When it comes to cinema, production designer Judy Becker considers Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and David Fincher's Se7en her first loves. "At the times these films came out, I was not a production designer," Becker recalls. "But I think what attracted me — and many other designers — to them was the utter believability of the mythic worlds they took place in."
Early in her career, Becker dabbled in production design, set dressing and decorating, before cementing herself in the former and going on to design such films as Brokeback Mountain (2005), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and Carol (2015).
"I came to production design as someone who has always loved movies. I also loved art, design, architecture and photography," she says, "so discovering that I could have a career that combined all my loves was one of the greatest moments of my life."
Becker earned an Oscar nomination for Best Production Design for her work on 2013's American Hustle, shared with set decorator Heather Loeffler. A longtime collaborator of David O. Russell, she also worked on The Fighter (2010), Silver Linings Playbook (2012), and Joy (2015). She reteams with the filmmaker for his latest film, Amsterdam, a period crime drama starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington as three friends at the center of a murder mystery.
"I definitely have a realism-based approach to filmmaking — most of the worlds I create are fictional, but within the context of the film my goal is to make them feel real, grounded, worn, authentic," Becker explains. "Believability and realism in the context of the story are the only things I care about; my goal is for the design to be part of the cohesive whole... People often compliment me by telling me they loved my work , but the best compliment is when they say they loved the movie."
Below, Becker shares with A.frame the five films that most influenced her approach to production design.
Directed by: Martin Scorcese | Production Design by: Charles Rosen
My true love: The worlds that Scorcese depicts in Taxi Driver, most of them shot on location, feel so real and genuine yet so fresh and eye-opening. The use of color is virtuosic. Everything created for the film fits perfectly within the existing world of NYC in the mid 1970s, and yet adds so much to the story telling - for example, the red white and blue campaign office. I remember finding out that the final shootout scene was shot on location, with special scaffolding built for the overhead camera, and I was in awe — it shows how much the filmmakers appreciated what shooting on location gives to the story.
Directed by: Peter Bogdanovich | Production Design by: Polly Platt
The Last Picture Show is made with a minimalism that is both realistic for the place and era of the story, et al minimalism both realistic to the world, appropriate for the characters, and perfectly done. Nothing in that film seems out of place, and there is nothing I would want to add. The very first time I designed a movie, I and my two crew members went through enormous effort to get a refrigerator up six flights of stairs so that the tenement kitchen we were filming in would be complete. As soon as the DP walked in, he told us to lose it, permanently. I learned then that no one misses what isn’t there — they only notice if something that's there is wrong.
Directed by: Paul Schrader | Production Design by: Paul Sylbert
Hardcore was one of the first films where I realized how much could be done with the color palette in terms of telling a story, and yet still remain grounded in reality. George C. Scott moves from his icy cold, white and blue home in Minnesota to the lurid hot red world of Los Angeles, searching for his missing daughter in the porn industry. The colors are so organic to the worlds that nothing seems contrived or "design."
Directed by: Richard Brooks | Production Design by: Robert F. Boyle
One of the challenges inherent in production design is that you can spend so much time and money trying to make a set look real, that little is left over for the truly creative part of design. Any way I can find to help a set feel real I will use — for example, as many real, as opposed to faux, materials as possible. I once had a Construction Coordinator tell me that using real materials wasn't really designing, and this couldn't be farther than what I believe.
Of course, shooting on location helps enormously. In Cold Blood was made in the new 1960s world of shooting on location, and is notable for the extremes to which the filmmakers went. Based on the real-life Clutter family murders, Brooks wanted to shoot on as many of the real-life locations as possible, and even tried to get permission to shoot the execution scene at the actual gallows where Perry and Dick were hung. (Permission denied.) I found this movie absolutely terrifying and I think much of that is due to its almost verite approach.
Directed by: Roman Polanski | Production Design by: Richard Sylbert
This movie takes what could be seen as an insane story and makes it absolutely believable. A big part of that are the pitch perfect sets, locations, and color palette. (And cast!) The Woodhouse’s starter apartment seems young and contemporary to this day; the annoying, seemingly benign, old world neighbors, the Castavets, could live next to me right now (hopefully not!). Almost no aspect of the film is tweaked for horror; in fact, the opposite is done — almost everything seems boringly mundane, And that's what makes it so scary — you can imagine this actually happening in your, the viewer's, world.