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Celebrity Collector: Ellen Freund Provides the Stuff that Makes Movie Magic

by Reyne Haines (07/30/12).

In “Drag me to Hell,” Ellen Freund, as prop master, needed to provide objects that dealt with curses and the occult.

Have you ever wondered how films are able to transport the moviegoer to another place in time? No graphic enhancements needed, just a great prop master.

What is a prop master you ask? Someone who’s job is to find all of the items that make you believe the film actually takes place during a certain time or location.

From vintage clothes to antique cars and all the way down to the minutest details, such as the pack of cigarettes the actor is smoking to the napkins on the table. It is that attention to detail that really makes us believe!

I was fortunate enough to catch up with Ellen Freund, prop master extraordinaire. She has worked on a few small projects you might have heard of, such as “Twilight,” “Night at the Museum” and “Vanilla Sky.” She is currently working on the hit TV series, “Mad Men.”

What a fun job! Essentially, she shops for elite clients for a living. I wanted to know more, so I called her.

“All The Kings Men,” set in the 1940s in Louisiana, one of the sets Freund needed to outfit was the den of an elderly judge.

RH: Tell me how you became a prop master?

Freund: I was studying at the Art Center College of Design and wanted to be a painter. I was looking for a way to make a living, and a friend offered me a chance to work on a short film; an experience like none I’d had before; the camaraderie, the crazy demands and hours. I was 19 and completely hooked!

I found my niche in the Art Department, first at Roger Corman—(where on the small films, every department was a department of one) working various positions until I found Property Master. The Property Master skills fit my obsession with the little things that define story perfectly. In addition, I am always at the heart of the process of filmmaking, when the camera rolls, my team and I are the eyes of the entire Art Department.

RH: Were you ever a collector and if so, of what?

Freund: I collect everything, often inspired by whatever project I am working on. I might get an Aladdin teapot for a character and search for one in every color for myself. On A River Runs Through It,” I was lucky enough to meet many elderly fly tiers who had known Norman Maclean; I do not fly fish, but I have an amazing collection of flies. I have hundreds of floaty pens, which I started gathering as a child. I have antique glass ornaments unearthed when working on “Snow White in Prague.” Los Angeles Chicano art and furniture an actor on “After Dark, My Sweet” introduced me to. As a child I collected cows, I had hundreds.

RH: What resources do you use in order to determine what kinds of items you need for a set? Meaning, do you look at period photography, catalogs?

Freund: For period film and television, any visual from the era, from family photos to magazines and newspapers, is helpful. Every morning in prep I have my whole crew look through magazines of the era. It really helps get their heads in the minutiae which we consider the heart of the story. For present day, it really helps to just get out in the world and see what people are really using and carrying. For “New Moon,” we went to high schools and shopping malls to see how the school kids accessorized.

RH: What would be the most interesting series/film you have worked on, and why?

Freund: The one I am on is always the most interesting! Each project has an opportunity to research and learn something I have never experienced before. “All the King’s Men” was a particular challenge; the depth of period paperwork and the intricacies of Louisiana politics were fascinating. The wealth of shopping sources in New Orleans also made every day an adventure of discovery. A true city of collectors.

Ellen Freund, prop master extraordinaire, has worked on a few small projects you might have heard of, such as “Twilight,” “Night at the Museum” and “Vanilla Sky.” She is currently working on the hit TV series, “Mad Men.”

RH: What was the most challenging and why?

Freund: Definitely “Mad Men” is the biggest challenge of my career. It is my first time on a television series and the combination of compressed time frame, limited budget and relentless schedules are very demanding. Mad Men requires massive amounts of research to attain the level of accuracy that creator Matthew Weiner seeks and the entire crew strives for every day. The period is fascinating and visually stimulating, making it a real pleasure to work on.

FYI: For a different take on finding Props for “Mad Men,” read: “It’s A Mad Men World—Providing Vintage Howard Johnson Props for the TV Series

I think that has to be one of the most exciting jobs one could have. I’ve had friends with antique shops that have sold and/or rented items to set designers and love spotting vintage items in commercials and on shows. Now I’m going to have to go back at watch “New Moon” to see what era of items she used!

Thanks Ellen! Let’s just say her work has not gone unnoticed.

Reyne Haines is an appraiser with an expertise in 20th Century Decorative Arts. She hosts “The Art of Collecting” on KPRC in Houston, a weekly program spotlighting trends and news items in the world of antiques & collectibles, is a repeat guest on CBS’ “The Early Show” and can be heard on Martha Stewart Living Radio on Sirius Satellite Radio Network. She is also the author of the richly-illustrated book “Vintage Watches” published by Krause.


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