Featured Testimonial About Creighton University
Hi. I’m Tony. Who are you?
In our Fast Forward series, we profile alumni doing unique, interesting and meaningful work in their fields, inviting each to connect the support they received at Creighton, however long past, to the person they are today. See our previous Fast Forward feature here.
Want to nominate an alumnus for the Fast Forward series? Contact email@example.com.
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By Micah Mertes
The Academy Awards will air on ABC on Sunday, March 10, marking the 96th ceremony celebrating the best in film. The longevity of the awards show got us wondering — in all those categories in all those ceremonies, has a Creighton alumnus ever been nominated for an Oscar?
As it turns out, yes. But just one — Nancy Nye, BFA’74.
(If there are other past nominees we’re overlooking, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In 1998, Nye (alongside production designer Jan Roelfs) received an Academy Award nomination for best art direction for the 1997 sci-fi thriller Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Jude Law. (This was Gattaca’s only Oscar nomination. The film lost out to Titanic, which received a record-tying 11 awards that year.)
Nye has had a long career in film that continues today. She’s worked as a set decorator on the movies of Ridley Scott (Body of Lies, Matchstick Men), Tony Scott (Domino), Oliver Stone (Savages), James L. Brooks (How Do You Know) and William Friedkin (Rampage). She’s also worked on popular films and TV shows like Coach Carter, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Craft, Less Than Zero and Under the Dome.
Many Nebraskans have been nominated for and won Oscars over the past century. See a list of notable Nebraskans in film and theater here. The reasons there aren’t a wealth of Creighton alumni who have been nominated should be apparent enough: 1. Creighton doesn’t have a film school. 2. Omaha is about 1,600 miles away from Hollywood.
How did Nancy Nye — an Omaha native who now lives in Santa Fe — become the sole exception? We called her up and asked.
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Nancy, did you know that, as far as we know, you’re the only alum to have been nominated for an Academy Award?
Nye: I had no idea. I wouldn’t have thought that, but that’s good to know.
Before we get to the Oscar nomination, how did you go from being a fine artist to a movie and TV set decorator?
Nye: I knew I wanted to paint from day one. In 1974, I was the only student getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at Creighton. I always did enjoy being unique!
My junior year, I went to Paris and studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After graduating from Creighton, I spent a year painting in a space I rented from my mother in Omaha. Then to Washington, D.C., and then to Massachusetts and eventually to New York City, where I worked in galleries and maintained a studio in downtown Manhattan.
I was there for almost six years. I worked in several different galleries, but it just wasn't for me. I visited California and fell in love. I eventually moved there.
Why did you decide to go into film?
Nye: I've always loved film. When I was a little girl, my big sister and I would always sneak downstairs late at night to watch the old movies that came on TV. We saw movies starring Cary Grant and Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. I was in love.
How did you make the career leap?
Nye: First, a few of my friends and I studied film production at New York University. We fell in love with filmmaking. They sent us around lower Manhattan with an old 16-mm movie camera, and we just made these little movies. We were enchanted.
I quit my job at the gallery and worked at a restaurant in lower Manhattan, and in about a year I had saved up enough money to move to LA.
Once I got there, I had a contact who was in the process of making a movie, and I called them up and asked if I could work for them. They said, “What do you want to do?” I told them I had no idea but that I was an artist. They put me in the art department, and I became a set decorator.
Within two months of moving to LA, I was working on my first feature film as an assistant set decorator.
And that started a 40-year career in the TV and film industry.
I had never planned it for myself. But I was good at it, and I loved it, so I kept going. And somewhere along the way, I was nominated for an Academy Award.
Let’s talk about that. Gattaca is great. I think it’s easily one of the best sci-fi movies of the past 30 years. I even remember watching it for the first time and thinking how cool the sets and production design were.
Nye: I was more surprised than anyone when we got nominated for that Oscar. However, the production designer of the film and my fellow nominee, a brilliant man named Jan Roelfs, told me we were going to get nominated as we were making the movie. He was right.
I loved going to the Academy Awards. It was a sea of people. Being in the middle of it was just an amazing thing. You felt like royalty.
I’m sure every process is a little different or a lot different from film to film. But how did the set design process work from start to finish on Gattaca?
Nye: The director, Andrew Niccol, came up with the original concepts. He had mood boards for every scene and a very clear vision for the film. It gave us a really good direction for where to go. His vision was futuristic but also drew a lot of inspiration from mid-century American and Italian design. Jan and I would take these concepts, and our crews would go about executing the designs. For some of the modernist things, we could purchase mid-century furniture. For other sets, we had to design them from scratch.
You don’t see half of what we designed in the movie. We made a glass house on the beach in San Pedro for Uma Thurman’s character. We made a whole laboratory in the house of Jude Law’s character. We designed bathroom fixtures. We made custom drapery, custom linens, a custom sink ... I had the best time working on that movie. Our director had assembled a team of highly creative professionals, from the production designer to the cinematographer to the costume designer, people with vast amounts of talent and experience. I felt very lucky to be involved in the project. Together, we created the future, and we did so on what was then a relatively low-budget film.
(For comparison, Titanic — which ended up winning the Academy Award that Nye and Rolfs were nominated for — had a production budget nearly six times the size of Gattaca.)
How is decorating movie sets similar to painting?
Nye: Film and painting are both visual mediums. You are telling the story with each canvas and each frame. The visual challenges are similar. Each frame or canvas is made up of visual stimulus — color, light, shadow, mood. All of these elements come together to create a complete picture.
When I decorate, I start with the main objects in a room: the sofa before the side table, the chair before the lamp. Everything bleeds out of the main focus. As an artist, you have to know what to include and what to eliminate to tell your story. Whether I’m making fine art or decorating sets for movies, that idea informs everything I’ve done every step of the way.
As you were Creighton’s only BFA graduate of 1974, I imagine your art school experience was a bit unusual.
Nye: At Creighton, I studied painting, sculpture and photography. By senior year, they gave me a studio and left me alone, sometimes for two or three weeks at a time, only coming by to give critiques or pointers.
I got a great education at Creighton, without a doubt. I had so many good professors.
Who were some of your favorites?
Nye: Rev. Leland Lubbers, SJ, was a hero of mine. He was extraordinary. He was an artist himself, just this totally unique character. He made these huge steel sculptures. As a teacher, he was this vital, creative spirit who encouraged all of us to find that spark within that made us unique. He inspired me to go out and be who I am.
(Fr. Lubbers established the fine arts department at Creighton in 1964, serving as the chair and then a professor until 1989. He passed away in 2008.)
Nye: I also studied photography under Father Don Doll, SJ, and poetry under a man named John Thomas and English literature under a powerhouse named Virginia Shaddy, BA'46, MA'48. I became close friends with my pottery teacher, Noreen Christon. They all influenced me dramatically.
This is more of a philosophical question, but how did what you gained as an art student — or what you’ve gained in any pursuit — shape the artist you became?
Nye: What education gives you is time. Time to explore. Time to experiment. Time to make mistakes. And if you have one or two good professors who truly mentor you, that's a relationship that will inform your entire life.
The rest is discipline, focus, imagination and, of course, life experience itself. Everything you do and experience in life will inform the person you become and the art that you make.
I’ve been very fortunate. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I’d make it to Hollywood, let alone get an Oscar nomination and work on so many big films.
Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about so many of the movies you’ve worked on, but, looking at your IMDB page, I wasn’t sure where to start.
Nye: I feel like our teams have done some very good work.
How about we start with Ridley Scott?
(Editor’s note: Ridley Scott is the director of such films as Alien, Gladiator, Blade Runner, The Martian, Prometheus, Thelma & Louise, American Gangster, the recently released Napoleon and the soon-to-be-released Gladiator 2. Nye worked as Scott’s set decorator on Matchstick Men and Body of Lies.)
Nye: Of course, Body of Lies is like one of the least-known films by Ridley, but we had so much fun doing it. He is the most generous human being on the planet. People warned me that Ridley was very exacting, and he is, but I loved the experience.
We had an incredible shoot in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. We built the sets to look like they were in Germany and England. We made a cafe in Baltimore look like a cafe in Berlin. We turned two streets of Baltimore townhouses into homes that looked like they were in Manchester, England. We had to get the right doorknobs, mailboxes, trash bins and chimneys. All the details had to be perfect.
You also worked with Ridley’s brother, Tony Scott, on the movie Domino.
(Tony Scott, who died in 2012, directed such movies as Top Gun, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, Crimson Tide, Man on Fire and Enemy of the State.)
Nye: Tony was the opposite of Ridley. Ridley was meticulous, but Tony was a madman of a director, always changing details and sets at the last minute. It was hard to keep up with that. But he was very charming and energetic, and you really wanted to please him. He loved the process and made you love the process even more.
You worked with one of the great madman directors. William Friedkin.
(Friedkin, who died last year, was the Oscar-winning director of such films as The Exorcist, The French Connection, Sorcerer and The Hunted.)
Nye: I worked with Billy Friedkin on one of my first movies, Rampage (1987). He was a brilliant, brilliant man, but he could be very intense.
You’ve also worked alongside so many movie stars. To name a few: Russell Crowe, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, Uma Thurman, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Nicholson, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, Nic Cage, Samuel L. Jackson, Keira Knightley, Sam Rockwell, Matthew McConaughey, Harrison Ford, James Spader, Blake Lively, Benicio Del Toro, Gary Oldman. Did you have memorable encounters with any of them?
Nye: Do you know the movie Fracture?
I do. With Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins.
Nye: I have this great photograph of me and my crew with Anthony Hopkins. Most of the time, major actors will have stand-ins who look like the actor, and the stand-ins are on set before shooting so the choreography and lighting and everything else can be set up correctly. But Anthony Hopkins was his own stand-in for that movie. And in between scenes, when he had time, he would walk around and introduce himself to everyone on the set. “Hi. I’m Tony. Who are you?”
That shows a lot of class.
Nye: So many of my years in the film business have been magical in every way. I’ve gotten to work with extraordinarily talented people, and I’m so grateful. Now I’m 71, I’m a Creighton art graduate, and I still make fine art to this day. It’s what I love to do more than anything else.
That said, I think I’ve still got a few more movie sets in me.
Nye lives in Santa Fe, where she works as a fine artist and writer. If you have movie or TV set decorating needs, you can reach her here.
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More Creighton Oscar connections
Though we could only find one Creighton alumnus to be nominated for an Academy Award, a handful of Oscar nominees and winners have come to campus, and one famous alum was one of the central figures in an Oscar-nominated film. Read about them here.