Though they are the product of a director’s vision, even the most iconic film scenes are mediated by a set designer. Kris Moran is one of the industy’s best and it’s her eagle eye that helps her find the perfect props.
You can always spot a Wes Anderson film. The US director’s aesthetic is his work’s most distinctive trait – and yet it is often the product of a shared vision. Conjuring up that painstakingly elaborate and beautiful world is the job of set designers such as Kris Moran, whose work remains, literally, in the background. An artist, designer and set decorator who has produced scenescapes for movies such as Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, The Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums, Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk and, most recently, Joker, she has shaped the look of some of the cinematic canon’s most impressive recent entrants.
She’s also helped define the on-screen language of directors including Noah Baumbach and Jim Jarmusch, and knows how to interpret the visual wishes of these cinematic masterminds. “They’ve already seen the entire movie in their head by the time I arrive,” says Moran. “My job is to bring it to life.” Hers is a translator’s task with added creativity: it is up to her to build layered environments that feel both fantastical and real. “If one tiny detail doesn’t ring true – if the clock is off or the period piece is from the wrong decade – it all fails,” she says. “Everything else can be perfect but if the context isn’t authentic, the scene becomes broken.”
MONOCLE sat down with Moran in her Brooklyn brownstone home, where she’s accumulated a treasure trove like “a lion bringing home the prey from her hunt”. She tells us about inspiration, colour-matching and why empathy is a set designer’s best trait.
Set designers need to combine a number of different talents and skills. How do you approach the task?
When I’m putting a set together I think I’m painting; it feels like composition in 3D. The colours, textures, tones, values and spaces are strokes, while the subject is the character. With painting I learned the importance of considering the whole frame and how to be responsible for what makes it in. Early on I felt a huge responsibility to be the last person in the art department to see the frame before it was exposed to film. Wes [Anderson] was the first director I worked with who cared so much about manipulating every [element] in the frame. We had so much fun on The Royal Tenenbaums with this; it was magical. I became incredibly intrigued by all of the internal conversations that happen so close to the monitor.
What is it like working with directors such as Baumbach?
I try to learn from listening: I listen to what they say and to the script then I’ll go out into the world to bring things back to the table. We discuss what I’ve come up with – what works and what doesn’t. It’s complicated to build scenes and characters from their preconceived notions. Normally these scenes are set from specific memories, perhaps someone or some place they’re connected to. That makes it more challenging to get it exactly right. When they trust you to encapsulate their vision – and know you’re capable – magic can happen.
What are the most important skills for a set designer to have?
I believe that one of my strongest traits is empathy. I am a middle child and, growing up, I always acted as the mediator in my family. I was working to understand both sides in order to keep the peace. I’m observant and can intuitively figure things out about the decisions being made; what [directors and actors] want and need, what’s the motivating factor. I apply this to each movie frame: this empathy for the actors and for all of the silent, inner work they’re doing to prepare before the camera starts to roll.
How do you approach research and work on a new set?
When I work on a project I get tuned in to that channel and stay there throughout the process. Everything in my outside life relates to the project; it’s all I can see. All day and night I’m searching for clues in people on the street, in cab rides – everywhere. I also have a palette in my mind for each project so I see specific colours in places I’ve never noticed before.
What real-life experiences drive your choice of objects for a set?
My family owned a paint and wallpaper shop in New Jersey, where my aunt was the queen of wallpaper and my father was king of colour. People would bring my father the wildest things to colour-match. He did it by eye; people were amazed. Today I’m hooked on textures and colours. I can become hung up on one extremely specific hue or item. All of those memories of my grandmother’s shag carpet, or the wallpaper in her house, are filed away in my head. They rise to the surface when I’m working.
The films you’ve worked on all have a unique visual identity. How would you describe it?
I never think of myself as having a certain vision; I always feel like I’m trying to tell someone else’s truth. In movies, lies are usually far too obvious. They cause a distraction and your brain can tell that something’s off. If I fail to do a good job, the viewer sees lies and will be taken out of this illusory world. If that illusion is broken – even only for a moment – the cinematic experience is corrupted. I never want that to be the result of my work.
Moran’s touch on set:
The rent-a-clown set
Joker (Todd Phillips, 2019)
To give the rent-a-clown set a lived-in feel, Moran bought 25 balloon pumps, 40 rolls of packing tape and 25 bags of balloons to stuff in the corners of the set, which recreates the early 1980s. “This detail adds some truth. It’s not just about vintage things; it’s a remnant of an activity we don’t actually see on screen,” she says.
The tent set
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)
Moran cut a hole in both the khaki exterior and the plaid interior lining of a tent for a scene in which a character is found to have escaped. “I am still the proud owner of this hole. I always thought I might frame it and send it to Wes one day.”
The treehouse set
“There is a chance that this set was inspired by one of Bill Murray’s Christmas parties, which I designed and Wes attended,” says Moran. “It was pretty joyful. I never asked Wes if the party was inspirational; maybe it was a coincidence.”