Last speaking with Deadline in 2015—when two Oscar-nominated films, Carol and Joy, were released—production designer Judy Becker described similar challenges this time around with regard to her first television project, Ryan Murphy’s Emmy-nominated Feud: Bette and Joan. Both those films were New York period pieces requiring convincing exterior locations, and collaborating with Murphy for the first time, there was a similar, if not more exacting demand for period accuracy.
As Becker tells it, though, there was a degree of artistic license taken with this elegant and glamorous depiction of a 1960s Hollywood rivalry. Hopping on the phone with Deadline, the production designer explained the rational behind certain exaggerations of visual scope, which communicate more clearly the outsized lives of two iconic, aging starlets.
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What was it that grabbed you about Feud?
Oh, it was kind of no-brainer. It was my first television series—I’d done a pilot once before, a long time ago, and I’d been wanting to work on something for a long time. Last year, I was working on a movie, Battle of the Sexes, and I got a call from my agent that Ryan Murphy wanted to meet with me.
I happened to be working on the backlot, on the set. I went to his office and he told me about the project, and offered it to me. I was really excited because I think he’s the top in television. It’s a period project, and I knew it would have a great look.
I was like, This is the chance to get into television, which I think is doing amazing things, both story-wise and visually. I have to say, it was an amazing experience. I’m now doing another show with him, and it’s really been rejuvenating for me, creatively.
Reportedly, the entire Feud team went to great lengths to ensure historical accuracy. How did you go about researching the period and preparing for this shoot?
We did research it really, really deeply. We found out the historical accuracy for everything, as much as we could. These were celebrities or very well known people, so there was a lot of material available on them. It’s so much easier to find out things about famous people than non-famous people, so there was a lot of documentation.
That said, you don’t always present what was real on screen because sometimes what was real is not going to convey that reality to a contemporary audience.
An example of that would be Joan Crawford’s house. The way she lived was very, very lavish for people of her time, but it wouldn’t come across that way to a contemporary audience. I saw her real house—we shot very close to it. It would look small by today’s standards, for the way people live now, so we amped up the size, we amped up the glamour.
We amplified it a bit so that to an audience watching it, you get the idea of how glamorous it would have seemed to the people of her time. She was a big, glamorous movie star, and we wanted people now to see that about her.
The same thing with Hedda Hopper. Hedda Hopper lived in a very nice neighborhood in a very nice house, but it didn’t look so impressive. It kind of looked like a regular house. We wanted to show how powerful she was in Hollywood, so we made her house look powerful. It was that kind of thing.
You want to convey a lot about the characters that might not be conveyed if you just showed the visual reality of the time, but you have to start with that visual reality. I think one of the first projects that I did about a real person in which I really became aware of that was The Fighter, but they were still alive, so it was pretty easy to find out where they had really lived.
We wanted the character that Mark Wahlberg played to live in this upper story and have this whole scene with him and Amy Adams on a balcony. In reality, he lived over a garage in a ranch house in a suburb, and it wasn’t that photogenic. So we took a lot of liberties with that.
It’s a fascinating part of doing a historical recreation, I think, where you know what the reality is and you have to decide how much to tweak it.
Grandiosity of scale becomes a crucial design element in this first installment of Feud, conveying both the glamour of this period in Hollywood, and the loneliness of the characters that lived through it.
Joan’s scale does diminish because she does move to a much smaller apartment. We built an apartment that, by today’s standards in New York City, I would love to live in. Don’t get me wrong: It was really big. But by her standards, it was very small.
In her life, it was a real downfall for her. That was definitely the end of her glamour years, to have to live in a one-bedroom apartment—in a very nice building on the Upper East Side, but it wasn’t on Park Avenue. She was not happy living there; she wasn’t happy at the end of her life.
What makes it seem so isolated and lonely for her is that it was fairly sparse and a little more minimally decorated. You see her alone in these spaces with nothing around her, much more straight, minimal-line furniture—that scale of the furniture, and that type of ‘70s, minimal decorating, which is what she really had at that time. You see her lost in both the era and in her life.
I think that really worked. The visuals and the storytelling really worked so well together in that episode, Episode 8.
When we last spoke in the year of Carol and Joy, you described the challenges of hunting down exteriors for period projects. Was that a challenge here?
I think we were really lucky. It was a great project. It took place in Hollywood, and we shot it in Hollywood, in Los Angeles, so that’s great to start with. On this one, we had one challenge—we were shooting it in Los Angeles, where most of it took place, but we were shooting it 50 years later.
Of course, it’s always hard to find good locations, and it’s compounded when you’re looking for period locations. If there’s a change in the schedule, you can’t just say, “Okay, we’ll go out and find it and shoot it tomorrow.” Sometimes it’s good, because then I’m not forced to compromise as much, but you know you have to travel a little bit further sometimes. We had to go to San Pedro to shoot a beautiful period movie theater, where we shot the premiere of Baby Jane. It’s gorgeous and was pretty period-looking, but it took a little more hunting.
Some of their houses in Bel-Air and Brentwood are still pretty much intact. We shot Joan’s backyard and exterior front of her house at Paul Newman’s gorgeous house, pretty close to where she lived. It had been lived in by the same woman since the 1950s; she hadn’t changed a thing.
We didn’t shoot inside, but I wish we had—it was so beautiful. It was so inspiring to see it. We freshened up the backyard and built some things, we did some landscaping, but it looked so much like Joan’s. The scale of it was so much like Joan’s actual backyard. She hadn’t put a fountain in or repaved it or done any of the things that almost everyone else had done to their swimming pools.
There’s so many possibilities here, if you go beyond the beaten track, if you really make an effort. The one problem I find in Los Angeles is that it’s really, really hard to find locations that haven’t been shot before. I had a great locations manager named Robert Foulkes—he loves movies and he loves to try and find things that someone hasn’t found before. It took us a long time to find Joan’s exterior, but we found it and no one had ever shot there before, so that was a great experience. I think only in Los Angles would you find a movie star house.
The color palette of the series is quite striking—there are a lot of aqua blues and subtle pinks. How did you arrive at your aesthetic?
That was partly generated by the palette of the time period, especially for the costumes. Every time period has its palette for both interiors and for fashion. We started with the actual palette that Joan had—both Joan and Bette had gravitated towards certain colors in their décor.
I made presentation boards—I always start with palette—and I talked about it with Ryan. He wanted a lot of really beautiful blues with a slight bit of green, but very little. Then, some navy blues and some silver. We made a whole board with that for her interior. For Bette, it’s much more green and brown and muddy, so we made those boards and based their décors on that.
Then overall, Hollywood is glamorous and colorful, and of course the costumes would represent that also, and go along with the color palette of the characters. Anything that was not part of Hollywood would be very muted, as it is. If you go onto a soundstage, there’s not a lot of color happening there.
To me, the most interesting part of the color palette was the Baby Jane set, or any of the little movie sets that go on throughout the series. We tried to make those even more vibrant, beyond this glamorous world, because they were monochromatic with really intense touches of color, which was very true to how they were done in real life.
They had a lot of color stills of black-and-white sets. I was so surprised to see that they were painted almost black and white, with shades of pink and gray and beige, and then they would have these super bright colors in the set dressing. I’d never seen it to that extent before, and that’s how Baby Jane looked in color stills. It was fascinating.
To recreate that, I loved it because it was even more shockingly colorful than Joan’s house. I really loved working with that because color, to me, is one of the greatest tools in the production design palette.
What was it like, working with sets within sets?
A big part of it was figuring out the colors we would paint the sets. Once I found those color stills, that was revelatory to me. From working on Hitchcock, I knew what the construction methods were for the early ‘60s. Since we were using the soundstage as a set within the series, we used the original construction methods so that it wouldn’t look non-period, it wouldn’t look anachronistic, because you were seeing the backs of the sets.
We had to start doing a lot of quick, little film sets once we started, because there were a lot of montages. I don’t know how many we did—maybe 12? There were a lot, and we got our pattern down because we saw what started to look good. I would use a gray scale, and then I would look at the still we were recreating and I would match the gray scale to the still. Then, we’d pick one or two pieces and use a really bright color like red carpet, and a bright pink, and that worked really, really well. I really loved doing that—it was really fun.
What were the episodes or moments you were most satisfied with in Feud’s first installment?
The steadicam shots were something I loved doing because it’s a real collaboration between myself and the DP and the director. We really worked together, planning it out and deciding what the builds would be, researching them and executing them. I love the collaboration of it.
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