Have Polaroids–Will Set Dress

On-Set Dresser Cody Burleson talks about his work on KEYS TO TULSA (aka “Tornado”) in this 1994 article…


“MERRY GRIPMAS” it says on the truck outside, but Santa wouldn’t get near this place, not with mad dog security foaming at the gate. Santa might lament:

‘Twas the week before Christmas

And all through the house

Not a creature was stirring except…

… sixty grumbling crew members / a half-dozen generators / five buzzing HMIs / four gurgling service trucks / three humming makeup trailers / and two parakeets in a bird cage…

But the parakeets belong to the owner so they sit in a back room with empty boxes. I hear them twittering forlornly as the director yells, “Quiet!” They’ve been forced to watch Barney all day long on a TV with no sound on it, but suddenly they shut up. Even they know the routine by now.

“If cleanliness is next to godliness,” smiles Burleson, “then this must be hell.”

But it’s a strange place for hell. The mansion he is standing in has been taken over by Keys to Tulsa, (working title: “Tornado”) a murder mystery starring Eric Stoltz and James Spader filming at the beautiful Freeman estate in Fort Worth. Cody leans back on the grand piano and watches the two actors rehearse for a bar scene. The crew is restless.

“Can we work now?” someone mutters behind a satin drape.

The A.D. swings his eyes around like giant arc lights. The polished marble is silent. Spader asks for the fake scotch. Cody leans in but doesn’t move.

“Props,” he nods at another crewman who rushes forward. “The first thing you learn is not to do someone else’s job.” He watches an assistant fill a glass for Spader, then smiles. “Besides it’s water, not scotch.”

And he ought to know. If there’s anything in this scene that doesn’t match, shot-for-shot, he’d be on it like gaff tape. The On-Set Dresser is like a moving man with a memory . . . a photographic memory. Everything in front of the camera that doesn’t move is set dressing, and everything that’s set dressing is his responsibility. Anything that does move is either a prop or an actor, and sometimes they’re hard to tell apart.

“It’s like a ten thousand square foot jigsaw puzzle,” Cody says as he wrestles a couch into position between setups, “and you have to take it apart and put it back together again a thousand times a day.” A four-hundred pound dolly rolls by a small end table and Cody winces, “That vase is worth more than my first mortgage.” How does he maintain continuity in all this chaos? He smiles and flips a big ring on his belt. “I got more Polaroids than Larry Flint.”

After a week in the hands of filmmakers, the house could qualify for federal relief. Continuity is really everybody’s job on a picture, as Eric Stoltz realizes this when he forgets his sunglasses in one shot (his own, not a prop) and they spend an hour reshooting on the icy balcony.

“I feel like a housewife with sixty kids,” Cody says as he flops back on a couch, exhausted. “Fourteen-hour days, tripping over toys, shared bathrooms.” Asked about his own impending fatherhood, he circles a wedding band on his finger. It hasn’t been there for long. “Yeah, it’ll probably be a lot like this,” he sighs, “only messier.”

KEYS TO TULSA is due out next fall.

Cody’s baby will be released this summer.

[Editor’s note: TORNADO was later released on video as KEYS TO TULSA.]

See the call sheet for Dec. 22, 1994 below.

Image (56) Image (57)


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