JEFFREY KUSHON PART 2: GETTING STARTED

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Last week, we brought you the first part of our three-part special interview with Jeffrey Kushon, set decorator on “The Last Ship”. This time, he tells us about how he got into his profession, his love for “The Last Ship”, and the challenges of building the sets for the HMS Achilles, the British submarine in season two.

“I started out in the music video world, and I worked with the now infamous David Fincher,” says Jeffrey.

“I worked on some Madonna videos, and I worked kind of in the music video realm, even with Julian Temple, who did ‘Absolute Beginners’. I worked under him for a while doing music videos, and worked with a lot of great directors who’ve now gone on to be quite famous, like Dominic Senna, who did the first ‘The Fast and the Furious’. Obviously, David Fincher with ‘Se7en’, and all his award-winning movies like ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’. Just a whole slew of great directors, even Michael Bay! I was at Propaganda Films back in the day when Michael Bay first started as a young man.”

It certainly sounds as though music videos gave Jeffrey a great grounding in the industry, but they weren’t the be all and end all.

“I felt that music videos didn’t have a lasting quality to them,” he explains. “They’d be on MTV, and run for a while, and then they would be gone and you’d never see them.

And back in those days, they had a lot of money for music videos, so we all got paid quite well. But we worked really long hours and is was just really hard to live that lifestyle. It was kind of sex, drugs and rock and roll back in the 80s and early 90s doing music videos. as you can only imagine.

“I just felt I was wanting more from my career, so I basically just picked up the Hollywood Reporter and I said ‘I’m going to call the decorators or the art directors or production designers on the first three shows or movies I see, with the biggest actors’. So, I just cold called a bunch of shows that were happening at the time and one of them happened to be ‘Postcards from the Edge’ with Carrie Fisher. There’s a bunch of big actors in that: Meryl Streep, Gene Hackman, and I basically called the art department and I asked for the production designer, and they said he’s on a scout. I said is the set decorator in? And they said yes, we’ll forward you to him. I started talking to him and I really kind of gave him a lot of BS. I made myself sound like I was the best thing in the music video world, and I was
looking to be in the real world of features. I totally blew up his ego, and then made him think ‘you can’t really live without me. I’ll come in and I’ll work for free. I just want to shadow you and learn what you do.’ And he said ‘actually I’m looking for a buyer’, and he asked if I was Union. I said ‘no, but I can work at a PA rate.’ I went and met with him, and we really hit it off, and had a great laugh together. I ended up getting into the Union shortly after, and we ended up working together for 7 years.

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“His name was Chris Butler and we did ‘Chaplin’ together, the movie with Robert Downey Jr. We worked on a lot of big films, and I became his assistant decorator on ‘Chaplin’. I was able to do a lot of the sets on my own, like at Mack Sennett Studios, out in an orange grove out in Santa Paula, California. And from there, I decided that’s what I really want to be. I wanted to be a set decorator.

“He and I both received an Oscar nomination for that. I got to go to all the Oscar parties, and it was a lot of fun. I kinda got a taste for movie making, and once that was in my blood, I just kept going.”

“I became a decorator, and started doing my own stuff in the early 90s, and kinda worked my way up through the ranks. When Hollywood started leaving LA, I got called to do a couple of shows and features out of town, and I just didn’t want to go out of town anymore. I decided if I was going to stay in town, I was going to have to give up the feature world and get more into television. I vowed to myself that if I got into to television that I was going to give it that feature layer that I enjoy doing so much, and that’s really going the extra distance to make it look like a feature film.

Obviously in the States, if you watch a lot of TV back in the day, everything looks pretty flat, everything looks cheap. I think TV had a bad rep for looking very one dimensional. And they really didn’t care about the look, well they did, but they just didn’t have the budget to do it. Now TV has become bigger than the feature film world, and less of a risk, and there’s a lot more TV production than ever before in Los Angeles. It’s allowed me to stay in town and work on great shows like The Last Ship.”

There’s a distinct note of pride in Jeffrey’s voice as he mentions “The Last Ship”.

“I pretty much make myself available for the show because I tell everybody that this is my baby,” he says. “I’ve put blood, sweat and tears into every piece of this set.”

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“This season we built a lot more extensions to the set that you’ll see. Last season, we had to do a British submarine the HMS Achilles, so we were able to do this rogue group of mercenaries who got commandeered a British sub, and, as you know from last season, they went head to head with the Nathan James.

“We created a sub, basically. That was another challenge in season two. The writers came to us and said, ‘do you guys think you can build us the interior of a British nuclear sub?’ I was a little more careful with my words, but I said ‘let me put pen to paper and see what I can come up with and if it’s a number you’re willing to fork out, then I will do my best to make it happen for you’. We gave them all the numbers from all the respective departments, and they fought us back and said, ‘no we don’t want to pay this, we don’t want to do this’. Eventually, we won and we got everything we needed for it to happen and look as authentic as possible. We built a sub in 8 weeks.”

That’s quite a feat, especially not having access to a British nuclear submarine in the same way that Jeffrey and his team had access to a DDG ship. “We had a technical advisor who was a captain of a submarine, because it’s a whole different world in a submarine. And subs aren’t called ships, they’re called boats. We had to remember that! We can’t call the Nathan James a boat, or they get very offended. The Nathan James is a ship, but a submarine is actually a boat.

sub02“We built the submarine, and the submariner came in and, once again, we cheated a lot. But he came in, and he was very amused. He walked around for about 20 minutes without saying a word. And I’m like, ‘oh my gosh, he’s gonna say this looks like a set or this looks like crap or… this is not going to work, you guys are not going to fool anybody with this’. After a while, we’re all kinda standing there and the showrunner, Jack Bender – our former director in season one and two – said ‘what do you think? Can we play ball here?’ And the guy said ‘you know what? I could train navy personnel in this, on running emergency evacuations. Yeah, obviously all the controls are different. But the helm… you guys built the helm, I can tell you that it looks pretty damn authentic. This is great! I feel right at home.’ We all just gave a big sigh of relief. We were like, ‘oh my gosh, thank you!’ It was a big relief because we didn’t want to have to go back to the drafting board when they were ready to shoot it. I think we had one guy on the crew who was an ex-Royal Navy actor, who had served in his youth in the Royal Navy. He was like ‘I’ve never worked on a sub but I’ve been in them. I feel this is awesome in here. It’s cramped, it’s sweaty, there’s steam.’

‘Once we had all the atmosphere in there and the lights all working, it was a very good fake. Once again, we fooled them.’

‘If you watch the episodes a lot of people asked ‘how did you gain access to a sub?’ When we hear comments like that, we always smile, and really feel like we’ve accomplished something when people who don’t know, but know what a sub should look like can say ‘oh wow, where was that sub? Where’d you rent that? Where’d find that?’

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“So I think the trajectory with me was coming in very early on in 1987, working on music videos until the 1990s, then getting into feature films. I was also one of the decorators on ‘J Edgar’ with Clint Eastwood. This was an opportunity to exclusively do sets on my own, autonomously, to help out a friend of mine who was the main decorator, but he was busy going to other locations, and really required my assistance on ‘J Edgar’ to do some of the major sets that he just could not do within the short shooting schedule that ‘J Edgar’ had. That was great, getting back in that world. I did all the second unit and reshoot of ‘Straight Outta Compton’, which is a big success. But primarily my focus has been TV. I did the last two seasons of ‘Dexter’, and then went on to do ‘The Brink’ on HBO. And then the last three years on ‘The Last Ship’.

“It’s been a journey. It’s been really a huge learning experience. I know more about ships than I probably should. I can talk with the navy guys now, and sound like I’m one of them. I’ve learned all the dialogue from them and really been a good student and the workings of a DDG destroyer.

“And I think the proof is in the pudding, because recently we screened ‘The Last Ship’ in Washington D.C. for all the top naval brass, and the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, who came in season two and shook everybody’s hand.”

“We actually had the real Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, on our set acting in the show! He did an extensive tour of the sets, and really was blown away. He just couldn’t believe what we were able to achieve in such a short period of time.”

Jocko Sims (from left), executive producer Steven Kane, Travis Van Winkle and Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus. (Larry French/Getty Images for TNT)

Larry French/Getty Images for TNT

It sounds as though all the attention to detail really pays off. “About a week ago we premiered season 3 of The Last Ship for the US Navy in Washington D.C.,” explains Jeffrey. “We had some of our actors there, and there were hundreds of sailors in attendance, from the newly enlisted to three star admirals. It’s just amazing, the outpouring of people saying how it’s big in all these other countries. One of the shipmates said when they were in a port in Romania and the Romanians came running out to greet them, and they were screaming Nathan James, Nathan James!

“It’s been really good to be recognised all around the world, and at the end of the screening, everybody gave us standing ovation and praised the show. We were awarded the highest civilian honour by the Secretary of the Navy. We got the Distinguished Public Service Award. It was given as representative of all the cast and crew, for making the show as authentic as possible, that’s what Ray Mabus was saying. And for making it all look great. It was just a good bit of news, to be recognised by the navy with the Public Service Award. So it was quite honoured to be given that award by the US Navy.

“I just think if we can continue to do this… The navy looks at all of our scripts and is at good making sure all the details, and all the call out signals, everything is correct in the navigational sense. We run it right by the navy, and we have an onset naval advisors with us on every day of shooting who we refer to quite a bit and say would this happen this way? How would this be? Is this how they would do it? So the navy is very involved in making sure we get it right, and we make them look good, and they make us look good. So now, when we’re in difficult situations and we’re building new parts of the ship, they’re very interactive and giving us advice based on how it should look and how it should be. They’re now very invested in making sure we get it right.

“It’s really a textbook show for people who may never get the opportunity to be on a destroyer of this sort, to see this on TV and know what it’s really like on a ship. I can safely say, down to every last nut and bolt, we’re pretty spot on with all of the reference photos that we photographed.”

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“We have a library of literally tens of thousands of reference photos from four different DDG destroyers because we’d never get the same one each time. Sometimes we get the USS Meyer, sometimes it’s the Kidd, sometimes it’s the Pinckney. So we shoot on different ones, and they’re all relatively the same. Sometimes we get caught with things like the floors being a totally different colour in the mess deck, so second season we built the mess deck. Sometimes the floors are different colours, sometimes the wall graphics are totally different, so we have to shoot around that, because every ship has its own unique, distinct look. Although the basics like the passageways, or what we call the P-ways, are relatively the same.”

Don’t miss the final part of this interview next week (Oct 23rd), where Jeffrey lets us in on a few of the more specific details on the intricacies of shooting “The Last Ship”!

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT JEFFREY’S WORK AT HIS OFFICIAL WEBSITE.

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ALL GALLLERY IMAGES USED WITH PERMISSION