So What Do You Do, Michael Wylie and Halina Siwolop, Set Designers, for Masters of Sex?

Masters-of-Sex-article

While viewers enjoy the detailed authenticity behind television shows that take place during another decade or century, a lot of effort goes into creating vintage sets that make the audience actually believe they have been transported back to that time period. This is why a production designer’s job can often be challenging! Mediabistro interviewed Emmy-Award-winning production designer Michael Wylie and Emmy-Award-winning set decorator Halina Siwolop for Showtime’s provocative series, Masters of Sex. Based on the lives of research team William H. Masters and Virginia E. Johnson, the period drama returns for a third season this summer.

Wylie is a veteran production designer, working on shows like GrimmCalifornication, Pushing Daisies and The Tick. For Masters of Sex, his job is to create a look from the late 1950s and early 1960s — even when the series is shooting exteriors in modern-day Los Angeles. He collaborates with Siwolop and her shopper, Eva Firshein, who buy and rent all of the show’s set dressing.


How did each of you get into set decorating?
Michael Wylie: I got into the business completely by accident. I came to Los Angeles to try and get into show business on the production side of things. I ran into a friend from high school who was working on one of the Nightmare on Elm Street movies and he said they were looking for people in the art department. I worked a couple of days and was hooked. I worked my way up from the bottom of the department. At some point, I moved to New York City and presented myself as an art director. I had never art directed anything. I got work in commercials and that led to work on television and that led to meeting [filmmaker and TV director] Barry Sonnenfeld and that led to working on “Pushing Daisies” and — voila! — a career is made overnight!

Halina Siwolop: A few years after graduating college and feeling unfulfilled working in marketing, I enrolled in the UCLA Environmental and Interior Design program offered through their Extension Program. Towards the end of my schooling, I had the opportunity to be a production assistant on a commercial, and that’s when I decided I wanted to pursue set decoration rather than interior design. I loved all the energy of working on a production crew and the fact that you have the opportunity to create and decorate such a wide variety of environments. My first few jobs were unpaid until I could prove my worth to those who hired me. I am thankful that a few people took their chances on a recent design graduate.

What does a typical day on set consist of?
MW: My day consists of getting to work around 7 and meeting with the crew. There are several art directors who, once the sets are designed, go about making sure all the work gets done. They oversee the construction department and make sure the sets are getting built on schedule and answer all the questions as they arise. The rest of my day is generally spent in meetings with writers or directors and scouting locations for the next episodes. I’m always one episode ahead. We have a different director for each episode, so I work with that person and prep while the rest of the crew shoots the current episode. It never ends.

HS: I usually have to juggle the creative side with the logistical, practical side of set dressing. I have a variety of meetings and scouts for each episode, and I also have to manage my buyer and leadman, who runs the set-dressing crew. Then I have multiple budgets that I need to generate and negotiate. Between all these responsibilities, I have to find time to design the set dressing and decide what items to put on a set. This also includes any manufacturing of furniture or drapery that comes up.