Just about anything an actor touches in a film that isn’t nailed down is a prop. Props serve to enhance a character’s backstory, improve the look of a location or, in the case of fake projectile vomit, simply gross out the audience. The talented artists who furnish the canvas of cinema with their treasures are called property masters. MM spoke with Kevin Hughes, an industry veteran who began his career as an assistant on Apocalypse Now, and more recently has worked on such films as Boogie Nights, Borat and Bobby. With the support of his wife, Dody Dorn, the Oscar-nominated editor of films like Memento and Matchstick Men, Hughes, 55, has made a career out of putting things in their place.
Brian Malik (MM): What is your background in show business?
Kevin Hughes (KH): My grandfather had the now-automated job of opening and closing the curtain at Grauman’s Chinese and Egyptian Theatres and when I was a child my brother and I used to play behind the screen. I remember watching Ben-Hur from the wings and being blown away by the chariots and armor. My dad had the awe-inspiring job of flying in the duck on “You Bet Your Life” with Groucho Marx when someone said the “secret word.” It seemed like a logical thing for me to go into show business, so I joined the union.
MM: How did you become a property master?
KH: I started working in TV when I was 20 as an assistant prop master on “The Price is Right,” “All in the Family” and “The Sonny and Cher Show.” Francis Ford Coppola had been a neighbor of mine and my sister used to babysit Roman, Gio and Sofia. When Apocalypse Now was in its second year of production a telex was sent out asking for someone to bring some wine and cheese and a few films from L.A. out to the Philippines to help boost the morale of the crew, who were growing weary. My name was on a long list of people who might drop what they were doing and be a courier for a week or two and I jumped at the chance. When I got there Francis introduced me to Doug Madison, the film’s last remaining prop master, who gave me a job as a production assistant in the prop department and I stayed on until the movie wrapped. With Apocalypse Now on my otherwise blank feature resume, I was able to get Jon Davison and Joe Dante to interview me for Piranha—and I got the job.
MM: How do you prepare for a film when you are first offered a job?
KH: Usually I’m offered the job by the production designer, who sends me a script and we talk about the overall look of the film. On the second read I do a breakdown, listing everything the characters touch or eat or look at, and then I make a timeline to chronicle what happens to each of the props as the movie goes on. For example: Sometimes there will be a need for a surfboard with bullet holes and one without. You can’t count on shooting in sequence, so you need to budget two or three phases of a single prop. Before I meet with the director, I try to watch all the films he or she has made and research the general subject matter of the story so that I can come to the interview with answers as well as questions.
MM: How closely do you collaborate with the director?
KH: The more I know what a director is thinking or wants the better I will be at my job. Once the director trusts me, I can become a sort of conduit between the printed page and the realized film. Props are the three-dimensional objects that help establish where a character is in space and time, so it helps an actor relate to the scene and it allows the director something to make the actor do. “Pick up that gun slowly and point to the door with it,” or, “Grab the gun and poke it into his rib this time.” Props make the difference. The director and the production designer are the two people I try to work with most closely; if I get inside their heads I can do my job a lot better.
MM: Where do you find most of your props?
KH: Every picture is different. If the story takes place in the present day, finding props is easy. Finding the right props takes a bit more time.
Prop houses are great for weapons and specialty items like airport security metal detectors, plus I have many huge rolling boxes filled with props I have collected over the years. My assistants and I enjoy rummaging through them, looking for that perfectly weathered briefcase or my sterling silver Mr. Peanut coke spoon or the bent fountain pen from Blast from the Past. I like to use things that look random or even wrong, because in real life sometimes the wrong thing is what you end up using.
Period films require a different approach: Every prop has to be checked out to make sure it works well and that there are at least two of them because you never know. Until recently, I have been reluctant to go online for props because I like to hold something in my hands before choosing it. But on Bobby, I was able to acquire a lot of great items from eBay by just typing in “1968” and “Robert Kennedy” and “Ambassador Hotel.” At one point during prep, Emilio Estevez and I were bidding on the same item without knowing it.
MM: With Borat, Freddy Got Fingered and Boogie Nights on your resume, you must have some pretty raunchy props stashed away in those rolling boxes. Any details?
KH: I love making vegetarian vomit, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. I start with the script to see what food or drink may actually be eaten before the vomit scene. If there are no “on-camera” eating scenes to guide me, I create a “plausible off-screen scenario” of likely foods the character could have eaten and then make a batch. Then it’s time to convince the actors that it isn’t real vomit, so I usually drink some in front of them to gain their trust. After that it’s just a matter of funneling it into their mouth before takes and mopping it up afterwards.
I’ve also made several practical penises for actors to use in the ever-popular peeing scenes. An I.V. bag with Mountain Dew and warm water (for steam) hidden under the actor’s arm lets him press on the bag like a bagpipe to control the pressure and distance. They love that.
The Banger Sisters required a shoebox full of Polaroids of men’s penises. I downloaded a few from the Web and doctored them to look like Polaroids. I even recruited a woman friend of mine to hang out at a bar and ask the men waiting to use the restroom if she could take their picture for a movie. She did great. The most fun from that was watching the look on Susan Sarandon and Goldie Hawn’s faces when they saw the pictures for the first time—it’s in the movie.
MM: Any advice for aspiring prop masters out there?
KH: Get a job as a production assistant and watch the prop man. Watch as many classic movies as you can and note the props. I tell people that I am a “Method” prop man. I like to “become” each of the characters in the script. I ask myself, ‘What would my keychain look like?’ or ‘Where would I have gotten that car and when did I put that stuff in the trunk?’ It takes a long time to prep a movie that way, but by the time you start shooting you know as much, if not more, about the characters as the actors—and sometimes even the director. That gives you an edge and the confidence to choose the right prop at the right time. The director and the actors will thank you. MM