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Art Dept.-Evoking period on Deadwood-Carpenters

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When Deadwood production designer Maria Caso first met with series creator David Milch, he told her that the town “was like a character on the show… it evolves and grows.” And like the scripts on HBO’s acclaimed revisionist Western, the setting had to be authentic in its period details.While Caso says the show’s dialogue, with its mix of near-constant profanity with rich, Victorian diction, can still make her cringe, she’s more than willing to get down into the muck to recreate the show’s gritty, late 19th-century frontier town. “If I can recreate an environment that’s real,” she says, “it actually inspires the writers and actors and engages the audience.”The process starts, she says, with “extensive research.” She’s in almost daily contact with the staff of the actual Deadwood’s Adams House and Museum, poring over photographs (she keeps a panoramic photo of the original town on her desk), newspaper articles, plat books, whatever information she can get her hands on to get some idea of the look and texture of the time.“We play the role of detective,” she says, “because the facts are distorted, and sometimes you know you have to weigh the validity of some facts. So we spend a lot of time doing that.” Her research shows up in even the smallest details. “We use rough-cut lumber and we cut all our nails; we make them square-head nails. We use materials and textures that they had then—jute cloth and monk’s cloth. We don’t have any burlap.”For set decorator Ernie Bishop, “nothing is that hard to recreate if you have the information.” The nature of the show means “you can’t just go down to the corner and pick things up,” he says. While he can go to any prop house and find what he wants, once he finds it, he always asks himself, is it right? “There are really no sources here,” he says.The Internet has been a boon, but more often personal connections have been the best resource. “You just have to go out and find it,” says Bishop, “meet this guy who knows that guy who might have what you’re looking for.”Sometimes, the solution is closer than you might expect. For the town’s telegraph office, Bishop spent weeks trying to track down the jars used to hold the batteries that lined the shelves. Finally, he was able to find a reasonable facsimile—at Ikea. But even those jars got special treatment—they were etched with the logo of the Cheyenne-Deadwood Telegraph Company. “It’s just a tiny, quick little pop,” he says, “but when you look at it, it’s real.”One of the biggest challenges he and Caso faced this season was coming up with the stamp mill that stands outside Alma Garrett’s gold mine. Through his sources, Bishop discovered there were only four of them available for purchase, and “three of them were on the top of hills.” But checking them out gave him insight into the processes late 19th-century miners used to extract and refine the ore: how they pounded it, then ran it down copper-plated ramps covered in mercury. “The mercury sticks to the copper and the gold sticks to the mercury,” he explains. “That’s what’s fun about the show,” he says, “figuring out what they did.”Once they had an idea of what the stamp mill did and how it worked, Caso called in an old friend, Allen Terry, to construct it. While he was as concerned with authenticity as the rest of the crew—even down to the depth of the notches on the wood and the way the pieces were joined—there were compromises. He added a “dead man” of concrete as a foundation and, instead of a steam engine, the pistons are run by electricity. And, like just about everyone else on the show’s Santa Clarita, Calif., location, he had to put up with the dust and mud.When she was told the townsmen cut down trees to clear out Main Street, Caso searched for hundreds of tree stumps, eventually carting diseased trees down from Big Bear, fumigating them and planting them around the set. And she ordered over 80 truckloads of dirt dumped onto the set to give Main Street its distinctive, muddy undulating look.Bishop jokes that he’s “never left the set with a clean pair of shoes,” adding that during the past winter’s heavy rains, “everyone had to wear waders.” For Terry, it meant taking special care of his tools. “The dust gets into everything; I had to keep them covered and on a raised bench.” The show “must go through a ton of equipment” over the course of a season, he says.But everyone agrees the problems are worth it to get what they need on screen. You can hear the pride in Caso’s voice when she says “it really looks like the town is in constant motion.”

Written by Steven Mirkin

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