When Eric Whitney was 7 years old, he put on plays in his bedroom for his family. But he didn't act in them; he left that to his little brother and his friends. Whitney was only interested in building the sets.
Now, nearly 40 years later, the Fort Worth native is a production designer who has built and designed sets for 45 feature films and more than 1,000 commercials. He recently won an International Academy of Web Television award for best design (for the series Continuum), and his latest project, the recent reality special on TLC, Best Funeral Ever, is generating a lot of attention.
The one-hour special was based on the Golden Gate Funeral Home in Dallas, which has made a name for itself with elaborately themed home-going celebrations. (TLC hasn't yet announced whether the program, which aired Jan. 6, will be picked up as a series, according to a network publicist.)
"It's a celebration of a person's life," said Whitney, "as opposed to mourning."
For a glimpse at the show, scroll down to the video below, or click here for the link to a TLC promo.
While the funeral home, which serves a predominantly African-American clientele, has earned a reputation for accommodating mourners' requests -- football-themed decorations for the passing of a football fan, for example -- the addition of a reality-show crew has helped take things over the top. The premiere episode featured the service for Willie "Wolf" McCoy, who famously sang the bass part (the "barbecue sauce" line) in the Chili's baby back ribs song. Since McCoy was a big fan of barbecue ribs, and often took part in barbecue competitions, the family wanted a barbecue-themed funeral.
"We talked to the family," said Whitney, "met with the funeral planner ... and they come to me with a theme and I expound on things. Coming from a film background, I figure out all the cool stuff we can do. At the same time, the funeral planner keeps it in the realm of reality -- not letting me go too tacky.
"They suggested a smoker coffin. We didn't really know -- What does a smoker coffin look like? -- so I threw out some ideas and ended up building them the smoker coffin you see in all the pictures, [and] came up with a river of barbecue sauce flowing across the front of the stage. There ended up being about 40 gallons of it."
The ceremony included live pigs wandering around (until they made too much noise squealing and were ejected), bottles of sauce with the deceased's name on the label and women carrying plates of giant ribs (carved out of foam). There were plenty of real ribs to be handed out to the family, too, provided by Dickey's Barbecue. Perhaps that is what upset the pigs so much.
"The live pigs were not my idea," said Whitney. "They got a little offended. The family enjoyed it; the pigs didn't enjoy it too much."
The ribs were not just set dressing. They figured prominently into the ceremony. Family and friends each took a rib and dipped it into a former chocolate fountain that was now flowing barbecue sauce.
"We actually had people dip ribs into the sauce," said Whitney, "kind of a 'This is my body, this is my blood' kind of thing if you want to go all Catholic. It was a giant celebration of this guy's life. The family was so happy. They were ecstatic."
And while Whitney built the smoker coffin, he had no comment as to whether the deceased was placed in it. Since at no time is the coffin opened during the event, it seems likely that it was symbolic.
Playing with visuals
Whitney studied his craft at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts before dropping out of school and following his girlfriend at the time to L.A. He quickly found work as a set carpenter, with his first film being Time Trackers with Ned Beatty. He worked for multiple scene shops in L.A. on movies and commercials such as Abyss (he built the space ship that comes out of the water at the end) and Nike's first "Just Do It" commercial. He was never out of work more than a few days.
In the end, he broke up with the girl and moved home, and after trying a few careers, he enrolled at the UT Arlington to major in art. But within a few years he found himself in films again, this time locally.
He started working with local horror director Jon Keeyes, and soon was getting calls for films. He did a film starring Lea Thompson called Exit Speed that had him building a 12-acre junkyard, complete with five free-standing buildings, 50 tons of junk and 50 wrecked cars. He worked on feature films with actors such as Faye Dunaway, Lou Diamond Phillips, Gary Busey and David Carradine. Between movies, he found himself in demand making commercials. Whitney said he stopped counting at 1,000.
The move from set builder to production designer is a natural progression, and Whitney still does much of his own carpentry work. But in addition to building the sets, a production designer has a profound impact on how the end product will look and feel. Living and Dying, an action film directed by Keeyes and starring Arnold Vosloo, Michael Madsen and Eddie Furlong, is a prime example.
"You have a Mexican cafe and an office [that has] a vault that these guys bust into and clean out," Whitney explains. "I wanted it to be so stark that there was not one bit of color in that set. Everything was in shades of gray. I even painted the fire extinguisher in gray. There was nothing on anybody's desk. The boss was supposed to be a very oppressive kind of guy.
"In contrast," he continues, "the Mexican restaurant across the street that they hole up in, ... it's painted up like a Mexican restaurant, so it's an explosion of color. So when they are talking on the phone, and jumping back and forth between these two, visually it comes out looking fantastic. It's the kind of thing a production designer gets to play with."
While much, if not most, of the look of the Best Funeral Ever episodes comes from Whitney, the theme and the actions of the people at the service are up to the family, the mourners and Golden Gate staff. The show trended to a No. 7 spot on Twitter and received mixed reviews. Web comments range from high praise (especially from people in the funeral industry) to outright hostility from people who view the show as disrespectful or even racist for the barbecue-themed home-going.
Whitney says the production company doesn't script or dictate anything Golden Gate does. But he does love the elaborate funerals the funeral home puts on, and says that's the way he wants to go out.
"I would have wanted one of these funerals way before the show ever came out," he says. "I'm up there, fill the coffin up with ice, I want bottles of beer in there ... basically make it a kegger. When people come up, say their goodbyes to me, take a beer and go have fun. I do not want it to be a somber occasion.
"I've always lived my life to have fun.... I don't want my funeral to be depressing."
Until that time, Whitney is happy to create grand sendoffs for people and their families.
"So whether everybody else gets upset when they see it," said Whitney, "and they get all offended, I don't care. I'm doing something nice for somebody."
Here's a TLC promo clip for Best Funeral Ever.