“I like to joke that I am the highest-paid waiter in Los Angeles. … In the basic sense, I support the actors on set and, yeah, just sort of hand them things.”
Kim Richey is being modest about her career as an assistant prop master. The Boulder City native has worked on such visually striking movies as “Inherent Vice” and “Her.” She spent seasons 4 through 6 on “The Office.” And she observed actual autopsies for the Will Smith movie “Concussion.”
But Richey’s home and professional lives collided when she was hired to work on a little movie partially set in Boulder City: “La La Land.”
If, as expected, it takes home the top prize at Sunday’s Oscars, it would be her second best picture winner, following 2012’s “The Artist.” Richey won’t be attending the ceremony or any affiliated parties, though. “If I wasn’t pregnant, I might have more energy to get dressed up,” she says.
The road to movies
Richey, 39, started working in theater at 13 and transferred from Boulder City High School to the newly opened Las Vegas Academy before her junior year. “I knew going to college that I didn’t want a real job,” she says. “And I chose (USC) film school so that my life wouldn’t be so boring. I never would know where my next desk would be.”
For a while, Richey considered a career as an art director. Then she was begged to cut short a vacation to be the assistant prop master on 2007’s “Superbad.” “I asked to read the script first but was denied that chance. … Had I read the script, I don’t know that I would’ve ditched my vacation,” she says, laughing. “But that sort of changed my whole career path, because I stopped art directing. I never went back to that interest.”
“Superbad” was the first time Richey worked with “La La Land” star Emma Stone. The second came on 2011’s “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” which also starred Stone’s “La La Land” love interest, Ryan Gosling. It was an experience that would pay great dividends when they reunited for writer-director Damien Chazelle’s musical ode to Los Angeles.
Richey knew she’d be working on “La La Land” for about a month before she saw a script, but it wasn’t until the third draft she was given that Stone’s character, an aspiring actress named Mia, hailed from Boulder City.
Because shooting in her hometown wasn’t feasible, “I was trying to give them some directions on what the town looks like,” Richey says. “(But) in the end, they have to choose what’s going to work best for shooting.”
The movie’s version of the Boulder City library, which was across the street from Mia’s home and whose movie collection inspired her to become an actress, was named “Del Prado Library” after the street Richey grew up on. And she brought some of her yearbooks, awards and Nevada-themed memorabilia to dress Mia’s childhood bedroom. “They’re subtly in there,” she says. “You don’t really notice them.”
Not being noticed is a recurring theme in the life of an assistant prop master.
“I don’t know how many green items I bought for (Emma’s) character,” Richey says, “but if you look, it’s subtle. … You notice if you start looking, a lot of her items are green, and it was very purposeful.”
Green was part of the color scheme Chazelle planned out for the characters, she explains. “I took it as her budding creativity and development as an artist, since green is the color of nature and fertility.” Color was so important to the overall look of “La La Land,” Richey says she designed drink menus for the props to correspond with: The daytime pool party featured orange and purple drinks, the jazz club drinks were dark browns and smoky hues, and the hilltop Hollywood party had Champagne cocktails with “pops of pink.” Again, most of this effort was for something the average viewer would never notice.
Richey spent plenty of time searching for the perfect journal in which Mia could write her one-woman show, yet it was barely seen. Richey estimates she “must have written 50 versions” of pages in that journal, only to have Stone end up being filmed writing the lines herself. “In the end, sometimes you work really hard for that,” she admits, “and you don’t so much see that on screen.”
Richey herself went out of her way to avoid being seen on screen. She handed off the hair dryer to one of Mia’s roommates when they’re getting ready for the party during the “Someone in the Crowd” number. “I’m just crouched low in the bathroom waiting for somebody to come in and grab the hair dryer from me, and then try(ing) to catch it when she throws it back so it doesn’t break.” For the re-creation of the opening freeway number during the fantasy scene at the end, Richey hid behind a wall with a button to reset the Stop/Go sign so Mia and Sebastian can proceed. “I don’t think anybody notices that in the dance sequence,” she admits.
Then there’s the job of simply staying out of the actors’ way, as much as possible, during emotional scenes. “On intimate shooting days when it might just be the two of them,” she says of Stone and Gosling, “I would find a little space on the set to hide and just help them reset in between takes.”
That proved especially difficult during the scene in which they argue about the direction Sebastian’s career is taking.
“There was kind of an intense emotional feeling on the set for those scenes,” Richey says, but because she’d previously worked with the actors, “I did know their style. … I knew their vibes. I’m lucky in that they’re both very nice people and have really good senses of humor. So while I respected their space, they also were so generous. Like, if I needed them to move — maybe they were deep in thought, but I needed them to move so I could reset things — they would realize, like, ‘Oh, I’m in your way. Sorry.’ ”
Considering all the props she’s acquired over the years, Richey doesn’t keep much in the way of memorabilia. “I’m not very sentimental,” she reveals, “because as a prop person, you tend to end up collecting a lot of stuff, and I really fight that.”
In fact, she’s held onto only two souvenirs: a production slate she made for “The Artist,” because its creation “was one of the biggest disasters of my career,” and a poster for Mia’s play, “So Long, Boulder City.”
The latter, she says, is in her home office, where it’s “hanging proudly.”
Contact Christopher Lawrence at email@example.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch.