Photography by JOHN WOLLWERTH
Did you see Big Fish? Shallow Hal? Cold Mountain? The Game Plan? Last Holiday? The Conspirator? The Change Up? American Reunion? The Odd Life of Timothy Green? Parental Guidance?
How about the Lucky One? I am Number Four? The New Daughter? Righteous Kill? Syriana? Wedding Crashers? Ladder 49? Head of State? Runaway Bride?
If you have seen even one of these movies then you have seen either Jim Passanante or Susanna Glattly’s work. Chances are you didn’t even know what you were seeing was an illusion, meticulously created by the behind the scenes studio mechanics who construct the visual elements we usually take for granted in the make believe world of film. The kitchen the actors are in probably isn’t a “real” kitchen, and the street they are strolling down probably can’t be found on any map, but it is crucial that the audience simply assumes that the actors are in real rooms, real places. For the audience to suspend belief and buy into the fact that a set is actually a vibrant city street or that a house has been lived in for fifty years, this very particular craftsmanship has to be superb.
Jim and Susanna are the people who create these illusions. Jim is the Construction Coordinator for many movies and is a Scenic Artist on others. As well as being a Scenic Artist, Susanna works as a ‘standby’ or ‘camera scenic’ where as she explains, “I work with the shooting crew to address any paint related issues that arise during the actual filming –from dealing with reflections and glare for the camera department to fixing breakaway walls and other on set touch-ups to devising last minute signage and assisting the props and wardrobe departments. “
Between the two of them they have worked on over 150 movies.
Like in an old Hollywood script, Jim was born into the business. His father, Joseph Passanante, worked at Universal Studios for thirty-five years, running the Staff Shop, which created all the sculptural and plaster elements needed for the films. Jim started at Universal as a high school junior in 1973 and stayed there for fourteen years. He says, “ In the heyday of the ‘big studio’ days, Universal Studios ran like a 24 hour factory-I worked on pretty much everything that came through- Ironsides, BJ & the Bear, Air Wolf and Knight Rider. I painted ‘Kit’ the Nightrider Car more times than I can count-several times a week during filming. We had seven or eight ‘Kits’- one was actually a dune buggy with a dashboard. The cars would get banged up every take, and we would have to make them look new again. When the major studio system broke up in the mid- eighties, Jim left Universal and began working on independent films.
Susanna came to film work less directly. She says, “I grew up on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. My parents are artists, and always encouraged me to pursue a creative path. While I loved to draw, paint and write, in all my 16 year-old wisdom I felt I should do something more ‘substantial’ or ‘academic.’ I went to the University of Virginia with the idea I should study Economics or Physics, both short lived choices! I graduated as a literature major, and spent a good bit of my early twenties roaming around the world with a backpack. I worked as a newspaper reporter, I waited tables, worked in a natural foods store. In the late eighties and early nineties I found myself doing murals and decorative finishes, and props and sets for TV commercials, which was a natural segue into what I do now.”
They met on the set of Ladder 49, and have been married for three years. Susanna says, “We actually met a long time ago and were friends for years before we dated.” They are able to work together about half the time, and the rest of the time they are on separate jobs, usually a plane ride away from each other.
HOW IT WORKS
Susanna says, “We work for the Production Designer, who is responsible for the entire look of the movie. The Designer collaborates with the Director and the Director of Photography on a ‘vision’ for the project and then translates that vision into reality with the help of a large crew of art directors, draftsmen, prop makers, scenics, plasterers and set dressers.” As Construction Coordinator , it is Jim’s job to turn the blueprints from the Art Department into a workable series of sets.
Jim explains the process “It’s called a script breakdown. I go through the script, detailing all the sets, and I put a price on each of them. When it is all added up, the Art Director and I look at the final number and start making changes if we need to cut costs. For example, if the scene is two people talking on a couch, we can adjust the set from a full room of four walls to only the two walls seen in the shot.”
Susanna, “We get very detailed blueprints, in fact, sometimes it seems like the details go way beyond anything you would ever notice on film. For instance, often we will plaster walls, even if we are going to cover them with wallpaper, so the “character,” the lumps and bumps, will read. We do a technique we call ‘roping’ on woodwork, to make it look like it has multiple layers of old enamel paint. We glaze the walls and the woodwork so they have a patina. Often we have to reproduce historical wallpapers or tiles or architectural elements that are impossible to find. For the Odd Life of Timothy Green I had to exactly match the Victorian tile, down to the tiny porcelain crackle.”
Jim, “As the Construction Coordinator, I am responsible for everything that gets built-we often spend a million dollars in a month and a half, so I have a bookkeeper tracking of all the daily expenses. We usually start our day very early and it is always at least a 12 hour day. It’s not unusual for my phone to ring 100 times during that day. And I am on call as long as the camera is rolling, day or night.”
Jim first came to Beaufort in 1993 to work on Forrest Gump. (His Brother Jeff was the Construction Coordinator) He says, “They needed a painter so I threw my equipment in the car and drove down.” Years later, he and Susanna were driving around looking at the old locations used in Forrest Gump and saw a house that was originally built as a fishing lodge in the early 20th century. It was on a beautiful piece of property but was in rough shape. They were able to buy it and have called it home since 2008. Using many discarded set materials, they have applied their talents and created a truly unique home.
Off to the corner of the drive is the 400 pound tombstone that bears Jim’s name. He explains, “When you sign your ‘deal memo’ or your working contract, you allow your name to be used in the production. Since any name used on a film needs to be researched and ‘cleared,’ this gives the company a pool of cleared names. So my name has been used on several sets, including the Blood Done Sign My Name, which is where the tombstone came from. It was cheaper to buy a mistake from a memorial company than to build and paint one-so this one has my name on one side, but it says ‘MOTHER’ on the top. Susanna adds, ”If you watched Big Fish, you may have noticed ‘Passanante Grocery’ in the town, and my name has been used on the door of a police detective on The Wire.”
They also have another home in New Orleans because they love the city and spend a lot of time there, as it has become “Hollywood South.” Jim says, “Atlanta and Louisiana are the where a lot of movies are being made – because of all the tax incentives enacted to lure producers to those states. Today ,the business is not just in Hollywood anymore.”
Jim, “I have five grown children, ages 21 to 34 and I was gone 12 to 14 hours a day, for months at a time. I missed a lot. But one time I took the kids out of school and we all went to Budapest for six months while I was working on the movie Hudson Hawk. We were there only six months after the iron curtain had fallen. You could see the bullet holes in walls of the buildings. But you know what? The kids are still talking about that trip! And now I have grandchildren, which is great.”
Favorite movie memory? Jim immediately replies, “Back to the Future. I was a standby painter and I had a great time on that set. And I still have one of the original license plates from the set in my toolbox.” Susanna smiles and says, “It isn’t always the big movies that are the fun ones to make. One of my favorite jobs was the smallest-the set of Cecil B. Demented for John Waters. We had so much fun because we were given so much artistic freedom, we were forced to be really inventive -and I loved working on The Wire because the crew was close and it felt like a family. ”
OFF THE SET
Do the movie makers watch movies when they are off? Jim says, “I have been working for the last two and half years straight so I don’t have time to watch movies! When I am off I have so much I want to do. I just bought a 36 foot boat that I am working on, and we are always working on the house here and in New Orleans.”
Susanna agrees, “I love to see movies in the theatre rather than on television. I rarely see the movies we worked on immediately after they come out because often I am on another project. I did want to see the Odd Life of Timothy Green because I wanted to see how all the fine detail work we did translated on the screen –with hi- definition small things are starting to matter more. When I am not working on a film I feel like I am always trying to play catch-up. I started painting in watercolor a few years ago. I would like to keep up with that. And I still love to write.” Jim adds, “She won’t tell you herself but twice she has been one of the winners of the Spoleto festival /Piccolo Fiction Open short story competition for her short stories”.
Jim and Susanna are warm and unpretentious people who spend their working life with some of the most recognizable names in Hollywood. They truly are the “unhollywood” movie professionals! After graciously giving up a rare afternoon off for this interview and photo shoot, they take what daylight is left and head in opposite directions, Susanna for a run and Jim to work on his boat. Lowcountry folks, enjoying a beautiful afternoon. That’s a wrap!