Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Sunday, December 19, 2004

The Use of Art in Shopgirl

Thanks to KMT
The Shopgirl part is near the bottom in bold
Off the Canvas and Onto the Big Screen
December 19, 2004

On a brisk winter day last February, the backyard of a
fashionable West Los Angeles house was suffused with
artificial summer light. Two women - the actresses Téa
Leoni and Cloris Leachman - sat by the pool, exuding
languor beneath a striped umbrella. For the artist D. J.
Hall, a West Coast-based realist painter, the movie scene
had a déjà vu quality; it was based on an almost identical
image she had painted nearly a decade earlier. The banana
plants and agapanthus were the
same, freshly placed in the
ground to enhance the resemblance to Ms. Hall's original
image. Ms. Leoni wore the shirt that Ms. Hall's model had
worn and thumbed through a scrapbook of Matisse-inspired
images the artist had had made. Even the polyethylene foam
noodles in the pool bore her imprint: she had painted them
with designs based on desert flowers.

This tableau vivant was far from accidental. James L.
Brooks, director of the movie "Spanglish," in which this
scene figures prominently, owns Ms. Hall's painting, and
the work, he said, was his "companion" while writing the
screenplay. It "perfectly caught a certain upscale woman in
Los Angeles," he said. Such women have a facade of
prosperity and happiness, "but you can see how haunted they
are behind it."

Before Mr. Brooks hired his production designer, Ida
Random, and set decorator, Leslie A. Pope, he brought on
Ms. Hall as a consultant. "When I got the job, the first
thing Jim showed me was D. J.'s painting," Ms. Random

By the end of filming, Ms. Hall said, she was stunned by
Mr. Brooks' fidelity to her vision. "It was like seeing one
of my paintings come to life," she said.

The challenge didn't end with the scene by the pool.
Assisted by Jennifer Long, founder of Film Art LA, a
Hollywood-based company that finds and licenses artwork for
movies, television and commercials, Ms. Random and Ms. Pope
secured paintings that contribute to the emotional tone of
the movie. Increasingly, production designers have come to
view artwork as the visual equivalent of a musical score
and to rely on experts like Ms. Long to provide it. "Over
the years I've learned that paintings are critical," Ms.
Random said, "because they are usually behind the actors'
heads. If a painting is wrong, it can really throw off a

On "Spanglish," Ms. Random, Ms. Pope and Ms. Hall reviewed
every dish, glass and tablecloth used in sets for the

The artist also suggested paintings that reflect the taste
and economic status of Deborah Clasky, Ms. Leoni's
character, a sometimes unsympathetic woman whose good
intentions are marred by neurotic behavior. A Carlos
Almarez painting of a female jogger, rendered in blue
against an intense red background, comments on Deborah's
compulsive running. A still life by Janet Fish mirrors the
objects in the house: an expensive teacup, freshly cut
flowers, snapshots seemingly taken on a family trip.

For digital copies of these paintings and permission to use
them, Ms. Pope turned to Ms. Long, a former commercial
illustrator who, while working long hours as a production
designer, had no time to track the contemporary art scene
to select the right work for certain interiors. Charged
with creating a New York loft for a sneaker commercial, she
found herself desperately searching prop houses and art

Ms. Long conceived Film Art LA nine years ago to eliminate
such scrambling. "If someone asks me for a painting with a
certain type of feeling, I can pull the slides of 10
artists in five minutes," she says. She represents artists
like Charles Arnoldi, Peter Alexander and Ed Moses, and has
found artwork for more than 130 feature films, 60
television shows and 55 commercials. "When I got started,
the industry was accustomed to paying for things like
music," she recalls. Today, because of heightened awareness
that images can also be copyrighted, filmmakers have
learned to pay for art, too.

Fees for art range from $500 to $10,000, depending on the
fame of the artist, the amount of time the work is on
screen, and the size that the work appears in the movie.
Not all work is used at the size the artist made it. A
6-by-3-inch painting by Ms. Hall, for example, was blown up
to 2 by 4 feet for a wall in the Clasky house.

Breakthroughs in digital reproduction have also been a boon
to Ms. Long's business. By copying a work digitally onto
canvas - which she can do at her office - "you can put a
$30,000 piece of art on a set for a fraction of its cost,
and there's no liability if it gets damaged," she said.

Though the extensive attention to artworks may seem
extreme, "people see everything," Mr. Brooks says. In test
screenings of "Spanglish," for example, viewers fixated on
a tiny photograph in the bedroom of Deborah and John
Clasky's daughter, Bernice. The photo shows her father,
played by Adam Sandler, as a young man. But because the
likeness bore a slight resemblance to John Kerry, audiences
wanted to know why the daughter was making a political

Ms. Long has worked with equally painstaking production
designers on other film projects. "Shopgirl," adapted from
the novella by Steve Martin, drew on Ms. Long's knowledge
of contemporary art to create three fictional gallery shows
with artworks that reflect transformations in the main
character's temperament.
For background images in a bank in
"Spider-Man 2," Ms. Long tracked down and received
permission to use a social realist mural by Robert Lepper
in a classroom of a West Virginia college.

The color palette of each scene is especially crucial to
establishing the mood. "If you paint a room blue, it's
going to be a sadder room than a bright yellow room," Ms.
Random said. Because Deborah and John Clasky have a
troubled marriage, not only is their bedroom blue, but it
is also dominated by an ominous ultramarine paining. The
work, by Cynthia Evans, depicts a rigid woman, eyes clamped
shut, standing atop a wedding cake that is bracketed by
caged doves: an unambiguous totem of disharmony.

The painting was on the bedroom wall during filming, yet
Ms. Long said she does not know whether it will appear in
the finished movie. Some of her artists, like one who
recently sat in vain through "13 Going on 30" for a glimpse
of his mural, have learned the hard way that scenes can be

To avoid embarrassment, Ms. Long counsels her artists, "See
the movie first before you bring your whole family."


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