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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.