Searching for a creative outlet, law student switches to a career as a set decorator

How does a creative mind trapped in law school escape? For Jess Royal, it was taking a huge leap of faith in herself and working hard to break into the burgeoning Georgia film industry in 2008.

Jess says she learned about set decoration from a behind-the-scenes show about the film “Revolutionary Road.”

“The set decorator described how she dressed out the room so that every item would be from the correct period and in character, even if it would go unseen in a drawer,” says Jess. “As a history freak, I found it absolutely fascinating. I knew right then I wanted to be a set decorator and I felt so lucky to live in Georgia where it might be possible.”

Now Jess is able to let her creative mind free as the set decorator responsible for nailing the peak ‘80s vibe on the Netflix series “Stranger Things.”

One of the breakout stars on Netflix’s “Stranger Things: Season 3” wasn’t a person. It was a place: Starcourt Mall. Fans were swooning over the perfectly retro set complete with vintage clothing, signs and furniture.

The set was built around the unused food court of the Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth. In order to transform the mall’s modern décor, Jess used her skills as a historian, sleuth, and artist. She found photos of the mall from its opening in 1984 and researched photos of other malls to make the set decorations correct for the period.

In “Stranger Things,” Eleven and Max’s montage makeover and shopping spree was a pivotal scene. The original script called for the girls to shop in a large department store, but logistics forced Jess to suggest The Gap instead. And it worked perfectly. Jess used a Gap catalog from 1985 to get the look right. She hunted for vintage Gap clothing and supplemented with new clothing she found on Amazon to fill up the store.

While at the hotel her family owns in Madison, Jess ran into a production designer on “Halloween II.” From that chance encounter, Jess started her film and TV production career as a location scout for the show, helping to procure odd items like large cable spools from Georgia Power.

Her next gig was a location scout for the “Vampire Diaries” TV series filmed in Covington, GA, where she leaned on her relationships with locals to get the show what it needed.

“Ring of Fire” was her first opportunity as a set decorator — a job that tested her creativity and her dedication to achieving her goals. The movie follows June Carter’s life from the 1920s to the 2000s. For Jess, it was a dream come true because she got to decorate homes, recording studios and radio stations in every decade, what she calls “a feast for period design.”

“My jam is Americana. At estate sales I collect period pieces for future productions and they’re also a great place for research, to see what people keep and what’s important to them,” says Jess. “It makes me feel good to give people’s stuff a second life on film.”

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