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Two Shows, Two Sets

By RD Heldenfels Published: July 19, 2005

As I said in the previous posting, today included visits to the set of ''Deadwood'' and ''Over There,'' two very different settings for TV shows.

The set for ''Over There'' -- a drama involving soldiers fighting in modern-day Iraq -- was the one used for, well, Iraq.

It's in the hills outside Los Angeles, a spartan area made more forbidding this day by temperatures in the triple digits. It wasn't much of a set, either, consisting mainly of a few semi-permanent structures that could be remade into a variety of small buildings, an open field with military vehicles and dirt roads with after-battle debris strewn along (a flipped car, rusted truck, an olive-green headset, a single boot and so on).

But it is obviously enough to serve its purpose for the show, which is quite good. The cast and producers were also on hand to talk about what goes into the show. I'll be writing more about it for the print Beacon Journal as we get closer to its premiere on July 27.

If the ''Over There'' set offers broad strokes for its settings, ''Deadwood'' is detailed portraiture. Incredible detail stretched along winding streets and narrow alleyways that seem made for murder, intrigue and general brutality.

The ''Deadwood'' set is on the Melody Ranch, the site of many westerns, and once owned by Gene Autry. (You can learn more about it here: Melody Ranch. ) There's room not only for the existing structures, but for more. A schoolhouse is being built for the coming season -- production starts up again on Aug. 8 -- as well as a new house for Alma (Molly Parker) and Ellsworth (Jim Beaver).

As would be the case later at ''Over There,'' ''Deadwood'' cast members were about, mingling before the set tour and a press conference. So vivid in the show's Old West setting, they seemed out of place in their modern form -- sunglasses on Powers Boothe (who plays Cy Tolliver), a shoulder tattoo and flashes of an Irish accent from Paula Malcomson (Trixie), the baseball cap on Sean Bridgers (Johnny).

The set blended the necessities of filmmaking with the minutiae of its scenes. (Those of you who prefer their movie magic without explanation should stop reading here.)

With first assistant director Kenny Roth as our guide, a small group of us got to see where Bill Hickok was shot, where Bullock and Swearengen fought -- and where more fluids have been spilled by more people than any series in memory.

Walk behind some sets and you see bare boards, or a sign saying ''Smoker's Haven.'' The interior of the Gem saloon and the exterior are in different places: the inside on a soundstage, the exterior along one of the streets. A green screen is moved across the end of the main street to carry an artificial view of a Deadwood landscape, instead of the real images in the distance.

The town also looked cleaner overall than it does onscreen. (More often, TV show sets look grubbier in real life than on the air.)

The streets were rutted and uneven, but sun-baked to dryness. When the show is in production, they are hosed down to muddiness. At the interior of the Gem, a vat of mud is kept handy so extras can walk through it before entering the saloon, creating the impression they have come from outdoors.

Then there were the little things you aren't supposed to see. At the Deadwood newspaper office, what looks like a bound volume of back issues is in fact the Boston Sunday Globe from 1929. (On a local note, the office also includes a Frost Killer stove from the Eclipse Stove Co. of Mansfield, Ohio -- which later became Tappan.) A ledger in the Star & Bullock store bears a hand-written entry beginning, "Yo, bro, what's up.''

But some things were less significant. At one building entrance, broken glass was scattered. One reporter asked if it was part of the sow. No, said Roth. ''That would just be (that) somebody broke some glass.''

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