It’s Not Easy Being Greenspeople

Surfacing

Transforming winter into spring or creating faux forests and fanciful estates is all in a day’s work for these behind-the-scenes masters of foliage on movie and TV sets.

By Robert Ito







For “Margot at the Wedding,” the perfect oak tree was discovered by a tree surgeon on Long Island…

…except it was on private property, two miles away from the shooting location,

so a marine contractor brought it down the Shinnecock Canal by barge.

The tree was then lifted off the barge by crane, and bolted into a concrete pad.

Nicole Kidman was going to be climbing the tree, so the insurance company needed to know that everything possible was done to make things safe for the actress.

The climbing part came under the stunts department, but anything greens-related was the greensperson Will Scheck’s responsibility. “If she fell out of the tree, that’s not my fault…

“But if the tree fell over while she was in it? That would have been my fault.”

For two decades, Ginny Walsh has worked as a greensperson on a variety of TV shows and movies, from “Meet the Parents” to, most recently, “The Gilded Age.” Greenspeople like Walsh provide and care for the assorted trees and shrubs and grasses on film sets — hence “greens” — but they’ll also step in and help with other nonvegetative tasks like, say, digging graves (for funeral scenes or mob hits) and trenches (for World War I battle sequences). There are fewer than a dozen full-time greenspeople working in New York, according to Walsh. “It’s one of those jobs where people go, ‘Ohhh, I didn’t even know that that exists,” she said.

As with much of the entertainment industry, a lot of what Walsh does is fakery. Those beautiful flowers in that lush garden might be plastic, or silk, or live flowers attached to nonblooming plants; those fruit trees in front of that grand estate may have arrived just that morning, their pots artfully hidden behind some newly placed shrubbery. Over the years, Walsh has created a tropical Vietnamese jungle in the suburbs of Westchester County for “The Post,” Steven Spielberg’s film about the Pentagon Papers, and a wheat field out of truckloads of ornamental grasses for “The Americans.” When the producers of “Meet the Parents” wanted to shoot a fall scene in the winter, she and the rest of the greens crew painstakingly placed fake autumn foliage, leaf by fall-colored leaf, onto trees that had long ago gone bare. “If it’s summer, they want winter; if it’s winter, they want summer,” she said.








“Maniac,” starring Emma Stone, is set in a futuristic lab, where you’ll spot this bonsai diorama.

The diorama was the idea of Ginny Walsh, the greens coordinator for the show.

This bonsai tree is about 30 inches tall.

Walsh based her design on woodblock prints by the Japanese artist Hokusai.

The cliffscape was carved out of foam by the scenic designers and painted to look like cliffs.

The greenspeople then dug little trenches and inserted containers holding the individual bonsai trees.

The showrunners loved the bonsai so much…

…they ended up sticking bonsai all over the place.

Greensperson has been a legitimate film profession in Los Angeles since the 1920s, said Will Scheck, a retired greensman who has worked on Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm” and Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and the television series “Madam Secretary” and “Ramy.” But New York has been a different story. Back in the mid-90s, when Scheck got his first greens job, there weren’t any full-time greensmen in the city. If producers needed that sort of work done, they’d call the set dresser, or one of the props people in Scheck’s union, IATSE Local 52, or even farm the work out to a local landscaper. Scheck saw an opportunity, and started calling himself a “greens coordinator.” “I just made that up,” he admitted. Key greens, chief greens, lead greens — they’re all names for the head greensperson on a film or TV production.

What makes a good greensperson? The best of them know how and where to get things, no matter how rare or obscure or out of season. There are rental places in New Jersey for fake trees, feed stores for bales of hay on Staten Island, and nurseries from Long Island to White Plains for just about everything else. “I’ve given nurseries a couple bucks for weeds,” said the greensperson Michael Thompson.









For “Fosse/Verdon,” Michael Thompson oversaw the titular couple’s verdant interiors.

Filming took place during winter, so Thompson’s crew had to set up a grow light area and irrigation system to keep the plants alive.

Because the show jumps around the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s the houseplants were replaced or moved to reflect the passage of time.

The dracaena marginata (or Madagascar dragon tree)…

…spans the decades.

A spider plant…

…survives redecorating.

While next to the telephone…

…a gnarled aloe vera takes over.

Sometimes, greenspeople need to travel farther afield. On the set of “Mildred Pierce,” the 2011 mini-series starring Kate Winslet, wintry sections of New York had to stand in for sunny Southern California, circa the 1930s. To find the scores of needed tropical plants, Scheck trekked down to nurseries in Homestead, Fla., just outside of Miami. “I probably went there 10 or 15 times,” he said.

Scheck returned with four or five tractor-trailers full of greenery — including 15 palm trees, each standing 20 feet tall — that he and his crew placed in an enormous greenhouse built specifically for the shoot on the Steiner Studios lot in Brooklyn. One April night, there was a frost warning, so the crew scrambled to fill the place with electric heaters to keep their $50,000 investment alive. “We sort of went in panic mode,” he said. The plants survived the night.









The greens in “The Stepford Wives” were also overseen by Scheck.

His crew brought in all these plants, including begonias…

…and hydrangeas.

Joanna Eberhart, played by Nicole Kidman, moves to this mansion.

These flowers are fake and made of silk.

A producer insisted the location needed 25 cherry trees lining the driveway.

Scheck paid a contractor $60,000 to plant the trees in one day.

Scheck and his team had only one hour to dress this location before the cameras arrived, so none of these greens are actually planted in the ground.

The red flowers are tipped forward to hide their pots while also hiding the pots of the shrubs behind them.

Many greenspeople also have their own stash, squirreled away in attics and rented storage facilities, much of it kept from previous projects. Like the most committed of hoarders, they never know when something might come in handy, so they have thousands of leaves in assorted greens and browns; fake vines and trees and shrubs; and artificial wildflowers of every type and variety. Even though Scheck is officially retired and has no real use for them anymore, 10,000 or so flowers — lovingly assembled by hand, using up to a hundred petals per bloom — reside in his garage. “They’re too good to throw out,” he said.

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Greenspeople often don’t get the recognition they deserve because the best greenswork is seamlessly woven into the background. And while viewers might not notice the occasional slip-up, other greenspeople sure do. There’s the forsythia inexplicably blooming in August; the houseplants and wildflowers amateurishly stuck into a forest floor; the tree supposedly growing in a yard, its black nursery pot visible.






In this scene from the TV show “Pose,” the script called for springtime in New York…

… but shooting took place in February and the city was getting pummeled by snowstorms.

Thompson’s greens crew shoveled out snow…

… and brought in forsythia, which typically blooms in April,

and a cherry tree,

whose blossoms were all attached by hand.

Being a greensperson in New York comes with its own challenges. There’s the weather, of course. During cold winters, they take on the role of babysitters, tending tropical plants in makeshift hothouses, carting them out into often freezing temperatures when a production calls for them, and hoping the lot of them don’t drop dead from shock. “We kill a lot of plants,” Scheck conceded.

For the series “Pose,” Thompson was asked to create springtime scenes in February, in the middle of a series of winter storms that was pummeling the New York area. Over a single weekend, he and his crew cleared out 30 dump trucks full of snow; later, they added evergreens and flowers to cover bare walls — “spring elements,” in the parlance of the greensperson. “We’ll watch the monitors, and move a forsythia behind an actor’s head so there’s a nice pop of color,” he said.







For a flashback sequence in “The Greatest Showman,” Walsh had to transform a historically preserved mansion into an overgrown mess.

Careful to protect the interiors, Walsh propped trees on pedestals and strung vines with zip ties and wire.

The exteriors were shot at a different location,

which Walsh draped with fake English ivy.

Then she had only 10 days to turn back time and make the estate look like it had in its grand heyday.

In a rare occurrence for a greensperson, they were actually shooting a fall scene in the fall,

so Walsh used real fallen leaves to create the borders of the roadway and added impatiens as accents on the staircase.

Sometimes, even after all the painstaking work of creating faux forests and fanciful estates, of turning flood zones into dry land, of transforming winter into spring (and vice versa), the work of a greensperson can end up on the cutting room floor. For an episode of “The Knick,” a show set in fin de siècle New York City, the director Steven Soderbergh needed a lush Nicaraguan jungle for a flashback sequence, so Walsh and her crew set about creating one at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island. “It was an extraordinarily wonderful set dressing,” Walsh said. “They built tents and huts and the works, and we had a lot of big tropical material.” Unfortunately, the jungle got short shrift, with interiors and close-ups dominating the screen.

“That’s often the case,” she continued. “You build this wonderful thing and you kind of look forward to seeing it on the screen, you know? And it’s not there. But it was a memorable project, and I have great photographs of it. Sometimes that’s just the way it goes.”

Photo credits: “Margot at the Wedding”: Paramount Vantage; Ginny Walsh. “Maniac”: Netflix; Katsushika Hokusai; Ginny Walsh. “Fosse/Verdon”: FX; Michael Thompson. “The Stepford Wives”: Paramount Pictures. “Pose”: FX; Michael Thompson. “The Greatest Showman”: 20th Century Fox; Ginny Walsh.

Where to watch: Buy “Margot at the Wedding” on Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube; stream “Maniac” on Netflix; stream “Fosse/Verdon” on Hulu; stream “The Stepford Wives” on Starz; stream “Pose” on FXNow and Netflix; stream “The Greatest Showman” on Disney+.

Surfacing is a column that explores the intersection of art and life, produced by Alicia DeSantis, Jolie Ruben, Tala Safie and Josephine Sedgwick.

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