Jane Gulick’s role on the set of Big Little Lies is to make Monterey look like Monterey.
The task is not easy. Long before the actors gather to rehearse, the veteran Hollywood propmaster begins studying the script, researching characters and scenes. She then begins to gather items that would likely appear in cupboards and purses, on tables and walls.
“You have to make it look like Monterey without looking fake,” Gulick explains. “Props are not supposed to stand out.”
But the small business owners of Monterey County who responded to the call for props see the matter differently. They hope the products – juices, tote bags, honey, wine and other branded items – catch the attention of viewers nationwide.
“I sent a case of Chardonnay and a couple of others just to get a selection,” says Lenora Carey, owner of Big Sur Vineyards. “All I want is one shot of Nicole Kidman saying, ‘This Big Sur Chardonnay is great.’ All you need is one little second.”
Branded Entertainment Network surveyed fans after the first season and found that a third of them recalled one or more product placements – Buick in particular. And according to Marketing Dive, television accounts for 70 percent of the paid product placement market, with streaming services becoming the fastest-growing segment.
So Carey and other local businesses may indeed realize a boost from inclusion in a scene. As Jake Reisdorf, owner of Carmel Honey Company, says, “Whenever you’re given an opportunity, you take it and see where it goes. People may see the honey and go to our website.”
However, props are not the same as paid product placement, in which brands contract with movie studios or production companies for an appearance on screen. Remember Reese’s Pieces in E.T.? Tom Cruise sporting Wayfarers in Risky Business? Hershey’s worked a candy bar intoWings, and that was the Oscar winner back in 1927.
There is no financial commitment with a prop. Local businesses volunteer their products free of charge, with no guarantee they will appear on screen. The transaction that put Reese Witherspoon’s character in a Buick took place at the management level. Gulick’s role is to create a sense of authenticity.
“We’re on months before the actors are on,” she says.
Gulick examines the script for clues to each character’s personal tastes and interests. She meets with the costume designer and set decorator for guidance before settling on the everyday items that populate the world of HBO’s Monterey Peninsula – what Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) might have in the cupholder of her car, what Celeste (Nicole Kidman) would keep on her coffee table, which wine Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) prefers.
Once she’s gathered the props, she meets with the actors to discuss the options. “I think of it as Christmas shopping for someone,” Gulick says. “We put a lot of thought to it.”
Paid product placement can irk people. As @jason_m_heller tweeted following an episode in Season 1, “Just finished Big Little Lies. Can’t believe I sat through a seven-hour product placement for breakfast cereal.”
Gulick prefers to work with local businesses. The set for Season 2 of Big Little Lies includes jars of marmalade and pickles from Happy Girl Kitchen Co. Characters checked out books from Monterey Public Library, carried Om Studios bags and flipped through pages of – you guessed it – the Monterey County Weekly.
Jordan Champagne of Happy Girl Kitchen looks forward to the new season of the series with great anticipation. She already knows her product was represented prominently at the fictional Blissful Drip Cafe, the main characters’ gathering place. And she experienced the drawing power of the show when Witherspoon dined at the Pacific Grove shop last year and posted about it on social media.
“Suddenly there was a line of 20-somethings out the door,” Champagne recalls. “I’m guessing there will be an uptick in exposure.”
The Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association expects benefits from the new season, as well. The organization gathered 44 different varietals from 19 labels for use on the set – although before you start thinking the actors had one hell of a party, Gulick is responsible for emptying each bottle and refilling it with a non-alcoholic wine.
Still, it’s the label that matters.
“Our belief is that viewers will increase their awareness and positive perception of Monterey wines, paired with the strong ensemble of world class actresses including Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep,” writes MCVGA executive director Kim Stemler via email from New York, where she was pouring wines at the Big Little Lies premiere. “That’s a pretty incredible pairing!”
Meanwhile, the propmaster takes pride in the little things – including those that don’t even appear to viewers, but do appear to the cast.
“To make it authentic – I love that part of my job,” Gulick says.