How Production Designer Jeffrey Townsend and Set Decorator Clay Griffith Gave the Houseboat in “Sleepless in Seattle” a Dose of Realism
June 22, 2023

Written by Meg Walters, Dwell

Three decades since its theatrical release on June 25, 1993, Sleepless in Seattle remains a quintessential ’90s romantic comedy. Cowritten and directed by Nora Ephron off the heels of the success of When Harry Met Sally..., the film stars Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, two legends of the genre (who teamed back up for another Ephron hit, You’ve Got Mail, a few years later). But while When Harry Met Sally... and You’ve Got Mail have their feet firmly on the ground as classic New York movies filled with New York sights, sounds, and people, Sleepless in Seattle is a tale that revolves around opposite coasts, with the titular city at the heart of everything, and a fairly unique living situation involved to boot.

The story follows Annie (Ryan), a newly engaged reporter from Baltimore, and Sam (Hanks), a recently widowed architect who moves from Chicago to Seattle with his son Jonah (Ross Malinger) after his wife’s death. When Annie hears Sam reluctantly discussing his grief on a radio show, she feels a profound connection and, against her better judgment, asks him to meet her on top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day. The rest is history.

Most of the film’s Seattle scenes take place at Sam and Jonah’s new place of living, a homey, wood-clad houseboat on Lake Union. In real life, floating homes are deeply embedded in Seattle’s seaport history. Tracing back to the late 1880s, sailors, fishermen, loggers, and dockworkers built low-cost floating shacks on the shores of the city’s various bays, lakes, and rivers using rafts and scrap boards. In the 1920s, some of Seattle’s wealthy population built houseboats on Lake Washington as fancy summer homes. By the late 1930s, Seattle’s houseboat population was said to be around 2,000. While the number and size of Seattle’s houseboat colonies has since dwindled, real estate brokerage Prevu estimates that communities on Lake Union and other Seattle waterfronts still have around 500 floating homes and 250 houseboats, some with coveted real estate priced in the millions. 

Sleepless in Seattle production designer Jeffrey Townsend helped realize the interior sets for scenes in Sam’s houseboat. Illustration by Roger Shank.
For Jeffrey Townsend, the film’s production designer, a Seattle floating home was the perfect visual representation of Sam’s unmoored state in the start of the film as a grief-stricken widow fleeing the bustle of Chicago. (Townsend notes the houseboat was part of the original screenwriter Jeff Arch’s vision.) "The trajectory was that you have an ostensibly successful architect in Chicago—big market, big skyscrapers, big windows—whose dreams shrink from grief," Townsend says. "I don’t think Jeff Arch would be horrified for me to suggest that there’s something transient-feeling about a floating home. It’s literally on water and moves a little bit with the tide." Of course, the eccentric residence also lent the film a sense of whimsy, offering a cinematic spot for a number of shots of Sam gazing wistfully off his deck at the horizon.

The exterior shots of Sam’s home were filmed on location at an actual houseboat in the area. "We looked at so many floating homes in Seattle and finally ended up in the biggest one there," Townsend says. "I think it’s 2,000 square feet." (In 2014, a Seattle tech executive reportedly bought the Sleepless in Seattle houseboat for over $2 million.)

The interior shots, meanwhile, were filmed on sets built at a nearby naval base. This was, apparently, an unusual move, as most films are based in New York or Los Angeles for cost and convenience. "Nora was really insistent on basing the movie in Seattle—and not for any reasons she could defend," says Townsend, who reportedly butted heads with the filmmaker during the project. Still, he says, "We had a lot of fun making [the set] just a little bit nicer than the actual [houseboat] interior with some details that gave the impression that perhaps Sam had actually renovated it himself and put some of his aesthetic as an architect into the remodel."

The neutral tones and materials of Sam’s Seattle houseboat deliberately contrast with maximalist pinks and floral patterns in Annie’s Baltimore apartment. 
Of course, aesthetics were important for Sam’s character. To create the look of the houseboat’s interior, Townsend and set decorator Clay Griffith stepped into the mindset of the grieving architect. "It has a very particular aesthetic that I thought spoke to the character," Townsend says. "We didn’t want to be very heavy handed with it, but [rather use] clean horizontal lines and angles that would make sense with the exterior architecture of the floating home. We used a lot of muted colors—a little bit of a bland palette can contribute to that feeling of someone who has actually kind of moderated the look and feel of their home." The team used pale wood, beachy tones, and subtle, unobtrusive decor—a minimalist landscape painting in an oak frame, neutral cushions lining the sofa, a large black vase in the corner.

Still, Townsend wanted to add a little mess to give the space a sense of reality. However, according to the production designer, Ephron, on the other hand, did not. ("She had a comfort level with not being as devoted to realism as I was," Townsend says. "Production designers, I think, live by a mantra, which is that you never, ever want people to think of it as a set.")

"In preparing the houseboat interior for everyday filming, we always had a stack of newspapers that had not yet been put in recycling, some stuff from last night’s dinner, toys that didn’t get put away of Jonah’s," Townsend says. "Nora would always want them cleaned up. I would say, ‘Nora, it’s gonna look like a catalog.’ And she’d say, ‘So?’ She had in mind a movie that is seductive, aspirational. I was baffled by it at first. As the movie sort of blew up, I knew I was wrong."

Of course, the whimsy of Sam’s Seattle houseboat would not be nearly as impactful without the clear contrast of Annie’s aesthetic world in Baltimore. Townsend avoided the obvious route of matching up the two characters’ styles, instead deliberately contrasting the cool blues and oaks of Sam’s floating home with a maximalist, feminine look in Annie’s house. "We were keying off of what we had started to see of Meg’s interpretation of Annie," says Townsend. In both of the characters’ living spaces, the design team also incorporated subtle cues of the pair’s fated meeting. "We were basically breaking up pairs of things and putting one in Sam’s home and one in Annie’s apartment," says Townsend. In Sam’s houseboat, for instance, there’s a bicycle missing its front wheel—in Annie’s home, that wheel serves as wall decor.

It’s these types of easter eggs in the set design that add to the film’s fanciful tone. Thirty years later, the Seattle in Seattle houseboat still feels like a smart setting for Sam’s character—it helps ground the story in some level of realism, and is, of course, also quite the whimsical backdrop for a rom-com.

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