With Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, production designer Chris Jones was tasked with finding all the little details that would hone a portrait of ’90s Sacramento, designing a home and Catholic school to suggest the spirit of a young woman, her family and her small-town community.
Meeting Greta Gerwig on Mike Mills’ 2016 coming-of-age film 20th Century Women, Jones came into the actress’s directorial debut with a shorthand, such that he was able to benefit on the film from her childhood photos and a tour of her parents’ home to infuse the film’s coming-of-age portrait with life. To Jones, having worked on Mike Mills’ film before Gerwig’s, they are similar in a number of ways, both being period coming-of-age stories where the protagonist’s home becomes a central character.
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So, in a sense, Jones went into Lady Bird with a sense of how to tackle it. But as the production designer will tell you, reaching inside a writer’s head to bring their script to life, such that was on the page becomes as vivid and real as their own experiences, is no easy task. That’s where his real work began.
What got you excited about Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut from a visual perspective?
One of the first things we talked about was the color palette. I had a lot of fun on 20th Century Women with color, as well. I like doing that. With the color palette for Sacramento, I liked that she was referencing painters like Wayne Thiebaud, who’s a painter from Sacramento. These pastel colors were really interesting to me. The initial discussions were all about color and arrangement, and how those can help tell the story.
What kind of preparations did you go through for the film? Did you look at photographs from her time growing up in Sacramento?
Yeah, she had a lot of pictures of her experience at the Catholic school she went to. She had images of her room. We went to her parents’ house, which is the same house that she references in the film; and luckily, the house that we found was a very good match for that.
So we got to see [Sacramento] in real life, and we got to see it in her photographs, as well. Researching the period, obviously it’s not that long ago, but we did a lot of work in trying to get rid of technology. We said, “Okay, even then they had some cell phones, but you didn’t have as much as now.” It was really nice to take that all away. It was funny, picking out computers, and picking out phones. People still had phones on the wall, even in 2003 and 2004. It was really great to play with that.
Socioeconomic status features in the script a great deal. Was that a subject of conversation you went through with Greta?
We didn’t talk about it a ton, but we did talk about the love that was within the home. The only time we really talked about socioeconomic factors was when we were looking for Jenna’s house, with the McMansion kind of feel.
What we talked about a lot was how the suburbs in Sacramento were changing, much like they are in any other part of the country, where it changes the tone of an entire town. There was a scene in a mall that I think got cut, but we discussed it a lot when we were talking about those things. What would the rich kids do? Where would they go? Where would they hang out? What we felt we needed to do was always make it seem like Marion was holding the family together, and that was really expressed through the house.
Lady Bird’s home—and her room, in particular—are full of little details that make the space feel lived-in.
We wanted to make sure that the house around Lady Bird’s room was plainer and cleaner. There were some interesting things that developed, not always on purpose, but the dark den where Lady Bird hangs out a lot was nice because it was the common room, which we’ve all experienced in our families. It’s dark and dreary, and a little sad, but it’s still the place that you go and hang out, and everyone’s sort of been there. They’ve had that room in their house, where it’s never cared for as much as the dining room or the kitchen, but it’s this great place to hang out. That was not dressed a lot. We wanted to have the key areas there— where the computer is, where the television is—but we didn’t want to overdress it, because we did want it to counterpoint Lady Bird’s room.
The reason that we did all that stuff in Lady Bird’s room was, as you said, layers of history. The room was painted pink because it was like when she was a child. It was her kid’s room first, and then she grew and grew, and the furniture was even older furniture from when she might have been nine or ten. It’s one of those rooms where all that stacks on top of each other until she becomes this adult.
Lady Bird’s painting over her walls at the end of the film is a nice emotional beat, which must have also been a production necessity.
We were going to do that anyway, but Greta said, “Why don’t we just film it? Let’s just make it happen.” We see her view that change from being this child, who was still trying to figure stuff out, to being an adult. And it was really fun.
I really enjoyed working on the house. It was a great find. We really wanted the house to feel loved. No matter what was going on, it was a house that had been there for them for a long time. It plays a character in the movie, and it did that on 20th Century Women, too.
What was required of you when it came to the Catholic school, once you had settled on the location to build that world from?
Contemporary Catholic schools don’t have as much religious imagery, which we added a lot of. We wanted crucifixes everywhere. We wanted to show the Pope. We wanted to show the world of the Catholic school. The fortunate thing about the school was, those walls were already some of the colors that we had been discussing, with the feeling of Sacramento, and its timelessness of pastel colors.
But we did a lot of little details, like the 9/11 posters on the wall, and generic artwork that showed subdued colors in a subdued palette. I really enjoyed doing Sister Mary’s office, because it was the one place where we took all the color away, and it was just grays, whites, and browns. It was really beautiful and fun to play with that room.
Where did you look when it came to set-dressing materials?
The nice thing about shooting in LA for a good portion of it is that we had access to all the prop houses. We also went to church supply stores for a lot of things. There’s this scene in the church where they’re in the vestibule laying on their back, eating the wafers. Once we found the wafers, we went to this huge Catholic supply store in downtown LA, because it taught us a lot about what the thought process is for the trinkets in the Catholic world—what is out there, and where you go for that.
The thing about making a film now is, you have to get clearance on everything. All the religious imagery, anything we put on the wall had to be cleared, so when you do something like Lady Bird’s room, you’ve really got to be careful. We went through a bunch of cleared art prop houses for some of that. We also did clear a few CD covers, because that was one of the cheaper things that we could clear.
Her room, it’s interesting. We felt like we hadn’t filled it up enough, even the day before we started shooting. So I just went to this place downtown in the warehouse district of LA called Moskatels and bought all the little stickers, and all the little things you saw. We spent $400 on little stickers, and made the room three times as full as it was before. You just have to be resourceful on a feature with this kind of budget.
The entire film was shot on location. Did that ever present logistical challenges, in terms of the space you had to work with?
Working in the house was tight. Everyone was crammed in this small, square footage house. Fortunately, that house had a back area, which actually ended up being the dorm rooms for when she goes to New York. The whole yard was taken over by the film shoot for a week and a half. But you find yourself putting the camera outside a window so you can get further back than you would in the corner of the room.
What’s interesting too, is you’ve only got the resources to do certain things. We wanted to get far enough back to see the homecoming scene, but there are times when you don’t have the extras, nor do you have the money to dress up the whole world. So in those cases, we actually did the reverse. We had to kind of creep in and be a little tighter, because we didn’t have enough to make it feel like a full scene.
Prom was a full-on banquet hall over by Van Nuys Airport. We really dressed the heck out of it, but we ended up cutting the banquet room in half because we couldn’t really make it work with the amount of people that we could afford to have that day.
So it’s funny—you do both things. You compress space, and you have a hard time working in the space.
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