to really live with for years.  You want to make sure that it really functions in their life.  I think in the set sometimes, it can be — you know that they can work around it.  If the table is a little high or table is a little low on a set, we have our ways to raise the chair or lower the table.  And a lot of times that happens for the camera, depending on what the camera needs to see.  But the reality of what you really need to know, to have it functional for a real person is that I find it very challenging, and intimidating.  I think in a way, the set decoration seems a little easier.