Saltspring's Jim Erickson wins Oscar for set decoration on Lincoln

Longtime Canadian set decorator Jim Erickson of Saltspring Island says he's stunned to have won his first Academy Award, for his work on "Lincoln."

He and colleague Rick Carter received the trophy for best production design on the Steven Spielberg drama that had a leading 12 nominations going into the Oscars.

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They beat out teams from "Anna Karenina," "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey," "Les Miserables" and "Life of Pi."

"I feel like I've done a hat trick in the final game of the Stanley Cup playoffs," Erickson said in a call from his home of 10 years on Saltspring.

The Minnesota-born Erickson, who is a dual Canadian-U.S. citizen, said he didn't expect to triumph in the tough category, noting that he and Carter lost at the British Film Awards to the team from "Les Miserables."

"I really didn't think that we were going to win. I was pretty sure that 'Anna Karenina' or one of the other ones were going to win. Because at the BAFTAs and things like that they were winning. So I was very surprised, actually. In a nice way."

Erickson said he watched the bash at his home with his brother, sister-in-law and two neighbour friends. They "yelled and screamed and we broke open a couple bottles of champagne" when they heard his name.

"I've had the flu the last week, so I'm a bit under the weather which is why I'm not down there," said Erickson, who has been in Canada since 1974.

This is Erickson's second Oscar nomination after his 2008 nod for best art direction for his work on "There Will Be Blood."

His other credits include "Watchmen," "Water for Elephants" and "Ali."

Backstage at the Oscars, Carter acknowledged that his partner was conspicuously absent.

"Obviously Jim Erickson should be here and sharing this honour. He's the set decorator," Carter said in a transcript of backstage interviews provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

"And so much of what is in 'Lincoln,' visually, that is seen, that creates the intimacy of the sets and the setting is Jim's work. And we're the same age and we're like brothers who have shared a common history to get to this time now."

The 62-year-old Erickson has been working in Hollywood for more than 30 years and recently told The Canadian Press that "Lincoln" marks his retirement from the film business. He was not able to attend the ceremony due to illness.

"I had such a great career and after 'Lincoln' I just said, 'There's just not much else that I can think of that I want to do,'" Erickson said in an interview ahead of the Oscars.

"I consciously made decisions on scripts and projects that I wanted to do to get experience and learn about things and the past and the present and a little bit of the future.

"There's a nice broad spectrum of films (on my resume) and I've had a really wonderful career. So why not go out on a high point instead of dribbling out toward the end?"

— The Canadian Press

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Jim Erickson won’t be joining his Lincoln collaborators in Hollywood tonight, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be celebrating in style.

“I bought a tuxedo and haven’t worn it yet, so I’m going to put it on and make popcorn,” said the Oscar-nominated set decorator who’ll be watching the Oscars on TV with family and friends at home on Saltspring Island.

Erickson, 63, was nominated alongside production designer Rick Carter for Steven Spielberg’s historical epic dramatizing the 16th U.S. president’s attempts to end slavery and the Civil War. It leads the Oscar race with 12 nominations, including nods for best picture, director and acting honours for Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones.

Awards season hoopla has kept Erickson busy, with trips to Los Angeles for the traditional Oscar nominees luncheon in January; again for the Emmy Awards after being nominated for the HBO miniseries Hemingway and Gelhorn; and another trip to London, where he was nominated for a BAFTA award.

Health issues compounded by a nasty flu bug prompted the 30-year film veteran’s decision to skip the ceremony as well as a gathering of Canadian Oscar hopefuls, including composer Mychael Danna (Life of Pi), for the Canadian consul general’s annual luncheon at Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

“I’ve been through all that stuff. It’s fun, mostly to see your friends more than anything,” said Erickson, who is looking forward to receiving the Earl Cooperman Lifetime Achievement Award from the Set Decorators Society of America in April.

The Minnesota-born set decorator who relocated from Vancouver to Saltspring in 2000 has amassed a long list of credits, including one very close to home — Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women remake starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon.

“When you look at that it’s amazing because most of that was shot in June in Vancouver and Victoria. We did a day or two in Deerfield, Massachusetts,” he said, recalling the transformation of a remote patch of Cobble Hill into a Massachusetts winter wonderland with 100 tonnes of shaved ice, white cellulose flakes and snow sheets in 1994.

Erickson, who moved to the West Coast in the 1970s, worked for CBC-TV before collaborating on dozens of features, including Ishtar, Mississippi Burning, We’re No Angels, Snow Falling on Cedars, Ali, Miami Vice, The New World and Watchmen.

Lincoln presented a new set of challenges for the globetrotting set decorator who has worked with Day-Lewis twice before — on The Last of the Mohicans, Erickson’s third film with Michael Mann, and There Will Be Blood, for which he was also nominated.

Using U.S. Civil War-era photographs as a guide, Erickson re-created authentic 19th century White House interiors, including Lincoln’s office.

Reuniting with Carter after they had collaborated on Sucker Punch, his reproductions included richly textured wallpaper he had designed and silk-screened, and carpets woven to fit patterns scaled off photographs.

He brought interiors to life with meticulously duplicated period maps and documents, and elements like upholstery, fabrics, light fixtures, paintings and other decorative objects. He acquired furnishings from antique markets in Richmond, Virginia, where filming took place on sound stages and in historic sites such as the Thomas Jefferson-designed state capitol.

Erickson said one of the biggest challenges besides the extensive research required was operating within a limited budget.

Contrary to assumptions, Lincoln wasn’t a big-budget picture.

“We really didn’t have a lot of money,” he said. “We had to build the second floor of the 1865 White House, and when you’re building eight rooms and these long corridors, money gets eaten up rather quickly. You have to make it honest and believable and come up to Steven Spielberg standards.”

It’s all part of the job description for one of the misunderstood positions on a film’s design team.

“We go to whatever lengths we need to so we can find what’s important for a room, but shopping is the smallest part,” he says, dispelling a common misconception: “Oh, you get to spend other people’s money!’”

Other duties including hiring and supervising set dressers, doing script breakdowns, scheduling acquisition deadlines, and imagining a set’s layers in consultation with production designer and art director.

“You have to research and know what you’re looking for,” he said. “I’m the last person on set before the film crew arrives.”

Crews took their cue from Day-Lewis, he said.

“His professionalism, honesty and the work he brings to his character inspires the rest of us,” said the self-deprecating decorator, noting crews always addressed the star as “Mr. President” because he stayed in character.

“You wouldn’t say, ‘Daniel, here’s your water glass,’ ” said Erickson, who recalled an exception.

It was after he had “opened” his telegraph set and Day-Lewis entered in-character.

“He was being the president, and everybody would back off,” he recalled.

“He sits down at the desk, looks at me, smiles and gives me a modern thumbs-up.”

Erickson has since been savouring his idyllic retirement lifestyle on Saltspring where, he notes with a laugh, his reputation as a prize-winning garlic grower since winning a blue ribbon at the fall fair “is getting out of hand.”

The Oscars telecast is today at 5:30 p.m. on CTV and ABC.

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