The Devil in the Details

Betty Draper’s cheesecake box

by Jackson Paine


When we think of movies, we inevitably think of actors first, but they are just the face of the illusion being sold to us. There is a whole crew of people making sure that the illusion around the actor’s performance is up to par. Take Iron Man, Marvel’s highest grossing on-screen superhero. Every time Tony Stark makes a snarky comment, we laugh at his antics and engage with the story. However, there are hundreds of tiny things being dealt with off-screen. Someone is burning holes in his Iron Man suit with a soldering gun or fixing the LEDs in his power glove. Basically, they’re making sure that Downey Jr. looks like a superhero. Without the props, he’s just a man wildly gesturing his palms at things. The props transform actors into characters.

Although vital, the person responsible for all of this is rarely seen, like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. Propmasters dedicate untold hours to the minutiae of the project at hand.  It can be stressful and tedious. “But that’s part of being a propmaster,” says Scott Buckwald, the propmaster of “Mad Men”. “Ultimately, we are Aladdin’s lamp.”

A history major and movie memorabilia collector, Buckwald uses his knowledge of history to make his props realistic. Sometimes the simplest items are the hardest to find. At one point January Jones, who plays Betty Draper on “Mad Men”, is throwing a birthday party and needs to defrost a Sara Lee cheesecake. While getting the cheesecake was as easy as walking to the grocery store, an authentic box was impossible to find. Buckwald had to look through hundreds of magazines for Sara Lee ads containing this specific cheesecake box in order to craft an accurate replica. Buckwald estimates he looked through some “3,000 pictures…to capture every angle of the box” before recreating it on Adobe Illustrator and printing it. All this was done for a prop that likely spent less than five minutes on the screen.

Propmasters work long hours no matter their project, but for shows like “Mad Men” or “True Detective,” viewers expect a level of realism beyond that of many movies. If a CGI robot defies the laws of physics in “Transformers,” no one will know or care. However, in shows like “Mad Men” that portray places and times many viewers have actually experienced, the devil is in the details. When “Mad Men” head writer and creator Matthew Weiner chose to use the Selectric model of typewriter in season one, the Internet quickly pointed out that the machine was anachronistic. It was only 1960 in the show, and the Selectric typewriter didn’t come out until 1961. They were off by only 12 months and still, people noticed. For Buckwald, this is something he loves about being a propmaster. “Part of the charm of a show like ‘Mad Men’ is that it’s about our life,” said Buckwald. People have memories attached to the period they are portraying, and it becomes a game of details to recreate an accurate picture.

Sometimes the attention to detail borders on obsession. “I try to make sure every piece of paper on a set has the right information,” said Lynda Reiss, the propmaster of HBO’s “True Detective”. This means checking that IDs, driver’s licenses and newspapers have the right dates and names, that police badges and uniforms have the correct seals, that prescription bottles show accurate dosage. “Everything—and I mean EVERYTHING—is available for intense examination,” said Reiss, and in a mystery like “True Detective”, it should be. The show also jumps between different and distinct time periods while maintaining many of the same spaces. When the show jumps between 1995, 2012 and the years in between, the police station reflects this passage of time. Computers replace typewriters, the trophies and family photos behind the police commissioner change and the telephones on the desks are replaced with newer models. There’s even a constant haze of smoke that lingers around the office early in the timeline, as cigarettes were not banned in Lousiana workspaces until 2007. 

Reiss works very closely with the director, Nic Pizzolatto, on most of these details. In crime drama, the props are essential for the narrative. The detectives may solve the mystery, but the evidence is what gets them from scene to scene. “Sometimes the props are the story,” said Reiss. “As Nic says, all the information is there early on in the story—you just have to pay attention.” The viewers never know which detail will be important, and that’s where a lot of the fun comes from. While the detectives hunt for clues to break their case, the viewer subconsciously does the same. To engender a sense of realism, the clues need to be right under their noses, but hidden just enough to evade their gaze. The viewer needs to go through the same twists and turns as the protagonists in order for the show to have a rewarding ending. The piece of evidence that breaks the case in the final episode of season one is actually on-screen for several seconds in the first episode. “To make a show look flawlessly realistic it’s important that no one thing stands out, unless it is scripted to do so,” said Reiss.

The keyword there is “flawlessly.” The final piece of evidence goes over the heads of the detectives and the viewers alike right from the beginning. It was just an unassuming, well-crafted detail that blended in with the rest of the environment the crew meticulously crafted. It’s counterintuitive––the better the propmasters, the less we notice their subtle hands. We become more engaged in the narrative when their touch is invisible.               

At the end of the day, every film set is just a few dozen people playing make-believe while the cameras roll. Every task done before and after the filming itself is to trick the viewer into believing the images on screen are more real than they are. And it works. We laugh, cry and scream at these illusions as if they were happening in the same room as us.