by Kelly Rae Smith
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 Mohicans, Dances 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.