Hollywood Set Decorator Julie Ochipinti

Whether it’s Wayne Manor in "Batman Begins" or Nikola Tesla’s lab in "The Prestige," set decorator Julie Ochipinti brings scenes to life one Victorian chandelier or top hat at a time. Currently the imaginative prop queen behind HBO’s popular series "Westworld," the Fair Oaks native talks about the challenge of navigating the show’s historical and futuristic settings, getting the design bug at Sacramento thrift stores and how her Oscar nomination turned her into an overnight sensation.

Portrait by John P. Johnson/HBO

Westworld, which is part science fiction and part Western, started its much-anticipated second season in April. Can you describe what you do for the show?

I am the set decorator. The best way to describe it is that I’m the interior decorator of the show, but I [handle] both interior and exterior. I don’t build the set, I don’t find the location, but I [fill] the set with stuff, with all the furniture and all the character props. I don’t build the walls, I garnish the walls.

Anthony Hopkins plays Dr. Robert Ford, the co-founder of an amusement park that lets people act out their Western fantasies with robots that look—and perhaps think—like real cowboys. His office is a trove of artifacts. What was the inspiration behind its look?

You’re basically creating God’s office, God’s workshop. And I didn't want to go Frankenstein. We’ve seen all that Jekyll and Hyde sh-t. I wanted it to be a little more like a gallery, a collection of things that Ford loves from [the park]: What inspires him? That set took months of research. I refused to turn him into some Victorian steampunk freak. It had to be a little more modern, with some nods to the past and to his passions, which are knowledge, beauty and discovery.

What sorts of elements characterize the mix of old and new in Ford’s office?

It had to have a slightly menacing feeling, like you know you shouldn't be in there without the boss. I had the Dolores head progression made, a series of clay skulls in the glass-and-wood case. They were made by our skilled prosthetic makeup department, done in the style of a forensic anthropologist making a facial reconstruction of the park’s first and oldest host. We also made the wall of faces behind Ford’s giant, modern, sexy steel desk. My set dressers made all the cool rectangular lights hanging in the space, along with the light hanging over Ford’s work table, which we reconfigured from an old carpenter’s bench.

That [office] literally is one of my top five favorite sets I’ve ever done. I adored that set. Anthony Hopkins is the coolest guy in the world to do a set for—he can walk into an empty room and the room would light up.

Heads don't roll in Dr. Robert Ford's office from season one of "Westworld." "That literally is one of my top five favorite sets I've ever done," says the show's set decorator Julie Ochipinti. (Photo by John P. Johnson/HBO)

The scope of Westworld expands this season, and will include a Japanese-themed fantasy world. What new challenges did that present?

Yeah, we’ve got Shogun World. It’s one of the parks we’re going to see this year. You read the script and go, “Oh! OK, I’d better start researching Edo-period Japan.” You don’t know what the sets are gonna be until you’ve read the script. You don’t know if it’s going to be a city, a temple or someone’s house. A lot of the stuff for Shogun World, we had to manufacture because you can’t just go rent 19th-century Japanese artifacts in Los Angeles. The aesthetic is very similar to Westworld [park’s] in a way. It’s all very dark woods, very simple, but with some very specific things you have to do to make it legitimately Japanese. I mean, look at all the great Japanese samurai [movies], they’re all Westerns. It looks like you’re in some Wild West town, but with curved roofs and more pillows. And tea, instead of whiskey.

Whichever set you’re working on, it sounds like quite a challenge to go back and forth between times and worlds.

The show is the most creatively exciting thing that I’ve ever done because you get such a variety of styles. Films typically have one particular time period. [With Westworld], I’m able to tick a lot of boxes that I never thought I even wanted to tick. I am not a big sci-fi person. I’m not out doing Battlestar Galactica. But here, you start with a little sci-fi, and then you go the opposite way, into Shogun World. There’s a lot of creative pleasure from this job because I don’t know what’s next. You’re never doing police stations and courtrooms and apartments and cafes—all that boring sh-t that you get from contemporary shows. It’s exciting. I have no clue what worlds are coming. You just show up every day, you read the script, and you go, “That’s awesome. OK, great! Let’s go.”

In addition to Westworld, which mostly takes place in a Wild West-themed park, you’ve previously worked on The Prestige, which is set in the late 19th century, and The Man Who Invented Christmas, about Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol. Would you say you have an affinity for older eras?

Yeah, I think so. I find contemporary shows dull. That’s the world we live in. A lot of [my jobs] have come through a guy I’ve worked for forever, Nathan Crowley [Westworld’s concept production designer]. He gave me my start 20 years ago [on a film called Sweety Barrett]. His sensibility oozed into mine because he was sort of my mentor. Our [joint] style was developed on Batman Begins—it’s not really Victorian, but it’s very dark. I’m a history buff. I like older things. I’ve always liked period films and TV shows more.

Speaking of Prestige, you were nominated for an Oscar in 2007 for your work on the movie. What went through your mind when you found out?

It was the most surreal, ridiculous thing on the planet. There was no notice. A FedEx [envelope] came in the mail saying, “You’ve been nominated,” and I just about had a coronary. The greatest thing was the joy my friends and family got out of it, which was almost better than the [nomination] itself. Then last year, we were nominated for two [production design] Emmys for Westworld.

Delving further into your past, you were born and raised in Sacramento, right?

Yes. I lived in Sac until I was probably 22 or 23. I was born and raised in the lovely town of Fair Oaks. I went to Del Campo High School. I was never a great student. The one time I ever was good in school was at American River College because I picked classes that I liked. I’m much more street-educated.

"The show is the most creatively exciting thing that I've ever done because you get such a variety of styles. [With Westworld], I'm able to tick a lot of boxes."

You used to work for Tower Records, both at the Watt Avenue store and at its music magazine, Pulse!, where we worked together in the early ’90s. From what I recall, you spent a fair amount of time in the local thrift stores.

That is really where I learned how to do my set decorating. You could do what you wanted for not a lot of money. I would constantly be redoing my apartment. Going to thrift stores definitely turned on my interest in weird furniture. It wasn’t your mother’s furniture. It was ’50s, ’60s and ’70s furniture that I got into. That gave me the first real entry into interior design. I’m not trained as an interior decorator. I have no training in film at all, other than doing it on my own and figuring it out myself. That’s what I love about the film business. You can come at it from a thousand different ways. There are people who have some sort of art or technical background, or you can be a freak like me and just show up.

Thrift Town features prominently in the Sacramento-focused Lady Bird. Where did you shop?

I got my prom dress from Cheap Thrills. [And after working] at the Watt Tower, I went to work for the Salvation Army at 16th and D. My entire apartment was furnished from the Salvation Army and all my clothing [was also] pretty much from there.

These days, you live on a boat in Marina del Rey, so you have a remarkably small amount of space for someone who has to fill large spaces in her work. Is your boat brimming with bric-a-brac or is it very tidy and sparse?

It’s tidy. It’s not necessarily spare because the boat is small—it’s 46 feet long. Because I work in the world of shopping, I don’t want any more stuff in my [personal] life. I tend to keep things clean and simple. I come home for my cup of tea and a book. S

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