backstories

The Hardest Props I Ever Made

Photo: Vulture/Fox Searchlight Pictures

“I’ve always felt that if you’re noticing the props, you’re doing your job wrong,” says Robin L. Miller, a veteran prop master. It’s a funny thing for the guy behind Cast Away’s Wilson and Ocean’s Thirteen’s Chunnel drill to say, but there you have it. He, like many of his peers, understands that most of his work occurs behind the scenes, in the locating, purchasing, building, and supervising of all the props required for a film or TV production. (A prop, in the simplest of terms, is any object the actors handle or touch onscreen; if it’s just part of the backdrop, the object is the responsibility of the set decorator.) It’s a role that requires immense research, hyperniche handiwork, an obsessive’s flare for detail, and a tolerance for people overlooking all that work. Oh, and a big truck.

“It’s literally a rolling office and fabrication place,” says Miller of the 50-foot semi-trailer that houses all of the props and prop materials he might need. Every prop master has one. (The Blacklist’s prop master, Courtney Schmidt, affectionately calls hers “Trash Mountain.”) In Miller’s truck are “drawers of different styles of knives from different periods,” among many, many other things.

Hoarding is necessary in a line of work that entails highly specialized problem-solving on the go. “When I get a script, we break [it] down. We make massive numbers of lists,” says prop master Trish Gallaher Glenn, who worked on The American President and The Social Network. “I’ll sit down and have a meeting with the director and go through the whole script and ask all the questions I have. ‘Do you want this or do you want that?’” It requires the prop master to be in constant contact not just with key members of the crew, but with the stars, as well. “We have relationships with the actors that no one else has,” says Miller. “Because we’re there every day with them, teaching them how to use these things. They may not know how to handle a gun.”

Some prop masters do specialize in certain objects or film genres — say, big gun movies — but most are versatile, flitting between genres and centuries. And they all adore period pieces, when the prop master’s job becomes an exercise in preventing anachronisms. “We all love to do period shows. You have to go out and find all these things,” says Miller. “[With] a contemporary show, basically, you can shop it. And that’s not as interesting.” When Gallaher Glenn worked on Bram Stoker’s Dracula, she spent most of her time tracking down random 19th-century objects of interest.

“We would have people get up in the middle of the night who spoke French,” she recalls, “who could call a department store in Paris that might have a specific item — like a shaving brush — that looked correct for 1897, when the movie was set.”

Like most segments of entertainment, the job of a prop master has changed substantially with the rise of the internet. “Now I can just open my computer and start looking at Etsy and eBay,” Gallaher Glenn notes. But over the years, prop masters say their jobs have been constrained, too: Budgets have become tighter, major studios have exerted more control, and prestige TV has transformed the industry, offering longer-term contracts — and tighter turnaround, too. Some prop masters are wistful for the old days of independent cinema, before CGI.

“You had a van and a bunch of tools and you made almost everything you needed for the script,” says Miller. “And that was fine, because it was so low-budget. Now that props have evolved into what they’ve become, you need a shop, technicians. I kind of miss those old days, when a director and actor called for something and you could just go, ‘Give me ten minutes and we’ll see what we can throw together.’”

Here, prop designers wax nostalgic on the hardest props of their careers:

Cast Away (2000), Wilson the volleyball

Robin L. Miller, property master: There were very specific things in Cast Away that were so important to the script. A lot of times, the props are there for an actor; they don’t have to be the star. Unless it’s scripted that you should notice Wilson.

It was very strange because I approached representatives of the company [Wilson Sporting Goods], and they were not interested at all. It just didn’t matter to them. I told them, “You know, we have Tom Hanks here. We have Robert Zemeckis, who did Back to the Future. We have this venue for this ball of yours that is incredible. And it’s named Wilson.” They were very polite, but not interested. I told them, “We’re depicting your product. It’s a wonderful character in this movie, and it saves this man’s life.”

At some point, I called back and got some kind of great sales rep. And she got it. She understood exactly what this was. She said, “Let me see what I can do.” They had to make them specially. I needed the “Wilson” only on one side of the ball. I needed to do a face on the other side. Apparently they were made in China. They had to do a special run of them. She would only give me 20. I went, “20? I’m going to Fiji with these things!” And I needed as many as I could get, because things happen to props all the time. They get wrecked. They get misplaced. Everything we took to Fiji, we had to have there with us when we shot. ’Cause there was no getting anything else.

She only could make me 20. And we made do with that. They made it through the storm, so to speak.

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), the newspaper on 9/11

Trish Gallaher Glenn, property master: At the end of Charlie Wilson’s War, Charlie was supposed to be reading the Washington Post on the day that the planes crashed, and he can actually see in the distance the planes crashing into the Pentagon. We wanted either the Washington Post or the New York Times — we wanted both of them, pre-crash, on September 11. And no one had them, because the whole infrastructure fell apart that day. The Post didn’t have them. The New York Times. None of the libraries. We could not find them anywhere. We actually ran ads. You could find millions of copies of after the planes hit, but you could not find the morning paper that Charlie would have been reading that day.

Oddly enough, one of the women who worked in Charlie’s office, her husband was a writer for the Washington Post. And he had an article that appeared not on the front page that day, but he’d saved a copy of the paper. That’s how we found it. And then we reproduced it from that. It was at the very end of the shoot that we needed it. We had a pretty long prep, but we looked and looked and looked and we exhausted every resource. No one had it. But we found it.

A lot of times, those things that we spend a lot of time on — maybe it doesn’t actually matter to a lot of people if it’s accurate. We probably could have created a Washington Post if we’d been able to get permission, and no one would have known the difference. But for me and for the people that do my job, it’s having the exact right thing that gives us the thrill.

The Blacklist (2013–2015), a dog

Courtney Schmidt, property master: I had a really interesting experience once when I was on The Blacklist. I also handle cars, vehicles, animals, weapons — things like that. This is a scene where Raymond Reddington [played by James Spader] was coming. He was supposed to talk about this dog that has huge testicles. The producers looked at me ahead of time like, “Whatever you do, just get the oldest dog possible. We do not want this thing to move. We want it to be lazy as hell. Just get the oldest thing possible.”

So I did. On the day, dog’s there, James is acting. And he looks down and stops in the middle of the shoot. He says out loud, “Does anybody notice this dog’s distinct lack of balls?” And I was like, Oh God, here we go. He likes everything real, which I respect. So he stops, pulls me over, and he’s like: “Excuse me, but if I’m gonna talk about a dog’s balls, I want to see the balls on the dog.” We’re not shooting the dog’s balls. But he basically ended up giving me a ten-minute lecture on dog balls. That was a really fun day for me. Note to self: Get a dog with balls.

Airplane! (1980), the fish skeleton

Steven Levine, property master: If you remember, there was a scene where anybody [on the plane] who ate the fish got sick. And Peter Graves, who was the pilot, ate the fish — they did an insert of his plate showing a skeleton. Like, he picked it clean, right? So I wound up contacting a museum. I paid, I dunno, $350 or something for this fish skeleton. And it looked great! Well, this assistant director found out how much I spent, and then he started passing around, “You know how much Levine spent on that fish? All he had to do was …” It wasn’t even his business! Fuck you! … He kinda threw me under the bus. But I don’t look at Airplane! as anything but a great accomplishment.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), the breakaway bottles

Levine: It was a weekend. Like a Saturday afternoon. I was at home. And I get a call from Paul Reubens and Tim Burton: On Monday we were going to be shooting in a tequila bar, where all those bikers were at the bar. And Pee-wee was doing a dance with those giant white platform shoes to the song “Tequila.” They decided that they wanted Pee-wee to pick up a bunch of beer pitchers and beer glasses and throw them and smash them, during the song. So they tell me this on a Saturday afternoon! To shoot on Monday morning! I told them, “Look. Honestly, I don’t know if I can pull this off or not. But I’m gonna go work on it now.”

To cut to the chase, I lined ’em up. I got a shop that builds breakaway props. They had them in stock, so they didn’t have to be made. I got them to open up early on Monday morning. And I called the transportation department and had a driver pick them up and deliver them to our set. I arranged all of it, and they were there Monday morning at call time.

Of course, they were very happy that I did that. But the studio was not happy that I did that! They were angry. I spent a thousand dollars and I didn’t get their approval. So I got called into the office, and the guy — he was the head of feature production over there for a long time — he told me, “Don’t you ever spend our money without checking with me first.” I suppose in retrospect, I can sort of see where he was coming from. On the other hand, I didn’t see that at all at the time. I said back to him, “Well, maybe I should have charged you for my time on the weekend! To put all this shit together! It was the star and director who asked me to pull this off, and I did.” I fought right back to his face.

At that point, I made a decision. I can either please the studio and not continue to deliver the quality of props I was delivering, or I can ignore the studio and continue to please Paul Reubens and Tim Burton. And I made a conscious decision: I’m going for them. Even if it costs the studio more money. My training was, it’s all about the director’s vision.

It turns out that that film made bazillions of dollars. It’s a cult classic. And they hassled me from day one till wrap. They made it so hard.

The Social Network (2010), Mark Zuckerberg’s personal laptops

Gallaher Glenn: It’s funny, because we live in such a disposable culture now that everything gets thrown away. Nobody would think to save a laptop from 2003. They’re throwaway items now. Whereas maybe a typewriter from the 1920s — there are people who collect those items. No one wants to save things that we all look at. If you do a project that’s [set in] 2007, even, it’s hard to find the cell phones because we’ve thrown it all away.

On Social Network, we wanted to find the exact items. Whenever we could find out what exact computer they had — because we didn’t have any cooperation with any of the real people we were portraying — if we would find an image, we would latch onto it, find those exact ones. We also went on internet searches, where we would look at advertisements from computer magazines from that time period and see what the most popular models were. We had to get multiples of everything because with that kind of technology, something might work for an hour and a half and then all of a sudden, bloop, screen’s black and you send it to the repair shop and put the next one in.

There were different ones that [Mark Zuckerberg] used for different things. There were three: There was one that he used early on in the dorm. He had two different laptops for that. I think we probably tried to get between four and six of those. Then there’s a scene later in the film, where a laptop gets smashed. On that one, we may have gotten somewhere between 12 and 18 of those. We were ready to put them back together, because [David] Fincher likes to do a lot of takes. So you always have to be prepared to be able to do something many, many, many times for him.

My recollection is that we found a picture of [Zuckerberg] in the Harvard Crimson. We were able to identify not only his laptop, but also his roommate’s. I think we found images of those computers, or in an article, it may have stated exactly. He happened to have a Sony early on. We found multiples of those. Later, when Facebook was up and running, they switched over to Apple products. We found stuff in blogs, too, about what computers [they used]. I have a team of people that all are working on things. Most of the time we also have a full-time researcher. They sometimes will find that information. All of the laptops that Mark used, we found evidence of exactly what they were.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), the pastry box

Miller: I did Grand Budapest Hotel, which is one of the most creative things you can ever do. To work with Wes Anderson is just insane — the level of his interest in everything visual. Every single prop in that was a design or fabrication.

The box that has the pastry in it, the beautiful pink box — it took so much work to create that. Oh my God. Because everything you do with Wes, he starts out with an image, or maybe four images. And he’ll tell you what he’s getting closer to. And then you take it from there and you refine it a little more. Then he’ll say, “Yeah, I like this, but maybe here for a shape.” And then you just keep going until you’ve got the shape. Color-wise, palette-wise, he knows color like crazy.

[For] the graphics, he has a wonderful woman who works with him [Annie Atkins]. She’s been with him on a number of shows. What he had her do [is] come up with concepts for that box. The ribbon. I had samples from, I don’t know, four or five European cities. I was getting every sample imaginable of this blue ribbon. Just to see what was perfect for the lighting and the texture and the shade. The box was this kind of blush pink. Not to mention, it had to be rigged. Then a version of it had to be made that all came open at once into different pieces and reassemble itself. I had a brilliant crew in Berlin who could figure that one out.

It’s unbelievable what went into that. And we ended up with that wonderful, perfect box.

Apollo 13 (1995), assorted Mission Control accessories and flight manuals

Levine: The whole film was challenging because it was period. We shot it in 1995 and it took place in 1970. There was a ton of research involved. I went to NASA in Houston. I went to a place called Kansas Cosmosphere — I think it’s called Cosmosphere now. At that time, they were making all the replica capsules for the Smithsonian Museum. You gotta find all of those period eyeglasses. In Mission Control, most men back then wore different types — actually more similar types of all-black framed eyeglasses. And then all the specific things that were in their little pocket packs. They used a lot of slide rules and mechanical pencils, and also each department in Mission Control had different forms of ID. So you had to be very specific to be certain that the character in the role he was playing had the proper type of identification slipped onto his shirt.

Steven Levine on the set of Apollo 13. Photo: Courtesy of Steven Levine

Oh, I had to recreate all those flight manuals. So I got the research from NASA, and then I started the task of farming out having all of those recreated. Our technical advisor, Dave Scott, who was on another Apollo mission, who actually walked on the moon, came out and complimented me on how well everything that I’d presented [looked], and specifically the flight manuals. He said that was an amazing task and that they were flawless. When he walked back on the set, I stood outside for a second, and I looked up at the moon. And I said to myself, Wow, I just got a compliment from a guy that walked up there! That was a proud moment.

Angels & Demons (2009), the ring

Gallaher Glenn: Angels & Demons had tons of really interesting props. Some of the things that we did were based on a lot of research about the church. Other parts were completely made up and fantastical. Even props that are ultimately science fiction or completely made up, there’s always some basis that grounds it to reality. I think that’s really important. The actors eventually are going to use it. You want to have a logic behind what you do, what you make.

We made the pope’s ring. In the opening sequence of that movie, there’s a scene where they’re smashing the ring after the pope has died. They wanted to do a reflection shot. So first of all, we had to design a pope ring. That had to go through all kinds of clearance to make sure we weren’t copying anyone else’s work. When they wanted to do that reflection shot, the best way to do it was to build a ring that was very oversized. So we built the replica of that ring that would literally slide on my upper arm. That’s how big it was.

That movie had a lot of inserts of secret coded messages in the sides of ancient documents. All those ancient documents we created. Some of them, again, we made really, really large. Just for camera reasons. In insert shots, it was easier to do it that way than to try and shoot the tiny little ones we originally made.

Rush (1991), the drugs

Levine: It was a film about two undercover cops that became hooked on drugs. The hard stuff was the simulating of the drugs.

So I hooked up with an ex-junkie in L.A. who I knew. He had been clean for a while. He worked with Jennifer [Jason Leigh] and Jason [Patric]. He made all my prop heroin to make it look like it was heroin. Coffee grounds was part of the ingredients. I think we used a cocaine substitute. I don’t know if you can buy this stuff anymore, but I bought a lot of that stuff they cut it with to make it go further. I used a lot of that. To make the brown heroin, I think he added coffee grounds to that. But he worked with them showing them how to bend the spoon, how to cook it. He went over how you shoot up. When we got to Texas, we had a guy who ran a recovery home take over for my friend in L.A. He then became the technical guy. He was an ex-junkie. He was with us for all the drug use.

There was one particular prop, called the Blue Ringer. It was some kind of narcotic pill. For most of the pills, I found this magazine called High Times. They simulated these pills called Black Beauties, which were uppers and quaaludes. Anyway, I bought all of the pills and that kind of stuff from High Times magazine. I couldn’t find anything to simulate these Blue Ringers. So I bought my Texas assistant all these capsules and all that cut that they put into the cocaine, and he had to fill a cigar box by hand — each capsule. He had to fill it with the powder and then take some of that thin blue tape and wrap it around the center. That took him a few days, to make up all of those pills.

The Addams Family (1991), the dinner

Miller: I did the first Addams Family. We had Raúl Juliá on that — wonderful, wonderful actor. We had the food scenes. They had to eat squid and octopus and eyeballs and things like that. Mostly, I found things that approximated this food. Really, I was doing all my own food for that. This poor guy had to do an entire day of eating tentacles in this green, very unappetizing thing that I had put a ton of garlic in, because he wanted garlic to mask the flavor. By the end of the day, he said he’ll never eat calamari again.

Cocoon (1985), the “aliens’ box”

Levine: We called it the aliens’ box. In the two scenes it was featured prominently in, it was sort of the center of the scene. The aliens could monitor the life force in the cocoons by this electrical box. It was made out of very dark plexiglass. You wouldn’t see anything until the operator, with a remote control, operated the different windows and doors in this box. The box functioned beautifully. It was an amazing piece of art. It was all done off-camera by remote control. All the lights.

It was my fourth film. Even though I was doing well, I still had lessons to learn. What I should have done was have the box made by the special-effects department, and then the two effects men that were on the show would have known how to operate it. But they didn’t say anything to me, and I didn’t have the forethought to think, “Well, if I have the box built somewhere else, they’re gonna have to bring the operator to Florida to operate this thing.”

Steven Levine on set with Ron Howard. Photo: Courtesy of Steven Levine

When it got to Florida and the operator came, [director] Ron Howard, and Richard and Lili Zanuck — who were the producers — wanted to finally see it, because it was scheduled to work a few days after it arrived. Now, for an overflow prop room, I had a motel room next to where the crew stayed. The box was located there with a lot of my extra stuff. They came to see the box operate. The guy that built it ran it through its paces. And they were very pleased.

Then they left, and we were congratulating each other on how awesome the show-and-tell went. The operator who built it, his name was Harvey. So we popped a beer and clinked it like, Wow, we really pulled this off! And Harvey says, “Listen, I want to test one more thing.” So he tests the flashing lights. And the box caught on fire! Flames! Shooting out of the top of this box! I just saw my entire efforts shot down the drain. Right in front of me, the box is on fire. I immediately called the fire department and they came rushing over. By then — and I don’t even remember how — we had moved the box to the back room and I was in the front room. Harvey put the fire out. At this point, the top of the box was deformed. Obviously, the lights were not functioning in the upper half of the box.

I looked at Harvey and said, “I don’t care what you have to do, man. This box has to function in three days. And if you don’t have that done, we are both straight down the shoot.” And he did it! I don’t even remember how. When that box made it to the set, it operated like a charm. That was probably the most difficult prop [of my career].

For any other prop masters who have a great hardest prop story to share, let us know at stories@vulture.com.

The Hardest Props I Ever Made