Set! is the most intense movie at Hot Docs this year. The film chronicles the high-stakes world of competitive table setting.
Yes, dear reader, you caught that correctly.
Scott Gawlik’s feature debut finds a novel premise and delivers as it whisks audiences into a peculiar arena. Set! follows nine competitors through the rigorous six-month process leading up to California’s Orange County Fair. The setters create opulent tables dressed in themed lines, backdrops, and accents. Table setting is a science and an art as much as it is a sport. This feat involves exacting precision because a misplaced soupspoon or a knife set atop a napkin can break a competitor’s shot at Best in Show. The cutthroat competition makes Set! one of the most compulsively watchable films at this year’s Hot Docs.
Gawlik says that he first discovered the art of table setting while exploring competition rooms at the local fair after pounding back some beers and greasy food. He recalls a disappointing visit to the cookie competition, which didn’t feature any interactive elements to sample the goods. “There were no cookies,” grumbles Gawlik, speaking with POV ahead of Hot Docs. “It was just a placard that said, ‘this cookie was better than that cookie’ for a bunch of cookies behind a glass wall. It looked like some sort of Manhattan art installation or a Banksy thing.”
The table was set, so to speak, for Gawlik’s curious appetite as he moved to the next competition: tables. “There are a lot of interesting competitions at the fair, none of which, on a surface level, sound interesting,” explains Gawlik, “but when you consider them and think about how somebody went to the effort of making something like a table, drove it to the fair, and dropped if off, you’re struck by them.” The director recalls how the sheer size of the table room allowed him to explore the creations in ways the stale cookie showcase did not.
“She’s the Michael Jordan of table setting”
After observing the precise creative and mathematical precision involved in the sets, Gawlik says he began researching the top players in the field. “I did a quick Google search and the first person who came up was Mrs. Bonnie Overman,” explains Gawlik. “She’s the Michael Jordan of table setting. If you’re making a movie about table setting and you don’t include her, then you didn’t really make the movie.” Bonnie’s upbeat personality and competitive edge make her the ideal character through whom Set! introduces the competition. As Bonnie walks the viewer through the idiosyncrasies of the sport, shows off her ribbons, and invites Gawlik to see her massive archive of dressings from previous tables, she recaps the ins and outs of her craft like a pro.
Gawlik says that Bonnie was preparing for the Los Angeles County Fair and advised him to follow her and some fellow competitors. However, the director notes that the representatives from the fair were not amenable to the production. “They said they were not going to give me any names of competitors and that I had to just figure it out on my own.” After preliminary filming with Bonnie and the mother-daughter team of Marie and Christel Schoenfelder, Gawlik says that the LA fair pulled the plug entirely when the judges decided they didn’t want to participate in the film.
Setting the Cast
However, Gawlik says that fortune turned in their favour when Bonnie added that she was also preparing for the Orange County fair. Gawlik says representatives for Orange County had an entirely different attitude. They not only welcomed the production, but also waived the usual fees and provided him with a list noting every contestant entered in the competition. “The movie would not be made without their support,” admits Gawlik. The OC fair’s judges were also far more agreeable to be in a documentary, as Gawlik discovered during a booze-fuelled interview.
The director says that the casting process came easily thanks to the fair’s assistance. “I went down the list and called everybody. I made sure I had unlimited minutes on my phone because it was a lot of talking, listening, and figuring out who might present an interesting story for a documentary about table setting,” explains Gawlik. “I learned who could make it less about the tables and more about the people.”
Set! features one of the liveliest casts of characters in recent memory. Each competitor has her or his quirks. Their personalities shine through their creations. Janet Lew, for example, collects items from around the globe for her tables, which she keeps set up around her home—but only to admired and never used for eating. Her knack for collecting comes in handy when the fair announces world travel as one of its themes. So too does Tim Wyckoff’s spark of child-like wonder, which harnesses his thriftiness and imagination for a table inspired by Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go. Meanwhile, aquabics besties Cheryl von der Helle and Ginnie Jacobs use items donated by their friends for a Moroccan-themed table. For the fair’s other theme, illumination, reigning champion Crystal Young defies the naysayers by doing the most clichéd table in the book: a barn setting inspired by the fair’s theme.
Out of Africa
Some of the tables prefer to push the envelope, like scene-stealer Hilarie Moore’s provocative safari setting that features taxidermy, bones, sand, fake blood, and bullet casings. It’s an acquired taste and statement piece, but fuel for great drama as Bonnie embarks on her own safari setting inspired by Out of Africa to continue her love for movie-themed tables. Gawlik insists that he maintained the utmost neutrality while filming and didn’t leak any secrets to rivals.
“The most important thing is that the contestants don’t want people knowing what’s going on in their tables,” explains Gawlik. “If Crystal Young shows up with a big barn, then everyone else might be saying, ‘Oh, shit, I should have done the barn.’ I told everybody early on, ‘You have my word that you can tell me anything. I will not tell any of the other people what you’re building on your table.’”
Gawlik adds that maintaining the secrecy was part of his relationship with the participants, building trust with them over the phone between shoots. But that process also requires some juggling to create a dramatic arc between competitors who aren’t aware of the competition they face. “When I found out that Bonnie and Hilarie were both doing Africa, and they were very contrasting, I just had to ask them little questions to see how their opinions contrast similarly to their Africa tables as they come to a head,” explains Gawlik. For Bonnie, the table is an art with a specific tradition, while Hilarie treats her tables as statement pieces. One should note that one of Hilarie’s previous tables featured taxidermied mice dressed in eveningwear for a New Year’s Eve party. She explains in Set! how the mice decomposed into ooze…a mistake she vows to avoid in her latest endeavour.
“Hilarie really opened my eyes up to table setting being an art and not just a convention for eating a meal,” observes Gawlik. “If you look at her previous year’s table, it was spreading awareness about pollution in the ocean.” The environmentally themed table is a controversial talking point among Set!’s participants as Hilarie literally adorned her table with garbage.
“All these Orange County housewives threw up their arms and couldn’t imagine trash on the table,” laughs Gawlik. “Hilarie said it was important to her to use the trash, and we found out that, on pickup date when she was done with her table, she threw it in the garbage. She made a huge statement and some people got it, some people didn’t, but the table ended up in the trash. Her table probably ended up in the ocean, but there lies the fun contrast of her personality. She’s fabulous.”
“Day of Show”
Set! builds to the climatic showdown where knives are drawn. The film benefits from Gawlik’s previous experience working second unit and operating cameras for award shows like the Oscars and the Emmys. That work involves creating short reality-based packages that form the larger narrative of the show. Gawlik says that most shoots in the contestants’ homes used skeleton crews comprised of himself, DP John Salmon, various sound recordists, save for the day of show footage, which required multiple teams (about 15 to 20 extra hands) to capture the various contestants as they convened at the fair. (Even Gawlik’s term “day of show” is industry speak for production day of a live event.) “I had some segment producers and we had an interview station for bringing people in and out,” explains Gawlik. “I had a crew like I use on these TV shows, so it’s well-oiled machine: we’re on radios, people are running into the interview stations, and we had about 20 lavs running a master channel.”
Gawlik says he usually ran second camera while directing and didn’t plan to film himself on day of show, but, as with live television, he had to adapt when a contestant ran dangerously behind schedule. However, being on the ground with the camera gave the doc some of its most candid footage, like altercations between an overzealous security guard and a contestant who asks a few too many questions to her competitors. “We approached it like a live television show and less of a documentary, and then had to learn how to edit like a documentary, which was a lot slower,” explains Gawlik. The cameras capture the drama that unfolds as the contestants finally see one another’s displays and the judges—winning characters with humorously limited vocabulary—deliver their verdicts with as much passion as the competitors bring to their tables.
A Passionate Set
With such rich, colourful, and quirky characters, Set! could easily have veered into Christopher Guest territory. However, Gawlik says it was easy to avoid poking fun at the eccentric hobby because he could relate to the competitors’ passion. “It was important for me not to make fun of them because who’s to say that one person’s hobby should be laughed at and that another’s should be glorified?” He points out that his passion for documentary, and the time devoted to researching, shooting, and editing could just as easily seem peculiar to onlookers. “My attitude, understanding, and approach was such that it was never difficult for me to avoid making fun of them because that’s just not how I saw them,” says Gawlik. “You mentioned the Christopher Guest movies and Best in Show is funny because the characters take it so seriously. It is a scripted film and they’re not necessarily making fun of people—it just seems hilarious that people would care so much about grooming dogs. The same can be said about a lot of things.”
Gawlik adds that the passion of the competitors proved infectious. “Now I judge people,” he laughs. “Like when I go to restaurants, not that I’ve gone to many during COVID, I see things and am like, ‘Oh my God, why would they put the spoon there? On top of the napkin? Come on!”
Set! premieres at Hot Docs 2021.