An art lover’s dream job: creating replicas of famous works for movies and TV shows. Here’s what a day in the life of a fine-art coordinator is like.

A woman standing in front of fake artwork on a film set

Look at the artwork in Axel’s office in "Billions," the canvases that costarred with Timothy Spall in his acclaimed role as the namesake painter in "Mr. Turner," and the party at the Guggenheim museum that Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem attended in the recent miniseries "Mrs. America."

None of these would have been possible without a niche position on TV and film productions: fine-art coordinator, a recognized role among the creative union 829.

It’s a curious job that’s equal parts curator, set designer, and paralegal.

New York-based Fanny Pereire is arguably the best known stateside, though her fame is below the line. Pereire worked in the art world in various roles after graduation, including in the press department at Christie’s auction house and helping to establish Art & Auction magazine.

Having met producer Scott Rudin through mutual friends, she was recruited for the movie "Changing Lanes," a 2002 thriller starring Ben Affleck, as the script required significant art wrangling. Instantly smitten with the job, Fanny swapped magazines for movie sets and has spent the last two decades curating displays and galleries for fictitious collectors. She said she’s paid a daily rate for each job she works on.

The process for her begins with the production meeting, where the producer, director, and scenics pour over a script. Art-minded actors might weigh in directly at this stage, as Donald Sutherland did recently, Pereire recalled.

She was hired to curate a collection for his billionaire character on HBO’s recent miniseries "The Undoing." "He came in and we both had a shortlist of what artworks his character would have, and I think seven out of 10 were the same," she said. "He really cared and would arrive on set and literally look at them, like, ‘These are mine.’ He’s so knowledgeable." 

Pereire relishes the research stage, as she has with the upcoming Apple TV adaptation of the bestselling book "Pachinko." The show’s set in the 1980s between New York and Tokyo. "That’s when the wealthy Japanese were buying Impressionists — I know because for me, that was the time I was at Christie’s, so I knew exactly," she said.

Much of a fine-art coordinator’s time is spent the same way: wrangling permission

The next step in production in any project is paperwork — and lots of it. "The costume designer doesn’t have to check with legal to see if they’re allowed to use a Gucci belt, but I have to talk to them about everything," Pereire said. "35% of my job is just the legal part."

For name-brand works, Pereire will approach the artist or artist’s estate to seek permission. Exhibition posters, she explained, are particularly troublesome because they require double clearance — from the original artist and the museum or institution by which they were produced. Most fine-art coordinators will avoid them as a result unless absolutely necessary.

She admitted that artists might ignore requests, but it’s rare to be refused point-blank. In fact, so far, only the estate of abstract expressionist Franz Kline has demurred, its bylaws requiring that his works can only be deployed in educational film or TV.

It doesn’t hurt that many movie producers are heavyweight art collectors, too — Scott Rudin is one, and his sister, Beth, is among the most important contemporary collectors in the world.

Creating replicas is always preferable to borrowing originals

Clearance granted, she’ll now set about creating a replica — several, usually, to allow for damages. Only occasionally will she risk borrowing an original.

"300 people come in and out of a movie set all the time. Why put something in jeopardy?" she said.

The metal sculptures by Aaron Young she wrangled for the set of "Billions" were an exception: They were intended as a long-term item of set-dressing, and their construction meant they were safe from damage.

That wasn’t the case for the $20 million Cy Twombly painting Pereire borrowed for the thriller "Paranoia" in 2013. So why take the risk? "Because our actor requested it," she said. 

Pereire works with scenics on set to produce the replicas, though she treats these faux masterpieces with a charming reverence. "They become my children, and when someone touches them, I think ‘Aaargh!’" she said.

Photographs and paintings are straightforward enough thanks to high-resolution printing and some finishing techniques. Sculptures, however, are much harder to make and move, so will be rarer on set as a result. See them in a movie, and it’s a sign that art was important to the production — like in the case of 2002’s "Changing Lanes," where Affleck plays a wealthy Wall Street lawyer and Pereire placed an Antony Gormley replica. Styrofoam subbed for the original cast metal.

Pop-artist Alex Katz also figured prominently in the same film, in particular a portrait of his son and the man’s soon-to-be wife. The intrigued pair asked if they could visit the set, and Perreire readily agreed, noting that if they had problems accessing the set they should call her. The two strolled in without trouble, astonishing her when they walked up to say hello. They apparently looked so familiar to the crew that no one stopped them. "That’s because we had the portrait hanging close to craft services when it was drying, so everyone had had lunch ‘with’ them for the last two weeks," she said.

Movies about artists require even more complex replicas

Art as background is one task. It’s an entirely different proposition when art is central to the script. 

Suzie Davis is a British fine-art coordinator who’s carved out a niche working on films where the storyline centers on an artist, including Timothy Spall’s 2014 "Mr. Turner" and "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain" starring Benedict Cumberbatch and scheduled for release later this year.

Woman standing in front of a film camera looking in the lens

On films like these, there’s an additional stage: working with a fine artist to develop replicas of well-known works — Turner’s "Fighting Temeraire," for instance.

The artist will be tasked with creating the painting at various stages of completion. Each will be painted in oil on canvas, much like the original, for practical reasons.

"When the time came and we needed to film Tim painting on them, we used acrylic paint, which we could wipe off and let him do it again," Davis said.

That film also featured an exhibition at London’s Royal Academy, for which Davis and her team had to produce almost 400 works. She admitted that some were prints in that case — the Yale Museum of British Art is always a great source for shortcuts, Davis said, as it holds a hefty haul of images that are copyright-free. They were varnished to suggest age and framed in plastic rather than wooden frames to reduce costs.

A film set with artwork covering the walls

On the upcoming film about Louis Wain, she said, Cumberbatch proved a passionate artist himself and spent time on set near the props table with the fine artist hired to ape Wain’s works. 

"He’s a really good artist, and they’d both be drawing together — he wanted to completely inhabit the character and totally understand how he drew," Davis said.

The biggest challenge for that film, Davis added, was permissions and clearance. Wain died destitute and without heirs, and so she couldn’t use her usual channels to secure clearance, like Jeva Film, a firm whose specialties include securing such right. Instead, she contacted a collector of the artist’s works, gallerist Chris Beetles, and secured permission to use images of works he owned.

The hardest part is destroying the replicas at production’s end

Once production wraps, Perreire, Davis, and their colleagues must take back these impressive replicas and, in most cases, destroy them, per legal agreements.

A collection of fake artwork for films

"The day I know I’ll have to do it, I have stomach pains in the morning — the first cut is always a little hard," Perreire said. She’ll often slash them into pieces and provide proof of destruction via photographs or mail the shards back to the artist.

For images printed on canvas, some artists simply ask them to be returned so they can paint over them with new work. Masterpieces from Alex Katz and company could reveal confusing depths when X-rayed by curators in the future.

In one case, Perreire didn’t destroy the paintings she reproduced by portraitist Alice Neel. "We worked with the foundation on them, and some of the paintings we picked the family had never really seen [in person]. They were having a big family reunion, so we gave them all the reproductions because we thought it would be fun for them to have a second life in their offices over the world," she said.

As for Davis, while the finished old masters were junked at the end of shooting "Mr. Turner," she and the art department kept the in-process replicas as souvenirs of a happy shoot. "I think we probably should have thrown them away, but we know where they are," she said. "I’ve got a half-done ‘Fighting Temeraire’ somewhere, and it looks great."

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Mark Ellwood June 28, 2021 at 08:24PM

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