Production Designer Judy Becker on the Room for Creativity and “Filmcraft”

If anyone tells Judy Becker this weekend, “Don’t quit your day job,” it’ll be far less of an insult than a plea for the celebrated production designer to continue on in her field when the temptation of starting another line of work she’d surely be equally good will strongly beckon.

“My second career choice right now would be curating an art house cinema and picking double features, so I basically got to do that a little bit,” says Becker, who will be front and center of the Metrograph stage as part of their ongoing series Filmcraft, putting the spotlight on artists who typically shine from behind the scenes. “It’s funny because I had been thinking a lot about a series exactly like this, with craftspeople and presenting movies that influenced them. I didn’t know that Metrograph was thinking of the same thing at the same time and my husband [“Nine Days” editor Michael Taylor]’s been doing an ACE series at Metrograph, so that was a bit of a connection and then they asked me if I wanted to do it and I was like, ‘This is a dream come true.’”

For Becker as well as New York cinephiles, as well when the frequent collaborator of Todd Haynes, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and David O. Russell will introduce one of her own works, all classics in their own right, paired with one of its revered influences, a selection that includes “Brokeback Mountain” and “Walkabout,” “I’m Not There” and “The Last Picture Show” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” If programming holds an allure to Becker, it’s easy to understand how it crosses paths with her current gig, welcoming audiences into other worlds as she so often does with her sets, knowing how much a room can shape an experience. Perhaps with only so much ground she could cover, it’s why Becker left out a key part of her résumé as an architect of how her hometown has appeared on screen, responsible for not only Hannah Horvath’s humble flat in “Girls” but 1950s Manhattan in “Carol,” where she was careful to turn the fire hydrants black as they actually existed at the time, and when the city seemed up for grabs during the 1930s in “Amsterdam,” though locals can get more than enough of that outside.

Still, the series ultimately reflects places we all know but usually don’t dare to go when Becker has shown a gift for expressing characters’ interior lives both in a literal figurative sense, laying the groundwork for stories of those who feel the walls closing in on them or carving out a space for themselves in the world, turning a QVC call center into a wonderland in “Joy” or building terror into the set of “Psycho” in the cheeky making of “Hitchcock.” On the eve of her Metrograph stand, Becker spilled a few secrets to building a filmography as impressive as the sets for any one specific production, the collection of vintage paint chips that has yielded a color palette like no other and when she knew she had found her calling.

When you were thinking about your own films for this series, did the accompanying classics come to mind pretty quickly?

Yeah, “Walkabout” immediately came to mind with “Brokeback Mountain” because it was definitely a big influence when I was thinking about the movie [as well as] Richard Avedon’s “In the American West, The Book of Photographs of People.” And then for “[We Need to Talk About] Kevin,” I went in a more general direction of psychologically scary horror movies that have influenced me. And then for “I’m Not There,” I picked “The Last Picture Show” because I think it’s a perfect example of dealing with period in a minimal, accurate way, and that movie was a huge influence on me without my realizing it. I watched it after I had done “Brokeback Mountain,” and when I watched it again, I was like, “Oh shit, I was really influenced by this movie,” so I put that with “I’m Not There” as a general approach to dealing with period and “I’m Not There” deals with a lot of different looks and periods, so it seemed right.

If you set aside the hard work of sourcing, is period more difficult a creative challenge than a modern film or can it actually be easier?

It’s hard for me to answer right now because all I’ve been doing is period — that’s my specialty now and it’s probably a lot of designers’ dream. In some ways, it’s easier and in some ways, it’s harder. Of course, the sourcing is a big part of it, so you can’t entirely take it out of the equation, but an even bigger part than the sourcing, which isn’t so hard, is the locations. Shooting period New York is really hard because New York has changed so much. I think when we shot “Carol” in Cincinnati, it worked better than if we had shot it in New York because Cincinnati was less built up and less gentrified. There were so many parts of it that really looked like how New York used to look and it took a lot of scouting, but it turned out really well. I haven’t done that much period New York in New York itself, which is funny and I’d like to do that because it’d be an interesting challenge.

But it can be easier if it’s based on a true story, which a lot of period movies are, and you start with the research to what it really looked like and then you go from there. You could just be completely faithful to the research and not put your own stamp on it as a designer, but that might not be right for the movie, so it’s easier because you have a lot to start with in a contemporary film where you’re creating it completely from your own mind, but then figuring out what to choose from reality and what to play with — that’s another puzzle. The harder thing about contemporary films is finding a script that lends itself to being designed in a way, because so many contemporary scripts just take place in the real world, the world the way it is, so thinking of a way to approach that as a designer to tell a specific story for the movie is more challenging. I haven’t done a contemporary anything [lately] — it might have been the pilot for “Girls,” but that was a while ago. That’s period already.

I don’t even want to think about that, but yes. [laughs]

When I read [recently] that Lena was 37, I was like, “Oh my God. She was like 25 when I worked with her.”

I know you couldn’t pack everything into this weekend, but it was funny that there wasn’t an explicitly New York film in the bunch when not only that’s your base, but now stretching from “Amsterdam” to “Girls,” you’ve been responsible for how the city looks on screen for almost every decade, going back a century. Has that been an interesting part of your career?

It is, partly because I grew up in the suburbs, so I can’t say I’m a native New Yorker, but I moved to the city as soon as I graduated high school and I feel pretty strongly about the way New York is represented in movies. Sometimes it’s misrepresented – not so much anymore. I think people have gotten more savvy about it, but when I was starting out in the business, “Friends” was such an egregious example of a misrepresentation of life in New York. and they tried to justify it, that [Monica] inherited this apartment from her aunt, but I don’t know anyone who’s got an apartment like that ever. [laughs] It’s that sort of New York [where] the rest of the country can’t quite believe that people could actually live the way we live in New York, in such tiny spaces. It’s important to me that when you’re really representing New York to capture that feeling of how people actually live.

That was something that was important for me, both with “Girls” and with “Shame,” which was another contemporary New York movie and it’s hard sometimes when you’re working at a higher budget level, because directors and DPs get used to working on sets and with bigger spaces to work in and in New York, things are pretty cramped. When I built the sets for “Girls,” for example, we kept them just slightly bigger than reality, but they were really small. If you walked into it, you would feel like it was a real New York city apartment. And then in “Shame” we actually shot in a real apartment that the character would have lived in and it was very small, like on the 40th floor and our DP Sean Bobbitt was just amazing at being able to shoot with one practical and that would be the only light he needed, so none of this was a challenge for him. It was the perfect combination of the location reality and the crafts people involved with it.

But one thing that I do know as a New Yorker is how hard it is to find a representation of New York in a non-New York City. In “I’m Not There,” for example, we shot the whole movie in and around Montreal and there’s a few exterior scenes that take place in New York and they were the hardest things to find, except for Heath Ledger’s Malibu Beach House. And Todd and I were walking around the city one day, and we found this street that had fire escapes on it, and we were like, “This is where we’re going to shoot the scene for the album cover,” and it was the only street in the whole city that had fire escapes, and we just happened to find it. So finding New York elsewhere is difficult. I just did it in Budapest. I just shot a movie that takes place in Philadelphia and New York, so I came across that challenge once again.

I wouldn’t have know except from having to do research for this that “Amsterdam” was actually filmed in my home city of L.A. when I suspected you actually shot in the Flatiron with the cobble stone streets.

That’s really great to hear because it’s really hard to shoot New York in LA. “Amsterdam” turned out to be less challenging because most or all of the exteriors were at night and what usually gives it away is the quality of the light in L.A. versus New York because New York has a very diffused light and L.A. doesn’t and I notice it all the time in movies, so we were lucky because there were all these night scenes. We shot all the New York exteriors pretty much on the Paramount back lot where I’ve shot before and sadly, one of my designer friends was like, “Oh, well, I knew that was the Paramount back lot.” And I was like, “Damn, like, I guess we didn’t fool you.” But hopefully we fooled some people. It was really fun because we got to go to town on it and it was actually super fun to have that kind of leeway to work with a New York environment that you wouldn’t actually get on location.

As you’ve started working more and more on these larger-scale projects, can a bigger budget actually be less helpful, either as far as overdressing a set because you can or be able to throw money at something there may be a more creative solution for?

First, I would say always that you almost never have enough money. The larger the project, you’re still struggling because the demands are higher, so it seems like, “Oh, if only I had another $100,000 when you’re on a movie [at a lower] budget,” but then you get to a movie where it’s a bigger budget, and then they want more, so that’s made me relax in a way because I don’t have the illusion that it ever gets any better. There’s more and more demands the bigger the budget is and the higher the budget, the more people are involved in all aspects of the movie making. I just did a low budget movie called “The Brutalist,” the one that I did in Hungary, and it was shot in Hungary because it was cheaper, but I found it actually liberating to be working with a lower budget. It was a period movie, about an architect in the 1950s. It was very specific and very challenging and we had to design a building that he built.

But I found that, contrary to what a lot of producers think, my experience working with bigger budgets helped me deal with those challenges because knowing how I would do it if I had a lot of money allowed me to know how I could pull back and still get it done. I thought a lot [on that set about] when you have very high standards and you have to compromise it or lower it, you’re still ending up with a really good product because it’s like a great singer who sings badly on purpose. It’s hard to explain, but when you have enough experience, it’s actually easier to go back and work on a lower budget because you’re good at problem solving and I’m trying to keep my foot in the indie low-budget world because right now I think that’s where the best films are being made most of the time, sadly.

From what I understand, it isn’t just a wealth of experience you bring to a project now, but also a collection of paint chips, dating back to the early 20th century to get all those amazing colors. How did that collection begin?

It was really accidental because when I was designing “Brokeback Mountain,” my husband was editing a movie in Austin, Texas and I went to visit him on the 4th of July. It was a double visit because we drove down to Mexico and looked at some of the border towns, which I needed for research for “Brokeback,” but it was my first time in Austin, and there was a great store Uncommon Objects, which became my favorite store and I found this box of paint chips that were all these institutional colors, like really bland greens and pinks and beiges and I bought it. That was the beginning of my collection and with the first period movie I did, that was the first thing I bought and then almost all the rest of them I’ve bought on eBay and sometimes people have given them to me as gifts. But I use them on every period movie I do because the colors are just really different with a contemporary paint deck.

Optimally, if I’m working with a really, really good scenic painters, they will mix the colors to match the sample instead of taking it to the store and having them mix it to match the sample, which is something I sometimes have to fight for. But the painters I love working with still know how to mix color and still will do it. It’s important to me. I remember on “Silver Linings Playbook,” I wanted this really ’80s color for Jennifer [Lawrence]’s garage dance studio and it wasn’t an ’80s movie, but I had an ’80s paint deck and it had the perfect color called “Dusty Rose,” and I asked the scenics to copy that color. I have a good eye for color, unfortunately for them. [laughs] So I could tell that they were just picking a different color and having it made at the hardware store and finally I said, “Can’t they just mix this color to match this?” My art director [said], “Yes, I’ll make them do it,” and then they did and it was perfect. There was nothing in the contemporary deck that was like it, so I think it makes a difference, even for people that don’t maybe know. I don’t want people to notice those things, but hopefully it enhances the movie.

You’ve said before that you actually fell into this career after not knowing exactly what you wanted to do on a film set. Was there a moment this felt like a calling?

There totally was a moment, and it took a while, but I started working in film after college and I wanted to work in the art department, but I didn’t have the goal of being a designer. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to work in props, I thought. I liked being on set. And I did that for a while and I wasn’t that happy as a person [or] with the work and I made a radical shift in my life and I went to law school, which was the thing people had always told me I would be good at. I [thought] “Okay, maybe this is going to change my life in a good way,” and it did — I went to law school and I met my husband my last semester and I mention that because he worked in film, so it got me back to the film world. In law school, you take your job for after graduation before you graduate, so I had already taken a job in Washington, DC and from the minute I started working in law, I knew I was going to leave it and go back to film. It took about a year.

A friend of mine said she knew someone that was looking for a designer on a very low budget movie, and I was like, “I’ll do it,” and it was very low pay. I wasn’t making that much as a lawyer, but it was low compared to that, and I quit my law job and I designed that movie. And the minute I started designing it, it was like a revelation. I knew this was what I was meant to do. And I think leaving film, becoming happier as a person, and just getting some perspective on everything and seeing what another kind of job looked like, [made me realize] this is what I was meant to do. I’ve never been happier than when I was working on that movie. I just felt it. And it took a while to actually achieve a career, but I just had this confidence. I felt not only that I wanted to do it, but that I could do it, and that I could be really good at it. So it was a big moment for me, but it also cost a lot of money to go to law school. I don’t recommend it as therapy. [laughs]

“Filmcraft: Judy Becker” will run at the Metrograph in New York with screenings of “Brokeback Mountain” on June 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th, “Walkabout” on June 3rd and 4th, “Rosemary’s Baby” on June 3rd, 4th and 6th, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” on June 4th and 6th, “I’m Not There” on June 10th and 11th and “The Last Picture Show” on June 10th and 11th.

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