production designer happy massee's polaroid diary: featuring madonna and lynchian dreams
The celebrated production designer has worked with everyone on everything, from Gucci to Jay Z, on photo shoots and feature films. Now, he’s collected 25 years of candid Polaroids from his adventures around the world.
Red Room, San Francisco, 1997
There is an eerie red room in Diary of a Set Designer, a book of Polaroids production designer Happy Massee recently published. And while Massee has worked with beloved surrealist director David Lynch, this room is not the black-and-white zig-zag tiled space of Twin Peaks dreams. It could be any room, in any place - and that's the point of Massee's Diary. Though its images span over 25 years and countless countries - featuring appearances from Madonna, Michael Jordan, and The White Stripes's peppermint drum kit - the book isn't Massee's resume. It documents what he's seen along the way.
Massee was born to ex-pat parents who moved to Paris from America in the 60s. His entire upbringing, from kindergarten to his applied arts course, took place in France. "I didn't realise how growing up in Europe would benefit me later on in my professional career as a designer - in terms of the references that I grew up around in the old world, and developing an awareness of architectural styles and textures that might not have been things I would've seen growing up in the States," Massee explains. "I'm a natural designer; I'm very good with materials, and everything I do is very real. I'd never get hired to do a Star Trek shoot, that's not my style. However, if you look at a movie I did, The Immigrant, which is set New York in the 1920s, where we rebuilt the city during that period, I feel like I might have had a bit of an advantage because of my upbringing in Europe."
This bi-continental upbringing helped Massee develop his style and sensibility, but also proficiency in both French and English, and a knack for traveling - all of which have served him well over his decades-long career in production design. He's worked on music videos for Madge (1994's John Galliano-suited bullfighting epic Take a Bow) and Michel Gondry (The White Stripes's beloved Hardest Button to Button, which has its own Simpsons parody), teamed up with Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn for Gucci commercials, shot countless campaigns with Mert and Marcus, and designed a Broadway set for John Leguizamo. Diary of a Set Designer is the stuff in between. Ahead of his signing tonight at Metrograph in New York, we catch up with Happy to learn more about it.
How did you first become interested in production design?
Really by accident. As a child, I loved rearranging my room. My mom would come home and I'd be moving around my bed, re-decorating, switching out the posters for different bands. It was something that I loved to do. In art school I sort of specialised in interior design and architecture, even though I went to an applied art school where we studied everything from history of art to painting and sculpture, stuff like that. It was just something that I did, it wasn't something where I was like, "I want to become an architect or a designer." It was only when, back in Paris, I met this guy when we were both bartending, and he was an unemployed architect who had started designing for movies. He asked what I was up to, I said, "Nothing," and he asked, "Do you want to assist me and work on this movie I'm doing?" I said, "Sure, I don't have anything else to do!" Literally that's what it was. I worked on that project and another with him and sort of got a taste for it. Then I moved to New York and went to NYU film school; then I went to a school that no longer exists, a theatrical design school in the West Village. I learned how to draft, paint backdrops, and all the basic fundamentals of theatre design. I think the big break was when I was at Raoul's - the restaurant, I used to go there all the time - and there was a director who also used to go there all the time named Michael Haussman. One day he asked me to do a music video with him, and I never looked back after that. We did one music video, then another, and that was sort of the beginning of my career.
The projects you've worked on span music, film, and fashion. What draws you to each project, and how do they cross over?
One led to another. Back in the day when I started, music videos were the thing to do. They were creative, they were artistic, there were budgets. You could do things, and everybody was doing a music video. I got into the business through music videos and then the directors that I would work with, they would use their music video reel to pursue a commercial career because that's where they'd make money. We wouldn't make any money making music videos but when we'd land a commercial, it was like big time. So we would do commercials and the next goal was to become feature directors. The fashion thing was a little bit of an accident because I always felt I was above fashion. I completely misjudged that medium, still photography, and I wish I had gotten involved in it more for financial reasons because there's a lot more money in fashion and it's easier; I never really got that because I was working for these diehard filmmakers. I used to work a lot for a French production company and they were doing a Gucci commercial with David Lynch. I was in New York, and they saw I'd be a perfect match since I'm an American but I speak French and I know Paris. So they brought me in to do this Gucci ad with Lynch which was an amazing experience. Then I got to know the creative director at Gucci, and they hired me on other projects and introduced me to Mert and Marcus and Inez and Vinoodh and all of that.
You've worked with Wes Anderson as well; both he and Lynch are renowned for creating these idiosyncratic universes. When you're working with people like that, how do you find common ground or create space to collaborate?
Sadly, I've only worked with Wes Anderson on commercials. He's a dear friend of mine, but he has his team, so I haven't done a feature with him, which is very different. On a commercial, we're just working on the guidelines that are given to us and are limited creatively. Working with Lynch was different because Gucci was a much freer project and we had a lot more license to do what we wanted to do. The collaboration with Lynch is great, because he's pretty much open to whatever you bring to him. When we did that commercial, I was showing him pictures of furniture for one of the sets; he was like, "Nah, I don't like this I don't like this." Then I showed him a picture of a desk, and he was like, "What is this? I want this!" I said, "Okay, I can get you this." I walked away and looked closer at what he was pointing at; it was actually this woman sitting at the desk, and she had her legs crossed underneath the desk. It was a weird shape because of the shadow and lighting; it looked like a sculpture. I went back to him and said, "David, these are actually legs. This doesn't exist! When you look at the picture more carefully you realise that's a woman sitting there." He goes, "Bring me some clay, bring it to my hotel and we'll sculpt it and cast it." So, the next day I went to the Lancaster Hotel and dropped off the clay he had asked for. He sculpted this thing that looked like weird fleshy legs, and we cast them, and it became one of the main props for one of the scenes. We've worked on some other projects since, and he's always into sculpting or making something for the project.
When you wake up to do a commercial, and your alarm goes off because you have to go to set at the crack of dawn, you roll your eyes and can't get out of bed. But when you're working for Lynch, you're just so excited. You have no idea what's gonna happen on set and the experience is so unique.
I should probably start asking some questions about your book, or I'm going to chew your ear off about David Lynch for hours. In your introductory essay, you write about Polaroids being as essential a tool for you as measuring tape.
Everybody from my generation remembers the Polaroid. Whether you were a stylist, art director, producer, everybody used Polaroids. That was the only way of expediting a job. We're talking before cell phones. You had to use pay phones to call the director and say, "Listen, I don't think this is gonna work, but when I meet you I'll have Polaroids to show." Literally it was the only way of communicating to whomever what was going on. This was before one-hour photos, even; that's how you communicated. You also make friends with it. We'd go to places in South America or Jamaica where people had never seen pictures of themselves, let alone a Polaroid. It was a way of befriending people, a way of remembering a night. The book is called Diary of a Set Designer, however there are only two images of sets that I actually built. Everything else is places, people, locations, and props that are all related, all taken while on the job, but the actual book has nothing to do with set design. People are asking, "I haven't read the book yet, but is it all about your sets?" No, it has nothing to do with it. It's a diary of a 20-year period of my life where I walked around with this essential tool.
It does have that photo album quality. Sometimes it's just the faces of the people you're meeting, but sometimes it's Jack White. It's a cool experience.
I tried to make the book for many years and different publishers would tell me, "There's not enough celebrities, there's not enough nudity." That's not what it's about! It's very literally a visual diary of my travels and specific pictures from my travels that I feel like are unique. They wouldn't even be unique today - with the iPhone and Instagram all of that, you can do so much to a picture. Take a shitty picture and turn it into something that's decent by cropping it, by putting a filter on it, but Photoshopping it, the whole thing, and you can do it in a blink of an eye. The only thing you could do in the blink of an eye with a Polaroid is snap the button.
How did you pick which ones you wanted to include, and how they would move through the book to tell the story?
I think there are 140 in total, and I had about 20 to 30 images I wanted to use. I gave Fabien Baron my shoeboxes full of the rest of the and said, "Go to town." I had say, obviously - there were ones that I removed and ones that I added - but for the most part I would say I let him do his thing. It's Fabien Baron after all, I'm not one to second guess him.
What do you hope people take from the book?
I'll go into a bookstore and buy a book for one picture, because I know that it's a picture I can use at some point in my life or in my career as a reference in something I want to build or design. The reason why I did the book was that I wanted to do something and leave something behind. It's funny, on Instagram a lot of people have posted the cover and said, "This picture is amazing, a never-before-seen picture of Madonna!" It's kind of nice to have those few images that people will hold on to and I can share. Originally, the book was a coffee table book that I made for my own coffee table, and somebody came over and said, "You should publish this!" So, now I'm lucky that I can share these images with people. If someone buys the book because they like two or three images - whether it be the twins, or Madonna, or Keith Richards, it doesn't matter. As long as there's something that touches them to the point where they want to have it, that's what matters to me.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Happy Massee