What Really Happens on a Film Set?

Armed with a Polaroid camera, this Hollywood production designer documents behind-the-scenes moments like no one else. Here's how he got where he is (and how you can, too).

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Name: Happy Massee, Production Designer

Films: Broken English, Welcome to the Rileys, The Immigrant, Two Lovers

Music Videos: "99 Problems," Jay Z; "Hardest Button to Button," The White Stripes; "Take a Bow," Madonna; "Wicked as It Seems," Keith Richards

Fashion Films and Shoots: Gucci, Bulgari, Valentino, H&M, Ferragamo, Chanel

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How did you get into this field?

When I was a kid, I was always into design. I was always rearranging my room. When I finally made it to art school, I felt more comfortable working on and designing spaces. I grew up in France, and I went to the School of Applied Arts of Paris. While there, I worked with an architect who started doing movies. I assisted him on a couple features. When I moved to New York, I went to FIT, I did some night classes at NYU. I went to a theater design school that taught the basics of theater, some scene painting, watercolor renderings, traditional backdrop painting.

What was your first real gig as a production designer?

One day I met this director who took me along with him to Mexico to do a music video. I didn't turn back. I loved designing as a kid, and then it naturally progressed into something that I just fell into, not really knowing what else to do.

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What advice would you give to yourself at 22?

Obviously, it's great to go to school to learn the basics, to learn how to draw, to learn how to draft. But design has always been about instinct, relying on your experiences, things you picked up in childhood.

Happy Massee began using a Polaroid in the '80s to document the sets he built, the locations where his projects shot, and the people behind and in front of the camera. These are just a few of Massee's dreamy Polaroids, now compiled into a book, Happy Massee: Diary of a Set Designer.

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"The director of photography would come in and set up his lighting. Then Madonna would come in and sit in front of the camera. I would just sneak underneath the lens of the camera, take my picture, and then run out of there because I didn't want to be in the way. It's not like I ever said, 'Oh, Madonna. Now can you please sit there? Let me take a bunch of pictures.' I tried to be as discreet as possible."

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"That was the most interesting and funny story. He opens the sunroof, turns to me, and smiles. There's no other story that matches that."

"I prefer to keep a little mystery around these images, and who these people are."

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"I wasn't even planning on holding onto the Polaroids until my assistant said, 'Why are you throwing these out?' I just made a little photo album for my coffee table. Then Fabien [Baron, the famed French creative director] and I were just talking and he agreed to put together a book. I gave everything to Fabien, and his team put it all together, pulling from another 200 to 300 Polaroids that were just in a shoebox."

"Usually, what production designers have to do to launch our careers is we have to do spec commercials. I wrote this little commercial for Lee Jeans. It was basically the story of this one young lady who goes to Cuba. She has a Lee jean jacket which gets stolen. Then you see the jacket just being traded, bartered, sold, exchanged; you just see the journey of the jacket until it ends up on Fidel Castro."

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"That's a set I designed. It was for a liquor company. It was sort of inspired by Stanley Kubrick."

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"I've worked with the top photographers in the fashion business. They don't work as much anymore, because they're being replaced by younger photographers. A lot of clients prefer to go with someone who just has sort of a more raw take on things, rather than the elaborate images that were produced by high-end photographers. The trend these days is really about point-and-shoot with your iPhone."

"I didn't give up Polaroid because of the iPhone. I gave up Polaroid because of the one-hour photo. That was sort of the middle area between Polaroid and the iPhone. Now, with the iPhone, that's all I use now. The Polaroid was a clunky thing. You would go to camera stores and they wouldn't have the right film. I gave it up just because of the practicality of it. My Polaroid camera is now a prop on a shelf in my office."

Happy Massee: Diary of a Set Designer is out now from Damiani, $50, damianieditore.com.

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