When it came to crafting Feud: Bette and Joan’s retro-perfect rendition of Hollywood circa 1962, down to the most exacting detail – from Joan Crawford’s plastic-covered furniture, to Bette Davis’ Yankee tchotchkes, to a glittering Academy Awards ceremony – no one was better suited for time traveling than production designer Judy Becker.
Having worked on high-profile features like Brokeback Mountain, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and Joy, Becker has become known for her spot-on recreations of very particular places and times in the 20th Century, most memorably the gritty/glam ‘70s-era New York City of American Hustle, the glossy 1950s backdrops of Carol, and her first jaunt into the realities and faux-realities of early ‘60s Tinseltown with Hitchock.
Making her first significant foray into television, Becker had to breathe life into one of the most well-documented periods (and two of the most well-publicized lives) in Hollywood history, all under the meticulous eye of Feud producer Ryan Murphy.
Between their keen sensibilities, a mountain of reference material and a painstaking juxtaposition of the everyday glamor and banality of showbiz, Becker has been delivering an exhaustively rendered Hollywood that begs for rewinding and rewatching in each new episode.
Becker recently gave Mashable a peek inside her process and its many pleasures – including, she revealed, finding a few choice, still-existing props from the fateful set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Obviously you’ve worked in period before. When Feud came your way, what got you interested into delving into this particularly specific world?
I wanted to work with Ryan – that was the primary thing. Usually when I decide to do a project that I’m offered, it’s because I want to work with the creator. You probably know, it’s really my first time doing television, and I was excited about it, because I think there’s so much great television happening. His world of television is amazing. I knew he was a very visual director, and his TV shows are so visual, so that was exciting to me. Then when we first met and talked about the period, and the look, and how it would be very glamorous, and a little stylized, it was a very exciting world to me.
I think every time I do period, the characters are different, and the story’s different. This is pretty much the same era as Hitchcock was, and that was a Hollywood story too, but it’s different characters. Joan and Bette were two such famous actresses of their time, and Joan had a very glamorous life. So it was really something new for me, and it was really fun once I started doing it.
I imagine that, more so than in some other cases, you had some very specific reference material end up on your desk, because these two women had their personal and professional lives photographed to a degree that most people didn’t.
Yeah, they did. There were a lot of photographs of their homes and of them – with the caveat that, at that time, there wasn’t as much photography as there is now. In 50 years, anyone who’s a celebrity now will have every second of their life documented, and we didn’t quite have that. And the other caveat of course was that most of what we got a hold of was publicity shots, so there’s an element of artificiality to it, because it’s staged for the photographers to a degree.
But at the same time, you see what’s really there. You could see the details. When I started researching Joan’s house, I was really confused for, like, two weeks, because I had all these pictures of this house, and I knew it was the same house, but it looked like three different houses. That was because she renovated it so much and so often, that it took a lot of piecing together to figure out what photos were from what era, and when she had changed things, and what was appropriate for us, and what wasn’t.
It was almost like a giant Rubik’s Cube of Joan’s house, so that was fascinating. In one photograph, she has this lime green gigantic ottoman in front of the fireplace, and then in another photograph, it’s the same gigantic lime green ottoman, but with brown fringe on it. And you don’t have the exact dates of all these photographs, so there was a lot of detective work in creating a timeline for her world.
In a sense, Bette was almost easier because although Bette moved around a lot, everywhere she lived looked exactly the same, which was like a traditional American colonial house in Connecticut. She had a very, very consistent style. It never really deviated, and that was pretty easy for Bette for when we were doing Bette.
And they have such diametrically opposed environments, which is great establishing them as characters.
That was really true. It was really based on reality. It was interesting to see how true it was when we were doing the research, and Joan was really, for her time, very glamorous and very involved with her image, and the image of being the glamorous woman. Her best friend, William Haines, was the top interior designer of Hollywood of that day, and she really tried to keep up with the fashions and interior design.
I read some interesting things about her later in life. I think some pictures of one of her houses or her apartment were published, and she was criticized for having a Margaret Keane portrait of herself, and some primitive portraits that she had bought in Haiti. She said, “It’s my taste, and I love it,” but there’s also a really huge degree of defensiveness that you read in these interviews.
I think it was very important to her that people recognize that she was cultured, and that she read. She was upset when people came to photograph her house, and didn’t print a photograph of her library of her books, for example. The public opinion of her, and of her degree of cultured-ness was very, very important to her.
We see great little details, like the plastic covering the furniture in Joan’s house, and the dominating portrait of herself, as well as similarly distinctive things in Bette’s home. Tell me about choosing the details, first to reveal who these people are, and second just because it was a cool historical aesthetic that you wanted to include.
I think in Joan’s case, she had the same portrait of herself as a young woman over her fireplace her entire life. So that said something about, I suppose, her feelings about herself, her youth, her vanity, her stardom, what the past meant to her. So it’s not just a decorative item: it was really important, I think, in support of her character.
Then the plastic slip covers were something that I’d heard about – and I can’t remember if they’re in Mommie Dearest or not; I just don’t remember, even though I watched it fairly recently. I was really astounded to find how many pictures of them there were. Every place she lived, and on everything – my favorite one was a publicity shot of her lying in bed, and she’s got plastic on her bed, over her, over the bedspread.
Image: Kurt Iswarienko/FX
It was just really compulsive. In the last couple decades of her life, I know, because we spoke to her interior designer from that time, she was obsessed with cleanliness, and covering everything with plastic. I think in her New York apartment, she ripped out a lot of the wood and put in laminate instead because she felt it was cleaner and easier to clean. So this was a big, big part of her character. We really just refer to it mostly visually in Feud. I think that the audience can draw a lot of conclusions about Joan from it. It’s a very interesting part of her.
It’s very different when we approach Bette’s decor and her interiors, because it was really the whole of her decor that summed up a lot about Bette, which was that “I’m from New England, I’m a serious person, I come from this traditional Yankee background, and that’s how I’m going to decorate my house, even if it’s in Beverly Hills or Malibu.”
So the things that spoke the most to that were the big brick fireplace with the copper pots, which was definitely in one of her main houses, and the braided rugs, and the tiny patterns on all of the furniture, that I would never have imagined a movie star having in her home if I hadn’t seen the photos of it. So with Bette, I think it’s not any one particular detail, it’s kind of the whole big picture of how she lived.
Tell me about then moving out into the world of mid-century Hollywood, and particularly doing things like the awards shows – the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. What was the challenge and what was the fun of recreating those environments in that era?
I think it’s always fun to recreate something like that. The challenge is finding, really, for the Golden Globes, it was “Where are we going to shoot this that’s not the Beverly Hilton, and looks old, and looks period, and yet we can make it look like that?” We ended up shooting it in the Palladium, which was amazingly intact from that era.
The fun part for me, with both that and the Oscars, was reproducing the stage sense. At the Golden Globes, there’s like a big cutout on stage, and then all the flags of all the countries. And everything with that and with the Oscars of 1963 was executed in a really inexpensive way.
For me as a designer, one of my biggest challenges on every single project is making something fake look real. So to say, “This looks fake, and I’m going to make it look fake, and I’m going to make it so that it looks fake on purpose,” that’s a fun thing that I don’t usually get to do. And it’s a little bit of a breather from, “This is a fake thing, and I’ve got to make it look really real so the audience doesn’t think about it for a second,” because that’s usually my goal.
In the case of the Oscars and the Golden Globes, it’s this big entertainment industry thing — it’s very temporary. They did all of this for just one night, and that’s how it looks, and that’s how we’re going to do it.
One of the great things that you got to build just for yourself was your restaurant set, which I understand was modeled on the legendary Perino’s on Wilshire Boulevard – its second location, designed by architect Paul Williams. Why was that particular restaurant the right one, out of all the many legendary Hollywood watering holes you might have evoked?
That was a great set. Joan really went there, and so did Hedda [Hopper]. It was a place they actually went, and it’s pretty well-documented that they went there on a regular basis, and maybe not to Chasen’s, for example, or Musso & Frank. It was very glamorous looking.
There’s a lot of different worlds in Feud, but one of the worlds that was important was the glamorous world of Hollywood of the movie stars. The glamorous world that the public sees. Perino’s was the most glamorous-looking restaurant I’ve ever seen photos of from that era – with the exception of the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, I just want to say that!
Most of the other restaurants had a lot of wood, and they had the red leather banquettes. I reproduced Chasen’s and Musso & Frank for Hitchcock, so that was a whole other thing. But Perino’s was really different looking. It was round, it was huge, it was white, it had mirrors on all the walls. It had these peach colored banquettes. It was gorgeous.
That was something that I think was really worth building, because it made such a statement about that era, and the glamour of that time, and in a way that you really couldn’t with any place that still exists.
I imagine you had a lot of fun redoing the What Ever Happened to Baby Jane environments.
Yes, that was one of the first things I started working on. It was a very low budget movie. I’m not sure what the budget was. The set was definitely a low budget set, and was built in the cheapest way imaginable. In black and white, you can get away with more than in color, especially now with high definition. Still, when you look at the stills of Baby Jane, some things that they got away with are amazing.
There’s gaps between the flats that are creating the wall – they didn’t fill them in; they didn’t tape them; they just stuck flats next to each other, and you can see the gaps between them. The floors that were supposed to be wood were made of linoleum. Everything was done in such a kind of heavy-handed and very unsubtle way.
It was a challenge to get the craftspeople that were working on the set to do things sort of badly enough, because everyone wants to do a good job, and make it look real, and make it look well done, and that’s not how the Baby Jane set looked. For me, again, it’s really fun to not have to worry about it being convincing reality, and instead to get to play with it and say, “This is fake, and we’re going to really go with it,” because that’s how it really was.
You found some genuine talismans from the original film, I understand.
A lot! That’s the great thing about working in Los Angeles: almost the whole history of Hollywood is here. Surprisingly little gets thrown away. So we found the original sofa, and the birdcage, and the piano. The piano was a really unusual looking piano. It really looked more like a harpsichord. I wouldn’t have believed it would have been used if I didn’t know that it really was the real piano. So there were all of these surprises with that.
Another thing about Baby Jane that was really interesting for me, and particularly because when I did Hitchcock, we reproduced some of the sets from Psycho and I was unable to find any color stills of Psycho, so I never knew how that black and white movie looked in color in reality when it was being shot. But for Baby Jane, we did find color stills, I think at the USC library.
I could see that they had done the sets in a really interesting way. They were really monochromatic. There was a lot of beige, and white, and a kind of very light pink, then super-saturated bright accent colors. We did that in our show. When you see the sets in color, you can see that everything’s very faded and monochromatic looking, and then there’s these intensely blue curtains, a bright blue pillow on Joan's bed, and Joan is wearing this vibrant red dressing gown. That is all based on what we saw in the color stills of the sets.
I loved it because there are so many different levels of glamour and heightened reality in Feud. You go from this really beautiful, colorful, glamorous world with Joan Crawford, and then you get to stage, and it’s pretty boring looking, like most film stages are. It’s a lot of equipment, and it’s a lot of brown wood. But then you walk on to the set, and it’s almost even more glamorous than Joan’s house, because these super-bright colors are contrasted with this monochromatic background so that they pop out even more. That was a really interesting way to me, as a designer, to express the degrees of glamour and artificiality through the use of color.
What did you end up falling in love with about this particular period and this moment in time?
I think that for me – whether it was falling in love or just [being] really excited and stimulated by, and I mean that in a creative sense – it was that play between reality and artificiality, and how to express that, and how to execute it. So that was definitely something about the moment in time. It was something about the world that we were creating, the world of Hollywood.
What I love about that moment in time in general is that it was a fairly minimal, even in a very fancy interior. For the most part, things are fairly minimal compared to today. Those kinds of people have very good interior designers. So the amount of stuff that people had was just more limited. It’s harder to do than when you can layer a lot of mess on top of mess, or a lot of objects in a room, or just really clutter things up. It’s almost easier to create a set that way, because it disguises any possible flaws, and the audience just sees all this stuff and says, “Oh, that looks great.” But when you’re doing things that are as stylized, and clean, and simple as Joan’s house, it almost demands more perfection.
Getting to do that, and execute it, and working with the great team members that I had, and working with Ryan, and then seeing the results, it’s a very, very rewarding feeling, and I think that that was the true love of the whole project for me.
Given how excited you were to work with Ryan, what was your takeaway from the experience?
Huge respect, for one thing. That’s the first thing I would say because Ryan really knows when to push things in a slightly stylized direction, and when to pull back and go very gritty. There’s not a lot of grittiness in Feud, but there’s a little bit. He definitely is willing to go in that direction when it calls for it. I love that about working with him, and I really respected his choices, and the way that he wants to shoot things.
One thing Ryan loves is the use of negative space. He’s one of the first directors I’ve ever worked with to whom that’s a really important concept in the design of the sets. It’s something that I really enjoy working with. As I was just saying before, I don’t like every surface to be cluttered, I don’t like things on every single wall, and neither does he. So in that sense, I think we were extremely well-suited for each other, and to find someone who swears by that use of all or nothing was really inspiring for me, and it was unexpected too.
Now that you’ve spent so much time in this particular moment in Hollywood, is there another era in Hollywood that you’re dying to get a chance to dive into?
Absolutely. The golden era of cinema: the 1970s. Anybody reading this, I want to do that!