Like many creative people, I suffer from Imposter Syndrome. At least, I hope many other creative people suffer from this, because I would really hate to be alone here. In fact, I can think of many creative people who don’t suffer from Imposter Syndrome who should suffer from Imposter Syndrome, because they are in fact genuine imposters. I’ve met quite a few in my racket. My racket, my line of work, is show biz of the Hollywood slash TV variety. I have worked as a set dresser, an art director, a prop master, a leadman, a screenwriter, and set decorator. The higher up the food chain, the more I feel like an imposter.
Everyone in Hollywood is familiar with the adage, “Fake it till you make it,” and some brilliant careers have been built from this advice. I could never swallow it. I come from a family of working class do-be’s, who actually believed we lived in something called a meritocracy even though they wouldn’t have used that word. Apply oneself through hard work and one will rise to the top. But one needs to acquire skills along the way. Imagine my surprise when only two years out of film school, I was working as a lowly art department PA on a Hollywood film shoot in Boston, when I ran into a college buddy who was already working as an associate producer on the same fim. He had his own director’s chair! How did you get that job? Never mind that, he said, why aren’t you production designing? Why? Because that takes years of experience! Nonsense, he said. You simply call yourself a production designer and the jobs will follow. I think Bernie — that was his name — was secretly a Scientologist. Everyone knows they make deals with the devil. Anyway, no way was I ready to hang out my shingle as a production designer. I had to learn my trade.
And I did. I had the good fortune to study under the tutelage of many top set decorators and production designers on big Hollywood features and over the next decade felt like I had earned my stripes and could decorate on my own. And I did, but each time I felt like an imposter, not quite deserving of the title. Always there was this creeping dread that on any given day I would be called out. I would show up on set, and the entire crew, the cast, the producers and director would be waiting there. The director would bellow, you call this a set? I asked for a Penthouse, not a cheap bordello!
I used to have anxiety dreams on these shows, where I would be caught sleeping in the bed on the set and woken up, naked, in front of the entire crew. Or that I had missed a deadline and forgot to do a set entirely. The whole crew showing up with nothing to shoot at all.
Somehow, I managed to persevere. I struggled through, I got the job done. Usually with very good results. Somewhere along the way, I discovered that I was actually good at my job and I relaxed a bit more, stopped looking over my shoulder. I was never entirely free of Imposter Syndrome but I could manage it much better. I knew how to work a room, knew the right things to say and what not to say. In fact, I found myself actually becoming a good imposter, of the me I aspired to be. Which perversely led to another syndrome common in the film industry, Genius Syndrome, which is what happens when you suddenly start behaving as if every single person around you is an utter and complete moron, and only you, in your infinite wisdom, can see the big picture. I am embarrassed to say that on several productions I suffered from Genius Syndrome big time. It made me something of a monster. Snapping at subordinates, yes, once in a while, but I think I was more tedious than anything else. Often this behavior would bite me in the ass when — surprise — I discovered I wasn’t the smartest person in the room after all. And luckily for me and everyone around me I eventually called myself out for this foolish way of thinking and put it behind me.
There was one big job I did a few years ago, in Boston, where my worst imposter fears were actually realized. I decorated a set that the director and the writer — the writer! — Hated. They hated it. I was lambasted in front of the crew, just like in all my nightmares. Hadn’t I read the script? Didn’t I get the character at all? In fact this was one time I hadn’t read the crucial scene description for the character, who was described as a heavy-metal mom in her 20’s. I decorated the apartment for a middle-aged Irish Catholic mother from South Boston. So I admittedly was a bit off the mark. He told me I had four hours to fix the set. In a panic I sent my buyers out to Target, to Ikea, to thrift stores, we bought what whatever we thought would work, meanwhile the clock was ticking. It was horrible. In the end as we were marching in with our pathetic mish-mash of heavy metal mom furniture it had already been decided that they would shoot my set as I had decorated it so that fire drill was all for naught. The writer forgave me, but the director never did. For the record, he’s a real S.O.B. So I don’t particularly care, but it still stung.
I had the shadow of that experience looming over me when I got the call for the biggest decorating job of my career to date, an epic period miniseries set in the late 60’s and 70’s about the country western duo George Jones and Tammy Wynette. Frankly, I was terrified for several reasons: I was worried they wouldn’t have enough money, and they were filming in Wilmington, a small city on the southeast coast of North Carolina that has a very small production community, but nothing like the resources needed for a show this size, with its many mansions, recording studio, performing venues, tour buses — which we would have to build fron scratch — not to mention dozens of other intricate sets, over a 160 at least, and the schedule was impossible! They wanted to shoot all six episodes in 60 days, and that meant turning multiple sets over each day. I didn’t know how I could handle it. I turned down my friend, the designer, three times. The fourth time, seeing no other work on the horizon and being a pragmatist, I decided to throw caution to the wind and jump in with both feet.
Six weeks later the designer who begged me to do the job left the job because of stress. Now, during this time my stress level was also through the roof. But after the designer left, something miraculous happened. I think I reached a stress saturation point, and my mind just rejected it. The stress went away. I still don’t know why or how exactly that happened. But from then on I never felt stressed. People were actually worried about me because I didn’t look as stressed out as they thought I should be. I worried. I was concerned. But I never panicked, I never got tense. I think it was because I had finally learned to ask for what I needed, which was mainly people, good people. I built an excellent team of buyers around me, I had a great leadman and set dressing crew, I hired a terrific draper, I hired a dynamite production assistant. When the load got really heavy I hired an assistant set decorator. This must be in the top five of all great imposter tips: Delegate! Even with all that extra help, the job was grueling. Throughout January, February and March we worked many, many Saturdays and Sundays. But we never worked more than 12 hours a day when we could have been working 13 or 14 like the shooting crew. We managed to go out to dinner a lot together and have fun. I didn’t suffer from Genius Syndrome. And best of all, no one called me out. I was given a three million dollar budget — me, who can’t manage my own finances — to shop for and decorate this miniseries. I was responsible for carpeting and sinks and wallpaper and light fixtures and appliances and furniture and artwork and on and on, and every day they showed up and happily to went to work filming on my sets. Why did they trust me? Who knows? I mean, at the end of the day, who vetts you? Who decides if you are the real deal or a phony? Is it up to you and your self confidence alone? I don’t know. I do know no matter how well I perform, I will still worry about being unmasked at some point. I think it goes back to my parent’s low self esteem. But I’ve learned a few tricks. Arty glasses go a long way. Same with footwear. I like to think I’m the real deal, but if I’m not, I can fake it till I make it.
(c) 2022 James Brunel