Saturday, 25 May 2013

McClellanville's Stephanie Waldron keeps Hollywood's blockbusters green

by Kelly Rae Smith 

The Greensman

Stephanie Waldron's homebase is nestled away in McClellanville, quite possibly the most picturesque corner of the South. But she can also be found creating remarkable scenes from scratch in destinations both near and far. You're probably already familiar with her handiwork, like that island and those banyan trees in Life of Pior that bountiful garden in Cold Mountain. You see, Waldron has made a career as something the rest of us are totally clueless about: she's a greensman.
According to Waldron, a greensman collaborates with other departments on the set of movies to erect all exterior installations, doing what's needed to bring an outdoor scene to life despite budget and geographical constraints. Fake leaves? She paints them. Real cornfield? She plants it. From filling a background with tissue paper flowers to actually plowing a field for harvest, Waldron has to use her imagination and a lot of elbow grease to do the impossible. Like making a set in Romania appear as the North Carolina mountains. Or setting an entire neighborhood back 40 years. Or making Texas look like it's Missouri.
"With the job we were doing in Texas, there were mesquite trees, and I had to make it look like a tree that would have worked for Missouri," she says. "But that's part of the fun. You have to go somewhere and figure out how to do your job, and figure out how to make the location that they've decided to film in suit the location that they're supposed to be in."
Waldron, born in Kenya and schooled in England, broke into show business over 30 years ago when she was crossing a Lowcountry street one day and a director, desperate for crew, spotted her. Her first job was with a 1983 Charleston-based film called Special Bulletin. Back then, although her love and knowledge of horticulture was blossoming at full speed, she got her movie break as part of the "swing gang" that moves furniture to the set dressers. But it wasn't until she was a laborer for the Civil War miniseries North and South II that she got to see a Los Angeles greensman working his magic and said, "That's what I should do." And she did.
Now the stamp of her green thumb has touched and changed the way we look at blockbusters like Last of the MohicansDances with Wolves, and The Help. And although working in cities like Savannah (for her most recent job) and Wilmington (that's next week) afford her the convenience of being close to home, it's not unusual to be on location as far away as India, Taiwan, or New Zealand for stretches as long as nine months. "I've been to places that I never would have dreamed of going," she says. "And I'm a complete gypsy now because I've traveled so much with my work over the last however many years."
Asked about the most satisfying experience in her career, she responds with a place right here in North America: Nova Scotia. There, the creative forces had to "replicate alpine-like plant growth on the shore, in the studio." That "studio" was inside a hockey rink. Waldron helped transform it into Delores Claiborn's palace gardens. Quite the feat.
What's next? Look out for more of Waldron's phenomenal invention with November's release of August: Osage County, a film based on a Broadway play, starring the likes of Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Ewan McGregor, and Juliette Lewis. And when you see that big, pretty tree in the front yard, know that it used to be in the backyard, and this awe-inspiring local lady had a hand in that, too.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Personal Essay: Don't think twice, it's all right

I have always wanted to be more like Elizabeth Walker. We met at 82 Queen, and I remember when we first officially hung out outside of work. It was her 21st birthday: February 9, 2000. In between the 21 shots she would consume, E blurted out her number to me that night, and it was etched in my brain from that point forward. I don’t know why, but those seven digits just stuck. Not the simplest one to recall but I somehow always did, which we always thought funny.

That night her infectious laughter and mission to make life as fun as possible became part of me forever. I had no idea how meaningful it would be later on, to be able to recall so many details about Elizabeth and our friendship. Little things I remember her doing and saying have become part of my makeup and the solution to keeping her alive in my everyday life.

After losing one of my most cherished friends on this planet to cancer seven months ago, it all seemed unbearable. And now as time passes, I miss her more and more, and it seems even more impossible that she’s not here. Perhaps sometimes it feels like she’s up in Manhattan living her life still, and is just too busy living it up to keep in touch. And though forgetting her friends (her family) was never, ever her way, maybe that helps me to put one foot in front of the other. But there are small things I remember her doing or saying that will always keep me satiated, too. I feel healthier, stronger, and happier with her little voice in my head advising me along in life. And doing these small things will help remind me that she will always be around, and knowing this will sometimes keep the tears at bay.

Take yesterday, for instance. I got up early, remembering also that she liked to get up early and chill out, taking her time getting ready for work. She liked to scramble eggs with veggies and watch the Today show before she left. I realize that this is why I now do the same. Another What Would E Do moment. I even drink the same coffee we drank in her Hell’s Kitchen studio, bought specifically in and sent to her from our friend in Charleston. We called it ‘crack coffee’ because I could run no less than 10Ks on the stuff, and I love remembering that this became a joke between us.

So she’s a part of my mornings now. And since her mother passed on to me a lot of her nice makeup, she gets to stay with me all day, too. I can hear her now raving to me about a great Bare Minerals mascara as we perused the 34th Street shop after one of her chemo treatments; and I remember our walks through Sephora—she, a kid in a candy store and I, simply in awe of her excitement. As usual, she passed on her enthusiasm to me in that store and other makeup counters where I’d be otherwise indifferent. She was really so beautiful without makeup but the way she would light up when finding a new eyeshadow—well, you couldn't argue with that.

Yesterday, I went to Trader Joe’s for a minute, and once inside I remembered coming to visit Elizabeth in New York for a weekend. I arrived to her announcement that she had especially gone to Trader Joe’s for some wine to celebrate my visit and to take the edge off after my long journey from Scotland, where I’d lived on and off for six years. I knew it wasn’t a short journey for her either, getting to Lincoln Square from the West 51st, and I always treasured this sweet gesture, even still as I buy my own wine in Trader Joe’s years later.

And then, I stopped at Whole Foods for some cooking oil. I passed through the breakfast section and saw that 365 house brand on a cereal box I distinctly remember E keeping in her apartment, bought from the Columbus Circle location where she regularly shopped. I stood there staring as if it were too much to see her cereal box in this store. I concentrated on the memory so hard, as if doing so would transport me back to living and laughing with her three years ago when nothing could touch us.

Food shopping always reminds me of E, and I try to listen for her old advice so I can replicate her healthy ways. Should I want something sweet, I remember that she told me to put grapes or bananas in the freezer. I did that last night, wondering if she could see me and imagining she was giving me the thumbs up. If I want an easy and healthy lunch to take to work, I remember she’d take a can of tuna and a salad. And if I want some fries—our favorite— I remember her joking, “If we keep this up, we’re gonna have to resort to a diet of lettuce and mustard!”

And then at the gym last night, I was so tired. But I remembered how long E would spend at the gym, and I made sure to stick it out. Whenever I’m not feeling it, I suck it up and try to get in another mile, knowing that it’s for her. She never took for granted that she was alive and healthy. She was always alive as could be. She pushed herself to complete the NYC half marathon a few years ago, and then qualified in 2010 for the 2011 marathon that she never ran because of her diagnosis. So now I run for her, because that is what she would love to be doing if only she were still here.

Her absence is a change I will never get used to, but I hope to cope with it better as she continues to teach me more and more about life and how to enjoy it and prolong it. I remember when she changed her number from that Charleston number. It was four years ago, and it was surprisingly distressing for many who, like myself, had grown attached to those reliable digits. But she was ready to embrace her life as a New Yorker and get her new number, never afraid to shake things up a little and teaching me yet another lesson that would (who knew?) help me through these hard days without her: You can disagree with change and fight it tooth and nail, and though it may be absolutely none of your business to ever understand it, there comes a time when you have to trust that this is how it has to be, and that everything will be just fine. Eventually.

I miss you so much, E. I know you'll be with us tonight, and even if Bob doesn't sing your anthem, I promise that we will: Don't think twice, it's all right.