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"Dressing the Dust Bowl"
Sara Andrews Ingrassia

Carnivale's 'interior decorator' makes 1934 real-from sheet music to stuffed monkeys.

HBO: What's the set decorator's role on the production?

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: Well, the production designer is like the architect; he gives the overall feel of the show. The set decorator's kind of like the interior designer. I have creative meetings with Dan Bishop, the designer. And he tells me what direction we're going.

I read the script and break it down and decide how to best develop the character. Sometimes it's not even things that you're necessarily gonna notice on camera.

But it's the overall vibe that you kind of feel. Set decoration also helps the actors become their character.

HBO: Can you give us an example of how you help fill out a character?

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: Ruthie, for instance: She's kind of sultry, and she's a snake charmer, and she's kind of sexy. And with any of the Carnivale people you presume that they've been traveling around, they've had kind of a colorful past. So, for somebody like Ruthie, I looked for things that had textures like satins and silks and things that were kind of see-through. She has a lot of drapes and pillows in her trailer. Textures that are kind of sexy. She has a lot of perfume bottles and pictures of places that she might've been, postcards that she's saved.

For a lot of the Carnivale people, we supposed that they're kind of interested in show business. So we would find magazines from the 1930's, Hollywood magazines. So you're always kind of thinking who these people are and what their past would've been like.

Iris and Brother Justin were originally from Russia. So, we kind of used that a little bit when we were thinking about their stuff. Lodz's trailer is more Eastern European-looking. And for Chin's, we had to find a lot of Asian things--there were a lot of Asian people in California at that time, so it wasn't too hard to find some stuff dating from that time period.

A lot of times I'll assign somebody something that they collect--like seashells or ceramic dogs. Are they a dog person or are they a cat person? Or are they not an animal person at all? That gets fun, starting to do those little things--like sheet music on a piano. Who are they, and what is their sheet music?

Everything has to look real just in case they just in case they point a camera somewhere you weren't thinking that they were going to. And if somebody sits at a desk and it's a long scene, you want to give them enough stuff so that if the actor wants to fiddle around and open a drawer, there's something in there.

HBO: Is it hard to keep the show accurate to the period?

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: I think one of the interesting things that comes into any period piece is doing the research on it. We had a pretty extensive research library in our art department that we could always go to . And one of the biggest sources that we used was that Sears catalog. You can buy those at flea markets and antique stores, Sears catalogs from any given year, although they're getting pretty hard to get a hold of. We had a Sears catalog from 1934. And so we would look in there whenever we weren't sure about something. We would look it up in the Sears catalog and see, oh yeah, they did make metal Venetian blinds back then.

And after awhile you start knowing exactly what telephones they had, and what the electrical outlets looked like. We had telephone poles going up in Mintern, where Brother Justin lives, and we had to find out like what kind of transformers were up on the poles in the 1930's.

HBO: It sounds a bit overwhelming.

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: There's a lot more to the whole thing than just the creative part of it.

HBO: Right.

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: Right. Or some character's a heavy smoker. So you gotta find somebody who smokes and tell them to start saving all their cigarette butts for the ashtray.

HBO: Right.

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: [CHUCKLE] Suppose a character's having a fire. Then, they change the script and the fire's gone out. If the fire's burning, they have to have an effects person who comes makes a fire. But if the fire's burnt out, then we have to build a fire, burn it out, take the logs and make it look like it just burned out. So there's, lots of things that you see on screen, and you say, oh that's a burnt out fire. But it probably took some, guy half the day to make the burned out fire. And occasionally you wind up having to call up someplace and say, hey, do you have any pre-burned logs?

HBO: What was the strangest item you had to find for the show?

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: I think the all-time creepiest thing we got was a stuffed monkey, for the scene in the baggage trailer.

It's weird when you're deciding where to go to lunch, but you're standing at the prop house, and you're like "Real quick before we leave, let's get some of these stuffed monkeys."

Set decorating is about making things reflect the real world, and sometimes that's beautiful and sometimes it's not. But usually, usually the most important part is making it look real

HBO: Is there an art form to being able to finding those hard to find items?

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: I've been decorating for a long time. And everybody that works for me has been been doing it a long time. And you start to know, off the top of your head. Dan Bishop could say to me: I'm thinking of doing this, do you think that there're any green Victorian sofas out there? And you say to yourself, "This prop house, second floor, third aisle on the right. There're three of them." In order to do this job, you've obviously got to be someone who likes interior design and art decorating. So I basically shop all the time, every day. [CHUCKLE]

HBO: Right.

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: So you're going from an antique store in Pasadena to the prop houses to Target or K-Mart.

HBO: What can you get at Target?

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: We got things like sheets that then we have to take and kind of age a little bit so that they look like they've been used for a long time. The actors are gonna be sleeping in the bed, so you want to know where the sheets came from. We got a lot of old tin plates and cups for the cook's tent, but they tend to be kind of gross. You're not gonna ask an actor to be drinking his coffee out of that cup. So then you go to the Army Surplus Store, and you get some of them, and you take them and you kind of throw them on the ground and step on them a little bit, and then you clean them, so that they're kind of dinged up. They blend in, but they're like nice and clean and sanitary. [CHUCKLE].

On Carnivale I think we used like every Victorian in the city of LA. One of the prop houses wound up finding a source to buy us more because we'd gone through all of our contacts. And we had a guy who made us two thousand feet of the old lights -- twisted wire that was covered with cloth with fake light plugs on it. Even if it doesn't turn on, you want it to be plugged in.

You never know what they're gonna shoot. I can have a script, but on the day they could pick a different camera angle. They're still gonna be saying the same words, but I don't know where they're gonna point the camera in the set. So, everything has to look real just in case they just in case they point it somewhere you weren't thinking that they were going to. And if somebody sits at a desk and it's a long scene, you want to give them enough stuff so that if, if the actor wants to fiddle around and open a drawer there's something in there.

HBO: Right.

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: You kind of have to be a little psychic too. Usually if I'm out somewhere and some thought occurs to me like, "We might need a frying pan," and then I think, no they didn't, say anything about cooking. But I think okay, well if I had the thought, I better get a frying pan. Cause as soon as I think it, it'll be Friday at midnight, and my phone will ring with them saying, do you know where we could grab a frying pan?

HBO: Where do you get your inspriration?

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: I've been to most parts of the country at this point in my life. And to Europe and Mexico. Any time I go to somebody's house I always have to be nosy and ask them if I can look at their house. Because you just get ideas. Set decorating is not is not necessarily interior design. It's not always about making something beautiful.

HBO: Right.

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: Set decorating is about making things reflect the real world, and sometimes that's beautiful and sometimes it's not. But usually, usually the most important part is making it look real, and, and making somebody feel like that's a real world that they're watching on the screen. And so, I think, "Well, I put my toothbrush in this kind of container, but where does my friend Stephanie keep her toothbrush? So when I'm at her house I look.

I have a little child, but when I'm home visiting my family I always check out my niece's bedroom, because I know for sure at some point I'm gonna be doing a teenage girl's bedroom. And I get fresh ideas about what she's got hanging on her walls, what she's collecting on her desk. I'm always kind of checking out the real world. If I go to the doctor, I check out what they have stuck behind the counter. All this stuff that you may not necessarily notice in your life, but you would really miss it if it wasn't there. Garbage cans and safety lights and security passes.

HBO: Dan Knauf had said that he couldn't believe that you all had been able to realize what he had in his head.

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: I think on Carnivale we created a pretty interesting look, a pretty interesting world. When I have to get something from a set and nobody else is around and I sit down on the sofa, I think this really feels like exactly like I'm in the 1930's.You start to get a little creeped out, and you know the set came out well.

HBO: What's one of the best things about your job?

SARA ANDREWS INGRASSIA: You're in places that people don't necessarily get access to. One day you might be in like an old ballroom. And the next day you might be out in the middle of like the most beautiful field in the hills of Malibu, watching the sun rise while your truck is off-loading. You're just like all over the place, and you're doing something different, all the time.

When you're doing something this ambitious, you've got that healthy fear--oh my god I've got a lot of work to do. But then, when you get it all done, and you're standing there, and you're looking at it, you think wow, this really came out the way I wanted it to. It's really rewarding.

Interviews
Daniel Knauf
- Carnivàle Creator

Rodrigo Garcia
- Carnivàle Director

Mary Corey
- Historical Consulant

Casting Directors

Co-Executive Producers

Music Supervisors

Sara Ingrassia
- Set Decorator

Howard Klein
- Executive Producer

William Schmidt
- Supervising Producer

Jeff Beal
- Composer

Michael J. Anderson

Clancy Brown

Amy Madigan

Carnivale Features

Carnival Fact

Some say the word tarot is derived from Arabic word turuq, which means "four ways" and relates to the four suits of the deck: cups, swords, pentacles/disks and staffs/scepters.
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