JEFFREY KUSHON – PART 3

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Here’s the final part of our incredible interview with Jeffrey Kushon, set decorator for “The Last Ship”, and the man who built the Nathan James.

Given the level of detail that goes into the sets, we asked whether there are any little Easter eggs hidden away, or any inside jokes that pop up. “You know what’s funny, there are a few,” admitted Jeffrey. “I don’t know if I’m at liberty to mention them, because they kind of give away certain things, but yes there are different ones. Steven Kane and Hank Sternberg are our executive producers, and Steve’s got a great sense of humour. He’s always trying to throw Easter eggs into the mix to foreshadow stuff. So he usually calls those out pretty specifically, and there are a few that come into play.

“Sometimes I throw in my own, just for a laugh. A couple from season one… we built the bridge in season one of a Russian Battleship, that we were going against. And in that Russian battleship I had kind of placed what’s called a challenge coin.”

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“When captains of each ship greet other captains, they usually have hidden in their palm a coin from their ship. When they shake hands will hand off that coin. So actually in one scene, when the Russian Captain was in the dining room of his ship, in one of the trays near there, I had the actual Nathan James challenge coin in there to be like, ‘hey what if they did meet at one time and shook hands’? So it was something that I knew was there and I don’t think it was ever seen on screen, but the actors certainly noticed it. It was kind of a funny thing, they were all like ‘huh’? Even though you’d have to get a close up to notice it, but I kinda threw that in there as a foreshadowing of maybe her and Chandler never met, but that ship was soon to be sunk by Chandler. And that little bit of the Nathan James was already there. Now, whether they snuck on the boat or they left it behind when they stormed the boat? It was kinda after they breached it in some way, so I thought here’s a little thing he may have left behind.

“It was small but I like to throw those little things in there, whether it be a picture of something that’s foreshadowing, or whatever. I think we did do some more specific things this year that were more of a story point. Those came about later, but you’ll have to watch this season to find out what those are! Some are pretty obvious, so are a little bit more hidden.

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“For me when I dress sets… when I did the officers wardroom, I put Battleship [the game] in there, I put all Michael Bay films in there, I put ‘Top Gun’ in there.”

“In the real ship, I actually took a picture of their video selection. I got a few ideas, and I thought these are what those guys watch. On two of the ships we scouted, there was the game Battleship, which was kind of too spot on for me, but I was like, hey it’s reality, that’s what they actually have. So I put Battleship in there and all the movies that officers would love to watch like ‘Battleship’ to ‘Transformers’ to ‘Top Gun’… mostly Michael Bay films you know. I always try and throw in a little Michael Bay touch.”

“I know that in Michael Bay films there’s always a reference to an American flag, for some reason he loves the American flag. There’s that kind of ‘Murica, yeah’ going on! I always try to get as many shots as I can of the good old ‘Glory’ in there.”

scuttle2For instance, in the war room there is a bow flag that the plaque on it says from the ‘USS Arizona presented to the crew of the Nathan James’. It’s bow flag that I burned and made it look really old as if part of the USS Arizona for Pearl Harbor.

“I kind of tell stories on the walls of different things. There’s a portrait of Nathan James in the war room, and it was a real Admiral. Our graphic designer’s grandfather was a lifelong navy guy, so that’s actually our graphic designer’s grandfather in that picture as Nathan James. We have him in an Admiral’s outfit, and we did the portrait because most of the ward rooms, they all have a portrait or a picture of whoever the ship was named after, some kind of area to honour them.

“We try and throw all those little things in, even down to the mugs. My name and my wife’s name are in the top two donor slots. I put my name and my wife’s name in the top two there as the donors of the ship, because every ship has donors who are honoured for their contributions to the navy.I put my name, and her name, and all the others.

“Down to the cups and everything, we try and put all the details that we can. I think that that’s part of the fun.”

“We act with furniture, and I always say that, I act with the furniture. The ship is an actor in itself, by making all the other actors that are in it feel like they are actually in that space. So where you give an actor lines, I give the ship its lines, and its tables, and its wiring and instrumentation, to tell a story of what a ship really is in the US Navy. That’s kinda the fun challenge of it, that’s why I love and am so passionate about what I do, passionate about the show and making it great.

“I think we always strive to make our producers, and Michael Bay, and TNT know we’ve put every effort possible into making their show great. That’s what we do. It was certainly a very hard challenge. You just can’t go out and buy this stuff. I actually had to take a trip in season two down to Texas, where there are some government contracted naval scrapyards, and a lot of the stuff on the British sub and the Nathan James was taken from the USS Saratoga, which was a very famous aircraft carrier. The Saratoga has a huge history.

chandlers-cabin“I was able to pull a lot of stuff off the Saratoga. If you look when Chandler occupies his state room in season one
and two, on the wall there is a phone encased in a brass housing. That was the actual bridge phone from the USS Saratoga.”

“I took that off the wall of the Saratoga, polished it up and had it mounted on a board that says on there, ‘Presented to Thomas Chandler for his service as Captain of the Nathan James.’ This was the actual bridge phone for the USS Saratoga.

“So we had that on the wall, and you think about how many serious calls were made on that on all the tours of duty Saratoga made, which were historic. Being on that ship, and taking pieces of it to make the Nathan James, was really quite haunting. Going down these corridors where people died, and being in the medical bay where you think of all the casualties that happened aboard that ship and the flight deck. We were also on the ship that John McCain was on, the USS Forrestal. I got some stuff off of that too, that was being scrapped. And that was of course his infamous landing where he was coming back from a bombing run and he skidded off the runway…there was something that happened, a malfunction… and people were hurt, injured or killed. So you just think of all that kind of stuff that these ships were in, in many ways horrific, and part of what happens in the war.

bridge02“When I was on the Saratoga, I was told that a wealthy man came aboard and was granted access – because you gotta get access from the Navy and you’ve gotta get cleared to be on these ships to be able to scrap – this wealthy Texas businessman had come in and wanted to buy the hatch door from the flight deck that led into the ship on the USS Saratoga. He was asked why he was so keen on buying that he said that, during the war, that was the last doorway his son had passed through before he died, on the way to the medical bay from his plane. So he was going to build it into his house as a memorial to his son who had passed away on the Saratoga.

“There’s a lot of emotional attachment to these ships and the history of them.”

“And I have, in our mess deck, I have two checkerboard tables that came out of the actual mess deck of the USS Saratoga. You think about all the guys back in those days who played chess and checkers on those tables, then that passed away when they were at war, and they were just in a scrap pile being ready to be thrown away. We saved them, and cleaned them up, and put them into our own ship. The Nathan James has a lot of history in it as well, from pieces and parts of ghost ships from that war torn period.

“Like I said, it is kind of like a Frankenstein of bits and pieces. Even some of the stuff in our CIC, and in our original passageway came from a show called ‘Wild Blue’ that came and it went down, I don’t think it even made it to network television. I noticed on the back, a lot of it had Japanese writing, and that was from the USS Negawa, I believe, that had run aground, that the Japanese Navy had bought from the US Navy. That show was able to scrap a bunch of parts off the Negawa and later went into that show, and then went into our ship. So we have probably pieces from 4 different ships that make up the Nathan James.

My guys are not navy guys, my guys have never served in the armed forces, but they’re really good at look at a picture and finding pieces from everywhere they possibly can source. Either making them, augmenting them, remanufacturing them… building pieces around it to make it look like the actual pieces on the ship, and basically you can look at the piece of the real wall and look at ours and they almost match identically, from just a vast resource of creative guys trying to figure out how to build it and how to make it look like the picture. That’s basically how we’ve done all the dressing on the Nathan James, it’s been from photographs. Taking that photography and putting it into a language that a prop builder can build from, and then finding parts from different catalogues and everywhere we can, and tearing apart other stuff.

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“For instance, in our CIC a lot of the control devices are from the gaming world, a lot of them are stuff from Atari. On the bridge, we made the tomahawk launchers and the navy came in and said ‘where did you get these consoles, these are for the tomahawks?’ And we were like, oh we built them. And they said ‘where did you get these joysticks? These are not declassified yet!’ And I said ‘well, we modified them, but they’re actually from gaming devices.’ So we’ve taken stuff that kids play with and we’ve actually taken those bits and pieces and reconfigured them, painted them, added stuff to them, augmented them and made them into what the picture looks like so we can fake it because the navy would never sell those pieces to us. And even if they did, it would probably cost thousands of dollars to even get your hands on them! When we do it, we need four or five or six or ten. So we buy a bunch of them from Atari or PlayStation or whatever, we’ll take them and paint them and re-modify them and put them into the set.

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“We’ve cheated a lot. Even on the bridge, I’ve used barber chairs and I’ve re-upholstered them, and remade them into navy command chairs. They’re actually your everyday salon chair!”

“And the navy comes in and goes ‘where’d you get those command chairs?’ ‘Oh I got them from a beauty supplier!’ It’s just kinda funny, we just cheat all the time, and when you’re faced with a problem, you have to find the answer to the equation. TV doesn’t give you very much time to figure out that equation, they’re like ‘here’s the problem, figure it out, give us an answer and do it for this amount of money and make it happen.’ And that’s how it works in TV, it’s really hard math sometimes. But this show has been a baptism of fire. It’s a very, very difficult show, each episode is like a mini feature film. I mean, I’ve never been so challenged in my whole career to put as much design and detail into each and every set.”

The details and the design help make the show what we all know and love, and it’s safe to say that Jeffrey Kushon and his team truly are passionate about what they do, and how real things look. Kudos, Jeffrey, and thank you!

 

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