Written by Alex Leon
“With the pandemic I’m pretty bored if I can help anyone out I’m in.”
That nonchalant response to a message I sent over Reddit is how I ended up, eight months later, sitting down with Varun to interview Robert “Ratface” Holtzman at his prop shop in North Philly. For those who don’t know, Ratface is a production designer and set dresser who has had his hand in damn near every big production to come through the Philly area: Twelve Monkeys, The Sixth Sense, Clerks II, Mare of Easttown.
Our first conversation happened not too long after that initial interaction. Parker and I hopped on a call with him to discuss a problem Parker had been working on for a while: how to rig a controllable leak in the ceiling of the set for The Lovers.
“How should I refer to you?? Robert? Ratface?”
“Either is fine, Robert, Ratface, Mr. Face”
Without missing a beat, Ratface not only explained how we could create a rig for a roof leak with controllable speed and pressure, he went into various methods we could use to make realistic looking water damage, ways you could “motivate” the leak (he recommended a radiator with pipes going into the ceiling,) the color that radiator leak water would be, and ways to make our set look realistically aged. His knowledge wasn’t limited to the practicality of the leak, he understood every facet of what needed to happen to make a leak look realistic.
A similar exchange happened before Atrophy, which required the construction of a phone booth. As I explained that we were looking for the best way to make the phone booth convincingly weathered, Ratface explained to me that there is not a one-size-fits-all method for weathering things. If the phone booth was in the desert, he explained, the aluminum would be bleached by the sun. However if we were creating a phone booth that existed by the road, it would be grimed up with road salt and the exhaust from passing trucks.
When I asked for a handful of props to use for Atrophy, the man did not hesitate. Visiting Ratface’s prop shop is an experience in and of itself. He has the first floor of what used to be a factory in North Philly. The prop shop is cavernous; rows and rows of, well, just about anything you can think of quite frankly.
“These are my fire barrels, and this is my Christmas section over here.”
I was geeking out. It reminded me of the M5 warehouse in Mythbusters, which I watched religiously as a kid. On our last call,I had asked him if he’d be interested in doing an interview of some sort. We were (somewhat recently) coming off of doing an IG live interview with director Jimmy Bontatibus, and he seemed like a perfect subject.
“Yeah sure, we can do it that way. If you want though, you can come out to the prop shop and film something here.”
So there I was, a couple months later, unloading equipment with Varun, Alfi (a cinematographer I had met on another set, and his production assistant named Ben. As we were setting up a good spot to do the talking head, Ratface offered up a couch hiding under a stack of life buoys (two of which ended up in Atrophy.)
“It’s the couch Ben Affleck has in Dogma”
You can’t say no to that.
If our interview proved anything, it’s that Ratface himself is a piece of film history. For those of you who have worked on film sets before, he is every grizzled veteran of the industry you have ever met, giving us literally too many stories for us to capture. Between shots, he kept going with stories about production assistants having to hold back high-tide with sheets of plywood, walking down South Street of Philadelphia with an A-list celebrity at the height of his fame to buy cigarettes, and slaving over props just for the director to decide at the last minute that they weren’t necessary.
After our sit-down interview, Ratface walked us through his shop, which is a maze of just about everything from law books to old X-ray equipment. The one thing that struck me as we walked through his space was the sheer amount of tangible film history I was staring at. It was mind-boggling to think about the number of props that, whether I recognized them or not, I had seen at some point, on some screen before. Not to mention the people who worked with the props! (He proudly showed off the boat that Oprah gave birth in in Jonathan Demme’s Beloved.)
Writing this now, we are about a year out from filming in that shop. While post-production took a bit longer than Varun or I would have liked (It can be daunting to come back from a full day of editing at work, only to get home and will yourself into opening Da Vinci Resolve yet again,) I’m still in awe of everything Ratface showed us, and the stories we got to capture.
Ratface: A Career in Movies comes out November 8th. Varun and I hope you appreciate the man, his stories, and his “10,000 square feet of crap” as much as we do.