Ross MacDonald
world in flames

How will history judge the Trump presidency? In the October issue of Vanity Fair magazine, scholars attempt to answer that question, in six trenchant essays. Last summer I had the pleasure of illustrating one of those essays, called Powers of Separation by Robert Dallek.  The day after I turned in the final art, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville almost made it seem like this illustration was coming horribly to life.
Hateful Eight & Red Apple
Much of the action in Quentin Tarantino's latest movie Hateful Eight takes place in an 1870 Wyoming trading post called Minnie's Haberdashery.  While you’re viewing it – either in glorious 70mm or regular format – look past the cracking dialog, flying bullets and spraying blood.  There – in the background, on the shelves, and occasionally in the character's hands – you may glimpse a few cans and packages and other general store stuff.  For a few months last winter, I was lucky enough to help create a few of those things.
One of those was the Red Apple tobacco tin. Red Apple is an iconic Tarantino brand that has appeared in every one of his films since Pulp Fiction.  The Red Apple cigarette packages in those other films had an image of an apple with a cartoon worm popping out of it. When propmaster Don Miloyevich commissioned me to redesign the brand for this movie, we talked about doing something different – not just in terms of making it more fitting to the period but reimagining it altogether. I drew inspiration for the illustration from lush late 19th century chromolithographed tobacco packaging. The addition of Eve and the serpent gave it a classical look, and yet somehow a looming hint of something ominous.

Most of the things I made were designed on the fly during production, so sometimes I made different versions so the director and actors could see which they preferred. They knew they wanted the Red Apple brand to be loose tobacco, but weren’t sure about the packaging. I made both sacks and tins, and the tins were chosen.
I also made a counter display, which shows up in the background on the store shelves.

Loose tobacco needs matches and rolling papers. The matchboxes were each made by hand from thin basswood that was soaked overnight, then scored, cut, folded, and wrapped in the traditional purple tissue paper. The original version of the label said ‘safety matches’, since those were in common use at the time. But the director wanted to use light-anywhere matches, so I changed the label and made new larger boxes.

A couple of the characters are bounty hunters, bringing in various malefactors for justice and reward, so we get to see some warrants – printed forms that were filled out by hand. Most of the time it takes to make a period prop like this is spent researching. These are based partly on real Wyoming warrants from the period, but the engraved state seal is fancied up a mite and may offend the sensibilities of hard core Wyoming Territory warrant buffs.

It’s no secret that some of the characters are not who they seem. One may or may not be the hangman.

I hand set his card, execution invitations and other papers with period 1870s lead type and ornaments, and hand printed them on an old cylinder press.

Tarantino requested several brands of tobacco and cigarettes for different characters. He wanted one with an Indian motif, and suggested some actual tobacco brand names from that slightly less enlightened time period.  As with everything else, we were given little further information – just the way I like it. These were commissioned during the frantic filming process, and there was no time for any back-and-forth with sketches and approval. So I made three different versions so he could choose which he liked. I put the label graphics together from a mix of elements – type, hand lettering, ornaments, and images from period tobacco labels. “Machine rolled” cigarettes had appeared slightly later than the time period of our film, but we couldn’t resist using the term on these. Dozens of these packages and clamshell boxes were handmade by doughty intern Leo Magrani, who also rolled hundreds of cigarettes.

A mustache wax tin was also requested for a character. With some props you get some direction, but often you're on your own. For many of these I came up with the brand name, wrote the copy, designed it, fabricated it and shipped it. In the case of some, like this one, it was a same day turnaround.
This Abe Lincoln letter appears at several memorable points in the film.
For the text of the letter, I was sent a picture of QT's handwritten notes.

Part of a propmaster’s job is to anticipate what a director might need before they even know they need it. To that end, Don M. requested I make up some dime novels for the store.  Since they were likely only for background use, I tracked down some late 19th century mags and reprinted multiple copies of 8 or 10 of them with few changes. But for a couple of dime novels I couldn’t resist writing new title lines, and creating new covers from bits and pieces.   I guess I missed my true calling as a shlock dime novel author, writing under my nom de plume Colonel Roscoe "Buckskin" MacDonald. You might see some of these in the background, scattered here and there in Minnie's Haberdashery. Some were also hung up in the outhouse for frontier toilet paper. Luckily I printed these on paper that’s soft, yet absorbent.
There were other props that I worked on that aren’t shown here, like a Rough On Rats poison container, other tobacco packages, a can of peaches, etc.
Leo Magrani and Max Makowski helped design some tea and coffee tin labels, and a tonic label. I also helped the set decorating department with a glass-top pen display case, and some pens and nibs. I made a little pen nib box just because why not?  If you look real closely, you can see Michael Madsen using one of my gold and ebony dip pens and inkwells to jot his memoirs.
Looking for JOY

David O Russell’s latest film, JOY, is based loosely on Joy Mangano, the inventor of the Miracle Mop among many other things. It stars Jennifer Lawrence as Joy and Robert DeNiro as her father Rudy.  I saw it recently and loved it – it's a great movie. I admit I may have been slightly swayed by the fact that I worked on a few props for it last winter, with propmaster Vinnie Mazzarella. We’ve worked together a lot over the last few years on shows like Boardwalk Empire and Silver Linings Playbook. At one point early on during JOY, Vinnie called me and said “This is gonna sound weird, but back in your day, what did people do before computer dating?” By “your day” he meant the late 80s, when most of the action of JOY is set. I told Vinnie that in that magical time, the back pages of magazines and indie newspapers were filled to bursting with personal ads and ads for dating services. The director didn’t want to use a real magazine for this, so I suggested I make up our own version of the type of free local periodical that you used to see in street corner boxes and by the doors of restaurants.  Like Auto Trader, but full of personals. They were so busy filming between epic blizzards in Boston that I was left pretty much alone to come up with this thing. It was fun – writing copy, making up fake ads and putting it together. As with many other movie props, the design part is a careful balancing act. You want to make something that looks good, but it’s much more important that it look convincing.  So I closed my eyes and tried to conjure up a mental image of some bad 80s display typography and stock photography… et voila! Long Island Strictly Personals - an 80s freebie rag that never existed.
In the back office of his auto body shop, Joy’s divorced father scours the personal ads and spots a likely prospect.

I knew we’d probably never see the inside front cover on screen (turns out I was right), but I never like to leave pages blank on a prop book or magazine, just in case. So why not make up a bunch of fake dating service ads? I used some 80s pictures of me, my wife, her sister, and my friend Max.
Besides this, I worked on lots of other paper props for Joy – checks, legal papers, notary seals, reams and reams of patents and patent applications, and other stuff. I also doggedly tracked down complete runs of 1988, ‘89’ and ’90 Penthouse, Playboy and Hustler magazines.
Thankfully those ended up not appearing onscreen, but another thing I worked on did – a children’s’ book about cicadas that Joy reads to her daughter. I did the illustrations, designed the interior, and printed and bound the hardcover books. There was a lot of back and forth with this thing – I made several versions. There were more than a few all-nighters and frantic delivery runs up to Boston during howling blizzards, so I’m glad we actually see it after all of that. As a bonus, you see a few shots of a “real” children’s book that I illustrated – Hit The Road Jack by Robert Burleigh.
These spreads are from an early version of the cicada book. In the movie you see huge full screen close-ups of the cicada illustrations.

Childhood's End

Tonight is the season finale of Childhood’s End, the Syfy Channel 3-part adaptation of the Arthur C. Clarke’s 1953 novel of the same name, arguably his best. It’s a tale of the near future, when giant spaceships appear in the sky over earth, and the Overlords quickly eradicate all war, hunger, disease and want. They replace it all with a golden age of peace and prosperity for all, but of course it comes with a hefty price tag attached.  I won’t spoil it for you – if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch.
The Syfy Channel asked me to work on a piece for web and social media promotion for the series. It’s a faux 1950’s children’s book called Children’s Guide to Utopia. It shows an ideal Dick and Jane style world that is perfect in every way, and yet somehow subtly, creepily  This illustration sums it up – the children enjoying a bounteous picnic under the ever-watchful shadow of the Overlord’s huge ship.

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