“Birdman” Set Decorator George DeTitta Jr. Describes His Process
Capturing the tone of backstage theater life was crucial to George DeTitta Jr.’s set decoration on “Birdman.” Pictures: Micheal Keation (lelft) and Edward Norton (right). Photo credit: New Regency Pictures
By Marjorie Galas
George DeTitta Jr. never worked in the theater. The acclaimed set decorator began his career on the 1981 film “Ragtime” and received his first Oscar nomination. Since then, he’s shifted between film and television and received numerous accolades including a second Oscar nomination (Radio Days), two Art Directors Guild nominations (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, The Lovely Bones) and won a Primetime Emmy Award (Angels in America). When he accepted the set decorator position on “Birdman: or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) he found himself immersed in the unglamorous terrain of backstage theater life.
DeTitta, Jr. joined director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s multi-layered exploration of a by-gone franchise action star’s deteriorating mind as he takes a last stand at artistic expression by staging his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” through the request of production designer Kevin Thompson. DeTitta Jr. enjoyed collaborating with Thompson on films including “Stay”, “Michael Clayton” and the 2009 thriller “Duplicity”. Excited to reteam with Thompson, the two began their research by visiting an array of New York City theaters as well as studying the layout of the authentic theater defined in the script, The St. James Theater.
“It was intense. This film had lots of detail; we needed time to work with the space,” said DeTitta, Jr. “The backstage of a theater has the feeling of being really functional, there is nothing very pretty about it. It’s almost like there is no money spent there. It was important to convey that idea.”
It was determined early on the St. James Theater wouldn’t be used for the duration of the shoot. The process of reconstructing the theater’s backstage areas began with Thomspon presenting a floor plan that was required to ensure the space accommodated the geography of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s complex “continuous take” shooting style. Some adjustments, such as narrowing hallways, were specifically designed to affect the script’s tone. As each room was signed off, DeTitta focused on securing the best fabrics including curtains, wall papers, furniture upholstery and carpets that emphasized specific color palettes defined by Thompson. These included a heavy use of beige, off whites, yellows, golds, greens and reds.
“We wanted to focus on strong patterns in the carpet. I provided Kevin with a choice of patterns, and every room was developed and built up from there,” said DeTitta, Jr. “Kevin wanted certain colors to stand out, so that became crucial to the choices I made.”
The clash of loud patterns on furniture against bold fabrics on the carpet can be seen in a meeting room where Riggan (Michael Keaton) confronts daughter Sam (Emma Stone). While the mis-match of worn, gaudy furniture holds true to the backstage setting, the clash of solid, flowered and patterned fabric on the furniture against the golden wood panel walls and quasi-Victorian red carpet creates a dizzy, nauseating effect. A hallway scene were Riggan’s exasperated assistant Jake (Zack Galifianakis) breaks down boasts red patterned wall paper and an interchanging green and white patterned carpet, separated by a neutral strip of wainscoting. A solid red floor and threadbare Oriental rug offsets the comforting white painted brick walls, solid green wall and a forest green couch.
With colors and patterns in place, DeTitta Jr. focused on all the additional items that filled each room, including the theater elements (such as rigging, staging, random props, etc.), personal items that defined each character, and graphics hanging on the walls.
“We were filling the aesthetic right down to the notices, congratulatory cards, personal messages, and signs that would hang throughout,” said DeTitta, Jr. “I looked at what hangs in a theater during my research. When I found the right look I brought it to a graphic artist to create and hung the final pieces in appropriate places.”
During a pivotal scene in the film, Riggan demolishes his dressing room. While Inarritu, Keaton and the production team planned the scene carefully, DeTitta Jr. prepped duplicates of all items in case of mass destruction. During re-takes of the scene DeTitta Jr. worked with his set dressers to replace broken items and reset the room to its original appearance. While the greatest focus of “Birdman” lay backstage, DeTitta Jr. also prepared material for the authentic sections of the St. James Theater used in the film (front of house, entrance ways), on stage set, outdoor locations, and the hospital scene.
While the schedule for “Birdman” kept DeTitta Jr. on his toes, he had much more flexibility in hunting for material and making decisions than working on a television series such as the last two seasons of “The Following.” The dark thriller often required DeTitta Jr. to find or create material for a multitude of settings ranging from an upper-class New York townhouse, a hunting cabin in the woods, or a lab containing an unusual torture device: a human birdcage, all within an eight day schedule.
“There’s a very big difference between film and television for a decorator. TV is fast and quick, and now more than ever TV series are striving to look like a film,“ said DeTitta Jr. “I like a good challenge, and I really like keeping busy.”
DeTitta Jr.’s research on “The Following” often provided surprises, such as finding the perfect piece of furniture that could fill in for the human birdcage. When the producers asked for structural options, he provided some drawing then built the chosen modification. While DeTitta Jr. enjoyed the challenges the show provided, he’s stepping away from the third season to take on the role of set decorator for Jonathan Demme’s upcoming film, “Ricki and the Flash.”
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