What exactly do you do on a film production?
My role is to create objects that are used or handled by the actors, according to how the prop master envisions the production. For a period film, I might have to add a patina to a character’s cigarette lighter, giving the metal an oxidized finish. We see that this is “his” lighter – that he uses it regularly and carries it in his pocket. Another example: For the TV series The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, where a manuscript that has been buried for a long time in a leather bag is discovered, I had to age bundles of paper, making them appear smudged and swollen and torn at the corners. Basically, I bring objects to life!
How does working in props fit in with acting?
Both professions are about creating characters, although the process is obviously much more developed in front of the camera than behind it. When I create a prop, I imagine how the actor is going to use it, handle it, hang it up or set it down. Sometimes, it goes well beyond that: To make the private diary of a little girl in Pet Sematary by hand, I had to get inside the character’s skin and imagine her handwriting, her style of drawing, the way she would organize each page – I love that aspect of what I do. I’ve always wanted to work on film and television sets, and I’m lucky enough to be able to fulfil this dream in two different ways, even though for now, as an actor, I only have a few small speaking roles under my belt. It’s a nice combination for a freelancer like myself.
What are the skills you need to make it in this line of work?
Ever since I was a little kid, I was always very artistic. I like sewing, drawing, painting and tinkering, and this comes in very handy in my profession. You also have to be meticulous – probably even more so than with creating film and TV sets, which are very important but which are often in the background. My props have to be perfect, because the director might decide to zoom in on them, for close-up insert shots. Of course, sometimes I work extremely hard and put a lot into creating a prop, and it ends up getting cut during editing, but that’s how it goes in filmmaking! You also have to be efficient, work quickly and be able to stay calm under pressure. On any given day, the director might decide he wants a new prop that was never in the plans, and I might be told, “Valérie, you have no time for coffee right now because we’re shooting in 30 minutes.” That kind of adrenalin rush will get you going in a hurry!
Did you have a mentor, someone who helped you break into the industry?
When I was starting out, in 2009, I got the chance to meet the set decorator Louise Cova during an internship on the film Barney’s Version. She gave me, along with two other assistants, the task of folding table napkins so that they looked as fancy as possible, for a scene shot in a restaurant. She ended up choosing my napkins, and she remembered me later on when she needed a hand. From that moment on, she would take me on set as though I were her assistant. She showed me the ropes and introduced me to the right people. As one thing led to another, I started to get noticed and I developed a good network of contacts. That’s important, because in this industry, you tend to work with the same people again and again.
What’s your typical day like?
I show up at the production offices very early, around 7 a.m., because the props team generally has a lot of research to do. We have meetings and, from time to time, show-and-tells where we present our props to the director and the art director. Then, I head to the warehouse or the atelier, where I have a small workspace. I work almost exclusively in preproduction and I almost never go on set, except for emergencies, when I have to correct or quickly create something.
Which production really marked a turning point for you?
I would say it was The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. It was my first big contract, with a big-time director (Jean-Jacques Annaud), and I worked on the production from beginning to end. With the props team, I had to create objects that play an important role in the series, and I’m proud of that. During filming, I felt that my work truly counted, which is very validating, and I was able to take on some neat challenges. Among other things, at the director’s request I had to design a system to insert tiny cameras into boxing gloves, because he wanted to capture the punches thrown during a fight. And I had to create these boxing gloves for several different eras!
Any advice for someone starting out in your field?
You have to really like what you’re doing. On a set, when you’re not happy it always shows, and people are less inclined to hire you the next time around. That’s no problem for me, though, because I love my job!