Decorator gets a rush from finding right props for a film's every mood Setting the Scence

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Rebecca Weidner whips down Route 40, seat belt off, Quarter Pounder in hand, oblivious to the car honking behind her. She glances at the dashboard clock and curses. Never mind lunch. It's nearly 4 o'clock. Time to shop.

By day's end, she'll visit six stores, spend $630 and load her finds -- planters, wreaths, pictures and knickknacks -- into her rented minivan. Her honey-toned voice, and the wad of cash she's carrying, will convince merchants to stay open late just for her.

It helps to mention that she's working with Jodie Foster, Holly Hunter and Anne Bancroft. As the assistant set decorator for "Home for the Holidays," a romantic comedy that begins filming here next week, she's gathering furniture and accessories for 10 locations -- from the sophisticated Federal Hill apartment of Robert Downey Jr.'s character to the plant-filled West Baltimore row home of Aunt Glady, who's played by Geraldine Chaplin.

"Imagine you're a decorator," says Ms. Weidner, who's in her late 30s and divides her time between homes in Butchers Hill and Virginia. "But instead of having one client, you're decorating times 20 at this incredibly fast pace."

Fast is her only speed. She drives 70 mph. She grows impatient waiting for a dial tone between calls in her office. And her brown suede shoes are fitted with orthopedic pads, which let her race comfortably through stores while lugging a knapsack, fanny pack, binder, tape measure, beeper and camera.

With her milky skin, wavy brown hair and high-energy persona, she's like a cross between the Ivory Girl and Bette Midler.

She's a talker, a charmer, everybody's friend. She ends calls by blowing kisses into the phone. To show appreciation to an assistant, she rhapsodizes: "You've made me super-duper, bad-to-the-bone happy."

Her days begin in a makeshift office at Scarlett Place that looks as much like a dorm room as a decorator's headquarters. Snapshots of Ms. Weidner and production designer Andrew McAlpine hamming it up at Haussner's line the walls. Jack-o'-lanterns rest on file cabinets, and WHFS-FM, an alternative rock station, plays in the background.

Tacked to the walls are swatches of salmon-colored brocades, lacy sheers and architectural sketches of the Baltimore Museum of Art, BWI Airport, Memorial Stadium and Catonsville homes to be used for filming. (The crew will shoot for a month in Baltimore beginning next Wednesday then move to Los Angeles.)

Before Ms. Weidner turns herself loose on merchants, she has calls to make. She's nailing down arrangements with Utz to use its potato chips in the movie, haggling with a Kensington antique shop over rental fees and checking in with set decorator Barbara Drake in Los Angeles. "One more call and we'll get out of Dodge," she says, and then she makes five more.

As a youngster in Pennsylvania, she watched Doris Day movies to study the furniture. But she didn't consider a movie career until years after receiving her art history degree from the University of Maryland College Park, and dabbling in jewelry design and magazine journalism.

When a friend hired her as a set dresser for "Liberty," a TV miniseries filmed in Baltimore, her life changed.

"I thought: 'I can get paid to do this creative thing? This is great,' " she says.

She moved to New York and got experience in casting, wardrobe and set design for low-budget films. Several years later, she moved to Los Angeles to get more work and make more contacts.

By the mid-1980s, though, she was homesick and returned to Baltimore.

Nobody leaves

"Everybody talks about leaving, but they never do," she said. "Or when they do, they want to come back."

During her career, she's worked on more than 20 films -- including "Prince of Tides," "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Distinguished Gentleman." But what the list doesn't always explain is what went into making some movies.

For "Guarding Tess," she and the set dressing department spent a day gluing leaves back on a tree branch for a scene with Shirley MacLaine. In "Gettysburg," she had to find someone to create replicas of dead horses for scenes. And for "The Pelican Brief," she interviewed former White House chief of staff Thomas "Mack" McLarty about White House decor.

"Women think my job is so much fun," she says. "They think I get this funny money and buy stuff. But I study a lot. I went to school. It's not just about shopping."

Lead set dresser Jay Klein, who has worked with Ms. Weidner on several films, says: "Becky's very good at details. Not all buyers are. They tend to get the big things and forget the littles ones. . . . She also has an enormous amount of sources in the area and uses them well."

In the current film, which Ms. Foster will co-produce and direct, Ms. Hunter plays an art restorer at a Chicago museum who returns home to her eccentric family in Baltimore for Thanksgiving. Ms. Bancroft plays her mother, Charles Durning her father, and Claire Danes, the teen star of the TV show "My So-Called Life," plays her daughter.

Although Ms. Weidner will have limited contact with the stars, she'll know them through their characters' belongings. This afternoon, she is concentrating on decorating the home of Ms. Hunter's traditional sister (played by Cynthia Stevenson) and her hip brother (played by Mr. Downey).

Source book

Her first major stop: the Turnover Shop on Roland Avenue. She glances down a list in her source book -- a hefty binder including furniture, wallpaper and tile companies from all over the country. Within five minutes, she finds a $3 floral pillow for Aunt Glady.

Miles away, in a Baltimore warehouse where the stock is stored, assistants are growing nearly 40 kinds of plants and vegetables -- potatoes, carrots, gardenias and English ivy -- for the character's home.

"Oh, this is very Joanne Wedman," she says of a yellow porcelain basket that reminds her of Ms. Hunter's sister. "Everything in her house is brand new. She wants to belong. Everything has to be right, but she's not a very creative person."

Ms. Weidner, who won't reveal her budget for the film, picks up the rhythm: She gathers pink velvet picture frames, orange ginger jars, lampshades, silver bowls and wooden plant stands.

"Let's bomb out of here," she says after exploring both floors. "No, wait. That's an incredible frame. . . . We need frames like crazy."

Two hours and $336 later, her bags and boxes are packed. She walks toward the door and stops to gaze longingly at a needlepoint pillow.

"No," she says half to the pillow, half to the sales help. "I'm not allowed to buy another pillow for this movie. I'm cutting myself off."

With a trip to Savage Mill in Howard County ahead, she barely has time to grab a drive-through meal at McDonald's. But her hurried journey is worth it once she walks into E. J. Grant Antiques and spies a collection of colorful, hand-blown glass fish.

"Now this is exactly what I've been looking for," she says of the pieces that may adorn a museum executive's office in the film. "These things are too weird for words."

Walking around the showroom, she sees furniture she's met before. There's the Regency bed stool she rented for "Guarding Tess," the French stand-up desk from "Distinguished Gentleman."

Good design

"The mark of good design and decoration in a movie is that it's seamless," she says. "When you're looking at the room, you're not supposed to go, 'Oh, wow.' It's supposed to be natural. The actors are telling the story."

But there's little time for real philosophizing now. It's 5 o'clock, and merchants have started closing.

"As this point, you're begging people not to throw you out," she says.

She dashes into one store to buy a stuffed bunny, photographs (( art glass at another and ends her odyssey at Courtyard Gardens, a home furnishings shop.

There, she falls in love with a $145 copper vase shaped like a boot.

It would be the perfect accessory for Mr. Downey's place, which in real life is home to Baltimore Museum of Art Director Arnold Lehman.

On the opposite side of the store, she eyes a lamp with a potpourri base.

"All roads lead to this," she says. "Talk about how things peak."

The saleswoman can't write the bill quickly enough. Ms. Weidner also takes the herb pot, the Shaker-style rack, the dried bayberry, a throw, a wreath.

"Peggy? Peggy?" Ms. Weidner calls out.

The woman doesn't answer. And with good reason. Her name is Kate.

Ms. Weidner laughs. "Oh, I've been calling her Margaret, Kathy, Peggy, Pam."

Back to the warehouse

Driving to the warehouse to unload her packages, she glances around at what she's collected already: the phone booth, plastic swans, golf clubs.

It looks like a retail storeroom, but Ms. Weidner sees the backdrop for a movie.

Yet when the movie comes out this Thanksgiving, she imagines she'll see things she would do differently.

"It's very hard to look at them," she says. "You're always saying, 'There's that lampshade. I wanted to get the other one, but I didn't have time.'"

She pops a leftover french fry into her mouth. It's stone cold. Back at the office, hours of paperwork and phone calls await.

"Final thoughts on the day?" she asks. "I'm behind. I'm unsettled. . . I need to do a lot of work tomorrow."

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