By the numbers, Jacqueline Jacobson has had an incredible career as a set decorator. She has worked for 35 years on over 70 films and TV shows, from small independent projects to major network productions. But maybe what’s more impressive is how much fun Jacqueline has had along the way. Montclair Girl sat down with Jacqueline to learn more about her career, her life in Montclair, and what’s next as she contemplates retirement.
Montclair Girl: Where are you originally from, if not from Montclair, and why did you choose to move here?
Jacqueline Jacobson: I grew up in New Rochelle, NY a few blocks from the Dick Van Dyke house on Bonnie Meadow Lane. We started in NYC, then moved to Westport, CT, after 9/11 where we had lots of family. We then moved to Montclair with my husband’s relocation package in 2007. We had one weekend to find a house & figure out the rest. We never looked back and had no clue what a fantastic decision we made at the time.
MG: Tell us about your career as a set decorator what inspired you to get into this business?
JJ: I was an idealistic political science major hoping to work on political campaigns. I minored in fine arts and loved to paint, silkscreen, and make jewelry but didn’t think I could make a living in the arts.
There are a few days in your life that are life-changing. I worked as an associate producer on a talk show with Bill Boggs and when we completed production the producer recruited me to work on a short film as the set decorator. The show starred actress Melissa Leo and was called Lady Killer. I loved it from my first minute on set, which was a loading dock in Tribeca in 1987. The next week I was working on a CBS after-school special in Wilmington, Delaware. Each job led to another job, and after working as a set decorator on 70 plus films & tv shows for over 35 years, I plan to retire at the end of 2022.
MG: What are some things that people may not realize about a set decorator’s job?
JJ: The set decorator’s job is to help tell the story. Storytellers with a big responsibility to get it right and must stay on budget. We start with research and backstory questions.
We decorate interiors and exteriors and are responsible for every detail you see on camera, every part of the screen tells the story. The best compliment is that a set looks lived-in.
MG: What have been some of your favorite film/tv sets to work on and why?
JJ: It’s hard to pick your favorites. I’ll never forget my first film Vampires Kiss (1988) with Nicolas Cage. We were so obsessed with everything his character, Peter Loew, would have in his apartment and office, Nicolas told us Peter would have Midori Liqueur, it was a revelation in those days. I do remember picking out every piece in his apartment & office 35 years later.
I also worked on a sketch comedy show The State for MTV in the 1990s. We turned three stage sets into six every week and shot live on tape. It was a fantastic learning experience working out how to fit two different sketch sets into the same space three times very quickly.
I loved [tv show] Pan Am – we built a plane from scratch. We did this by shopping for parts at plane graveyards in Victorville, California. I loved the 1960’s dressing but we did cheat a little bit to add to the uber glamour. I loved Smash because it combined TV and theatre sets. We were actually prepping a Broadway show within a TV show. Low Winter Sun for AMC that shot in Detroit for the storytelling and gritty sets was great. I loved Private Life, a Netflix film for the beautiful script that was close to my heart about having a baby in your 40s. We told the story with all the mess of life on display with texture and everyday life details.
I loved my most current film, Harvest Moon, for the beautiful story about quarantine during the early days of COVID and for the fantastic shopping in Charleston, South Carolina that helped us tell our story.
MG: Is there anything you can share about the Miramax movie you’re working on right now?
JJ: Harvest Moon is written by Paul Bettany and Dana Brown. It stars Paul Bettany and Candice Bergen. The script was born in lockdown as a way to keep sane, according to Paul Bettany. The film is set during the pandemic and will see a young boy try and reunite his separated parents while the world is shut down.
MG: What’s something about you or your business that people might be surprised to learn about?
JJ: I am a member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) 52. We work very long days 12 – 14 hours, 60 to 70 hours per week, and if you work weekends then 80 plus hours. The Set Decorator is responsible for getting all the sets dressed on deadline and on budget, some days it takes up to 50 plus people to get it done. [MG Note: IATSE is the union that represents many of the ‘behind the scenes’ workers in film. Local 52 is divided into the following seven “crafts” that perform different functions on a production: Property, Grip, Electric, Shop Craft, Sound, Video, and Allied/Medic.]
MG: Who or what is your biggest source of inspiration?
JJ: My mother and grandmother were very glamorous and stylish. They always lived in decorator-designed homes, I don’t think I understood their influence when I started out. Real-life inspiration is around us daily. I love the way my eyes see the world, and of course, research. I enjoy going on the road every few years for so many reasons. Working in NYC, I have so many wonderful prop houses and vendors that I have used for years and years but I have to admit there are many pieces I have used over and over on different projects. It’s been wonderful to work in Boston, Detroit, Charleston, and Atlanta where all the sourcing is fresh and new.
MG: What are your goals for this year?
JJ: We just sold our home in Montclair and have moved up the street to a rental with spectacular views of NYC. 2022 will be my last year working as a set decorator and I’m very excited to graduate/retire from work and start the next chapter in my life. They say if you love what you do you never work a day in your life. We plan to move to palm trees and tropical weather and travel around the world slowly.
MG: What does a typical day look like for you?
JJ: I start at 6AM and go over the day with the leadman, open set, dress sets for next day, have meetings, shopping, budgeting, go over script check, prep upcoming episodes, and do pick-ups and return deliveries.
MG: What has been the highlight in your career/life so far?
JJ: My son Dylan – he just graduated from Emerson College and has moved out to LA. Film is my first love. I didn’t realize how much I missed film until we started shooting the video.
My first 15 years we shot film, watched dailies together at the screening room or in the barn
I cherish the film years from this vantage point.
Another amazing highlight has to be SNL shooting the original Chad “Pool Boy” skit at our house with Pete Davidson, Julia Louis Dreyfus, & Nick Jonas. I loved driving by my house after picking up coffee to see my living room sitting on my front yard, something I had been doing to people for years.
MG: Anything else you want to share about your business, or yourself.
JJ: The pandemic has changed our lives in so many ways. My husband is an MD and we look to him for what’s next. We invited three friends of our sons from college to stay with us during the spring semester, not knowing NYC would be the epicenter. They were from Brazil, Seattle, and Montclair. We so enjoyed our 12 weeks of zoom classes, dinners together, and watching films every night. I did a lot of hunting and gathering food and supplies, something I’m very used to doing as a set decorator.
MG: What is your favorite restaurant in Montclair?
MG: What is your favorite boutique in Montclair?
JJ: Jaffa Gems, &Son, and SWOON
MG: What do you love most about Montclair?
JJ: I LOVE Montclair Film, The Human Needs Pantry, and Toni’s Kitchen. But mostly I love what my son and all his friends have taught us about community over the last 14 plus years. Our kids are our future and it is so cool to see all the new younger people in town and hope they find what we found here. Lastly, I love the close friends like family we have made living in Montclair
MG: What is your favorite thing to do in Essex County?
JJ: Visit NJPAC & The Wellmont
MG: Tell us about a business in the area you admire.
JJ: The pandemic was so hard on our community, I admire all the local restaurants, stores, fitness centers for re-inventing their biz for the pandemic
MG: What is your favorite outdoor place to spend time in Essex County?
JJ: South Mountain Reservation
MG: What is your favorite place to work out in Essex County?
JJ: Brookdale Park
MG: Where do you go out with friends in the area?
JJ: Egans and Montclair Brewery
MG: What is something you think needs to come to Montclair?
JJ: Bike Lanes