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Style & Design

'Hot Set': Host Ben Mankiewicz on Syfy's new behind-the-scenes reality competition

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Image Credit: Isabella Vosmikova/Syfy

The producers of Syfy’s effects makeup competition series Face Off  have created a new show for the network that puts the spotlight on another behind-the-scenes craft: production design.

The reality series Hot Set — the term used for a movie set that’s ready for filming — which pits on-the-rise production designers against each other to build an entire set from start to finish, begins a six-episode run September 18.

EW caught up with Hot Set host Ben Mankiewicz, who comes from a famous family of Hollywood screenwriters — his grandfather, Herman, wrote Citizen Kane, and his great-uncle Joseph penned All About Eve and Cleopatra – to find out what viewers will learn about set design, how the show differs from the typical reality competition format, and which of the judges he is man-crushing on.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Why were you interested in hosting Hot Set?
BEN MANKIEWICZ: I have a movie background. I love movies. I also love game shows. What’s great is every contestant we have on all six episodes could have won. There was a really refreshing purity of talent to it. Production design is still remarkably unheralded to 99 percent of the movie-watching public, and I think this is a really nice thing, for people to see how movies are made. There’s a reason [production designer] credits are placed as high as they are in movies. Their role is critical. Along with cinematographer, there’s no one the director counts on more.

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Image Credit: Isabella Vosmikova/Syfy

Will fans of Face Off like Hot Set?
What I find refreshing is that we’re not picking people off. So we have what [a season of] Face Off builds to so dramatically – a winner – every week. It’s a prizefight every single week.

The challenges begin with a brief script describing a scene and end with the contestants actually shooting on the set they’ve built. 
That’s one of the really great things about the show, to see that set revealed. You’re like, “Oh my God!” when you look at it shot to see how different that is. This isn’t set design for a play. This is a movie, and that’s a really key component – being able to see how that looks on-screen.

What were your favorite challenges?
They had to force the perspective on Alice in Wonderland, making Alice big and small. The changing of the forced perspective was very challenging. Watch a movie like Citizen Kane, and there are a couple of times where you’ll see Orson Wells in the distance and windows in front of him [that look] taller than he is. The windows begin above his head, and as he walks forward, he appears to be looming large over what appeared to be a regular-sized window. That challenge was incredibly difficult.

And then something like the alien bordello challenge, [where the contestants had to] make something we hadn’t seen before. Same thing with [the premiere] – how do you create a stranded astronaut on a planet and not have it look like everything we’ve seen before?

Contestants are limited to three days and $15,000 budget. How tight is that?
It’s a very small budget, don’t get me wrong, but the $15,000, we learned, was less of an impediment than the three days. The time pressure for these people to finish and finish in a way that would impress the judges and [the viewers]…I don’t think any of these contestants got more than a couple hours of sleep. They need more time, but as our judges would say often, there are times directors come in, and they’ll look at something, and they’ll be like, “You know, we’re shooting this scene tomorrow. I’m not digging this.” And [the production designer] has to redo it, and they gotta do it on a budget. They’re real-world production design problems. But the budget was an impediment, no question. Everybody could have used more money. But they all, I think, would have at some point given up money for time.

Production designers Curt Beech (Star Trek, The Help), Lilly Kilvert (Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai) and Barry Robison (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader) are the show’s judges. What was your impression of them?
Overwhelming intimidation. I’m not even kidding. That went away about episode 3. Right now I’m wearing a gift that Barry Robison gave me when the show wrapped. So things ended up great.

What was the gift?
Guys that wear a little bit of jewelry on their wrists – I always felt like I could do that, I could get away with it. It’s something I felt comfortable with. But Barry and Curt – those guys are artists. They can really pull it off. I was constantly like, “That looks great!” so Barry bought me a little bracelet, which I’ve worn every day since he got it. And then I got the confidence to go out and get another one. My friends – they’re not totally sold yet. They’re like, “What do you have on your wrist? What are you doing?”

Lilly in particular was so intimidating to me because she doesn’t take any crap from anyone, ever. But she doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. She can’t be uncreative in anything she does, even for a second. She doesn’t seem like she’s paying attention in the conversation, and then she adds this idea that’s like, “Oh my God, that’s a great idea.” I think just being around people that talented was a little intimidating for me. But then I realized I had contributions to make too. And I totally had a man-crush on Curt. We’re friends, I met his wife, he met my girlfriend. I miss seeing Curt, I miss them all.

What’s something you learned about set design while working on the show that surprised you?
The real answer to that question is 237 things. But: paint. I’m really struck by how each of them – before anything else, before they’ll go green screen, before they use any kind of effect – they would rather paint it. A good scenic painter will save any production designer. And I don’t think regular movie fans – I didn’t – have any sort of appreciation for how much skill there is from a good scenic painter that goes into the quality of what they see on screen.

Hot Set premieres on Syfy Tuesday, Sept. 18 at 9/8c.

Read more:
‘Face Off’: McKenzie Westmore, host of the Syfy monster makeup show, talks season 3
‘Dragon Tattoo’ costume designer signs on to ‘The Hunger Games: Catching Fire’
Warby Parker’s ‘Where’s Waldo?’ specs pay tribute to the Original Hipster

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