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When Darcy C. Scanlin was hired as the production designer of “Uncle Frank,” she had a very good idea of what writer and director Alan Ball wanted.
All she had to do was read the script.
Scanlin tells Variety that the pages were full of notes describing every location in exacting detail. “It actually gives me goose bumps thinking about it because his sense of storytelling and place is so rich and so vivid,” Scanlin says.
In the film, which bows Nov. 25 on Amazon Prime, Paul Bettany plays Frank, a gay English professor in New York City in the 1970s who returns to his childhood home in the South when his father dies. The trip triggers traumas from his past as he grapples with not telling his family about his sexuality and that the man he’s brought with him is his longtime partner, Wally (played by Peter Macdissi).
The entire film was shot in and around Wilmington, N.C. A farmhouse on the brink of demolition, because it was so badly damaged by Hurricane Florence in 2018, was used for Frank’s family home. “It was in pretty bad shape so we had, which isn’t usually the case, carte blanche to do whatever we wanted to it,” Scanlin says.
The kitchen was transformed into a decades-worn family gathering spot, including installation of a deep 1940s sink, an avocado green linoleum floor and wallpaper featuring a “provincial 1960s idyllic farm-oriented pattern,” Scanlin says.
Bric-a-brac was found at local antiques shops, as was a lot of the furniture. “Something that my set decorator, Amy Morrison, and I usually do is we think about the history of the place — what happened there last week, and then what happened a year ago, and 10 years ago, and 50 years ago,” Scanlin says. “The layers come from this process of time unfolding and you’re not just seeing the present but you’re seeing the artifacts from years and years of family history.”
That was very clear in the dining room. “Alan’s notes said there was an ornate formal dining table of dark mahogany that seats six with regal chairs that look extremely uncomfortable,” Scanlin says. “They were probably pre-Civil War. Clearly, somebody used to have a little money, but now the chairs have been repurposed, with vinyl duct tape covering the rips in the upholstery. The house belongs to an earlier, more rural time, a time before modern conveniences and built-ins.’”
Several scenes – including flashbacks to the 1940s — take place in the den, where Frank’s stern and homophobic father, played by Stephen Root, would hold court in a golden yellow chair. They looked at dozens of chairs and were ready to have some shipped from Los Angeles and an Atlanta prop house, but eventually found the right one at a local thrift store. Scanlin added a deer head to the wall as well as several rifles. “We really wanted the energy to feel a bit darker there because that was really tapping into Frank’s emotional tone,” she says.
Ball originally envisioned a yellow sofa but changed his mind when Scanlin and Morrison suggested a plaid one.
“We found the couch on Craigslist,” Scanlin says. “It was about an hour away, and we found someone to pick it up.”
Frank and Wally’s Greenwich Village pad was shot in the same downtown Wilmington apartment used for Isabella Rossellini’s character’s apartment in “Blue Velvet.” It was unfurnished, and the walls were painted white.
“We wanted to create a really eclectic place that was full of different influences,” Scanlin says. “We were looking at art from the South and art from the Middle East because Wally is from Saudi Arabia.”
While they had to buy the rights to use a few of the pieces, many were found at the Library of Congress because they don’t require licensing fees. “We had a large-format printer, and we printed all of that artwork,” Scanlin recalls. “We framed everything ourselves. We went to every single thrift store, and I think we bought them all out of any frames they had.”
And then there was Frank and Wally’s pet lizard.
“We had an animal wrangler, but we had to create the terrarium for it,” Scanlin says. “There was a lot of concern about making sure the terrarium was going to be a healthy habitat for the lizard and that he wouldn’t get overheated by all the lights. I did go to Petco after several conversations with the wrangler.”