Want to own a set piece from a movie shot in Massachusetts?
Before movies film here, set decorators scour local antique shops and secondhand resources to rent just the right pieces to create a set that tells a story.
With thousands of objects rented and returned annually, local shoppers may just be able to own a movie set piece like the chair that Daniel Craig sat in during “Knives Out,” a table Emma Watson sat at during “Little Women,” or a bench from “Mona Lisa Smile” with Julia Roberts.
“Trying to source set pieces locally is mostly a form of urban archeology,” said Amy Morrison, a Harvard native and freelance set decorator who has worked on many motion pictures shot in the region, including 2019′s “Knives Out.”
Lead time for sourcing and shopping varies with budget. Morrison may have six or eight weeks to source small films, but larger projects, like Martin Scorsese’s 2010 “Shutter Island,” took 3½ months. With a limited time frame, Morrison relies on a range of local sources from high-end antique shops to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore and even eBay.
Paul Martin Antiques, a 40,000-square-foot warehouse of furniture and accessories in Haverhill, has become a go-to source for Morrison and other film decorators.
“It is just one part of our business,” said owner Paul Martin. “We have rented set pieces for a lot for films and television projects — “Pink Panther 2”, “Mona Lisa Smile”, “Black Mass” ... for “Little Women,” we supplied around 800 items. Currently we have pieces out for a TV pilot about Julia Child.”
“When they were filming “The Equalizer” with Denzel Washington here in Haverhill, they bought the pieces instead of renting because they were blowing them up,” chuckled Martin.
David Neligan’s shop in Essex, filled to the brim with formal antiques, is another resource for the film industry.
The “Knives Out” interrogation chair that all the suspects sat in, the lolling chairs, and many decorative objects seen in the film came from Neligan’s Cape Ann shop.
“I think the first film we worked with was one of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies,” recalled Neligan, who recently added a second building to house his vast inventory. “We have supplied pieces to ‘Shutter Island’, ‘Ghostbusters’ [female version] and ‘The Crucible,’ among many others. Pieces used in the new science fiction movie ‘Mother/Android’ were just returned and we are currently working on supplying the Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, film ‘Don’t Look Up.’
Allen’s Antique Lighting in Harvard has a long history of providing lighting to the film industry locally and nationally, supplying fixtures for “Django Unchained,” “Crimson Peak,” “Knives Out,” “Little Women,” and others.
“My favorite [film] project was ‘Lincoln,’” said owner Cindy Allen. “It featured one of our rare antique lamps burning in the moving scene after Lincoln’s death.”
Allen, Neligan, and Martin all watch the finished films to see if they can spot the items they provided.
“Sometimes, like in ‘Knives Out,’ the chairs are obvious, at other times objects are obscured in the background,” said Neligan. “I usually watch the films twice — once to spot my objects and the second time for the plot.” (The interrogation chair has since been sold.)
“It is fun,” added Allen. “We buy the DVD, so we can go through it slowly and watch multiple times to spot our lights.”
“I do look for my stuff,” said Martin. “In ‘Little Women,’ most of the stuff in the attic and in the family dining room came from our shop. The ‘Little Women’ scenes moved very quickly, making it hard to spot things. In some cases, you see only a corner of the object like the publisher’s desk.”
According to Morrison, “When filming is finished, rented items go back to the shops, but purchased set pieces are donated to ReStore or other charities.”
“The fact that it was in a film becomes part of the object’s provenance,” said Neligan.
Considering the volume of objects coming and going, dealers do not always highlight the piece’s movie pedigree. When visiting antique and secondhand shops, ask about an object’s history -- the answer might just be a surprise.
“Sometimes the provenance makes an item especially attractive to a customer,” said Martin. “A woman was looking at an armoire in our shop. When I told her it had been in the scene from ‘The Proposal’ where Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds appeared naked, she went home and watched the movie. A Sandra Bullock fan, the next day she came back and bought the armoire.”
Linda Greenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.