By April MacIntyre
Many agree that the brilliance of FX’s popular Nip/Tuck lies in the way it makes its surgeries look so real. The racy series, now in its second season, chronicles the countless dissatisfactions of two ethically challenged Miami plastic surgeons, their family members and their patients with razor-sharp cynicism and lots of skin.
Much of the look that contributes to the show’s success is the result of the work of Nip/Tuck’s set decorator Ellen Brill. An executive board member of the Set Decorators Society of America and member of IATSE Local 44, Brill was recently nominated for an Emmy for her work on Arrested Development. Her résumé also includes work on The Bernie Mac Show and the 24 pilot. Her job on Nip/Tuck is highly collaborative, and she especially values the assistance she gets from forensic prop houses that specialize in the type of medical equipment required for the series.
Below the Line: There’s a surreal, almost science-fiction look to Nip/Tuck. How do you go about achieving this?
Ellen Brill: The look is very minimal in that most of the lines of most of the set dressing are very geometric and rectilinear. We made the choice to do low, lean pieces as opposed to anything that had too much height, and no curves. There’s something very cold and edgy about the look of it. There’s a very minimal color palette; the accessories bring in the color, and there’s a limited amount of accessories. It gives you a very modernist approach.
BTL: What are some of the challenges you face on a forensic/medical show that are different from other series?
Brill: You have to be aware that you are in a different world, and you have to be honest about the reality of what that world is. At the same time, because this show is reductive and we want to show a slicker side to it, we don’t always do the exact, correct thing. We tend to go for style over substance—the show is a really stylized version of the reality. We have this Nip/Tuck look, or “Ryan Murphy world,” we call it. Nip/Tuck’s producer, Ryan Murphy, has specific ideas about the look of everything, even the flowers: how we can use them, what we can use. As far as the medical stuff goes, I try to be in the right world, certainly.
BTL: Tell us about the technical people you confer with to get this show
looking so realistic.
Brill: We have a medical technical advisor, Linda Klein, who’s a former surgical nurse. As far as set dressing, she and I talk about whether a situation calls for the most high-end equipment, middle-of-the-road or like a country hospital set. We work together on types of props—she’s very knowledgeable, and she knows lots of product placement people for getting the latest hand soap dispenser, or whatever. When you’re doing a show like this you can’t work without someone like her.
BTL: You must have many stories about the team effort required to achieve the impossible in such a short time. Who are your key people you rely on?
Brill: My whole crew has been with me for both seasons. We have it down to a science at this point. I have a buyer, Eva Firshein, who is amazing. She is very energetic and knows the look of the show. I have a lead man, Dave Coronella, and four set dressers, James Barrows, Holly Sudduth, David Saenz De Maturana and Rick Chinelli —all brilliant. They make sure the sets are clean and beautiful and shoot-able. They help build and create all the new swing sets that we’re doing. In Ava’s house, a new character we have this season, there’s a sculpture in the back that Holly did—she welded it. They’re true artists.
BTL: There is a certain disappointment and depression sensibility running through the series. How did you advance that feel with design and color via the look of each set?
Brill: A lot of that I think has to do with how cinematographer Christopher Baffa lights it. He sets the moodiness and enhances it. The choice of colors—we love white, which most DPs, including ours, hate. We also use neutral palettes of grey and black. In the first season the production designer Ed McAvoy had a lot of meetings with Ryan about color and paint colors, and he deepened and darkened the colors from the pilot. Ed has an extraordinary sense of color; he was originally a set painter, and has great sensibilities about what he wants. It was Ryan’s idea that the color should be very neutral, dark and light, and not much color. When in doubt, go neutral, just using accessories to add color.
We don’t use a lot of artwork, and when I do I tend to use big pieces, not bitsy things that are too busy for the eye. One thing about doing something minimal like this is you need to use more real pieces of furniture, and to be more selective. There’s not a lot around it to hide the flaws—it’s more like treating furniture as sculpture.
BTL: Which set was your favorite on Nip/Tuck and why?
Brill: Ava’s house. Originally it was supposed to be ready by the sixth episode, but it didn’t really show up until the tenth, so I had a lot of prep time and I got to create and make some custom things. It was a little bit of a departure from the look. It was more Hollywood Regency style. I really wanted to show [interior designer] Kelly Wearstler’s inspired Hollywood retro/modern glamour look, where Sean’s house has a more Japanese clean feel and Christian’s pad is sort of a pop ’60s feel, but Ava’s place is sort of the way I would like to have my house—a little more lush but still a modern quality to it.
BTL: If you could take home one piece of furniture or set dressing from the series, what would it be?
Brill: There’s a buffet in Ava’s house set that has this Hollywood modern glamour feeling that I am very enamored with right now. It’s an off-white lacquered eight-foot-long buffet with brass handles. It’s really quite extraordinary, and it’s a vintage piece, probably from the ’60s.