Sunday, February 16, 2014

Hustle Style

Since February is Oscar month (the awards are March 2nd at 7 eastern to be exact), I thought it would be a good time to take an in-depth look a few of the nominees for Best Art Direction.

I recently caught up with American Hustle production designer Judy Becker who literally channelled her earlier life in 70s Manhattan for the film's period style sets. Together with set decorator Heather Loeffler, they designed 140 sets including Sydney's (Amy Adams) single Manhattan pad (built on a soundstage), and Irving's (Christian Bale) house (period ranch in Medford, Mass) and office. The designs (along with the costumes and hairstyles) are a wonderful look back in time, proving the old adage that everything old is new again. 
Wonder if there will be a rush on shag carpet and brass and glass coffee tables?

Cinema Style:  What type of research did you do for the sets? 

JB: We researched every source imaginable.  Books of documentary photography from the time were important, as were movies made on location in the places the movie took place, and of course, internet images. One of our best sources for the interiors was a cache of "Interior Design" magazines from 1976-78, a treasure trove of both commercial and domestic ideas.  It was a consumer oriented magazine, so it was very inspiring in terms of both architectural details and the furniture styles and lines popular at the time.  The advertisements were particularly useful.  I also drew on my own memories of growing up in the New York suburbs and of having lived in Manhattan since I moved there for college in 1982 - the city at that time was still similar to the time period of our movie, and really only started drastically changing in the late 1990s.

Recreation of Plaza Hotel suite of the 70s

CS: Was there any particular design influence in the way of books, films and designs of the period:

JB:  My approach was and is always story and character driven, so finding the source material that informed the wonderful characters and story of American Hustle was crucial. It was very clear that the world of "American Hustle" was a stylish, glamorous world, the world of the late 1970s, Studio 54, a bit hedonistic, and a time of enormous freedom and the ability to recreate oneself.  It was not the gritty, graffiti -ridden New York City so often portrayed in movies set in the 1970s, nor was it the classic designer mid-century world.  To that effect, a movie I found enormously useful in conveying the Manhattan much of the movie takes place in was "The King of Comedy" - it shows midtown Manhattan shortly after our time period, and the glamorous modern architecture which I remember from my past and which still exists today.  It was a great way of showing that not all of of New York looked like Times Square.

Metallic foil pattern wallpaper and corresponding spread
make a bold statement in  Roz's (Jennifer Lawrence) bedroom
CS: What were some of the iconic designs of the time period that were considered “must haves” for your designs?

JB: We definitely wanted to incorporate some of the popular furniture collections, such as the Pace Collection with its use of Lucite and Chrome, and the more Brutalist furniture of Paul Evans as seen in his Directional line.  The textures of these pieces became an important part of our palette, and although they were extremely popular at the time, they have almost never been used in a movie set in this period.  Another must have was foil printed wallpaper - again, extremely popular but something that needed to be used very specifically - and we had the perfect character sets to use it in, primarily Rosalyn's house on Long Island, as well as the Disco Bathroom.

Irving and Roslyn's ranch house

CS: Irving's office was a step back in time. Can you elaborate?

JB: It was designed to look like a classic mid century upscale architect designed office.  I have seen so many of these office buildings in midtown Manhattan with their use of travertine and custom sculptural walls, but I have never seen one in a movie. I did a lot of research on these type of wall reliefs and designed one to be used on both sides.  My construction shop fabricated it out of plaster and resin and then it was scenic painted to look like bronze with patina. The desk was really special - I saw an ad for a similar desk in an old Interior Design magazine.  We searched everywhere for a similar one to no avail; we ended up fabricating it using a burled wood veneer. We also used some Brutalist Paul Evans style furniture in this office - a cabinet, side table, and lamp.

CS: What about the color palette for Sydney's apartment?

JB: Sydney's apartment was built on our sound stage in Woburn, MA.  The decor and color palette was meant to relate to yet contrast with Rosalyn and Irving's house.  We used a beige grasscloth wallpaper on all her walls, and the floors were made of vintage wood parquet tiles, sourced through a Boston salvage house and exactly accurate for the type of post war white brick building we were emulating.  Sydney had some more recognizable designer furniture, including the Cessna chairs and vintage parsons table. We custom fabricated yellow quilted bedroom walls and matching bedspread.

For more on this and other Oscar nominated films, see my piece on And the Oscar Goes To... in Architectural Digest.

Photo Credits courtesy of Sony Pictures