Hello Film Doctor friends.
Judy Becker is known for performing world class production design duties on a string of hit, award-winning drama films including Todd Hayne’s Carol, Steve McQueen’s Shame, David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Lynn Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and was nominated for an Oscar for her work on Russell’s American Hustle in 2014.
Judy also designed this year’s powerful and hilarious tennis dramedy Battle of the Sexes starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell. Here she joins us for a Film Doctor In Conversation to talk about her craft, career and as well as offering up advice for filmmakers.
What was your relationship to film growing up and when did you realise it was what you wanted to be a part of?
I always loved going to the movies with my family and when I was 13 I really discovered cinema. My family had moved to an urban university neighbourhood, and there were amazing campus screenings almost every night – revivals, recent runs, art house films, etc. That’s how I got my basic education in film – I saw a wide range of what was available at that time from silent slapstick to 1970s revivals.
My friends and I also started watching a lot of foreign films on TV. I remember the first time I saw 400 Blows. It was a revelation! I loved film, but had no idea I could or would find a career in it until I graduated college.
My cousin happened to work as an assistant camera person (the rest of my family had no connection to the film world) and when I was in my post-graduation “what am I going to do with my life” funk she suggested I might like working in the art department as a PA. And the rest…
Why Production Design specifically?
I think I was born to be a production designer and if I had known that career existed I probably would have always wanted to be one. When I was a child I wanted to be an artist, and by that I meant a painter in a garret with a beret and a pallet and a smock!
My mother was a talented amateur artist and musician and taught me a lot from a very young age. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, and she took me to museums there starting around the age of 5- I will never forget my first visit to the Guggenheim and how impressed I was with the architecture!
I always drew as a child – my favourite activities were drawing and playing with my doll houses. My doll houses were not inhabited by people but by little animals but my main enjoyment of them was decorating them and making things for them.
My drawings were very oriented around fantasy lives and environments – I have a little book I made when I was around 11 that depicts a huge variety of dream houses and interiors. I re- discovered it recently, and was amazed to see so many elements that I enjoy putting in sets today – dangling electric cords, cracks in the walls, a bit of messiness, etc.
Looking back now I can see that this was all part of my preparation to be a production designer but it took quite a while for me to actually enter the field.
You started with “underground comic artist” origins, how did that shape the way you saw movies and how did you go about translating that into film work and continuing to get it?
The comics were really just a hobby of mine when I was in college and when I was starting out in the film business . I enjoyed telling stories but I mostly enjoyed depicting them visually. The details of the environments in my stories, the rooms the smalls etc. were really fun for me to think about and to draw; so I suppose it was a continuation of my childhood drawings.
If my drawing was a little more traditionally realistic looking, I probably could have been a storyboard artist.
What do you talk about with directors when you first start a project?
Of course it depends a bit on what director I am working with, but we always start by talking a lot about the story, what the director wants to express about the story and how to express that visually. A discussion of colour palette is usually a very important part of our preliminary discussions.
For example, with Battle of the Sexes, my first conversations with Jonathan and Valerie were about depicting the world of the body and of the flash – the body of an athlete, and the body of a woman discovering her sexuality. We discussed the palette that we were more or less “stuck with” – the bright primary colours and almost fluorescent colours of tennis gear, tennis courts, and tennis uniforms!
This was an interesting palette to work with, and not typical for a 1970s movie. As a continuation of that, and our discussions about the importance of the physical body in the film, we talked about the use of flesh tones as a theme throughout the film. We also talked about how to distinguish the masculine and feminine worlds – the world of Billie Jean King and the world of Bobby Riggs and the ways in which in which to do that through design and palette.
How long did you have to prep and shoot Battle of the Sexes?
My memory is always faulty on time subjects, but I believe I had about eight official weeks of prep, and a similar amount of time to shoot. That said, I had been talking to Jonathan and Valerie about the project for months or maybe even a year before it actually happened so the creative process had already started in my head.
With Battle of the Sexes you had to recreate that over-the-top Houston Astrodome, many hotel rooms on the tennis tour, the staid tennis men’s only tennis clubs, Bobby’s upper class house – all very complex and detail-specific locations. Could you walk us through the process?
I think that the challenges of Battle of the Sexes were similar to the challenges of doing any movie. The initial conversations of course were as described above – how to depict the masculine and feminine worlds and the world of athletics especially. I would say the two most time consuming parts of this were figuring out how to re-create the Astrodome, and what to depict as the series of motel rooms.
For the Astrodome, we had considered using the actual Houston Astrodome, but it was in unusable condition as a result of Hurricane Katrina. We scouted all the other large sports facilities and coliseums in Los Angeles, and ended up choosing the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, which had the right shape and design for resembling the Astrodome. We knew we would need to enhance the scale and size of it, especially the height, in post-production through VFX but in most other ways it was an excellent stand in for the Astrodome.
We built a scale model of the sports arena and used that to figure out where to place the tennis court within the large playing field in order to achieve the same effect of the placement of the tennis court in the actual “Battle of the Sexes” – it took up a very small part of the space of the Astrodome, and we used the model to figure out our placement in order to be able to re-create the angles that were used in the shooting of the actual match.
As for the motels, we knew that we wanted to depict the “on the road” lifestyle of the Virginia Slims tournament, and to show a variety of the motels from fairly low rent to more upscale as the Virginia slims team achieve greater success. We spoke to members of the original team, including of course Billie Jean King, to find out what the actual accommodations were like and most of what we heard was that they stayed in cheap chain motels but nothing too seedy. So that’s what we focused on when scouting.
After extensive scouting, we ended up building all the motel rooms – the real ones were too small for shooting for our purposes. I have a very, very large collection of postcards and images of motels and hotels from the period and we used those as reference when designing the hotel rooms we built for the movie. They ranged from a cheaper, older, mid-century style motel room for the scene where Billie Jean and Marilyn are together for the first time – to the Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles! For that we built the rooms and hallways but used the actual lobby and exterior.
With previous fantastic examples of your location work – like recreating whole department stores (Carol) or no longer existing landmarks (for Hitchcock); did you get access to the actual sites or was it extensive location scouting?
I’m not sure I’ve ever actually shot a period film in the actual locations in which it took place. I’m sure there are a couple of exceptions but I can’t think of any! It generally involves very, very extensive location scouting most of the real places are generally either gone, inaccessible, in another state, or a combination of all of that.
The department store in Carol was based on the description in the novel of course, not an actual place. We knew that Patricia Highsmith had worked in Bloomingdale’s and had modeled our department store somewhat after that but we did extensive research into mid-level department stores of that era and then looked for a raw location in which to create the department store. We found an amazing area in an old fabric store that had exactly the right bones of what we were looking for and what we had seen in the research, but it took quite a while to find it – and it was only after we had lost our first choice location, which was an abandoned high school.
Most of the actual landmarks that I had to re-create in Hitchcock or Feud Bette and Joan no longer existed and needed to be re-created from scratch. That said, there was a lot of documentation about them, which helped in the recreation. In FEUD Bette and Joan we built the round restaurant set (which was based on a well-known Hollywood restaurant named Perino’s) entirely on stage.
For Hitchcock, for another example, I wanted to re-create the famous Chasen’s – another Hollywood hang out. It had been turned into a Beverly Hills supermarket and only a tiny vestige of it was left (helpful for the look and colour of the walls). We ended up shooting in another famous Hollywood landmark – Musso and Frank on Hollywood Boulevard, and completely transforming the main dining room into something that resembled Chasen’s. We had one day to prep that location and we built wood-panelled walls and hung them over the existing walls of the restaurant so that it would look like the wood panelling of Chasen’s; and added booths and other details that we knew had existed in the original Chasen’s.
We spent all day and almost all night prepping it, shot on Monday and then wrapped it on Monday night – we only had those two days in which Musso and Frank’s was closed!
Was there a specific location in Battle of the Sexes that you found slightly more challenging than others, in terms of how to present it?
Yes, definitely the Astrodome because of the scope of the original – it was really so much larger than anything else that existed today in Los Angeles.
With this kind of biopic, given that a lot of the event’s contemporaries are still present – not to mention Billie Jean King herself – what could be some of the production design “traps”, in terms of representation and/or accuracy? And, in your experience, what is usually the ratio of “historic accuracy” to “creative freedom” on these types of movies?
I think that the production design traps, especially in doing a period film, are multiple. We often don’t realize how minimal interiors and locations were in the pre-1980s era and sometimes that minimalism when accurately produced can look unrealistic to a modern day audience. My credo is still to stick with that minimalist aesthetic but there are times when a bit of liberty has to be taken.
For Battle of the Sexes we did not take a lot of liberties but there were times when we used design to emphasize the themes of the movie rather than really sticking to whatever the reality was – Bobby Riggs is Long Island home. We made it quite feminine and definitely his wife’s world in order to show how dependent he was on his wife and on the female world in his personal life.
Billie Jean King and the other members of the tour were extremely helpful, especially for discussions about the Virginia Slims Tour and the types of hotels and motels that they stayed in. That said, although we were faithful to the economic level of the motels on the tour, with the color palette we definitely played more with the themes of the movie then with the actual palette of any particular motels in that time period (although always using period accurate colors).
For another example, in FEUD Bette and Joan the movie stars were depicted in that lived very glamorously and luxuriously for their era of the 1950s and early 60s; however to a modern day audience the way that they lived might seem underwhelming. So for that project, when building the homes of Betty and Joan on stage, we increased the scale of the rooms and made them more dramatic looking, so that to a contemporary audience they would be as impressive as the would have been to an audience of that time.
Given your vast experience with period pieces, from Brokeback Mountain, I’m Not There and Hitchcock to Carol, Feud, and American Hustle, what are the most common/recurring challenges on these kinds of projects?
The challenges are many! Often we are shooting in a location that is not where the events actually took place so the challenges are doubled. We’re shooting a film that took place in Wyoming fin 1962 in 2005 in Canada (Brokeback Mountain) or the 1973 Houston Astrodome in Los Angeles in 2016. Really that just goes with the territory of being a production designer.
So, to get very specific, I think that the biggest challenges for the movies I’ve done and the kinds of budgets that non-popcorn movies tend to get are street scenes. It’s very difficult to find streets that really pass for period. And redoing the store fronts and the signage and the window dressing is an extremely enjoyable design process but a costly one to execute.
For American Hustle, we had a long street scene that took place on the upper East side of Manhattan. After extensive location scouting I found Worcester Massachusetts – a city that had been quite well to do in the 70s but since then had fallen into economic distress so that the streets were still fairly representative of the 1970s. Given that, we still had to do a lot of design work for four blocks of signage and storefronts to reproduce the upper Eastside of Manhattan in the mid-70s and it looked pretty great! Sadly, very little of it made it into the film!
We didn’t have many street scenes in Battle of the Sexes, so that was not a huge challenge in that, but we did in Carol and I’m Not There, both of which were shot in cities in which they did not take place: Carol in Cincinnati for New York and I’m Not There in Montreal for New York (for one of the street scenes). It took a lot of location scouting to find streets that were unchanged enough to be able to be transformed into the period of the film, and then also that could pass for New York in both cases.
New York, my home town, is one of the hardest cities I find to re-create in another place, and I really am grateful that I have such ingrained knowledge of New York. It really helps me when scouting to find something that can pass – and I have to say I’ve been quite happy with the results in the period movies I’ve done.
We even had a couple of New York streets in Battle of the Sexes and I really don’t think you can tell we shot them in Los Angeles!
Is there a period that you especially enjoy exploring and recreating in your work? Is there one that you still haven’t explored and would particularly like to sink your teeth into next?
Like most designers, I love doing period films. Most of the opportunities I’ve had have taken place in the 50s 60s and 70s. I find those fascinating decades to work with, because every story that is told in that time period is different and involves a different aspect of the decade.
That said, I’m in love with the 1970s and I’d love to do a very gritty 1970s movie. I’d also love to do the late 60s and show the dark side of the era (post Manson murders). I’d also love to do a hippie movie but do it in a way that I felt was not over-the-top and not a cliché in terms of psychedelia, afros, and dashikis!
Of course I’d love to do an earlier period – the 18th or early 19th century really fascinates me (the pre-industrial revolution minimalism) Another period I’d love to do is the future – Science Fiction!
A lot of your work seems to be on location rather than on soundstage – period pieces in particular, is that a deliberate choice or just the way it’s gone? Would you choose location vs studio-built?
In general, I’ve always preferred shooting on location to building on the stage. I think it looks more realistic – you can have a relationship of interior to exterior without cheating or visual effects. That said, there’s a huge amount of freedom in building on stage that I’ve come to enjoy more and more. I think the main challenges of stage sets are the enormous amount of work it takes to get the details correct and to get a feeling of decades gone by in one place – layers of paint, different decades of renovation etc.
And also what’s outside the windows?! A translight? If so, custom to stock? And if stock, can we find an appropriate one? Green screen that’s replaced with plate shots later? Greens and a backdrop? It always depends on the budget and on the directorand DP’s desires, but for certain sets and certain projects building is really preferable.
For FEUD Bette and Joan and for American Crime Story on the assassination of Gianni Versace (which I just completed) we built an enormous amount on stage and those movies were so designed and slightly stylised that it really helped to have that freedom to invent the worlds we were depicting.
We talked to Sandy Powell (Carol’s costume designer), about the particular colour choices in that film in terms of costumes and it being her instinctive choice rather than something deliberately constructed – what about production design?
For production design it was very, very deliberately thought out. We wanted to use colours that were true to the early 1950s which was more of a 1940s palette and avoid the palette of the later 1950s – the stereotypical bright pinks and turquoises. I worked extensively on a palette with Todd Haynes, consisting of a lot of shades of greens and corals and muted pinks – colours that were used in a very emotional way.
For example, the use of yellowish greens in the motel rooms to enhance a sense of uneasiness.
I had a large display of colour samples and fabric swatches – colour samples with very subtle differences – and worked with it with Todd and the DP Ed Lachman to establish the palette of the film. It was the first part of the design process, along with location scouting, of course!
You worked on the Girls pilot – how did that come about, did you know it would be such a success? How was it working with Lena Dunham?
That was a completely serendipitous event. A movie I’d been attached to had just fallen through and I went to a premiere of Bored to Death, which was an HBO project. While there, I met a producer that I knew slightly and she introduced me to a line producer who is very well known, Ilene Landress. They told me that they were about to start a pilot with a very talented young filmmaker, Lena Dunham. I knew Lena’s work a bit and I was very excited about it and said I would be very interested and they were interested in me!
They arranged a meeting for me with Lena. I met her in a coffee shop in Soho and we really hit it off. I thought she was wonderful and I’m so impressed with what she’s accomplished and how she has contributed to the zeitgeist. I didn’t know the show would be as huge a hit as it was but I’ve learned to trust my instincts and my instincts have served me well. I knew I wanted to work with Lena.
It was a really fun project for me because I drew a lot on my own experiences of being a just-out-of-college woman in New York City and on my own experiences of being broke and finding a cheap place to live. I had lived in Williamsburg and Greenpoint which is where the show takes place. I also knew the kind of crummy apartments I had lived in! One thing that was important for me was that the kitchen be in the living room! I remember how happy I was when I finally lived in an apartment that had a separate kitchen!
From my own experience I also knew of course how small these apartments are and we enlarged it only slightly for the pilot, it was pretty true to scale.
I also knew that these apartments generally had elements from many different decades, usually a more renovated kitchen vs a bathroom that has the original unchanged details. So I designed a bathroom that had the old pre-war black-and-white tile work, and a kitchenette in the living room that had probably been done in the 80s or 90s and had pretty hideous and cheap faux wood cabinets.
What informs your particular stylistic choices beyond the screenplay itself and the director’s vision?
After the screen play and the director’s vision, my own inner sourcebook of creative references comes into play and my design incorporates what I’ve learned from the screenplay and from discussions with the director, seen through my interpretation of all that as a designer.
I think of my role as taking the director’s vision and interpreting and executing it in my unique way. I think it’s really, really important for someone working in the design field to have an inner bank of inspiration. What that includes of course is very individualised but for me it’s my knowledge of cinema, traditional (documentary style) photography, art and design history – the things I’ve been interested in my whole life.
I’m naturally drawn to 20th century art and design but I will look to all periods for references- the paintings of Vilhelm Hammerschoi (for Jack Twist’s childhood home in Brokeback Mountain, for example). I can’t imagine being able to design without these inner resources.
I sometimes meet people that are in a production design school program, who are learning how to draft and build models but know nothing about cinema or art or architecture and I really wonder – what are they going to draw on as a designer?
You’ve worked on many David O. Russell’s films, collaborated with Todd Hayes several times – what do you see as key to a successful long-lasting Director-Production Designer relationship?
Respect. In fact, mutual respect and also just comparability. I respect and admire the creativity of the directors I work with and enjoy spending time with them, and as a consequence I am completely receptive to their ideas and vision. I never try to impose my own design agenda onto the project; rather I see my job as interpreting the directors vision through my professional expertise. I listen to what they want and I think how to best interpret it and, of course, I add my own ideas – otherwise I wouldn’t really been necessary!
If I’m attuned to a director’s process sometimes a five minute meeting is all I need to get what they are going for; other times we have much longer discussions. It really depends on the director but I think mutual respect is a huge-huge-huge part of a long-lasting relationship with the director, and it’s something that, for me at least, comes very naturally because of the projects and directors I am drawn to.
Having worked with many, what do you think all great directors share in common?
I think they all have in common extreme focus and dedication to their work, a distinctive point of view, and a great foundation of cultural reference. Every director’s process and vision is different but none of them are lazy! They all work incredibly hard – weekends, nights – every minute is devoted to working on their project and they all have a great and unique knowledge of cultural reference that they draw on for their creativity.
I learn a lot from all the directors I work with – Jon and Val’s references are different from Todd Haynes’ and his are different from David O Russell’s and that’s again why I think it’s so important for a designer to have as much of a wealth of cultural and artistic knowledge as possible. It helps so much with the creative relationship with the director.
I’ve seen how hard directors work and it’s such an intense job, and the people who succeed at it are able to put that kind of focus into it. I’ve never understood why it’s so commonly assumed that everyone who works in film wants to be a director – it’s the hardest job there is and it takes extreme dedication and focus and knowledge of all the film disciplines, the ability to multitask and get along with the gamut of people – crew members to actors to producers – and I think very few people are really suited for it.
What was your proudest set design? Or ones that you’re particularly fond of?
That’s such a hard question! They are all my babies, of course! There are sets where I think I did something really innovative or I’m really proud of a solution I came up with, and other sets that I think are just beautiful. I could give many, many, many examples but just off the top of my head I’d say that Jack Twist’s childhood home in Brokeback Mountain was one. I took an abandoned farmhouse that had pretty much just the basic structure standing – the walls were rubble in the floor – made it into a beautiful stylised and emotionally repellent home that helps you understand a lot about the character of Jack Twist.
Another one that I found really interesting to design was the living room in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Lynn [Ramsay] and I came up with a really interesting concept for that, based on pop art and Roy Lichtenstein’s work – a white minimalist room that was invaded by the children’s primary coloured toys. The room said in a nutshell and visually represented the story of the parents invaded by their child, Kevin. It was stylised but believable and really hard to pull off, and I’m really proud of that one
The QVC set in Joy was also something I’m proud of and that was really fun and challenging to pull off. Although it’s not really clear in the finished movie, the entire QVC set was built so that you could shoot it continuously with Steadicam from the entrance lobby to the conference room, to Bradley’s office, to the test kitchen, downstairs to the backstage area, out through the backstage to the QVC turntable set and the call centre. These were all shot in three floors of the same building (our stagecoach was in an old warehouse in Wilmington, Massachusetts).
I remember the first time we walked it with David and the producers, starting in the top floor through the office area, test kitchen, downstairs through the backstage and out on to the stage. I had people standing by to set the turntable in motion, so that the Joan Rivers set would appear just as David got to that spot. The whole walk-through went so beautifully that there was applause at the end of it. That’s never happened to me before.
To speak of a more recent project, the hallway in the Bonaventure hotel in Battle of the Sexes is another favourite. Although we shot some scenes at the real Bonaventure, the “French farce hallway” where Larry King and Marilyn walk in opposite directions only to meet in front of Billie Jean King’s door was shot on stage – the actual hallway at the Bonaventure was the wrong size to work for the timing of the action. We taped out the round hallway on the floor of our production office and kept changing the dimensions and walking it with Linus Sandgren (the DOP) and Jon and Val and timing it until we came up with the dimensions that worked, and then we built it on stage at Fox Studios.
Some films – like Shame, David O. Russell’s films, We Need to Talk About Kevin – show a lot of the rooms to the audience, giving them not only the full aesthetic but a sense of geography. In films where that doesn’t happen is that usually due to budget/cheating shots, stylistic choice or something else?
It’s definitely a cinematic stylistic choice on the part of the directors, except in very limited instances which are discussed in great detail with the director and the director of photography in advance (where we create a two wall set for example or decide to shoot only in one direction).
I always create a 360° suitable environment for every set – creative people often get inspired in the moment and I want to make sure that they have the set that they need for any ideas that might come to them.
What do you look for when joining a new project?
The first and foremost is the director. If it’s a director I’m interested in working with, I really don’t care what the project is. Of course, the script is important and with someone that I haven’t worked with before or whose work I don’t really know it becomes even more so. I also have to think about whether I can achieve something I’ll be proud of on the budget. For example, a very, very low-budget film that has a lot of upscale sets would be difficult to execute. I’m not saying I would never do one, but it would definitely take more thought in making that decision.
The last thing I think about is whether the project will be visually interesting to design. I do this work because I want to feel I’ve contributed something to a film I would want to see. But given a choice between two great projects – one of which took place in 1960s New York and one of which took place in 2017 suburbia – I’d be a little more interested in the period piece. That said, two projects are never equal and other factors will always be the ones that help me make my decision.
What one piece of advice can you offer to an aspiring production designer
It’s really two pieces of advice.
The first is don’t rush! Learn as much as you can before starting to design. I think working in the business in other positions is really important. You learn what each department does and you learn how to deal with stressful situations without being the boss and you learn some of the set politics and set etiquette, that are so necessary in a business that is so high pressure and moves so fast. I worked my way up from being an art department and props PA to being a designer and I don’t regret a minute of it – everything I learned on the way up has been useful to me as a designer.
In conjunction with that advice, another reason not to rush is to learn not just about film craft but to learn about cinema, art, photography, architecture and design. As I discussed above, you need a wealth of inspiration to draw on in your work as a designer – you need your own visual vocabulary and you also need to be able to understand the references the director is making, and to respond to them with your own ideas and references.
What one piece of advice can you offer to an aspiring writer, director or producer?
That’s a bit harder for me as I’ve never worked in those fields. I imagine that my advice about having a foundation of culture references would be helpful and, as with an aspiring designer, you have to be willing to give pretty much everything up and devote yourself to your career – personal life comes last!
What are five films you’d recommend? Either as excellent examples of production design or just personal favourites?
For my favourite films and films that I’d recommend everyone see I think about the film and not about the design. Most of my personal favourites are pretty much all early Martin Scorsese films! Taxi Driver and Mean Streets alternate as number one. Then Raging Bull, King of Comedy, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and then other 70s classics, like All That Jazz, Godfather 1 and 2, The Last Picture Show, Fat City, The Shining, Saturday Night Fever, Midnight Cowboy, and Robert Altman’s Three Women; they all show different worlds and ways of approaching design, but one thing they all have in common is that they completely immerse you in the world of the movie and you don’t get drawn out, or start thinking about the design itself (it might be obvious from my choice how much in love I am with 1970s cinema, especially the movies that took place in New York! I was devastated to miss the revival of 70s New York films at film forum this past summer while I was working in Los Angeles!).
All that said, there were certain movies that were important to me in terms of design when I started out; I think a lot of designers at that time were influenced by them: Blade Runner, Good Fellas, Silence of the Lambs, and Se7en. My design work doesn’t resemble those movies very much, but they were the first movies where I really became aware of the power of production design for storytelling .
For aspiring designers, I would say just watch as many movies as you can – whatever your personal taste – it will lead you to the movies you want to work on! If you love fantasy movies that’s where your career might take you- it’s really a personal thing.
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