Kendall Anderson: Set Decorator

In every film we watch there are multiple working parts that go beyond the actors and director. It’s my wish to highlight the numerous key individuals that bring your favorite films to life. 

This interview is with Set Decorator Kendall Anderson, and I am incredibly honored and lucky that she has taken the time speak with me. Kendall is based in New York, and has decorated sets for commercials for Roomba, Android Pay, and Garmin, television series, such as Crash and Burn, The Punisher, and The Deuce, and films, such as Tallulah, Chuck, Maggie’s Plan, and recently, You Were Never Really Here.

How would you define what a Set Decorator does and their impact on the final piece?

At the most basic level a set decorator buys or obtains everything you see on a set. From the more decorative elements like furnishing and textiles to the mail on the counter and the garbage on the street. I think thoughtful set decoration is very important in both making a film believable and creating a feeling of authenticity. When done well it’s not distracting but aids in telling the story or developing a character. A tiny detail can give a viewer visual cues and enhance their overall experience of a film.

For people who aren’t in film, where does Set Decorating come during the filmmaking process, and do you work closer with the Director or Production Designer?

I’m brought on to the project by the Production Designer, so overall I work much closer with them. By the time I am hired, the designer has spent a significant amount of time with the Director discussing and defining the overall look of the film and scouting locations. From that, the designer and I begin to collaborate on how to make this vision a reality. I start to find actual furniture pieces and textile for sets, and the vision begins to take actual shape and builds from there.

Chuck: kitchen Set

A large portion of your job seems like making a million tiny decision for one large canvas, what kind of research is needed and how much can you gleam from the script?

Obviously the script is the best starting point. I have to read it several times and in different ways.

The first time, is when I’m considering a project and I’m mainly just reading for the story and to get a sense of the sets I would be dealing with.

The second time, is [a] more thorough read for indicators from the script about character and setting, also noting what specific items of set dressing are key to telling the story. But in general, the look of a film comes from conversations and research during prep.

Once I’m signed on to a project my personal favorite way to research is to start watching films either by the Director of the film I’m working on or films from similar times or on similar subjects. It’s a great way to develop a language, catch little nuances of specific sets or time periods.

If I’m working on a period film and often any film, a designer will have done a lot of prior research so that’s always like the bible of reference. But I’m always pulling my own images as I work, and the source of them varies from photography books, other films, magazines and the ever occurring google images. Recently, I perused sublets on Detroit’s craigslist when I was trying to get a sense of what a single mom living in Detroit’s apartment would look like.

What’s the most difficult film project you’ve worked on, in terms of Set Decoration and why?

Every project definitely has its challenges. There [are] two ways a film could be difficult and that’s budgetary and aesthetically. I’ve done several independent feature films by fantastic Directors with great visions, so that’s challenging in itself to cater to and maintain that vision as you create the sets with limited resources.

I would say in regard [to the question] Rebecca Miller’s movie “Maggie’s Plan” was the most difficult. We had a lot of interior sets and we were creating these hyper-realistic worlds full of life and color in very limited time with little money and crew. Other projects can be difficult aesthetically if you’re creating a certain type of set for the first time. I’ve done hundreds of bedrooms or living rooms, but the more niche sets like a underage brothel require more research and creativity to really nail it.

Maggie’s Plan: sublet set

I assume that the underage brothel was from You Were Never Really Here?

Yes, the brothel was for You Were Never Really Here. Joaquin Phoenix is hired to rescue a senator’s daughter from an underage brothel. Obviously, it’s a sensitive subject and research isn’t particularly abundant for this sort of thing. Instead, I researched a lot of themed children’s rooms and created my own hyper-realized version. We ended up gravitating towards a lot of animal themes in the end.

Tell me about the process for You Were Never Really Here.

I loved working on that movie! I was super excited about it from the beginning being that it was a Lynne Ramsay movie and with Joaquin Phoenix, and I loved the originality of the script. It was my first time working with Tim Grimes, but we really hit it off and ended up making a great team.

I tend to like things orderly and aesthetically pleasing and he loves the grit and realism of the everyday so together we really balanced each other out. Creatively this film was very satisfying, we felt like we were creating something no one had done before which was super fun and ultimately rewarding.

There were many conversations about how it should look and I don’t think it was actually realized till the set came together and we were like, yep this is it! It’s not an easy subject to deal with so standard modes of research weren’t always giving us what we wanted. During prep, when Tim and I felt such creatively, we would go to strand and flip through photo books for bits of inspiration, usually from little details. We also definitely referenced Kubrick and the film Suspiria a lot. I think the end product was a collective vision from Lynne, Tom (the DP), Tim and myself that we all were very pleased with. There was something beautiful and eerie about every set.

What specifically did you borrow from Kubrick?

For the Kubrick referencing, I was really into the bedroom at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The overall feeling [of the] room and its symmetrical elements.

You Were Never Really Here: Bedroom brothel set

How do you typically find projects, particularly a film like You Were Never Really Here?

I’m the hire of the production designer so it depends how they hear about me. The film world is small and Production Designers and Producers are constantly sharing recommendations for crew. Since Tim is based in LA, I believe the UPM gave him my name and we met that way.

You’ve work on commercials, television series, and films, is there a difference between working on them? Is one more difficult than the other?

They all have their differences for sure. I spent a while doing back-to-back commercials and eventually felt I could do [them] with my eyes closed. It felt very formulaic: you have a storyboard, you find exactly what they want, it’s approved, and you create it all in a very tight timeline and then you do it all over again the next week.

Television is its own thing in that the pace is insane. It really never stops as the scripts are constantly changing and often multiple episodes with different Directors are shooting at once. So decision making has to happen fast and you’re always looking ahead to keep up.

Films I think are the most collaborative and satisfying creatively. I feel like my role in creating the world of the film and character is best represented in my film work. It’s definitely the most rewarding – working with the same people on one project for a given amount of time with an actual film at the end you get to watch and know you played a significant role in.

You Were Never Really Here: Bedroom brothel

Finally, do you ever watch the final product in the theater, and if you do, what feelings do you have when you see it?

Watching a film I did for the first time is so nerve wrecking! It’s never a true movie viewing experience for me.

All I can think about while watching is “oh that’s the day this happened”, or “oh no that’s out of place!” A lot gets shifted around on set once they start shooting that I can’t be there to oversee so sometimes there’s big surprises. I would say overall I’m generally too critical of my work the first time I see it, so the second time I’m able to watch and actually appreciate the film in its entirety.

Once again, a massive thank you to Kendall. I would definitely recommend readers to keep an eye open for Kendall’s upcoming work, as she’s just finished with Summertime and Vox Lux. Also, check out her website:

Next week I’ll be interviewing Ryan Warren Smith, who has served as a Production Designer on projects, such as Lean on Pete, Green Room, True Detective and Hold the Dark. 

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