Talking about FX’s new drama Feud has become synonymous with gushing about Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon, who play Joan Crawford and Bette Davis with such biting relish that it’s hard to take your eyes off them. But the fact that Feud is such a sumptuous TV treat is just as much thanks to the people behind the scenes, the ones making 1963 Hollywood come to life — especially the show’s production designer, Judy Becker.
The production designer is a crucial position on any television or film set. Outside of the actors, everything you see onscreen is something the production designer has envisioned, created, or delegated to a team whose mission it is to bring a script to three-dimensional life. This becomes an especially complicated job for people who work on a period piece like Feud — which wrapped its Bette and Joan season on April 23 — in which they have to consider things like historical accuracy when creating photogenic sets and finding (or fabricating) period-appropriate props.
Becker — whose previous production design work includes Brokeback Mountain, American Hustle, and Carol — has recreated the world of Joan and Bette’s Hollywood with precision and endless creativity. I recently caught up with her to find out how she recreated spaces like the two actresses’ homes, the iconic (and cheap) set of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the 1963 Oscars ceremony seen in “And the Winner Is...,” Feud’s spectacularly extravagant fifth episode.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
For people who aren’t familiar with how TV comes together, how do you and your set design and prop departments research Feud’s sets? What are your go-to resources, and how do you figure out the details?
Even now, with everything that’s available online — and, one would think, very easily and quickly — the best way to do research [is not on the internet].
We do Google things, get books, everything. But when things get difficult, I hire a professional researcher ... and he does the legwork. He goes to libraries, contacts archivists, contacts as many people as possible that were connected to the real people.
So it’s really old-fashioned! And this stuff is amazing when you get ahold of it. For example, for a later episode, [the researcher] spoke to the man who decorated Joan’s last apartment. We got an email from him that had so much detail that is not available anywhere else.
That kind of research is invaluable, and it’s really much more old-school than one would think. A lot of things have not been digitized, and I think the problem with assuming you can find so much online is that you’re left with a really limited amount of reference. That’s why I still have a really huge library and buy a lot of books and old magazines — because I find things in them that I’m not going to find online. If I’m looking for something really specific on interiors from the 1960s, I’ll go to a print source, for sure.
What are some of the challenges that come with trying to recreate reality rather than starting from scratch?
I’ve done it a few times, and the overall challenge is always the same. How do you balance the reality versus the world you’re creating for the show, which has to appear real, but at the same time, it’s a created world. And reality doesn’t always look “real” if you just reproduce it. So it’s that fine line of where to tweak reality, where to use poetic license and where not to, and using all of that to create a harmony.
Two spaces I’m particularly interested in hearing more about are Joan’s house versus Bette’s house, and how the women’s living spaces help define them.
Both of those were based on reality in a really strong way. Joan had a much more up-to-date, glamorous, fashionable house. She was very careful with her furniture, and was constantly decorating, redecorating, and renovating. You know, keeping up with the times. She was also very good friends with the decorator William Haines, so he was advising her. And although Bette moved around a lot, her houses kind of always looked the same: very east coast traditional, American colonial.
But we definitely, for Joan especially, amped up the glamor a little bit. Because any celebrity in that time — and [Joan] was a huge celebrity — just lived at a smaller scale than people do today. If you put her real bedroom onscreen, it would look sort of small and maybe not so glamorous. So in order to sell how glamorous it really was to people of her era, we amped it up so that it would still give that impression to audiences of today.
So did Joan really have a cherry tree in her living room, or…
She did have a cherry tree, but it was in her New York living room. So we played with the timeline of her residences a little bit in Feud, because in actuality, she had moved to New York in the 1950s when she married the chairman of Pepsi-Cola and had given up the house that she had lived in for decades.
When she came back [to LA] to do Baby Jane, I think she rented a place on Fountain Avenue. So the house we depicted in Feud was her real house that she had lived in for 30 years and redecorated … but we took some of the elements from her ’50s New York apartment.
What went into recreating the Oscars for Feud’s fifth episode, a night that has been very heavily documented?
One thing I knew already was that the Oscars were done at the Santa Monica Civics Center, and I had shot there in the spring on another project, so I knew the location well. When we started planning it in more detail, it was really one of my favorite sets to do. There were so many elements to it, and recreating the red carpet and the giant Oscar statue that was outside at the real place where it really happened was fantastic.
And then inside … the stage set was documented for sure, and you can see it on tape, but I don’t think we found a single color photograph of it. So we had to imagine a little bit what the colors were. It was pretty clear that they were metallics, silvery and shimmery. The set looks great in black and white, but when you examine it in a freeze frame, all the set pieces onstage looked to be made out of pretty inexpensive materials. Which made a lot of sense, because as we found out from research, the Academy didn’t have a lot of money at that time. It wasn’t a wealthy organization; it didn’t really get well-funded until the 1980s.
So [the Oscars ceremony] was much more low-key. I mean, the audiences were sitting on folding chairs. And if you ever go to the Santa Monica Civics auditorium and look at it, it’s hard to imagine. It’s not that big a space! Seeing in concrete detail the difference between then and now was really interesting, and it was fun to recreate these gigantic shimmering columns and pedestals out of cardboard and fabric, which is what I think they really used.
And then [Feud creator] Ryan Murphy said he wanted to do this Steadicam shot of Joan going offstage and through the backstage area and out the other side. When he first said that to me, I knew the auditorium had a backstage, but not all the rooms he wanted. So we used part of what was there, and then we created most of the rooms. We [even] did a green[-colored] green room.
We had a lot of references from that Oscars year, and we just took some liberties with where everything was. So it was a really fun combination of research, reality, and artistic license.
Having to create a set out of relatively inexpensive materials had to be part of what you did for the Baby Jane sets, too.
Oh, absolutely. Baby Jane was a low-budget movie, and when we were looking at the stills, you could see it.
Usually when you put two flats together to make a wall, you tape over the seam and paint or plaster it or whatever so you can’t see the gap. But in Baby Jane, you can see the gaps. They just stuck two walls next to each other. [laughs] So we did that!
And then I was really trying to figure out what the wooden floors were made of, and finally realized that it was just linoleum printed to look like wood … when I looked at that plaster on the walls, I thought it was wallpaper, because it was so ornamental. Then I looked and realized it was just plaster, but it had so many dips and curves. I was working with this amazing plasterer, and it was hard for him to make it look that bad, because he’s used to doing very fine work. This looked crazy; it looked like a volcano or something.
So that’s really fun, because most of the time when you’re doing sets in a movie or TV series, you’re trying to make something that’s not real look real. And in this case, we were trying to make something that wasn’t real also look not real, and look like it was in the movie.
The only thing that wasn’t done cheaply — and that we didn’t do cheaply — was the ironwork. The bars on the windows, the heavy gated doors. Those appeared to be real, and we made them real too.
One thing I always wonder about with period pieces is that when you get a script and there’s a specific prop reference that might be tricky to track down — the one I thought of immediately was Joan’s 1960s-era Pepsi machine — how do you tackle a problem like that?
I have a really great prop master, Dwayne Grady, and he loves finding out what objects really were and researching them and recreating them. One of the [trickier] ones in Feud was that Baby Jane baby doll that’s in the movie. We had to make that, and it’s almost life-size. So that’s [an example of] one that would have to be fabricated.
Also the Oscar statues. We wanted them to look real, to have some heft and weight. The Oscar had also changed; [between Bette Davis’s old Oscars and the new ones in 1963], there were two types in the episode, and we had to make both of them.
Having a history of working on period pieces, like Carol and American Hustle recently, what are some of the differences between working on movies and working on a TV show like Feud?
What was really different, of course, was that we did eight episodes. With a movie, I start with a script. With Feud, I started with one script, and then we just kept getting them. I never knew at any point what we were going to be doing in the future. There were great things about that; it was really creatively stimulating for me the entire time. On a film, at a certain point you know what everything’s going to be, and the creative process slows down quite a bit. On television, that never happened.
Up to the last day of shooting, we were doing a new set. And my team was so great, and everyone cared so much about how the set looked, that we were really giving it our all on the last set on the last day of shooting.
At the same time it’s challenging, because on a period piece, you can’t just say, “Well this set just got written, we’ll go out around the corner and shoot it.” You have to find it, and you have to transform it.
It takes a lot of creative energy on everybody’s part, so at a certain point, it’s tiring — but in the best possible way.