Art & Photography / Culture Talks

The Behind-the-Scenes Polaroids of a Star Set Designer

From shooting films with Wes Anderson, to capturing candid moments of Madonna, Happy Massee’s new book of Polaroids offers a rare insight into his prolific career

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Happy Massee: Diary of a Set Designer
Happy Massee: Diary of a Set Designer© Happy Massee, Courtesy of Damiani

The past 25 years for production designer Happy Massee have included their fair share of colourful memories, not least of them stints working with David Lynch, or creating the set for Jay Z's 99 problems video. In the foreword to Happy Massee: Diary of a Set Designer, a new book compiling Polaroids he has taken over a course of years while travelling the world for his work, Massee writes, “This unique camera, which was the first thing I would pack before going on a trip, was more than just a camera. It was a tool, a commodity, a colleague. A way of recording my travels, my work, all this in an instant, in the blink of an eye.”

The book includes intimate moments he snapped between locations as well as Polaroids he took on set – and acts as a memento of his journey as a production designer across film, theatre and fashion. “When I first started travelling for work as a set designer, I would bring along a Polaroid, as I needed it to show my directors pictures of props, sets under construction and locations, and I would have no time to use a point and shoot camera,” he explains. Here, we catch up with Massee to find out more about the stories behind the photographs, and the process of working with some of the greatest names in the arts and entertainment industries...

On the crossover between his work and the photographs in the book...
“The crossover happened way after the pictures were taken. The pictures were never taken with the intention of making a book. Most of them are continuity pictures, which are photos to make sure the set for the next take is exactly the same, while others are just candid photos I took because I had my camera with me while shopping for props, and noticed an interesting scene. All the pictures were taken because I thought they’d be cool pictures and they all ended up in a shoebox. It wasn’t until years later that the concept of making a book originated.”

On collaborating with Wes Anderson and David Lynch...
“I've been very fortunate to have worked with a lot of different people over the years and experienced different ways of working. I mean, working with Wes Anderson was amazing – he's very, very precise. There's no margin of error with everything he does and he knows exactly what he wants and he gets it on the first take. Working with David Lynch you just never know what to expect because you’re working with a genius who’s never going to cease to surprise you. His mind is just out there – not in a crazy way –but in that he’s such an innovative person.”

On the story behind the book cover photograph, featuring Madonna on set for her 1994 Take a Bow music video...
“I love that picture because it's a candid of her no one had ever seen before. A lot of pictures I took in the book are just scenes with natural lighting, but this one happened to be taken just after Harris Savides, the cinematographer of the video, had finished his lighting, and it was perfect. I remember the camera was on the dolly and I just snuck in right underneath and took the picture really quick before rushing out.”

On seeing his snapshots from the past 25 years all in once place...
“Most pictures don't have a story behind them, but if I flip through the book it's my diary, my trip. Every time I look at a picture, I remember who I was with, where I was, the emotions I was feeling. It's very personal.”

Happy Massee: Diary of a Set Designer, with text by Happy Massee, is out now, published by Damiani.