Artifice and Craft: Interview with 'American Hustle' Production Designer Judy Becker
Can there be a more annoying trope than, "The setting itself is a character"? Film writing is littered with this bit of pretentiousness, no matter the natural law governing inanimate backdrops.
But now we have David O. Russell's rakish con caper American Hustle, and damned if Judy Becker's production design doesn't interact with the dramatis personae. Not since Casino has wallpaper so shimmied, shagged and shaken its stuff at you. If ever a set were to justify the winky claim that it joined the ensemble, Becker's pastiche of late 70s and early 80s styles is that exception. And you're thrilled to be played.
The titular hustle is the FBI’s infamous Abscam sting in which public officials were busted for accepting bribes. Joined by con artists and undercover agents posing as Arab sheiks, the operation landed seven U.S. congressmen behind bars and raised sobering questions about the moral and legal wholesomeness of its tactics.
Leave sobriety to the documentary. First come party with American Hustle. Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner will all be there (as seen in photo 1). Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a seedy Long Island shyster whose dry-cleaning operation offers a front for his more lucrative dealings in bogus loans and art. Former stripper Sydney Prosser (Adams) struts into his life from Albuquerque and reemerges as "Lady Edith." Irving flips his toupée for her. Things get hairy with his wife Rosalyn "Ros" (Lawrence), and it's a close shave with Richie DiMasio (Cooper) as Irving partners with the British-accented seductress for some bald-faced swindling (as seen in photos 2 - 3).
No matter how sly the trickery, how desperate the striving or how peek-a-boo the décolletage, Becker's setting understands these characters. Where would they be without their facades? Not far from the film's mid-Manhattan epicenter, thalo.com spoke with the award-winning production designer -- whose myriad credits include Brokeback Mountain, Shame and Russell's The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook -- about the aesthetics of the hustle.
thalo: The opening title card says, "Some of this stuff actually happened." Was this a cue to mix fantasy with reality?
Judy Becker: Fantasy, no -- though I wanted it to look like a disco of that era -- but in terms of taking liberties for what the real people and Abscam looked like, absolutely. I based my work on the scripted characters that David created, but I didn't worry too much about what really happened during Abscam, which would have been a boring movie. Irving Rosenfeld, like Mel Weinberg -- the real person he was based on -- came from the Bronx and lived on Long Island. That gave me license to create an authentic 1978 world for them but not to take it beyond the level of realism.
th: What would have been the risk?
JB: If you don't believe these are real people living in a real environment you can't feel emotion for them. It's so important in one of David's movies that you feel the humanity and reality of the characters and that you identify with them even when they're a crook. You still love these characters. I do. So I wanted to give them a world that was true to their characters and to New York City in that period, but still believable.
th: How did you balance flash and raw ambition without veering into mockery?
JB: There are characters that lent themselves to a lot of flash in the design -- the main one is Ros -- and then there are characters that are upwardly mobile and and striving and have good taste, and that would be Sydney. So those two sets -- Sydney's apartment and Ros and Irving's house -- are polar opposites that use basically the same color palette in different permutations, but show the difference between someone who has slightly over-the-top taste and is obsessed with decorating and redecorating her apartment and probably thinks no surface should remain untouched and someone who is aspirational. Sydney wants to move to New York and become a Cosmo girl and a glamorous woman. She is probably going out of her way to make sure that her place is a tasteful, restful, sophisticated place.
th: What were your sources?
JB: We had an amazing magazine called Interior Design that dated from 1976 to 1979. We had about 150 issues. It was oriented towards a small business and a domestic consumer.
th: So you saw lots of chrome furniture?
JB: The furniture collections at that time had a lot of lucite, a lot of chrome, a lot burled wood, acrylic and brass. There was this furniture collection that was very popular called The Pace Collection.
th: Which movies did you watch for a visual sense of the era?
JB: I watched Atlantic City not only because it was made at the exact time, but it showed exactly what was happening. They were tearing down these beautiful old hotels to build casinos. One thing that (Camden Mayor) Polito wants to do is preserve one of these hotels and make it into a casino. So that was an interesting plot point. And I watched The King of Comedy, which shows mid-town Manhattan and some gorgeous buildings that were built in the 60s. It was made in 1982. That wasn't so far off from what it was like in 1978. It wasn't just some hotbed of prostitution and criminality in that period. The Manhattan that we were trying to show was a little more upscale and it wasn't dirty Times Square or Taxi Driver. When we were location scouting the idea was, Let's think about what this cleaner New York looked like and let's try to get some of that glamour into our movie.
th: What are the first words that pop to mind regarding the look of this movie?
JB: Glamorous, like someone dressing sophisticated. Sexy. Shiny...
th: Let's go back to the first word you free-associated.
JB: When I say glamorous I mean that in a Studio 54 kind of way, like an image of someone dressing in a really sexy disco dress with that sexual freedom of the pre-AIDS period. In the movie they say something like, "Now you want me to go after politicians, after Watergate?" People had just had this miserable experience with the Vietnam War and with Watergate, and now it's "The Me Decade." It's time to have fun. That's what these characters are doing, and they're reinventing themselves. When Sydney says, "I want to live life," it's this embrace of hedonism and trying to better yourself and not getting stuck in Queens with your mother and your fiancé. That feeling that you want to live life is very exciting.
th: Sydney's unhampered necklines scream, "I want to live life." How did you and costume designer Michael Wilkinson coordinate costumes and sets?
JB: Amy's clothes were incredibly sexy and beautiful and said so much about her character. She's choosing her sexuality very deliberately. It's not by accident that she walks into that Plaza Hotel room with her breasts almost hanging out of her dress. It's because her sexuality is part of her persona as Lady Edith. It's something that men are attracted to and are going to be focused on, and maybe not on questions they might have about a scheme.
The main thing Michael and I talked about was the color palette. Deciding the color palette is one of the first things I work on in a movie. I always work with a limited color palette. Once you start letting every color in, the movie just looks like a mess and the audience gets distracted from the characters and the story. Color can be very tempting. When you're in a neutral environment and you have Amy Adams in a green wrap dress, it just looks amazing. When the environment was neutral, Michael could experiment more with colors. And when the environment was more true to our color pattern, he would use more neutrals. And we went back and forth that way.
th: Tell us about the color palette you chose.
JB: I wanted to work with a color palette that was true to the era but not clichéd. A clichéd color palette to me would have been rust, mustard and avocado. Instead, we went with gold, blue, metallics and brown. We had a lot of gold in Ros's house and we turned that into a funny yellow in Sydney's house. So there was a spectrum there. There's a little rust, and sometimes we'd get a little mustard in there, but for the most part we used different 70s colors than you would see on something that's more of a comedic thing like "That 70s Show" or Anchorman. I wanted everyone to feel that they were in a real world, whether or not it's a slightly over-the-top world (as seen in photos 4 - 5).
th: What role does blue play?
JB: Blue is a color men tend to like. When you're using a lot of gold and brown -- those are warmer colors and blue is a colder color -- blue sets it off a little bit and doesn't make the movie look too designed and monochromatic. When you're using a lot of warm colors like gold or certain shades of yellow, it's good to throw in a little blue just to throw things off a little bit. We used a lot of muddied, greyed shades of blue.
th: To what extent did you work with music?
JB: Only to the extent that David had music in mind for certain scenes. He had Steely Dan's "Dirty Work" in mind for the opening scene where Irving, Sydney and Richie walk down the hallway of the Plaza Hall to meet Polito. David paced out the length of the song and he said that was how long the hallway had to be. So we built that whole set around the song.
th: Speaking of opening scenes, we meet Irving as he's concealing his bald spot. Did Irving's toupée have a counterpart in your set that signaled duplicity?
JB: In his first office where Sydney finds out that he has this con of pretending to get people loans, we had maybe a Mies van der Rohe black leather sofa and a pretty nice desk. But both of these designer pieces were really beat up and the desk was a little too big for the office. So they show how Irv wants to be someone else, but this is who he is, in this seedy office with this battered furniture. I think that may be the furniture equivalent of the toupée.
th: How would you describe your collaboration with David?
JB: David is very character-driven as a filmmaker and I'm very character-driven as a production designer. I never want to have my design looked at as a separate entity from the movie. I always start with a character and a script. So in terms of working with David, I think that's a perfect match (as seen in photo 6).
th: What advice do you have for people who want to be the next Judy Becker (as seen in photo 7)?
JB: The answer is, You can't. You've got to be you. I'm different from most other designers. I didn't go to architecture school and I didn't study theater design. I started working as a PA in the prop department and I got into this business because I love movies, photography and art. Whatever I am as a designer came out of me and my interests. You have to find out who you are as a young designer and not copy someone else.
th: To wrap, what is the aesthetic of the hustle?
JB: Sydney says it so well in the movie, more or less, "We all do things to survive." People who pretend that they never hurt anybody or lie a little bit or never present themselves in a way that's not completely accurate -- I think it's bull. Irving is a deeply human character. We all have flaws. I don't like things that look perfect. On the set there are always things that are a little flawed. In Ros's bedroom there's an exercise bike. She has this whole house that's so decorated and then she has this exercise bike right by the bed in front of TV. You see someone lives in this house. And things being little dirty...Sydney's apartment is where you see the least of that. She's the one who's putting up the most facades. I love that scene where she has just gotten out of the FBI holding cell. She's wearing no makeup and she's never more beautiful. You see that she's just this little girl from Albuquerque. That's when the facade is gone.
Photo 1: (L to R) Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in Columbia Pictures' AMERICAN HUSTLE. Photo by Francois Duhamel courtesy of Annapurna Productions LLC.
Photo 2: (L to R) Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) in Columbia Pictures' AMERICAN HUSTLE. Photo by Francois Duhamel courtesy of Annapurna Productions LLC.
Photo 3: Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) attempt to scam under cover agent Richie DiMasio (Bradley Cooper), in Columbia Pictures' AMERICAN HUSTLE. Photo by Francois Duhamel courtesy of Annapurna Productions LLC..
Photo 4: Set design for Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser's office. Computer rendering by Audra Avery, courtesy of Judy Becker.
Photo 5: (L to R) Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) & Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) in the Grand Old AC Hotel powder room in Columbia Pictures' AMERICAN HUSTLE. Photo by Francois Duhamel courtesy of Annapurna Productions LLC.
Photo 6: (L to R) Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) and David O. Russell on the set of Columbia Pictures' AMERICAN HUSTLE. Photo courtesy of Annapurna Productions LLC.
Photo 7: Photo of Judy Becker by Jojo Whilden.