Exclusive Interview: Rusty Lipscomb Dishes (and Tchotchke’s) True Blood

August 1, 2009 by  

Rusty Lipscomb True Blood Set DecoratorsWe have been talking back and forth with *Rusty Lipscomb* who was the Set Decorator for the pilot and first seven episodes of *True Blood*.  We first asked her for a biography and it was so interesting we asked her for more, and she very gracefully agreed to answer questions.  And now, we’re excited to announce that Rusty is going to be an ongoing contributor to TrueBloodNet.com as she watches True Blood with us and shares her expert impressions and analysis!  We are very excited to welcome her aboard!

Bio:  *Rusty Lipscomb*
After 31 years of work, I retired a year ago and I am still looking back, with great affection, to a job and friends that will always be a part of my life.  *TRUE BLOOD* was a great show to say “so long” on because it was different from anything I had done before.  How often do we get the opportunity to work on a *vampire* show… in a northern Louisiana small town setting… with characters as well written…they’re quirky, hunky, scary, funny, innocent,  worldly, loving, fearful, tolerant, intolerant, surprising, and very southern.

Well, I was supposed to tell you about me, but I love to talk about work.  The first southern show that I worked on was *DESIGNING WOMEN*.  It was 4 great years with great characters as well.  That’s my favorite, character sets, and why I had such a rewarding 5 years on *SIX FEET UNDER*.  More great characters there and an opportunity to work with truly brilliant people, *Alan Ball* and Alan Poul.  It was never easy, but the characters were so rich that it gave us an opportunity to be so creative in visually creating their world.  *Alan Ball* does not limit himself, and allowed everyone to think outside the box, no pun intended!  That show was a once in a career experience and I am so proud to have been a part of it. It is also where I met *Suzuki Ingerslev*.  We had a very special relationship based on mutual respect for each others work, opinions, and ideas.  That too, was for me, a once in a career experience. It is rare to find another creative person that has such similar tastes, work ethics-we both really care about what we do-and is completely open to sharing thoughts and ideas.  It was the best of creative processes and continued on to SHARK and then to *TRUE BLOOD*.

We read all the books, loved them and couldn’t wait to get into those characters!  Visually, you have only seconds to tell the story of who people are, where they live and any other significant aspects of their lives that you want the audience to know.  *TRUE BLOOD* was a great opportunity for me to tell several great visual stories.  It always starts with the script and *Alan Ball* is a very visual person who shares his thoughts about the characters and their environments.  The production designer, *Suzuki*, gave the sets life, and then I gave them additional character in the details, furnishings and whatever is necessary to tell that visual story.

*Merlotte*‘s was my first opportunity to buy taxidermy!  I had to learn how to win my items, fish, squirrel, deer, alligator, on ebay!  Others came from Louisiana including a skunk pelt that I purchased when I went back there for location shooting.  Merlotte*‘s also gave me the opportunity to purchase antiques and items such as the wagon wheel chandeliers that were so much fun.  *Gran’*s, *Jason*‘s, *Sam*‘s, *Bill*‘s, *Fangtasia*, *Tara*‘s were all different character sets that I really loved doing.  It does get fast and furious and frantic but the end results were worth it. The set that I most looked forward to doing was *Lafayette*‘s.  It came a bit later and we had time to watch this character who was so colorful and so much fun.

Well, It was about this time that I retired.  Born and raised in Los Angeles, I have left that behind and now live in a small lakeside community in beautiful central California with my husband, Chuck and our cat, Lulu.  I am a faithful fan of *TRUE BLOOD* and shall remain so thru all of the books and seasons it is on the air!  I miss creating that magic world of make believe, and the friends that I left behind will always be a part of my life.

True Blood Merlotte's Bar


Thank you so much *Rusty* for agreeing to answer questions!  We here at TBN.com think what is done behind the scenes is as important as what happens on the screen and are endlessly fascinated by the process and the creative people who often go unrecognized.

*TBN.com*: What did you find the most fun part of your job (in general) and on *True Blood* in specific?

*Rusty:* It was the *fantasy* that grabbed me by the neck and pulled me helplessly into set dressing–*creating something from a blank slate* is such an outlet for creativity.  A set decorator could make the same room into many different environments, giving it the details to let the audience know who inhabited the space; the when, why, how, how many, etc.  How cool is that!

As for *TRUE BLOOD*, it was the characters that made the job fun–northern rural Louisiana, small town folks, *vampire*s, 150 year old farmhouse, roadhouse, all the elements for fantasy into reality sets–but challenging–never enough time or money to do the job!!!!!!

*TBN.com*: What was the hardest challenge you ever had on set designing (in general)?

*Rusty:* It is set decorating–in film work, the set designer is the draftsperson, doing the blueprints for construction.  It is a very common error that comes from the private world of Interior Designers that you would have for your home.  Because of the Art Director title, sometimes we are often referred to as Set Directors!  Don’t really get that one!  Anyway, it was just a point of information while I am trying to answer the question!

*TRUE BLOOD* was challenging because of time and money, I think that I mentioned that before.  The sets are really layered meaning there was lots! of shopping.   But *Suzuki* and I had a pretty clear idea of what we wanted.  So *TRUE BLOOD* would not be the answer. I think that it may have been Brenda’s house on *Six Feet Under*.  She lived in 3 places and this was the last one when she was pregnant and going to marry Nate.  Each of Brenda’s sets carried over something from the previous set but this was really her first home.  *Suzuki Ingerslev*, the Production Designer, had a great set built on stage that   included the living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, Maya’s bedroom, and Brenda and Nate’s bedroom.  Brenda had good taste, but she collected, she did not decorate.  It was just very intellectually challenging to put it all together.

True Blood set Sookie Stackhouse Detail*TBN.com*: Do you have any (sharable) behind the scenes stories that are touching or funny or informative from *True Blood*?

*Rusty:* Have to think about that one too.  Oh yes, very touching.  One of our writers was from the south, and when he walked into *Gran*‘s, he looked around, walked through all the rooms and there were tears in his eyes and on his cheeks too.  I did not know him and I was in the living room doing some dressing when I saw him.  I asked quietly if there was anything wrong?  He told me that it made him homesick, that he was one of the writers and was born and raised in the south.  What a complement…..

[Editor’s Note to *Rusty*:  I had a similar experience when I was so privileged to go to the *Sookie* house set I got all choked up.  It flashed me back to my Gramma’s kitchen.  I swear she had the same stove, the bits of unfinished mending, the same old sewing machine.  The mismatched bits and pieces of life.  I always thought sets were less real when seen up close, but not on this show.  What attention to detail!]

*TBN.com*: Was working for cable (*HBO*) different than working for networks?  And if so, how?

*Rusty:* Oh yes and in many ways better except for the salary–cable pays less money.  It is because of contracts that the unions made to get cable productions to use union labor-concession, concession, concession! The good part is many less people with input and you usually complete a seasons work. *TRUE BLOOD* has 1 person from *HBO* who attends meeting and oversees production.  The creative input comes from the show creator –*Alan Ball*– and he is the ultimate decision maker.  We also have the writer, director input which is the same for cable and network.

I did a TV series for a network (unnamed!), that had a studio (unnamed!) putting up the money, and a production company (unnamed!) that initiated the creative project.
OK then—network people who wanted everything to look like CSI (oops),  studio people screaming about $$$$$$$$$$$$, and the creative end trying to deal with the script, cast and the look of the show as it was intended.  Way to many people to please!

True Blood set Sookie Stackhouse Detail*TBN.com*: Do any of the actors ever contribute to the set decoration?

*Rusty:* Yes, that can happen but I don’t recall anything like that on *TRUE BLOOD*.

Do they provide photos or other personal items?  Photos, yes.  I really like to be authentic about a characters past life.  *Lois Smith* (*Gran*) gave us great photos to copy and use on the sets.  Because there were flashbacks of Sookie and Jason as children,  pictures were provides by the parents of the children cast to play young *Sookie* and *Jason* to use on the sets.  *Alan Ball* also contributed vintage family photos, as did, *Suzuki* and I. As for personal items, I know that it happens, but not my experience on *TRUE BLOOD*.

*TBN.com*: Does how the characters form and evolve (through the melding of the writers, directors and actors inputs) change how you design for them?  Obviously, how you’ve decorated gets incorporated into the characters but does it work the other way around (beyond specifics in a script).

*Rusty:* Sure. Dressing can change as the characters change. We have seen a bit of that in Bill‘s house.  *Suzuki* wanted the house to have a minimal amount of progress.  For example, there was no electricity only candles when we first entered Bill‘s.  Electricity was added and some family portraits as well.  Sometimes the actor is so strong in the part that they inspire the creativity for their personal spaces.  Lafayette is one such character.  Nelsan brings so much to that part!  *Suzuki* came up with some great research for this character and *Alan Ball* loved it.  It may not have been what Nelsan was thinking for Lafayette, but he knew that character lived there the  moment he walked in!  And he looks so great in there!

*TBN.com*: Has any actor ever asked for changes because they didn’t feel the colors of the furniture, for example, went with their skin tones or hair color etc?  Do the actors compliment the sets ever or do they take them for granted?

*Rusty:* I have never had that experience. Both *Suzuki* and I are very color conscious, always taking into consideration hair and skin. Lafayette, for example, looks gorgeous in his home. My best example of that is on *Six Feet Under*, in Claire’s bedroom.  *Suzuki* picked an apple green color that went great with Claire’s red hair!

The actors on *TRUE BLOOD* were very complimentary.  Providing a well layered environment can help them to feel at home in the space and give them ideas about the character as well.

*TBN.com*: Designing is clearly an art form, do you do any other kinds of art?

*Rusty:* Thank you for that acknowledgment and yes, I do.  Educationally speaking, I have a BFA from UCLA but it has little influence on what I do today except for photography.  My love of the camera and its magic started back then and is still on going.  Coincidently, today is the opening of my photo website (photographicmusings.com)– what a great  opportunity for a plug!! Hope it’s OK!  I abstract_0035have always had some kind of artistic release whether it was making hand puppets for my kids, or doing noodle projects when I taught nursery school.  Today, it’s photography it is photos and collages.  A few years ago, it was hand tinting my black and white photos of my orchids.  [Editor’s note: If you enjoy beautiful and compelling photography you will do yourself a favor to click on the link to Rusty‘s website.  The eyes of two ‘decorators’ (Rusty and her husband Chuck) capture with a photographic camera mini tableaus and moments in time with the same artistry and exquisite taste that they prepared scenes for the cinematic camera!]

*TBN.com*: Do you have hobbies?  Did you ever make things for a set yourself?  If you can’t find an object you want to place in a scene do you ever have them made?

*Rusty:* I guess my art is my hobby as well, except for maybe adding my screen porch garden–I love color and watching things grow.

Yes, we have made things for a set.  For me it is mostly my photos.  My crew would at times make things also–the bone wind chimes in the bus where Lettie May had her exorcism is an example.  On *Six Feet Under*, my assistant set decorator had a college degree in prop making. Alison was fantastic.  We had pool table balls that the script called Jesus Balls and Alison bought prayer cards, cut, fit and glued them perfectly.  They were great!  And yes, have things made for the set frequently.  The construction crew on *TRUE BLOOD* is great and so are the painters–best in the biz!!!!!!  They would be my first source of having things built, but they are always busy so sometimes we have to find another source.  Scripted artwork is most common to have manufactured.

*TBN.com*: Buying on Ebay you must have to keep your options open!  Has anything ever eluded you so that you had to modify the plans of a set’s decoration?

*Rusty:* I really tried to be flexible.  When I thought something was going to be difficult, I never said ***oh, no problem,* but rather* **let me see what I can find.* Time is rarely on our side. *Suzuki* and I would talk about the sets and how we would like them to be, so I would start there.  When shopping at a prop house, you often find things that give further inspiration so I tried never to pigeonhole myself.  *Suzuki* and I were always about the final product.  I can’t think of anything exactly like that on *TRUE BLOOD*.  We did have quite a hiccup on one set.  *Suzuki* and the director picked a great location for *Lettie Mae*‘s house.  One of the things that made it great were the furnishings.  We often use some or part of a locations furnishings, it is sometimes what makes the location appealing as was this case.  I told the location manager  (the person who makes the agreement between the production company and the homeowner) to have the valuables put away, for example, they had a computer set up to needed to be removed.

When we arrived there the day before we were to film, to add the little details that would give the set a personal touch for *Lettie Mae*, the house was empty.  I guess they thought that everything was of great value.  We had to scramble to pick everything and dress that set for the next day.  Not a good surprise!

alaska-woods_buildings_0021*TBN.com*: Do you ever try to echo a theme for a particular show in the items you place in various scenes (beyond items needed by a script)?  I guess I mean, if a shows theme seems to be about war, would you put background items like pics of people in uniform in a livingroom (even if those people aren’t in the episode) or stick a flag in the background etc.?  (not sure if I’m being clear here but I think on a wider scale I’m wondering if beyond telling what a person is about in a quick shot of their homes/businesses if you make subtle symbolic artistic statements through item placement that echoes the larger theme)?

*Rusty:* Yes. I’d say that is my great love in set dressing, my forte–character sets.  I love the details. That is why I loved *Six Feet Under* and *TRUE BLOOD*.  I think that I tried to live in the characters world, make up stuff about their grandparents or their trips to Mexico or stuff they did in school.  *Suzuki* and I both liked that.  We did lots of that on this show, especially in *Gran*s. Good example! *Sookie* had a cat named *Tina*.  In the mud room, just off the kitchen, I put a basket with an old patch quilt in it, on the bench, for Tina to nap in.  Next to it, were *Tina*‘s water and food dishes which were old vintage bowls, mismatched.  Above that bench was a window that we put an old book in to hold it up so *Tina* could get to the screened porch, walk on the washer and dryer and exit through the screen where she had, long ago, scratched her way through.  We always had food and water for *Tina* but she was rarely seen.  I loved making stuff like that up!  Little details that the actors see that make the set a home.

*TBN.com*: Since you handle the details, does product placement get handled by you as well?  As in for movies when the actor is supposed to drink a Coke rather than a generic soda, are you the person that figures out where to put these things or is that someone else?

*Rusty:* I did handle some product placement.  The propmaster would be the one to handle things held or carried by an actor, so they do product placement as well.   Mine is more closely related to set dressing.  We used Tabasco on all the tables in *Merlotte*‘s, both the red and green kind. (I didn’t know that it is a product of Louisiana!)  The Tabasco company also gave us great posters that I framed and hung on the walls.  Corona, Dos XX, Budweiser, gave us pennants to hang above the pool table and signage for the walls.  Abita Beer, from Louisiana, gave us a neon wall sign to hang, as did Budweiser and Captain Morgan.  That is more the type of product placement the set decorator does.

Right before Halloween, 2007, I was shopping at World Market and bought some wine as gifts for my crew—It was called *VAMPIRE*, both red and white wine!  How could I pass that up!  It was released through *Vampire* Vineyards, of central CA where I now live.  There was an email address so I contacted the company to see if they would be interested in placing their wine on the show.  He said YES!  We used it in *Fangtasia* behind the bar and on “for sale” shelves along with their signage and stickers.  I loved it!


*TBN.com*: I imagine keeping costs under control is something you’re always aware of, are there some fun or interesting ways of coming up with items more cheaply?

*Rusty:* Money is always a factor. Experience is factor, knowing where the $ will be seen and cutting on the lesser important things.  Experience also teaches you that things do not have to be $$$$$ to look good.  Tasteful combinations, smart buying and good color sense can be done on a $$ budget.

*TBN.com*: Are some of the set items completely fake or do you usually get real items? How often do you change out things on a set?

*Rusty:* Most of the time things are real.  Some of the vegetables and meat in *Merlotte*‘s freezer/refridgerator were fake but for the most part, it is the real deal.  Oh, the blood in the *TruBlood* bottles, is fake too!

I always changed or disposed  of anything perishable immediately after the set was shot.  The pies, cobbler, bread in *Merlotte*‘s is all real, most everything is. Same with *Gran*‘s.  The muffins, tomatoes, milk was all removed and replaced the next time we filmed in the set.

*TBN.com*: What is the most bizarre thing you ever added to a set?  Have you ever put anything into a set you liked so much you got one for yourself?  What was the largest object you’ve ever placed on a set?

*Rusty:* I can’t tell you about the most bizarre thing, it is XXX rated!  I have made discoveries when shopping for a set, of things that I absolutely loved.  Sometimes I may have purchase one for me but I usually waited for the show to end and then purchased it at a great discount at *the show is done–let’s sell everything! *sale.  Really great prices there.  My home is filled with stuff from the *Six Feet Under* sale and I waited 5 years until the show was over for some of it!

As for the largest object, nothing unusually big comes to mind.

*TBN.com*: Aside from the taxidermy heads, did *True Blood* present any unique challenges?

*Rusty:* Doing any set that is limited by the size and region is always challenging.  If your locale is Los Angeles, you can do just about anything because there is so much diversity here.   *Bon Temps* is not like that.  Much of the south is populated by the haves and the have-nots. This small town is populated by families that have been there pre civil war and most have been the ‘work hard on the farm’ have-nots.  There is tradition and religion and southern ways and southern pride.  It would be great to have some of that in every set.

*TBN.com*: The comparison between *Designing Women* and *True Blood* just has my head spinning!  Both Southern based but they couldn’t be more different visually.  Can you compare/contrast the two shows a bit?

rusty1*Rusty:* The comparison I was referring to was the great depth of character that both *Alan Ball* and Linda Bloodworth-Thomasin are capable of creating.  They are both brilliant writers, who use some of their characters to express their personal feelings and experiences.  The characters on *Designing Women* were so well written and each had a different voice on relevant or controversial matters of the time. The Sugarbaker sisters came from the haves, the more gentile city part of the South.  Written in with the comedy was the social commentary made through the character of Julia.  She was a voice of liberalism, of tolerance, the voice through which the writers opinions were spoken.  *Alan Ball* can do this also.  He puts great emotion into his characters and thrusts them into life situations that they have to struggle through.  Six  Feet Under was such a story, of a family whose members struggled daily to find out who they were.  As for *TRUE BLOOD*, I think that *Alan Ball* has taken *Charlaine Harris*‘s characters a step deeper.  This is the world of the have-nots, of the unsophisticated small towners that get tangled with the undead and the supernatural, and that mix makes fun story telling.  These characters also deal with their personal struggles and feeling albeit in a much simpler way.

I hope that made sense, I do tend to go off on my own and make a right turn when I fully intended on turning left-it makes for quite a mental adventure!

*TBN.com*: Once you bought an item do you often alter it, age it, chip or break it, or fancy it up?  And if so, did you do that yourself or give it to someone to do?

*Rusty:* Yes, we often “age” things.  Breaking and chipping can be part of the reality of time passing.  (We really don’t need to do that – the shooting crew usually does that for us!) The show painters are brilliant at aging!  Most of the things we buy are new even though the original design was made long ago. Reproductions are also less money.  It is common to ask the painters to take the shine off a piece of furniture and give it some use character aging-where people sat, where hands rubbed.  We do that a lot if we can’t find things  that are used.

As for fancying it up, *Suzuki* wanted that done on the caskets from season 1 (the bad *vampire*s that were Bill‘s friends).  I purchased the caskets, because they were set dressing and she designed embellishments to express the personality of each *vampire*!  It was very cool–and then the caskets burnt up in the house fire!

*TBN.com*: Are you as annoyed as I am that *Maryann* is sitting in *Gran*‘s Chair!  LOL (truly, that brought home to me how important the objects on the set are.. that will always be *Gran*‘s chair to me and I am, on some visceral level, peeved that that manipulative creature is misusing her chair for nefarious reasons… which means the crew achieved their goals! LOL)

*Rusty:* Yes,  I too get attached to things that belonged to certain characters and that will always be *Gran*‘s chair.  It even annoyed me that she wore an apron!   I think that there is a certain comfort level to seeing characters in their sets and that the set is as we expect it to be.  Extreme change is sometimes traumatic! but everyone can have a new accessory as long as it is not disruptive!

*TBN.com*: Anything else you’d like to share too?

*Rusty:* Sharing what I have has made me miss my work! and also probably shows how much I loved my job.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share the fantasy and to know that when I have done my job well, the fans can share the fantasy of *TRUE BLOOD* too!

Be sure to stay tuned for more from Rusty in her new column!  And DO go to http://photographicmusings.com/ what a wonderful site!

(Photo credits: Rusty Lipscomb and Kasandra Rose)