Watches And Hollywood: An Interview With The Prop Master From ‘True Detective’ And ‘Stranger Things’

Watches And Hollywood: An Interview With The Prop Master From ‘True Detective’ And ‘Stranger Things’

For the horologically inclined, it is almost a reflex to identify the watches we see in movies or on television. For all of the “Watch Spotting” that we do, there is a Prop Master behind the choice of wrist hardware. A few months ago, I sat down with Ritchie Kremer, the Prop Master from Interstellar and Westworld. He talked about the crucial role that Prop Masters play, especially when it comes to watches on screen. Over time, I have spoken to various individuals in the film industry, from Nathan Crowley (Production Designer on Christopher Nolan’s Tenet), to a key crew member in the props department on Casino Royale

Most recently, I had a chance to speak with Lynda Reiss, Prop Master on True Detective and Stranger Things. It was Reiss’ job to conceive, source, and deliver every tangible item in those shows. It just so happens that both True Detective and Stranger Things are pseudo-period pieces, and both were outfitted with some very interesting watches. Reiss has been doing this for a long time, and over the years has built her own semi-collection (more on that later) of prop watches. What I found interesting about Reiss was her approach to the craft, and how she goes about selecting watches on each production. 

Lynda Reiss during an interview for a behind-the-scenes documentary for season one of True Detective. Note the crime photos and drawings – all conceived by Reiss. 

“As Prop Masters, we help establish the socioeconomic place in life of the character or their emotional level, the things that they do. There’s a big difference between tell and show, and show is always much better. A watch is a perfect example of that. If we start on a character, and the camera pans up and they’re wearing IWC, Rolex, or Omega, you automatically know that they’re in a certain economic level in life. Now, if they have something that’s held together with duct tape, then you know something else about them, so we have to layer those things in.

“Where I have an issue is if an actor has an outside product placement deal – what we might call an influencer today – which a lot of them have. You’ll hear from an actor, ‘I have to wear this watch,’ and I will say, ‘OK, but your character is supposed to be a broke, out-of-work scriptwriter, and you’re walking around with a $ 10,000 watch on. It doesn’t make sense to me. I’d rather you not wear it at all.’ But sometimes – like anything in the entertainment industry – you have to know which battle to pick to win the war.”

True Detective

Reiss came aboard production of True Detective early on, working closely with show creator Nick Pizzolatto. The original conceit of the series was to be a limited single-season event (it has since turned into a multi-season anthology). The first season tracks a murder in the backwater area of Louisiana. The case is investigated by Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart (played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, respectively). As she would with any production, Reiss had to conceive backstories for her characters – stories which fit the watches they wore. 

Matthew McConaughey wearing the Lorus Tidal on season one of True Detective.

“Very early on in pre-production, we had the show and tells [a presentation that the Prop Master makes to a director or showrunner, laying out all of the props for the production]. This was even before we had Matthew – because we didn’t get Matthew, at first. We had to wait for him to finish Dallas Buyers Club when we were prepping for season one. After he was finished on that film, he had to go home and put on like 30 pounds, because he weighed like 110 pounds or something ridiculous. In the show and tell, I told the showrunner, ‘OK, here are five watches that I’m going to show Matthew.’ He looked at them and said, ‘OK, I like four of them; don’t show him that one.’ After the first run-through of the show and tell, he said to me, ‘You get it. You talk to the actors because really, at the end of the day, it’s their choice, and I trust that whatever you’re going to show them will work.'”

If you are a fan of the first season of True Detective, you might be aware of the immense interest in McConaughey’s watch on the show. I recall getting pretty deep into the watch forums myself on this topic at the time the show was on (circa 2014). Some people thought it was a vintage Seiko diver, but the crown was at three ‘o clock – so that was out. Others swore it was a Citizen, others still were adamant it was a Rolex. The only certainty was the strap – a black rubber diving strap with a wind velocity indication chart. Needless to say, this was one of the burning questions I had lined up for Lynda.

Lynda Reiss with Matthew McConaughey on the set of True Detective season one. (Photo: Lynda Reiss IMDB/HBO)

“Actually, the watch he wears is a Lorus Tidal, and it was from my personal kit. I picked that watch because it had a look of something he would have had for quite some time. I think part of the early backstory was that maybe he had a military background, but also maybe he had done other stuff in his past that we didn’t know about. I felt the look of the watch was very simple – very classic, but very masculine. Even though it’s not the most expensive watch in the world, it’s also not the cheapest version of that style of watch. I mean, you can get a Timex from the same era that has almost the identical look to it with the bezel and everything else.”

McConaughey’s Rust Cohle wasn’t the only watch-wearing detective on screen. Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart also sported a watch which, despite my best efforts to spot, left me scratching my head. As it turns out, I likely never could have figured it out.

Matthew McConaughey wearing the Lorus Tidal, and Woody Harrelson wearing an unnamed, square wristwatch of Russian origin. (Photo: HBO)

“That was a watch that I found, and I think it was actually Russian, but it had no markings. My idea for the backstory of his watch was that it was something his dad had given him. I conceived that his dad was a veteran who served in Korea. Men in the late ’50s and early ’60s had those really interesting-shaped watches like the Hamilton Ventura and that kind of thing. To me, it put a period to that watch and looked like it would have come from his father.”

Prop array for True Detective season three. Note the multiple watches for Mahershala Ali’s character, which changed as time progressed throughout the season. 

Lynda worked on all three seasons of True Detective. While the second season was something of a departure from the anthological, multi-timeline storytelling, season three saw a return to that style. It starred Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff as – you guessed it – detectives investigating a murder. This time, however, the story was conveyed through the mind of Ali’s character, an elderly ex-cop struggling with his memory. That choice resulted in the show jumping often between different periods of time, thereby triggering the use of multiple watches for his character. 

Mahershala Ali wearing the Casio AMW320R-1EV in season three of True Detective. (Photo: HBO)

“Mahershala’s character in the early period wore a big Casio (Casio AMW320R-1EV), sort of like the Lorus we used for Matthew, but bigger with a digital readout in the center. In the middle era, I just went for gold, like a metallic band, likely a Timex or a Casio or something along those lines. And then as his character got older, I imagined a backstory where that watch broke. Of course, if it’s a Timex, it doesn’t, but maybe he decided to buy something else, or something better. As you get older, there are certain requirements you have – maybe it was easier for him to read. This is how I think about these things.”

Casio AMW320R-1EV as worn by Mahershala Ali in True Detective season three.

As mentioned, both seasons one and three of True Detective track the passage of time. In the case of the first season, it was a deliberate choice to have McConaughey’s character wear the same watch. “That is exactly what we discussed,” said Reiss, because it fit with his overall character. Conversely, for Ali’s character in season three, the choice was made to have multiple watches. Over time, you saw him change from a young detective with a sort of chunky Casio tool watch to an older man with a more simple Timex Easy Reader on a stretch bracelet. These decisions might sound trivial, but they are a big part of what makes a successful Prop Master. 

Stranger Things

While True Detective is technically a period piece, it almost feels like it takes place in its own unique universe. Stranger Things, on the other hand, goes all-in on ’80s nostalgia. Full stop. You might think that such focus on that time period would make things easier, or at least provide clarity in terms of prop sourcing, but that is not necessarily the case. 

An array of Lynda Reiss’s props labeled for the character Eleven. Note the calculator watches. 

“Well, it’s really interesting because Stranger Things season one was set in 1981. When I began pre-production, everybody was saying, ‘Oh, well it would have been this, or it would have been a Swatch, or it would have been digital.’ Actually, those things didn’t come into existence until a couple of years later. There was a still a bit of a 1970s hangover in 1981.” (Reiss is right; Swatch was test-marketed in Texas in the fall of 1982 and did not debut commercially until 1983.)

Barb, from Stranger Things wearing a white Swatch. Reiss sourced multiples of this watch for use on the production. (Photo: Stranger Things/Netflix)

One of the cult-favorite characters on the show was Barb, best friend of one of the main characters, Nancy Wheeler. Her character wore a white Swatch on screen. “I gave poor Barb one of the earliest Swatches. The whole backstory with her is that she’s an only child who’s adored by her parents. She was a child who has ‘the car,’ and her parents would have bought her the latest things that came out. So, I could see her at the forefront of the Swatch craze. I did a lot of research on things like this.”

G-Shock worn by the character Will Beyers in Stranger Things

“I made a point of looking for the calculator watch, but that was far from easy to source in terms of being period correct. Finn [Wolfhard] and the boys hated their watches – which ranged from Casio to Timex – by the end of the season. They didn’t want to wear them anymore because, well, they’re kids who don’t wear watches in real life. The kids would play around with all the buttons on their watches and everything else. In the middle of a shoot, an alarm would go off and ruin a whole take. We usually take the batteries out though.”

Sourcing period-correct watches is a tough task in its own right. Of course, it is impossible to get things exactly correct down to the exact year, so there is a certain level of getting things close as opposed to exact. Dealing with vintage (read, old) things also comes with other particular challenges.

“Swatch was hard, not so much about clearance (clearing rights for use on-screen), but about the plastic that they made the watches out of back in the early 1980s. We’re talking 1982, 1983, and we were filming this in 2014. That’s 30-something years. That stuff became brittle. I mean, we had a nightmare with Barb’s watch all the time. I was able to source four of them, but the straps kept breaking, and it’s almost impossible to replace them. The early Swatches didn’t have the interchangeable strap like the later ones did.”

Prop array for Sheriff Hopper on Stranger Things, including a Timex Atlantis.

“So I would be super-gluing something on the back to hold all these pieces and we’re trying to fill it. This sounds terrible, but those straps became such a pain, that we began hoping [SPOILER ALERT] that her character would die sooner. I remember telling someone, ‘Let’s just move up that whole death scene in the story because these watch straps might not make it through the season.’ I will say, I loved Hopper’s watch [Hopper is the name of the town sheriff on the show played by David Harbour]. It was a Timex, the Atlantis. It was one of the early navigators, but the strap had a compass that I always loved.”

When I spoke to Prop Master Ritchie Kremer of Interstellar fame, I asked him about his personal affinity for watches. In his case, he did not even wear a watch. With Reiss, however, her professional endeavors have definitely sparked an intellectual interest in watches. You need only see how many watches she has amassed over the years to understand that. 

“I think I had at one point about 3,000 watches in my kit, give or take. It was a lot, but remember, I also like to have duplicates on different productions. I like watches as machines. I like the artistry of them. I have a series of watch dials from when I picked up the watch for Woody on True Detective. I had bought a bulk lot of watches out of Ukraine, and in that box were 25 watch dials, and they were all hand-painted. I mean, they were just stunning. They are currently in a box somewhere for me to do some art project at some point.”

One of Reiss’s watches, a Smith’s pocket watch, from her kit of approximately 3,000 watches.

“If I’m out at a flea market or someplace like that, I will generally look for a watch that has character. I like to find things that have a story, but even if it doesn’t, I will attach a story to it when I’m passing it on. That’s what I have always loved about doing this.”

Reiss is transitioning away from life as a Prop Master – instead moving into directing. She told me that she is also in the process of semi-liquidating her some 3,000-watch prop kit. She did note, however, that she won’t be moving on from all of them. A lot of the pieces in her collection – including the Rust Cohle Lorus – have special meaning. They are products of the stories they have appeared in on-screen, and in many cases, the stories that Lynda herself dreamed up for the very characters who wore them. 

HODINKEE

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