Press > Escape From New York > Exclusive Interviews > Cloudia Rebar (Set Decorator)

How did you end up being a Set Decorator?

I saw my first Broadway play at age 11 and was hooked on theatre and wanted to pursue lighting design. In the course of studying lighting at Hunter College nights while in high school, we had to create a Set design to light, and I immediately fell in love with creating the sets. I studied theatre design all thru high school and passed on my graduation ceremony to start working at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford Conn. on their productions. I then was accepted to study in England at the prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. While there, at the end of the year, I met a young Italian film student, Marco Belocchio, (he later became an important Italian director) who told me of the Government film school of Italy. That same week I saw Fellini's La Strada in London, packed my bags and moved to Rome: I HAD to be in the country that produced that film!

My Italian was limited but I managed to pass the three day entrance exams and was accepted at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome. At the end of the year I met the renowned film Production Designer John De Cuir (Cleopatra, The King and I, South Pacific, Hello Dolly). He mentored me for a year and then gave me my first film working with him on The Honey Pot which was directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. I've since worked with Billy Wilder, Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, and many interesting directors.

How did you get the assignment to be the Set Decorator for Escape From New York?

I got a call from Joe Alves to come and do Escape From New York. I had not known him before that project.

What exactly did you do as a Set Decorator on the movie and how close did you work with Production Designer Joe Alves and the prop department for instance to get the right look for the movie?

My normal 12 week prep on the film was actually only two weeks due to scheduling, so it was quite a challenge. It was a very small production, so every dept head was working all together out of one room with their team and only two telephones. To be able to concentrate for even five minutes without interruptions was the biggest challenge. It all came together though. As set decorator it's really about being the interior designer for every environment regardless of what it was, whether it be destroyed city blocks or lavish interiors. It's about giving the character expression thru the objects in the environment I create, before the actor is there to give it voice. 

Were you inspired by something particular in any of your decorations to get the look you wanted for the movie and are there any sets or scenes you'd like to discuss further?

Once I've read the script I break down the character information into symbols: Colors, Shapes, Textures etc that then guide me in every subsequent decision on the thousands of things that can go into making up a set. Being totally present in each moment of all the selections is driven by the symbolic aspects from the character analysis.

I remember being asked to provide a twenty foot US flag at 8 PM on set for 6 AM the next morning and begging a Santa Monica gas station to loan us their flag for our morning shoot which is evident in the exterior shots of the command control. One of my favorite sets was the World Trade Center lobby which we shot at Cal Arts lobby in Valencia, California. All the St. Louis shooting was during the worst heat wave on record there. We trashed the city downtown every night from 7 to eleven pm, shot 11 pm till five am, cleaned up all the debris by seven am for St. Louis rush hour traffic to roar through, repeating this for thirty nights.

Can you give us an example or examples how you used the symbolic aspects to a character in a set or scene in the movie? Anything with Snake, The Duke (Isaac Hayes) or Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) for instance?

In analyzing. Isaac Hayes character, the edginess and brutality influenced my choices in his office in colors, shapes, forms & textures that I used there. With Lee Van Cleef's office, things were more regimented. Snake Plissken never had his own environment: he was always on the move.

Which scenes or sets were the most challenging or fun to do and what are you personally most proud about regarding your own work on the movie?

The Chock full o'Nuts coffee shop and street was a moment I'll not forget. It was supposed to shoot in two weeks, and it was way out in the dessert. I drove out there in the 117 degree heat just to look at the location and got a call that it was shooting at 6 o'clock that night. I had to phone in all the set dressing orders including, a full restaurant kitchen, just from memory of what was available at various prop houses and restaurant supply stores and truck it out to the desert and dress it in hours in the sweltering desert heat.

So much was "seat of your pants" instant decisions on site: improvising so much that one had no options but to be totally in the moment... which is most likely why whenever anyone asks me which was my favorite film experience of the many films I've done, I always reply Escape From New York.

What's your favorite memory or memories of working on the movie?

Standing beside Roy Arbogast, our amazing special effects man, in total awe, in the middle of St. Louis at night watching the 747 burning to the ground before we remembered it was a rented plane and wasn't supposed to burn THAT much. It was quite astonishing to watch.

What do you think of the movie

I love the film and the experience. When one considers WHEN the film was made, before digital CGI and computer effects, it's quite remarkable. I've done several John Carpenter films and loved working on them all.

What are you currently doing and what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

When I'm not making films I'm teaching metaphysics and thoroughly enjoying life. As a professional member of the American Society of Interior Design I'm enjoying Europe with design friends several times a year especially for Fashion and Design weeks in Paris.

Thank you for your time, Cloudia.