The intersection of movies and watches, cinema and horology, filmmaking and watchmaking, has always been an area of great interest to me. The watches we wear every day say a lot about us, and the same can be said for the characters portrayed in the films we love. In real life, it is our choice what watch we put on each day – but, that raises the question: Who makes the choice when it comes to the movies? While the answer may vary, most times, it is the Property Master, or “Prop Master” as they have come to be known in the industry. The Prop Master is responsible for every single thing you see on screen outside of the set and wardrobe. I’m talking about the things which fill up everyday life; things like photographs, books, tools, instruments, and, of course, watches. If an actor touches it, a Prop Master found it and brought it to the screen.
Whenever I watch a movie, I try to get a glimpse of what watches are on the wrists of various characters, and I am certain that I am not alone in this. But, more than just spotting watches on screen, I wanted to find out what goes behind the selection of a watch for a film or television show. Recently, I sat down for an interesting conversation with Ritchie Kremer, who is currently working as the Prop Master on the HBO series, Westworld, but has also worked on such productions as Interstellar, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and Being John Malkovich to name just a few. I talked to him about his experiences in the film industry, and, especially, about his experience working on Interstellar, the development of the now-famous “Murph” watch, and how watches are selected and used on film.
Aside from just selecting the props for a film, the Prop Master has a deeper responsibility, which makes their job essential to the overall production process.
“Essentially, we take the script and break it down per scene and basically look at every single thing an actor touches or holds in the script,” Kremer says. “That’s pretty much what my job is, to offer up options to the actor and director for a particular prop. No matter what it is, I have to give options for it. So my job is kind of characterizing each character, or helping them characterize themselves.”
Like many occupations, film production has a certain hierarchical structure, at the top of which sits the director. A film is the director’s vision, so while the Prop Master relies on their own experience, they must also ensure that it jives with the director’s creative process. To this end, open communication is key.
“We have a huge ‘show and tell’ prior to the start of production where we basically break down the whole film. We have a bunch of tables set up and have – literally scene-by-scene, character-by-character – props all laid out for the entire movie all at once – or as many things as you can get together by the first day of filming.” Kremer continued, “Sometimes, because of manufacturing issues, you can’t get it all, but you just try. Basically, from day one, you want to try to get as much as you can figured out and out the door, so to speak.”
As mentioned, one of Kremer’s largest and most well-known productions was 2014’s Interstellar, directed by Christopher Nolan. That film famously features two Hamilton timepieces – a regular production model from the brand’s catalog and a special watch, made specifically for the film.
“It’s funny because Chris and his wife, who’s a producer on Westworld, approached Hamilton on their end, and I approached Hamilton on my end during prep, and I walked into Chris and I go, ‘Hey Chris, I’ve got this great idea of using Hamilton watches, and here’s their catalog.’ ‘Oh, we’ve already been in touch with them.’ It’s so weird, the two of us just kind of came up with the thing, and it worked out perfectly.”
When it came to selecting the watch worn by Matthew McConaughey’s character, Joseph Cooper, an unobtrusive and relatively inexpensive tool watch seemed to be a no-brainer. Cooper was a former NASA pilot, so the watch they settled on was the Hamilton Khaki Pilot Day Date. The process for finding that watch was simple enough. The “Murph” watch, worn by Cooper’s daughter Murphy (played by three different actors – Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn, over the lifetime of the character) was a more complicated project.
The Hamilton Khaki Pilot Day-Date “fit Cooper’s character perfectly, and it is the watch he wore throughout the movie.” Kremer says. “For [The Murph], we basically put together something that was a simpler watch; it wasn’t this big giant man’s pilot watch on her.”
The selection process of the Murph watch involved studying Hamilton catalogs and going back and forth with Hamilton to devise a series of sketches for potential watches, and then obtaining prototypes for the production crew to choose from.
“We took the parts of three different watches and put them into the design. Then, at the last minute, I saw that there was some word like ‘magnetic’ or something written on the dial. So I talked to Chris, and said, ‘It doesn’t make any sense to have this writing on there when we have this whole tesseract thing and the film is talking about the magnetic force and all that.’ So I had [Hamilton] take that off at the last minute.”
“Tesseract” and “magnetic force” refer to the basic premise of the film. In Interstellar, a wormhole is discovered in orbit around Saturn, enabling humans to travel to hitherto unexplored regions of the universe – specifically, to a group of twelve planets located near a huge black hole, called Gargantua. The enormous gravitational force of that black-hole creates what the film calls “time-slippage” – the well-known consequence of General Relativity, that time runs slower the closer a clock is to a source of gravity. The result is that time pass exponentially slower for our space-faring friends than their loved ones back on Earth. The tesseract comes into play in the final act of the film. Without spoiling anything, it is merely a manifestation of a 4th dimension through which time can be perceived from a birds-eye view.
“The people at Hamilton kept putting prototypes together on a really timely basis, sending them from Switzerland, and we just kept fine-tuning it. Finally, Chris liked the look of it, and then I took it to my guys, and I redid the whole freaking thing. The only stressful thing was making sure we actually got the watches back from Switzerland in time for filming. There’s that pressure, but it’s just fun. Once we got that final prototype in, it was a done deal, and I ordered 10 of them.”
I asked Kremer if he had access to photos of any of the early Murph prototype watches, or early sketches of the watch. Surprisingly, he said that during pre-production, nobody takes photos of props or materials which are not cleared for final production. I reached out to Hamilton, and they indicated they don’t have such materials or early prototypes either. Luckily, we at least have some sketches of the Murph which were used as part of the promotion for Interstellar in 2014. For now, it looks like the “magnetic Murph” might just become one of those lost pieces of watch lore.
With the design finalized, it was then time for the Murph’s screen test. As you might suspect, a prop watch goes through quite a process before making its debut.
“Murph’s watch was one of the most difficult things, just because of the timeline of trying to put it together and all the different aspects of that. I had three or four different watches made, and then I had to take Hamilton’s watch and rip it apart and manually operate it off of a cable system that you can’t see to make it do that little ticking thing. [The seconds hand of the watch is the key to Cooper’s being able to communicate with his daughter.] So I manually operated that, and I showed that to Chris on a bus on location scout one day, and I got it all together, and it was good. It was awesome because it was an issue of taking that fine piece of art and not screwing it up so that we could actually make it do that ticking on camera.”
“Next, I literally took it to my guys, and we tried it out. We had to figure out a way to get this thing to do the ticking sequence, and I think we tried to make it automated at first, and it didn’t work properly. So then we tabled that idea. We then literally had to hook the – I think it was the minute hand that was the ticking hand – but we literally had hooked that up to a cable and run that through the fingers, backwards through the fingers that actually held it. We drilled a hole in the bookshelf, because that’s the first place you saw it ticking was the bookshelf. So once the whole thing was shot, we then shot that as an insert because we just put a hole in the set basically. We cabled that through and saw that little insert of that thing ticking and Chris ran the ticking rig. Chris did the whole thing. It’s very cool.”
The sequence that Kremer references is a pivotal scene in the film involving the Murph watch, in which the hands of the watch are vibrating at such a frequency as to transmit Morse code messages across multiple dimensions. While this could have been easily achieved through the use of CGI, it is cool to see the commitment to practical effects here and that the operation was controlled by Nolan himself. As it turns out, he is an extremely hands-on director in more ways than one.
“Chris really likes doing that. He did a bunch of the dust too. The very opening shot of the movie where we’re shooting down the bookshelf, he’s got a fishing rod with a pounce bag [a small, dust-filled bag used for a drawing technique called pouncing] on it, and he’s got the little stick. He’s handing that right over the cameras as he’s going along, and he’s pouncing the dust on the bookshelf. He likes doing that kind of stuff. You just had to be delicate with it. I mean, obviously, tearing that watch apart and redoing it with a cable, that was the only potential for problems.”
As mentioned, Hamilton supplied 10 Murph watches for the production – all fully functioning watches, not dummies. Any Prop Master will tell you that it is important to have doubles, or multiples for watches in the event that one breaks, but also to supply to stunt doubles. In the case of Interstellar, Kremer made sure there were multiple watches, and for a good reason. In a scene early in the film, Murph takes her anger out on the watch after an argument with her father.
“Yeah, the character, Murph, she threw a bunch of the watches. That’s why I ordered 10 watches. But they were good. I think we lost three or four watches, but she threw it probably 15, 20 times.”
Interstellar was not Kremer’s first rodeo, and watches are not the only area of horological interest that he has been tasked with sourcing for a film.
“I had to come up with another thing called an astrolabe for a movie. I didn’t even know what the heck an astrolabe was, but I found one and – it was a total rip off. I got it on eBay, and the listing said it was some kind of an antique and, sure enough, it turned out to be some really bad reproduction, but it worked for what we wanted it to. I aged it down. It’s just weird stuff like that. You’ve just have to figure it out.”
Currently, Kremer serves as Prop Master on Westworld, now in its third season. The show has famously straddled the line between Western period drama and science fiction, which is an interesting grey area when it comes to watches. Nonetheless, that has not stopped the show from being great fodder for watch spotting.
“It’s definitely different moving from the first season into the second and now the third, so it’s just a completely different experience. There was a whole storyline on Westworld that we were going to do from season one to season two involving an Omega watch. I bought a Seamaster for the show, and I was going to modify it. There is also a rose-gold antique pocket watch on a long gold chain used by Maeve in season two that I own personally. Period pieces are my forte. That’s what I love doing, so I have a bunch of period stuff. I have about 150 watches in my own kit.”
Just like he did with the Murph watch, Kremer had a chance to dismantle a watch once again on Westworld.
“In the third season, there’s another watch that’s a huge part of an entire five or six episodes. This watch, I didn’t really make it, but we added stuff to the face of the watch. It becomes a huge integral part of the show. You would never know the make of the watch because I totally dismantled it, but it was basically a Movado that we just took the guts out of, and then replaced the face for strictly on-camera use, and then visual effects in post-production embellished what my original piece was. I gave them a placeholder, basically, just so that they could start with something.”
“I did National Treasure: Book of Secrets too, and that was a really good experience. I’d also worked on Being John Malkovich. That was really fun, because that’s such a weird quirky kind of movie, and I don’t know, there’s just a lot of them that I have enjoyed.”
The original National Treasure has a scene in which Nicholas Cage’s character uses his Rolex Submariner as collateral to borrow a $ 100 bill from a cashier in a clothing store. The watch even gets its own close-up. Until speaking with Kremer, I had no idea the watch was again used in the sequel.
“I personally bought the Submariner for National Treasure 2, I believe, but to be honest with you, I don’t even remember how I got it. It was so long ago. I don’t recall that at all. I know that the studio has it at this point, but I don’t remember how that went about exactly.”
So does the Prop Master who chooses the watches actually wear one himself?
“No, I pretty much destroy anything that goes on my wrist. No, I am not a watch person. I have two hard brass bracelets and that’s about it.”
Watch guy or not, Kremer certainly has the inside scoop on some little known facets of watch history when it comes to movies. These are the types of secrets only insiders have, and you don’t get more inside than the Prop Master.