The role of a set decorator is probably much more involved than the title may convey at first. Set decorators are more than designers, at the core of their work is storytelling. One of these great storytellers is Ellen Reede Dorros, the set designer for HBO Max’s hit, Emmy-nominated series, Hacks.
To tell the story of a comedienne whose careers appears to be reaching its twilight, it was crucial for Ellen and her team to create an environment that gave us a peek into the soul of Jean Smart‘s Deborah Vance. Through her work, we get a snapshot of a complex woman the goes well beyond the dialogue. Much of her story is told through the furnishings choices in her home.
Reede Dorros’ work has been nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Production Design For A Narrative Program. After speaking to her, it is easy to understand why. The thought, care, and passion put into building Deborah’s world is even more appreciated when explained through her words. Enjoy. And be sure to watch season one of Hacks on HBO Max.
Steven Prusakowski: What was it that drew you to working on Hacks?
Ellen Reede Dorros: Jon and I have worked together for years on Westworld, in different roles. He was an art director, and I was assistant decorator for a couple years. And then he was the production designer of Westworld and I was his decorator there. We’ve known each other style, and we worked on sets together. And when he he said, Do you want to come and decorate the show with me? We’ve always liked working together. And so I said, Absolutely. And then when he told me about the style of the show, it was it was it was just it was a no brainer.
Steven Prusakowski: For those who do not fully know, me included, can you tell me about what your duties are as a set decorator?
Ellen Reede Dorros: As set decorators, we are responsible for everything within the walls. So we collaborate with guidance from the production designer on a daily basis. So any of the paintings, any of the furnishings that are seen in the set, the rugs, that type of thing, is under the purview of the set decorator. We go out and locate all these items in prop houses, antique stores, thrift stores, wherever it may be. We put everything together and look at the entire space.
Steven Prusakowski: You are obviously not just putting random items in to fill the room. You are essentially telling a story through your work.
Ellen Reede Dorros: A number of people within the industry have said to me, “you know, when I watched the show, I fully realized who her character was.” And that’s the biggest compliment anybody could give you. They said they looked at the things behind her and it really established who she was in another way. Her acting was superb. She was amazing! We help further her story by the background and what we’re giving her in that background. Jane (Smart) was so complimentary to our decoration production design, it was incredible. But for us, it is an opportunity to continue telling that story. All the pieces were selected with her in mind.
We really envisioned that her character (Deborah Vance) hired a design firm to begin with, and then decided she didn’t like the design firm anymore. And then brought in her own things. She’d go traveling around the world and start picking out her own things. So, we didn’t want to be too perfectly designed, because we wanted to evoke that feeling that she wanted to add her own flavor.
Every single piece was selected with her as a character in mind. We really delve into the character with the creators, trying to understand what her character is about. I mean, even down to that 90s microwave that was in her office. That was a directive from the creators. They told me she’s gonna have a 90s microwave in the office, because it was microwave that was she had, and it works – there’s no reason to replace it. She believes in quality. And if something’s still working, why replace it?
STEVEN: The sets really give off a feel who Deborah is without having to read the script or even knowing the show. You know what kind of person lives there. I think it’s a real testament to your work. What are some of the rooms say about her?
Ellen Reede Dorros: There are public rooms in her house and then there are private rooms in her house. And that was a big delineation for us. The public rooms, like the living room, the music room, the dining room, and the hallways, those are rooms where she entertains. She’s a private person but she does entertain on occasion. When she does, she wants people to come and she wants people to see what she’s collected – and what she has, all the furnishings in there, but we didn’t want to be too comfortable. Because she doesn’t want you to get too close.
She got burned in the past. And she keeps some people close but most people she keeps away at arm’s length. So those rooms in my view were like come for the party, but don’t stay too long.
That was the sort of directive for me for her public spaces in our home. You’ll notice that the furnishings that we use there, her office is a private space. She doesn’t want you to be comfortable when you first sit down when you are interviewing.
She does have Ava (Hannah Einbinder)come into her office – she’s kind of coming into the inner sanctum a little bit – even though she keeps her away for quite a while. Eventually she lets Ava in and that space becomes a little more comfortable. It’s more modern and it’s more relaxed.
Her bedroom was very soft and comfortable, as were the the guest chairs in there. Her bed had lots of pillows on it and was plush, and it has a soft headboard. Those are the spaces where she can kind of let her hair down a little bit and relax and be herself.
In the music room it couldn’t be any more formal. I love that room, it was very formally French, very traditional, and the little seating area outside. It was meant to be strictly a performance space.
Steven Prusakowski: In her room there is a table that is covered with photos of her life. Were those hand-selected for the character?
Ellen Reede Dorros: Everything is very detailed there. If someone were to look at every single picture, there was a purpose for every single one. And it would either be Jean or some family members. Not her family members, but quote unquote family members. There are photos of famous people with her. That area had a little favorite moment for me, which is the desk that all those photos were on and they were on the mantel and then they were on this Chinese desk, which was a beautiful Chinese desk, and I paired it with a very modern Lucite, smoked Lucite chair.
Steven Prusakowski: What were some of your goals when designer Deborah’s spaces? What does it say about her?
Everything was thought out– the juxtapose of the moderate and the antique and the artwork in there. Even though her career was coming to an end she, as she says in one of the episodes, she had to claw her way to the top constantly. She can’t give up. So she does appreciate the antique and the olden quality and she also appreciates the new quality as well – modern art and new pieces of furniture as well and the classics. She’s always looking forward. She’s always looking for her next gig, right? She does the pizza place because it’s her next gig if she didn’t have to do that she had plenty of money. But she was always looking for something new to do something to keep her progressing forward. I felt like her modern art pieces that we added were emblematic of that.
Steven Prusakowski: The salt and pepper shakers, for example. The care put into that set piece is undeniable.
I like that there was nothing really boring in there. Every salt pepper shaker was quite fun in its own way, or beautiful and elegant in its own way. And that’s how I chose them. We chose to put some antiques, as well as some antique tea cups and vases and things of that nature to mix it up a little bit and have different heights and styles.
Steven Prusakowski: In addition Jean’s spaces, can you tell me about another settings you enjoyed decorating?
Ava’s house was interesting and a really interesting juxtaposition of Deborah’s house. Doing that was really quite fun and a nice relief to do something like that. It was a New England house. They obviously don’t come from a lot of money and things that they’ve just had for a lot of years. It wasn’t so designed. They were very into some nautical things. They were the ocean. It was light hearted and fun to do. And again, every piece in there was also thought out in other data.
Steven Prusakowski: As a set decorator are there times when you watch a show and cannot help but notice the choices made?
I know when it’s happening when I’m taken out of the show, and I start noticing the furniture. I have noticed specific pieces, I noticed something is very out of place. And now I’m not watching the show anymore, I’m looking at the pieces and it’s taken me out of it because it seems out of place. I think that the one thing is it should enhance the story and further the story. If it takes you out of it and you’re looking at a piece that just does not fit or doesn’t work or that’s the hardest things to watch.
Steven Prusakowski: What is the set decorator’s world like. Is it very competitive or supportive?
There’s a community. Our mission is to further the craft of set decoration, and to support one another. The organization, Set Decorators Society of America (SDSA), has been doing amazing, amazing things. They have incredible articles about all the different shows that are out there, they have a teaching arm. It teaches new people coming into the industry – they do a day with a set decorator, and you can see what a decorator does – they really walk you through a set. I did that early on when I came here. And, it was really inspiring for me – to inspire other people coming into the industry, whether they’re young, or whether they’re coming in mid career, or whatever it is to see what what exactly and ask questions of seasoned decorators. It’s really a fantastic opportunity for people.
Yeah, we’re 100% stronger together. Um, you know, it’s, it’s divided everybody, nobody, nobody, nobody survives, and nobody thrives when you’re divided. Everybody is much stronger when they’re together, and they can pool resources, and everyone has their talents. Competition is healthy though. And, I think competition keeps us on our toes, keeps you striving for more and different and better. So, I personally don’t believe that competition is a bad thing.
Steven Prusakowski: How was the experience of working on this amazing show, but having to do so through COVID.
The speed at which the show was done was really challenging for what we were trying to accomplish. But it was great. Doing it during COVID was interesting, it added a whole new dimension and level of things. On a personal level, I ended up having COVID. So I worked from home, because I had to isolate. We did zoom meetings and things like fabric samples would be dropped off at my door for me to review and choose. That added a whole new level of complexity. I was FaceTime dressing sets. It was definitely interesting. Going to FaceTime meetings walkthroughs with the creators for the two weeks that I was out.
I couldn’t have done it without the team – this team that worked with me for years. They all supported me on it. They were incredible. And they’re like, ‘Ellen, we got your back, no problem, we’re gonna do this, we’re gonna make this happen. This is crazy. But we’re gonna make this happen together.’ And they did. I am forever grateful to them because they’re amazing!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.