Judy Becker has had a busy year. Her work can be seen in two films this season; Carol and now Joy. I sat down with Judy to talk about what inspired her when it came to creating the look of the film.
AD: Tell me about the house and how you chose that.
JB: It was a long process, there were so many factors that went into it. We knew we wanted a very kind of timeless feeling house, not like a modern ranch house and not something with too much character, like not a gingerbread-y Victorian house. So, finding this almost farmhouse looking house that was a little isolated, it took a lot of looking. We wanted kind of a faded white exterior and, I think we did some paint on it, and an interior that had enough room for all the characters. Also, that we could work our magic on and bring it into this timeless fable world that Joy takes place in happened when we finally found this house that was really well situated. I don’t know if you remember the establishing shot, but you kind of just see this house that’s almost very Walker Evans or Edward Hopper looking and there’s the white snow, which was real [laughs], around it.
We had too much snow! I have pictures of my set dressers shoveling the snow away and it was the record snow fall in Boston, it was unbelievable. The snow was up to the door! Then, inside the house, there was a young couple living there and it was very fresh and new looking, so, we used vintage wallpaper everywhere and we even aged the floors. There was a lot of scenic and construction work on everything that you see, we opened up the kitchen so that you can have that shot way through, that wasn’t there before, it was just a door. We worked very hard to establish our initial palette for the movie, which was this almost monochromatic black and white feel and very classic fable-like faded whites and faded pastels and not much color. The intention was that that’s Joy’s current life, it’s her faded dreams. There’s that and there’s the contrasting soap opera fantasy world and then she eventually goes to QVC, which is where her new life begins.
For me, I kept thinking of two things from the Wizard of Oz. The Emerald City and then when the Wizard of Oz goes from black and white into color. When [Joy] goes to QVC, she goes through a lot of dark and light sets; there’s the grey-black huge lobby and then there’s the black and grey conference room, the white test kitchen, the white backstage area, the grey corridor leading behind the turn table. This was all shot on one location and stage and we built everything. It was a continuous choreography and then the turn table turns and she sees these incredibly ’80s, fully saturated colors on the turn table set and that’s where it’s black and white going into color and, also, the revelation of the Emerald City. That was a thought that we were hoping we would be able to achieve and I was so happy to see in the finished movie that you see it, that it’s there, and it really works.
AD: Did you use any other movies for inspiration?
JB: David referenced a lot of very classic movies, more in terms of the tone and of the sort of timeless fable-like quality of the movie. It’s a Wonderful Life is one of David’s favorite movies and he referenced it a lot. There wasn’t anything so much that I looked at for specific production design, but more trying to capture the feeling of it and that kind of world they lived in. Paper Moon, it’s a black and white movie, was used to look at through textures and minimalism.
AD: I loved the house, like when the mother is watching soap operas and just her in bed with the vintage TV [laughs]. But talk about how you worked with the costume designer.
JB: Michael and I have worked together on American Hustle and also a long time ago on Garden State so we’ve known each other a long time. We have a really easy and great relationship. We were all involved with the discussions of the palette of the movie. The color palettes were it’s most important aspect. Our relationship is the most important. Very early on we knew that if there was color, it was going to come more from the costumes than from what I was doing. I was always establishing a very neutral background and then if he was choosing to use color, it would play against that neutral background, like the bright yellow robe that Terry is wearing when she’s watching TV in bed. It looks amazing, I think if she had been wearing a white nightgown, it would have taken you out of the movie and it would have looked almost too stylized and too artificial. You need that color sometimes just to put you into the world and make you think it’s real so that you’re not thinking about the production design or costume design, but you’re there and riding that journey along with Joy. You want to be in it and not outside of it, if that makes sense.
AD: Yeah, it does. Like when, his character goes on the date, it sticks out as you’re against the background, or like when she’s got the leather jacket.
JD: It’s always, except for the QVC sets, that Joy is never wearing color so you want her to stick out in some way. So at QVC, she’s the one in the plain costumes and then with the leather jacket, she’s got this tough look on, but she’s against this faded Dallas street. There’s always a play that way.
AD: Talk to me about your relationship with David because you said you’ve worked with him on a few movies now.
JD: Yes, I’ve been working with him since even before The Fighter on a movie that never materialized, but we have a great relationship creatively and personally, too. I think that everyone that works with David for a while starts to feel like a part of his family, like a work family and a creative family, and we’re all very close and it’s a really nice feeling. When I go back to working with David and I see all my old friends and family members, it really feels like home in a way.
Creatively, it’s always evolving. Each one of David’s movies has things in common, but they’re different from the last. There’s ways that the work we do together has changed from movie to movie. When we started with The Fighter, I think we built one set for practical reasons. It was part of Dicky’s jail cell, and that was just so we could get a certain shot. David didn’t really like to build sets, at that time. On Silver Linings, for necessity, we couldn’t find certain locations and we knew we wanted to build Jennifer’s dance studio garage interior so we built some more sets on that. Then on American Hustle, we built some really big sets. We built the Plaza Hotel, Sydney’s apartment, and some other things. That was the point at which, I think, David saw that there could be great ways to use builds and great ways to use locations. The big builds became part of his working palette and he started planning for those in the way he conceptualized the movie. When we started Joy, we knew we’d be building a lot right from the beginning, combined with practical locations. That’s kind of — I think as a designer if you have enough money to do it — that’s kind of the best of both worlds. Building the things that you can build to look realistic. I’m always interested in a degree of realism, and shooting on location for the things you need to shoot on location. Rudy’s garage was built within an existing structure and all the offices were created by us, but we were starting with this beautiful brick structure so that was a combo build location, so to speak. But, it was suggested that we build that entire thing on a stage. When you need to relate to the exterior, like that, it didn’t make a lot of sense to do that.
AD: I was just talking to Jay and Alan about David and his music, so talk to me about how you work with that.
JB: David’s use of music is amazing and it’s something I love about his movies. I think that one of my first movie loves was Martin Scorsese who uses music amazingly and astonishingly. I think David’s our contemporary version of those early Scorsese movies. There are directors I work with who sort of play the music they’re thinking of all through the movie and all through the prep and the shoot and you’re thinking about it. David is always pitching ideas about music and he has certain ideas about what music will play with the changes. That was really important in Joy for the scene where Jennifer is walking down the Dallas street and looks in the toy shop window. That was a beautiful Nat King Cole song that David had planned in advance very much so and needed to work around the beats of Joy’s movement to align with that. In American Hustle, we literally designed the Plaza Hotel, the sequence of rooms and hallway lengths to correspond to the timing of the song that David wanted to use. Sometimes it very very much affects my work and sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does interact with my work, it does in a major way.
AD: That’s incredible. Just visually as well, the whole opening sequence is great also with Melissa Rivers playing her mother.
JB: Which was uncanny! She was such a sweetheart and I think it’s a great way to honor your parent and I think that’s maybe how she felt because she seemed really happy to be doing this.
AD: It was almost like you were watching Joan which was eerie. But where did you get the inspiration for the soap opera?
JB: I was inspired a little bit by one of the sets of Dynasty because it was supposed to be that ’80s soap opera with the staircase. We really riffed on that and started early and tried to make it look very exaggerated and theatrical so that it would read as this artificial world on television, and also when Joy enters into it in her dreams it’s almost like a nightmare world. The black and white checked floor probably was inspired, in my head, by like a Bergman movie or something [laughs]. We didn’t do forced perspective, but we designed it so it almost feels like it’s forced perspective with that staircase coming down and the floor tiling back. I had my scenic department do very exaggerated faux-scenic work on the marble floors painted wood and I kept saying, “No, make it look more artificial!” That was so fun because as a designer usually you want things to look real and, in this case, I wanted it to look very artificial. That was a fun set because it’s very different from anything I usually do.
AD: It was always fun to see those sets. So what are you working on next?
JB: I believe I’m in the middle of the negotiations, but I’m going to reunite with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, whom I adore and did Ruby Sparks with, and they’re doing Battle of the Sexes. It’s a 1973 period, one of my favorites, with that famous tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. It’s going to be really great.