Queen of Trash

An image of Mantra Marie Bedross holding a dog overlooking a valley.

Weekly Newsletter
Issue #308

Queen of Trash

Mantra Marie Bedross is a lifelong treasure hunter who, over the past four years, has channeled her obsession with stuff into a career in film as a prop master. Her work ethic, passion, and personal traumas have propelled her, at an astounding speed, into an insanely successful career— already having worked on several full budget features, including, Shortcomings, You Hurt My Feelings, and Happiness for Beginners.

The first thing you’ve got to know about Marie Bedross is that she is a Harlem-raised, New York City hustler.

She picked me up from my apartment in her rumbling boat of a van with an all red interior and tiger stripe decor. Because of the writers’ strike, she’s been on her first break from production in 3 years, and has been dedicating her time towards her side hustle; reselling antiques and production waste as a means of saving usable items from both landfills and oblivion. She’d been dropping off furniture and trinkets to clients all day, and assured me she was exhausted, but still overflowed with a playful and welcoming energy.

“Beep-beep, b!@%h!” she said to me, careening her head out of the driver’s side window; her salon-approved long curly brown hair spilling out of the sides of her dirty black work hoodie. Marie is tough, but still stunning in a classically feminine way. The kind of girl who all the boys on the block wanted to kiss, despite the fact that she could have beaten them all up.

“So you live in East New York?” I asked, climbing in. “How do you like it?”

“I love it,” she said. “I couldn’t live over here. I don’t want to walk out my door and see a bunch of baristas with stick n’ pokes, I wanna walk out my door and see a bunch of grandmas and dudes selling Gatorades outta shopping carts.”

“I only ever come out this way to go to Jacob Riis,” I admitted as we entered the neighborhood, referring to the iconic bohemian beach in Rockaway, famous for drawing a diverse set of artists, queers, and eccentrics in the summer months.

“Aw, I haven’t been there in a minute,” she said. “Have you been to Dead Horse Bay? It’s amazing, a whole beach filled with shimmering broken glass of every color. Maybe we should go?” She paused, slowing the car slightly, “Nah, it’s getting dark, not tryna get jumped.”

An image of a small table and chairs.

Marie’s apartment is an expertly constructed shrine to her loves of trash-picking, dumpster-diving, thrifting, and hoarding. The walls are lined with paintings and vintage posters, patterns leap from the carpets and upholstered furniture, and carefully composed altars adorn every surface. The way in which she’s curated the space, however, feels somehow clean and spacious, nothing out of place, not even a coffee mug left in the sink.

“You want a little snack?” she asked. She set to work making us hummus from scratch, slicing up cucumbers and tomato parsley to make a fattoush salad, and rubbing pita with olive oil and za’atar before roasting it over the fire on her stove.

This is how you host, I thought, as we sat down at her dining room table with the feast plated and presented as if at a restaurant.

“How’d you start working as a prop master?” I asked, scooping some hummus onto my plate.

“I was working this random ArtCube gig one day, patching & painting walls for a ‘weed museum’ installation, and this dude I was working with got a call asking for an assistant prop master. I had no idea what that was, but like a doofus, in an Australian accent, I just blurted out ‘I’ll do it mate…..’ So, the prop master of this Netflix movie ended up calling me and was like, ‘Can you come to Connecticut tomorrow morning for a tier one?’ I had no idea what he was talking about, but I said yes, and the next day I was at the Hilton in Connecticut and stayed for 2 months. It came naturally to me. I love stuff and I came from working in Michelin restaurants, so I’m hyper-vigilant, hyper-organized, and hyper-prepared. From that job on I kept meeting people who offered me prop work and I just said yes every time.”

“Honestly,” I said, adding some fattoush to my plate. “I’m not even totally sure what a prop master does?”

“The prop master runs the entire property department,” she explained. “We handle every tangible object the actors interact with, like food, phones, money and all that, plus the director’s chairs they sit on between takes, apple boxes, yada yada.”

“Even things that require special handling, like firearms?” I asked.

“Yup. We handle guns unless there’s a bigger budget and you can bring in an armorer/weapons master. I did a heist scene with Julia Louis Dreyfus and it was my first time holding a gun so I had to have an on-set police officer demonstrate to the crew how the gun would be used. Which, of course, she loved and really hammed up.”

Mantra Marie Bedross in a parking lot, wearing all black, loosely wrapped in what looks like a long receipt.

“It’s wild that you’ve become so successful so quickly,” I said. “Why do you think that is?”

“I was made for this s&!t.” she said. “I didn’t know you could get paid to be a hoarder!”

“When did this obsession with things begin?” I asked.

“It’s always been a thing,” she said, laughing. “My bedroom growing up was an emporium of s#!t. Anything I found. Anything that seemed like it had a story, I’d bring home in my mom’s shopping cart. I grew up in Harlem and would just go around my neighborhood when my mom was in a mood and I had to leave the house. Eviction days at the projects’ dumpsters, stuff I found on the street. My mom said my room was like Fat Albert’s junkyard.”

“My mom said my room was like Fat Albert’s junkyard.”

I looked around her apartment, at the multitude of trinkets, souvenirs, and assorted kitsch, but couldn’t find anything that seemed like it would be featured on an episode of Hoarders. “I mean,” I said. “Everything here seems either useful or beautiful. Is your hoarding, ultimately, more utilitarian or sentimental?”

“It’s utilitarian…. it breaks my heart to see useful things end up in a landfill,” she said. “But there’s also something sentimental. You know, at 15, I came home from school one day and my mom had thrown my stuff out and painted the walls white and said she was going to start charging me rent or I could find a new place to live. I’ve been on my own since, and keeping stuff is precious to me. Stuff makes me feel human. I used to be scared that if I gave up my possessions I’d die. I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts my whole life after an abusive childhood but I’d feel so guilty leaving my friends a big hoarder mess to clean up, so my stuff kept me alive, and it’s good to sort stuff and keep the brain busy when she starts to wander. But anyway, now that I live in a rent stabilized apartment and I work in props where I sort through warehouses of junk for hours on end, I’ve gotten way better about not keeping things for the sake of keeping them versus keeping just the truly special stuff.”

“I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts my whole life after an abusive childhood but I’d feel so guilty leaving my friends a big hoarder mess to clean up, so my stuff kept me alive…”

“It sounds like, in a way, you carried stuff with you to create a home wherever you went,” I said. “Were you able to save anything from your mom’s place that you still have?”

“Oh yeah definitely,” she said, standing up. She took me on a mini tour of the things she’d moved from couch to couch, from squat to squat, and from co-op to co-op, for 15 years. There were photographs and paintings and little match books and pocket sized sculptures. Perched atop her refrigerator was a small Precious Moments ceramic bunny rabbit.

“Picturing you carrying this ceramic bunny around from the time you were 15 is hilarious,” I said.

“You know me,” she said, laughing. “I guess there’s another element to it too. When I find free stuff, when I find treasure, it feels like I’m f*$king the system– like I can subvert class by finding free luxury items. My mom was always working when I was growing up and I barely would see her, and when I did see her, we did not get along. The few good times we’d share were when we’d pull up to Dean and Deluca after they closed and steal their trash… There would be gorgeous pastries, bagels, unopened jams and spreads.. All free! Felt like the only time she was proud of me was when I’d score us free stuff. I think as an Arab woman from a working class family in Brooklyn, my mom always felt less than. But in Arab culture you never admit you need help, you put on a facade of classiness so others can be jealous of you. She surrounded herself with wealthier friends and presented herself as a completely different person than the woman I’d see at home drowning in piles of junk and passed out after working 16 hour shifts. I think she just didn’t know what to do with me growing up cuz I broke her perfect facade. I was a little freak. I didn’t shave my armpits, I wore crazy clothes and I said everything on my mind, so in public I was an embarrassment to her, but in private when I’d find the good free stuff, she was proud.”

“Do you worry your hoarder tendencies could become destructive?” I asked.

“Yeah, it used to be completely illogical. But now that I have these outlets– propping films and my antique business. It doesn’t have to be an obsession, it can be a job…. That’s why I’m a freak for organization. I know where literally every possession I own is, whether it’s in my prop kit, my antique storage or down to every labeled drawer in my house. Also working in kitchens taught me how to run a tight ship. I may accumulate a lot of stuff but it always has a place. That’s really all being a prop master is.”

“Also, I’m sure having a stable long term home helps a lot,” I said.

“Definitely” she said. “I certainly have less need now, but I think that might come more from working with so much stuff. Things are still special, but there’s more stability in my life so I don’t need to cling to every damn thing.”

“I’ve seen the stuff you’ve been selling on Ma’s Funiture Garden!” I said. “It’s all super nice and so cheap!”

“Thanks yeah .. I could charge way more,” she said. “But I just want to find these things a good home, I just want to free myself of it so I can keep treasure hunting. I gotta stay busy and stay picking, cuz beautiful things keep finding me.”

Mantra Marie Bedross holding her dog while seated behind a big table full of old bowls and plates.

I turned off my recorder and Marie made us dirty martinis.

“I can give you a ride home,” she said. “I wanna go on a night drive anyway.” We finished our drinks and headed downstairs before climbing back into her van. “I like to end my day driving around and making music. Part of my therapy. I hope you don’t mind.” She pulled a set of pedals, a speaker, and a microphone out from under her seat and started the car. “Testing, testing,” she said into the mike, turning the speaker’s volume to max.

As we drove from East New York into Ridgewood, she layered her singing voice, over and over, on top of itself, making a harmony of eerie sirens. As we drove, the lights from the city blurred by and wind whipped through the open windows. Occasionally she’d stop the song to yell something at frat boys on the street, using either the demonic or squirrel sounding voice modulators that were built into the microphone. “This ain’t a NYU campus, get out the road!” “You running late for yogalates?”

Wow, I thought. What a goddess among men. The weirdo for our age. The true queen of trash.

The car slowed dramatically and I bucked forward in my seat. I looked over and Marie was pointing towards a nearby curb. In full squirrel-augmented excitement, she cried out, “Check out that end table!”

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