The Laurence estate set for the movie "Little Women"/ Credit: Jen LaFace

If you’re tuning in to the Oscars Sunday night to see the Best Picture winner, you might miss the award for Best Achievement in Production Design. But Needham resident Jen LaFace will be paying attention. She has the rare insider’s view as a set decorator and buyer for more than a decade and knows the importance of that role.

As a member of the production design team, LaFace creates the settings that make films compelling and believable. 

Jen LaFace/ Credit: Natalie Bergeron-Keefe

“If our department has done a good job, every set looks like it was plucked out of reality,” said LaFace, whose film credits include “Little Women” and “Spirited.” “It fits the time period, location, characters’ personality or a combination of the three. My job is to make the production design vision a reality and give the actors the set in which to shine.”

As she drove from a prop warehouse in Worcester last week to the set of a movie now filming in an undisclosed location, LaFace traveled with a fire extinguisher and wall box, among other items. Just when she thought she was heading home, she was told the film’s apartment stairway needed those items delivered to the set — not tomorrow, but that night.   

“It sounds pretty straightforward, but usually it’s not,” said LaFace. “It has to be a particular fire extinguisher and box. And if I’m told it’s needed tonight, that means it’s needed tonight.” 

After 15 years in the film industry, LaFace knows to be flexible and to have a plan B and C in case the production designer and set decorator (to whom she reports) change their vision as the appearance of the set becomes clearer. It’s a demanding task to locate and select the thousands of items needed to fill a home, an office, retail store, wedding venue, park and any other spaces filmed, especially when the items need to be vintage or historic. To an outsider,  the job may seem like a glorified personal shopper,  but it requires a challenging combination of skills — an artistic eye, the ability to collaborate and multitask, efficiency, energy and flexibility.

LaFace’s film career is on the verge of reaching a new level. She is the set decorator — the designer with the vision for a set — for “High Tide,” an independent film that will be screened Saturday at the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas. Last year, she was the assistant set decorator for “Boston Strangler,” which streamed on Hulu. “High Tide,” starring  an actor famous in Brazil and featuring Marisa Tomei, is a drama about a gay Brazilian man who leaves his country to find himself and acceptance in Provincetown.

“I will be surprised if a major studio doesn’t pick up “High Tide,” said LaFace. “I think it’s a great film and it would be a big deal for me.”

Louise May Alcott’s Orchard House set built for “Little Women”/ Credit: Jen LaFace

LaFace has signed an NDA order for her current film, expected to be released late this year or in early 2025, so she can only say that it takes place in 1990 and 2008 in a New England city. Once again, she will help create the settings for a stellar cast, as she did in “Little Women,” starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Timothee Chalamet, and “Spirited,” starring Will Farrell and Ryan Reynolds.

“When I was hired for “Little Women,” I was thrilled when I heard who was in the cast and because I had loved (the earlier version of the film) when I was younger,” LaFace said. “I have the fondest memories of working on it, and it was the first film I did from that period (1860s). Everything had to be period correct, and it came out beautifully. You’re never sure beforehand because you don’t know how it will look with the lighting and how it’s being shot.”

LaFace is too busy to be star-struck, and that’s not her inclination anyway. When she once met director Greta Gerwig at the water fountain before filming, she tried to talk with her as if she were just a normal person. And usually by the time the actors are performing in the set she’s staged, LaFace is working to fill a different set, so she very rarely sees them. She does have wonderful memories of the screening party for “Hubie Halloween” in 2020, when Adam Sandler rented a theater and invited everyone from the film to attend and “was so appreciative and very humble.”

On a typical film, the set decorator and buyers (there are two buyers for her current film) have about three months of prep and three months of filming. During prep, LaFace reads the script and does a lot of online research to get a sense of the style(s) required to make the setting look authentic and lived-in.

“Every project is so different, but the consistent challenge is time,” said LaFace, who also has worked on a number of streaming and cable holiday movies. “It’s a pressure-cooker environment, and you need to be able to work with many different personalities. The crew on this film is a lot of fun to work with, and they’re very dedicated, so I have a good support team to help if I’m having a particularly hard day. We become a bit of a family on each show.”

Over the years, LaFace has developed relationships with a variety of vendors, critical to securing good prices and assistance. When she suddenly had to find the fire extinguisher, for example, the staff at Westerman Prop Warehouse had to stay late and, though she felt bad about it, they willingly accommodated her.

“I’ll go shopping and take a bunch of pictures of options and upload them to Dropbox and make folders to organize them,” she explained. “The decorator will go through them and select the ones she likes, and I’ll go back and purchase them. For big items, like furniture, a truck will go and bring them back to the set.”

The publishing house in “Little Women”/ Credit: Jen LaFace

When she’s looking for fabric for curtains and furniture, LaFace frequently shops at Zimman’s in Lynn, which supplied nearly all the fabrics for “Little Women.” Recently, she selected a bunch of vibrant, bold fabric swatches to consider for the home of one of the main characters in her current film. She tries to work with local vendors and has purchased midcentury to modern items at Vintage Finds in Needham, which disappointingly closed recently.

After nearly four months without work during the screen actors strike, LaFace, who has lived in Needham for 10 years, is particularly grateful to be working again, even though she enjoyed spending more time with her husband and children, ages 9 and 12. 

When she is not working, shopping is the last thing she wants to do. Even the most intense shopaholics might feel the same if they had her job. But she feels delight and satisfaction when all her labors come together.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work on a couple of films that have had great success,” she said. “It’s awesome when my peers think I’ve done a good job and also nice when family and friends tell me they love a movie I’ve worked on.”

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