Reality vs. TV: The Events of Gossip Girl

How the production team for the CW's escapist teen soap creates its elaborate party sets.

By Chad Kaydo July 27, 2009, 9:00 AM EDT

The runway for the Eleanor Waldorf fashion show

Photo: Warner Bros. Television Entertainment/Giovanni Rufino

For fans of Gossip Girl, what the show’s characters are wearing and where they’re going can be as important as whom they’re sleeping with or scheming against. That focus on the visual creates the challenge and the charm of the job for Loren Weeks, production designer for the CW’s ratings-challenged but much-obsessed-over chronicle of pretty private-school kids on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

It seems like every other episode has a reference to “the social event of the season,” so some of the show’s most lavish and labor-intensive sets are for events: school dances that likely don’t look anything like your prom or uptown benefits that could pass for the real thing. “They’re important to the show because we’re portraying a group of people who live in high society, in which there are lots of events,” Weeks says. These gatherings also spark pivotal scenes, when characters fight, kiss, or get caught doing one or the other. “Everyone needs a reason to get dressed up and come to one place,” says art director Malchus Janocko.

To keep the show looking somewhat authentic to its milieu, Weeks draws on Janocko’s stint working for event designer Matthew David Hopkins between TV and movie jobs, and the team looks at what event pros are doing, often via BizBash. “We do try to keep it realistic—heightened, but realistic,” Weeks says. “It’s a little more lush and rich.”

Weeks began his career as an architect, then moved into television and film production. His last big TV job was the now-defunct NBC cop drama Third Watch—quite a difference from his current gig, which he considers a surprising and welcome shift. “We would prefer to scout the Upper East Side, rather than crack dens in Harlem and the Bronx,” he says.

Although the team might get a heads-up about an upcoming party scene a month out, decisions about the location and design aren’t finalized until a director begins work on the episode—usually eight business days before they start shooting. (They might get three or four more days to finish the build-out.) That can mean tentatively booking a few venue options.

The show’s budget limits the number of party guests (a.k.a. extras) to 80, so Weeks often sections off part of a large venue. Sets are designed to be easily taken apart to accommodate a director’s choice of shots and camera angles, but the team usually builds out an entire event to give the director options and to set the scene for the actors, who may be the only people who see the full design. “One of my favorite expressions is ‘Some of the best work you’ll never see,’” Weeks says. If an episode is running, say, 90 seconds long, an establishing shot panning over the room often gets cut.

Working within this tight schedule, it helps that the show has a large staff of painters, carpenters, grips, and set dressers. Weeks estimates the total budget for an event shoot can be as much as $200,000, including labor, location fees, and materials. Still, Janocko says—sounding like many real-life event producers—“There’s never enough time.”

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