Boasting a 15-year career as a set decorator, Matthew Flood Ferguson found his first major TV design job in Netflix miniseries Hollywood, on which he took a deep dive into the minutiae of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, the starry drama is set in Post-World War II Tinseltown, following a group of actors and filmmakers who will do whatever it takes to realize their dreams. Spotlighting biases toward race, gender and sexuality that exist to this day, it considers what might have happened, had inequality in entertainment been addressed decades ago.
First working with Murphy on the 2006 film Running with Scissors, Ferguson subsequently joined the prolific creator on a number of projects, including The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, getting one of his first opportunities in production design on the upcoming Ratched. “Judy Becker, the production designer, had to leave to do another project, so I stepped in and took over the last three episodes,” Ferguson explains. “From that point, Ryan approached me to design Hollywood.”
When Ferguson was approached about this project, he couldn’t have been more thrilled. “I have been fascinated with old films and filmmakers from a very young age,” he says, “so when I heard about the project, I couldn’t have been more happy.”
Ultimately, the project would come with its set of major challenges for Ferguson. On a series centered on Old Hollywood, it was critical to get every period detail right, even if the story at hand was one that played with the facts of history. Below, the production designer breaks down the work that went into designing a fictional Hollywood studio, sets within sets, and a period Oscars show for Murphy and Brennan’s latest.
DEADLINE: What kinds of conversations did you have with Hollywood’s creators, when you first boarded the series? What aesthetic did they have in mind for it?
MATTHEW FLOOD FERGUSON: As Ryan initially had said, it was a love letter to Hollywood, but it was [also] a revisionist take. It would be loosely based on Scotty Bowers, who had the gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, and it would follow the story of young filmmakers working within the studio system, trying to make a film about a silent aspiring actress named Peg Entwistle. So, we talked loosely, broad strokes.
I recall reading about Peg Entwistle in Kenneth Anger’s book Hollywood Babylon many years ago, so it was kind of fun to recreate that, as tragic as it was, and Ryan was very clear about the color palette. He wanted to have a golden sheen and harvest tones, very warm colors. Golden brown. Butterscotch. So that was a real starting point for us, in terms of building the look of the show.
DEADLINE: What kind of research materials did you look at before heading into production?
FERGUSON: Obviously there’s the internet. But I have many books on film and the history of film, so I brought all those in. We went to the library. We also sourced the Art Directors Guild. They have a great resource of architectural prints, catalogues and various images. I got a bunch of old magazines like Look Magazine and Life Magazine from the ’40s, which is great to look at for color and graphics. So we used those and really built a world in the art department office—got pictures up on the walls, and boards and color palettes. Then, I worked with Dan Tanger, my lead painter, in coming up with a variety of colors that we would use and carry throughout the entire show, so that it would have a very consistent look and thread that runs all the way through it. Every now and then, we stepped out of the color palette, but that was more for something significant for a character.
DEADLINE: What work went into recreating a period Oscars show?
FERGUSON: Our storyline leads up to the 1948 Academy Awards, which was the 20th anniversary of the Academy Awards, and they were held at the Shrine Auditorium, so we desperately wanted to shoot there. But unfortunately, the SAG Awards had that location on the dates that we needed to shoot. So we ended up shooting the exterior at the Shrine, which was great—set up our arrival, and our period cameras, and lights and bleachers. Then, [for] the interior, we used The Orpheum Theatre. Now with the Orpheum, we were not able to really pre-scout it because that theatre also was booked. So we had to work off of stage plans that were sent to us, and start to construct and scale out our set piece.
Now, the set piece, we researched, and found images from that ceremony. Luckily, we had great images of Loretta Young receiving her Academy Award for Best Actress, and it showed her on the stage with the big set piece. So we started to really work off those images to try to scale it out, guessing on the height of Loretta Young or Celeste Holm, in relationship to the piece behind. By the time we scouted the Orpheum, we’d already started constructing it, and we taped it out and luckily it fit.
I was really happy because we weren’t sure if we were going to land at the ’47 Academy Awards or the ’48. Both of those ceremonies were beautiful, but they were held at different locations. But the ’48 Academy Awards, I think is a really special one, and I just love the whole set piece. That’s why I’m thrilled that we got to recreate that.
DEADLINE: How did you go about designing the backlot and interiors of the fictional Ace Studios? It seems like you used Paramount as your location for exteriors.
FERGUSON: In the opening of our show, we’ve got the young extras and Jack and his friend trying to get background work. I scouted and looked at the different studios that we have, and Paramount really contains that. It retains a lot of that old school Hollywood look, so we determined we would shoot at the gates of Paramount, and when I scouted there, they were very generous with us. I’m really grateful for it because we scouted a few times and found different areas that we could carefully frame and shoot, and it still felt very period. Now, had we pulled out, had we looked the other direction, it would have been a dead giveaway we’re in the 21st century. So for the exteriors, we shot them all on the Paramount lot, in our very selected, curated locations.
The interior stage work, when we’re doing the screen tests and the making of the movie, those were done at Sunset Gower, which is also where our stages were for the entire show. We had two stages that we built all of our permanent sets on, and then we did our swing sets. We kind of shared space with The Mill because the town was very busy, so we didn’t have that much stage space. So for instance, all the screen tests, we took over half the space of The Mill, and they’d have to stop work. The Mill is basically a stage space on the lot, where construction is building, painters are painting. So, it’s a very needed space to keep the train moving.
DEADLINE: Was it challenging to create sets within your set, showcasing the making of Old Hollywood films?
FERGUSON: That had two sets of challenges. We would build our set piece, and then we would bring in all the period equipment. There’s a couple of key prop houses that specialize in period Panavision cameras, Chapman cranes, and all sorts of period-correct equipment, and we built our flats so the backside of them looked the way they used to build them. Because now, we don’t build them that way. So we created that world, but then when we would pull out and show the stage space, we also had to deal with various elements and hide them. Visual effects took out some, so that our physical stage also looks period. So there were challenges wherever we looked. There wasn’t one practical location that we did not have to augment, change or modify to really try to stay true to the period.
But I would say recreating Ace Studios—all the interior Ace Studios was built on soundstage—we kind of modeled Ace Studios after a hybrid of a few studios: A little bit of Paramount, RKO and MGM. For instance, the commissary. I did a lot of research on what the commissaries looked like from that period at MGM and Warner Bros. and RKO and Paramount, and we finally decided Paramount’s seemed the most suitable, so we recreated that and built it on a soundstage. It almost borders on memorabilia, but the chairs that my set decorator, Melissa Licht found were the actual chairs used at the Warner Bros. commissary in the 1940s. I had reference pictures of Errol Flynn and Cary Grant sitting in the same chairs. It was not easy to find multiple periods chairs to begin with. I know that, having a set decorator background. So that was fun and nostalgic, for everyone to have that.
DEADLINE: In retrospect, which other sets were the most difficult to bring together?
FERGUSON: Schwab’s [Pharmacy] is such a historically driven set, and such a Hollywood iconic landmark that I felt a real responsibility to do it justice, and to recreate it as accurately as possible, as did my entire team. So everybody worked very hard on every set, that one in particular. Most everything in there was custom built—all the cabinetry. The stools were custom built so that they matched the ones that were actually used.
The interior of Ace Studios, those sets were big and also kind of challenging. Some of it, you don’t really see because some of the scenes got cut out. But the offices, the hallways, the conference room, and the screening room, actually the shell of it was the same set. We ended up switching it out for speed, and for space and budget, and redressed it, so when it was the conference room, it looked the way it looked. And then when we switched it over to the screening room, we brought in risers, had them carpeted, plugged all the windows with wood paneling and sconces, and then put curtains around, and then switched out the flat and brought in the screen. But the ceiling is the same. So the design of that convertible set, as it were, is a challenge. But it helped to save time as we were shooting.