Never Tell Her the Odds

For 35 years, Rosemary Brandenburg ’74 has decorated sets for dozens of Hollywood movies. Her latest project was her biggest yet.

When the latest installment of the decades-long Star Wars saga went into movie theaters in December 2019, Rosemary Brandenburg ’74 was ecstatic. She had spent 14 months dreaming up civilizations, building new worlds, and designing spaceship interiors at a breakneck speed while managing nearly 200 people as the set decorator for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

She also made history as the first female art department head of a Star Wars film. (Close behind her would come Amanda Moss Serino, set decorator for the Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian.) “It’s been a very male world,” Brandenburg said about breaking this cosmic glass ceiling.

Since her days as stage manager for NCS and St. Albans plays at the Trapier Theatre, Brandenburg has embraced the pace and organized chaos of production timelines.

“I found my path early on. I basically do now what I did at 15 in high school, only on a bigger scale,” said Brandenburg. “I was a shy kid, so when you join the theater, it’s a natural community. You have a role, and you don’t feel like you don’t fit in quite as much.”

Although she transferred from NCS after her sophomore year to Georgetown Day School, Brandenburg said, “it all comes from NCS and St. Albans.”

After college, Brandenburg became assistant art director for Powerhouse, a TV series that filmed in the District, before moving to Los Angeles at age 25. An early project was the film Desert Hearts. “One thing led to another … and I finally got into the union when I did La Bamba. I didn’t get a graduate degree, so this was all just learning on the job,” she added.

Today she has worked on more than 40 movies as a set decorator, including Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Planet of the Apes, Public Enemies, Transformers, The Hateful Eight, Amistad, and Hocus Pocus. Set decoration is a Hollywood role that, for Brandenburg, is all about creating a series of environments that are noticeably separate from one another.

The goal is to give the audience specific cues about a character’s interests and personality through objects, rather than dialogue. “You’re creating these backstories,” she explained.

When she got the call about the new movie, Brandenburg was excited but also intimidated. “I’ve done science fiction in the past, but Star Wars is a whole different animal,” she said.

Over the 40-year history of the franchise, Star Wars creator George Lucas and others built not just stories but a canonical universe. Brandenburg had seen all the films, and she knew staying true to that canon as she worked within it would offer a challenge.

“There were so many background and stylistic influences I had to learn, not to mention understanding all the different spaceships, lineages, characters, story arcs, and storylines over the last eight films,” she said.

There was more to learn: The Rise of Skywalker was shot in the United Kingdom, where set decorators have a whole host of additional responsibilities than they do in the United States.

A typical U.S. set-decoration project would require 30 to 40 people, said Brandenburg. But in London, her department also encompassed props, graphics, metalworkers, woodworkers, plasticworkers, painters, illustrators, set designers, and a few art directors. In all, 170 people were under Brandenburg’s supervision.

“The key—what it’s all about—is staying organized and maintaining your focus so that you can break everything down into bite-size pieces,” she said. “My job is to skim over the top, and in a project like this, it’s all about delegation.”

Through her years in Hollywood, Brandenburg has worked with all types of directors. Skywalker Director J.J. Abrams was particularly fluid in his process, constantly refining the script, which kept Brandenburg and her team on their toes.

Once Abrams landed on a new setting, the production designer would give Brandenburg’s team cues: desert, spaceship, forest, style cues, etc. The set-decoration team would look for design inspiration all over, particularly in the natural world and from early civilizations. “You’re really trying to open your mind to all kinds of interesting things that will inform and give you a basis for an idea,” Brandenburg said.

The set-decoration team would sketch out that setting and decide what could make it iconic, recognizable, and unique all at the same time. In one instance, they went through 40 different sets of drawings before landing on a visual that everybody liked.

Finally, Brandenburg would present the final design to Abrams for approval. “If it goes well, fantastic, you go into production. Otherwise, it’s back to the drawing board,” she recalled.

Brandenburg’s favorite part of Skywalker was building new worlds, such as the desert planet Pasaana. With little more to go on than a description of a desert festival thrown by an alien population, Brandenburg and her team spent weeks answering the big philosophical questions: What was the nature of the civilization? What were they celebrating? What was their deity?

Then, after answering these questions, they focused on technical matters: Which bright fabrics would read well on camera and keep their color in bright sunlight? How can tents remain upright and steady in an unpredictable, windy desert?

“The festival was a huge dealio,” Brandenburg said.

The festival scenes were shot in the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan, so everything was built in London and then shipped south—eight large truck containers of set materials: Bedouin-inspired tents, colorful banners and fabrics, and detailed creations such as souvenirs and puppet shows. “It was a lot of pressure, but it worked out really well,” she said.

Looking back on this whirlwind of a job, which tested all her limits, Brandenburg feels nothing but pride.

“In the end, it was a great triumph. It looks amazing, and it’s a movie with enormous scope. I  mean, we really pulled it off,” she beamed.

Since wrapping Star Wars, Brandenburg recently finished work on Yes Day, starring Jennifer Garner, and next she will travel to Atlanta for the new Spider-Man movie.

After 35 years of steady work in Hollywood, Brandenburg offered advice to NCS students who may want to follow her path: “Take advantage of what I’m sure is still an excellent theater department and figure out where you fit.” But if she could go back, she’d take more classes in art history, sociology, and psychology to learn the art of interpreting and telling visual stories.
    • Rosemary Brandenburg '74 on location in the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan. (Photo provided by Brandenburg.)

    • Poster for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. (Provided by Brandenburg; credit to Lucasfilm.)

    • One of Brandenburg's favorite sets was the desert planet of Pasaana. (Photo provided by Brandenburg; credit to Lucasfilm.)