Interviews with Insiders – Prop Master, Alex Potter
July 11, 2018
Few people are aware of what really goes into making each set in a movie or on a TV show feel real. From massive blockbusters like “Titanic“, to smaller projects like Vin Diesel’s “Multi-facial“, each and every detail matters. Props the actors use and touch must be as real as possible. Everything actors don’t touch must add to the universe and hold the audience there, in that real or imagined space. It is the job of set dressers, among others, to create illusion. They must be masters at it.
Today I am excited to have Alex Potter with me. He is an established set dresser in the IATSE 44 union with a detailed eye trusted by some of the hottest studios and networks in Hollywood. His keen ability to execute highly detailed and cinematically rewarding set dressing can be seen on shows such as “Glow” on Netflix, winner of Best Television Series (2017) and the Excellence in Production Design Award (2018) and “Life in Pieces” on CBS. He has also worked on feature films such as “Lady Bird”, winner of AFI’s Movie of the Year (2018) and COFCA’s Best Picture award (2018) and “Truth or Dare”.
Dru: Good morning, Alex. Thank you for taking the time today to answer some burning questions I have about your role in the entertainment industry.
Alex: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
Dru: Of course. Now, before we go any further, can you explain what it is you do?
Alex: Yeah, definitely. Each day is different, just like each job is different. Some of the jobs I do within my Union are Greensman, when I am populating a location with outdoor set dressing. I may be a Propmaster one day where I am the person in charge of the prop department. I might work as a Property Person where I manage general set dressing for an office or living room, like with sitcoms. I do a lot of Set Decorating which is when I am in charge of finding and organizing the set decorations. I’ll also be the Special Effects person which involves smoke machines, water related needs, and any practical effects like break-away glass, or bottles.
Dru: Whoa. That’s a lot of hats you wear. What if what you need doesn’t exist or you can’t get a hold of it?
Alex: Heh, that’s not an option. The show has to go on. If we can’t find it we make it, if we can’t make it we fake it. There is no “can’t”.
Dru: I’m sure that makes some sets and assignments – eventful – to say the least. As a Greensman or Propmaster, I assume you have to deal with large objects like trees or couches. How do you get them from A to B?
Alex: After hunting through any one of the dozens of prop houses in LA, we have to take what we need and figure out if a flatbed truck is needed or if we can just toss it in the trunk of our car. So, to get what we need from A to B we simply put wheels under it. That means you might be holding it in your hand as you ride a bicycle across the lot. Like before, there is no “can’t”. It needs to get to the set by any means necessary. Probably the most awkward prop I’ve ever had to deal with was a suitcase filled with dildos.
Dru: Oh… Geeze. I’m not even going to ask about that one. When you are looking for props and deciding what to use, is it hard to try and see the director’s or production designer’s vision?
Alex: One of the biggest parts of my job is communication. We are often dealing with purely imaginary things. So understanding the designer’s vision is only as challenging as the quality of their communication. If they are vague, life sucks. If they know what they want and are clear, life is wonderful.
Dru: That sounds like it can be stressful. Is set dressing what drew you to the entertainment industry in the beginning? Or did you start out passionate about another role?
Alex: Well, I wanted to be a director, just like everyone else, but life comes along and complicates things. I still want to direct, and I’ve found a few opportunities. But, basically, when you move out on your own, get married, etc, it becomes harder to go out on a limb with creative ventures. So jump on it early in life and really go for it.
Dru: So what drew you to the film industry in the first place?
Alex: I trace my interest back to a drive-in movie experience at an early age. I saw John Carpenter’s “The Thing” and couldn’t understand how I was seeing what I was seeing. There had to be an explanation. My path was set. I’ve had a camera in my hands ever since.
Dru: Were there times you thought getting this far just wasn’t going to happen? How do you deal with that?
Alex: I don’t see it as “getting far” or “making it”. I just don’t have enough interest in anything else. I really love a good story. My personality type is also such that I can’t sit still and do one thing too long, I get bored. I do better when there are many things going on.
Dru: You are lucky to have something you are so clearly passionate about. Often times I find myself running in a hundred different directions because so much interests me, I dream about doing all of it. So I have to really focus myself to stick to one thing. What is your dream role?
Alex: My dream would be to have more people who I can collaborate with more often, like a production company. To develop scripts and make our own shows, that would be my dream.
Dru: That sounds like a dream someone with your drive and connections could certainly accomplish. What advice would you give to aspiring below-the-line people?
Alex: My best advice is the same advice I try to apply to myself everyday. Volume. With media being the way it is today, the only way to stand out (if you are a small fish), is volume. Make more, do more. Unless you’re Spielberg’s child, it’s going to be hard to get noticed.
Dru: Yes. The entertainment industry is one of the most sought out industries in the world. How did you get your first gig in Hollywood? Is it true that “who you know” means everything to people trying to make it?
Alex: Who you know is HUGE. You can be a brain-dead lump and make a lot happen if you know the right people. I got work by being persistent. Years ago I wanted to get in on a production company and find a job. I reached out to a few dozen emails listed on production company websites looking for job opportunities. I received one response. It was the assistant to an executive producer. He invited me for lunch and I never stopped coming back. Through him, I met directors, producers, etc. So by knowing one guy, I met dozens of other people whom I would never have been in contact with otherwise.
Dru: That’s fantastic. So even then, you had to have a high volume of outreaching emails to get noticed. If you could go back and do things differently, would you? What would you change?
Alex: The only thing I’d change is that I would have started at an earlier age. When you have fewer responsibilities it is easier to take bigger risks.
Dru: Interesting. Of the people I ask that, the majority say the same thing. Start as early as possible.
Alex: Yeah. It’s true. Had I put in more volume and consistency ten years earlier, I’d certainly know more people. I would probably be much closer to achieving my dream of owning my own production company. Maybe a house and all that other stuff too.
Dru: With the amount of people you come in contact with everyday, I’m sure you have some pretty amazing, funny, or strange stories. Are there any you can share? You don’t have to name names.
Alex: I definitely meet characters every day. Freelance crew people are like the misfit rebels of the professional world. We all like our freedom and don’t want anyone breathing down our necks. Most people are pretty laid back, some are high strung. Most recently I remember a Teamster truck driver who played Metallica full volume and crashed a 5 ton truck into a building. I never saw him again.
Dru: Wow. I’m sure he’ll have a hard time recovering professionally from that one. Getting back to putting in that volume and building consistency – I’m sure some comes from participating in short films, film festivals, and indie projects. How or what affect did those experiences have on you and your career. Would you recommend getting involved in projects like that to aspiring entertainment industry folks?
Alex: Yes to all of the above. Shorts and small projects can be difficult for any number of reasons, but nevertheless they are useful. I see it like this: The skinny guy in the gym can look like Arnold [Schwarzenegger], but he has to put in the work. So always workout. The same goes with film-making. And again, volume and consistency. You have to keep at it. And yeah, you’ll spend days with people you never want to work with again, but you’ll also find great partners to collaborate with. Everything is an opportunity to learn, to hone your skills, to network… Just keep at it. I watch credits on films and look up people like prop masters, production designers, and the heads of departments to see who they work with and try to connect to them. I’m always looking for new contacts and more work. That’s kind of the nature of this business.
You can find out more about Alex and the projects he works on through his IMDB page, his website, and his social media handle: @from1978.
Interview written by Dru Cartier, July 2018
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Dru started Word Sprouts as a means to develop and share her passion for the creative arts. In addition to writing screenplays, she enjoys sharing book recommendations, interviewing people in the entertainment industry, and breaking stories apart to see why they worked or not.
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