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Interview: Judy Becker on Working with a ’70s Sporting Color Palette for Battle of the Sexes

Her designs have been seen in American Hustle, Carol, and Joy, and she recently worked with Ryan Murphy on Feud: Bette and Joan. Production designer Judy Becker is no stranger to working on period films. Her work has also been seen in The Fighter, another sports-centric movie that gave her another springboard. Now she brings all her prior experience to play in the new film by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, Battle of The Sexes.

The film recreates the famed battle of the sexes tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that took place in 1973. To help visualize what would be required, Becker created a miniature version of the Houston Astrodome [built 1962-65] and then began to scout for the perfect location that could match it. The LA Sports Arena would prove to be the perfect setting, a versatile venue built in 1959 that hosted numerous historic events throughout the sixties and seventies. Her other challenge was to recreate the feel of a tennis tour of the era, so she enlisted the help of the film’s imaginative art department to replicate various tennis milieus to provide all the authenticity the directors would need.

When we last spoke about Joy, you said you were about to start working on this, and here we are.

I was about to start on this. I’ve been working with Ryan Murphy on TV projects and I’m on my third show with him. It’s been a great experience. TV is such an interesting art form right now and it’s been so different and interesting.

So, you’ve been doing some period with Feud, and you did Carol, and that was all period. This, however, is 1973 and it’s a sporting event so you always have new challenges.

It’s so different. I did the ’70s with American Hustle, but this was a few years earlier and it’s a different world. In any decade people are living so differently. The decade looks different when you look at those lives, and this is about tennis players and it was also firmly based on reality.

Jon, Val and I were talking about the sports aspect from the very beginning because that would defining the look in a lot of ways. The first thing we talked about in terms of design was the color palette and the fact we were working with these really bright primary colors such as these yellow balls and the green tennis courts. The uniforms then were white, but the paraphernalia was red, yellow, blue and bright green. That’s really different from a normal period palette and the colors I work with in general.

Too much of those colors and it looks like a music video. It was a really interesting challenge to work with the sporting world palette and then the other aspect which had to do with the storytelling which was using a lot of the beiges and neutrals for a lot of the sets. That was a more subtle way of visual storytelling because it related to the world of the body and that film about the body of both an athlete and a woman discovering her sexuality. That was a really interesting palette to work with and taking the sports colors, the flesh tones and then putting it in the period which wasn’t that hard to do, but it was very different from the approach I took with American Hustle.

I was at Jon and Val’s house discussing these things and Val’s house is pinkish and beige and we made this still life of the palette and that’s where we got inspired.

Did you use look boards to discuss your ideas?

Always. I always use them. Usually, I always make one to show the directors whether I already have the job or whether I’m meeting them about a job. I had made one early to show Val and Jon, but they’re great because they would say, “Make a lookbook with these ideas.” I did and when we opened our art department, the walls were covered with images. The walls would be divided into different aspects of the movie, the tennis matches, the motel road trip, Bobby’s world, and the Texas world at the end.

We also had a huge model of the sports arena where we shot the match so that we could figure out how to make it look like the Astrodome.

Talking about some of those sets, Bobby’s house spoke volumes about who he was. How did you find that house and how did you design it for what it represented?

He lived in Long Island, New York and he was well off. We wanted to express a fairly sophisticated style of the interior. We knew that Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue) ruled the roost. We wanted something East Coast looking and I was looking at New York decor ideas and I found some minimalist rooms, but we wanted to incorporate some feminine colors so we added the pink dining room table which we fabricated. I also ended up looking at David Hicks who is a British designer and he had a sophisticated style so we went off of that, crossed with East Coast minimalism. It was very planned. Most of that furniture you see was fabricated.

We also had to arrange it in a way for Bobby and his son to play that “avoid the alligator swamp.” We set up a rough layout with stand in furniture before we went to the actual house.

Their house itself was in Hancock Park which has a lot of houses that can pass for the East Coast. It belonged to a friend of Jon and Val and we ended up shooting there.

That portrait was something that I came up with because everything I was looking at had a portrait and so I suggested it. They said yes, and I had this great artist who does it on the computer and it ended up playing into the story really well.

What about the Astrodome and creating that sequence?

The Astrodome was the very first thing we tackled. Jon and Val had narrowed it down to the LA Sports Arena. We knew that wherever we shot, we’d have to add visual effects to heighten the scale of it because the Astrodome was unique.

We actually talked about shooting at the actual Astrodome but it’s been unusable and looks much different after being used as a shelter. We scouted the Olympic stadium and the sports arena which was a no-brainer because even though it was smaller, it was the right era.

We studied a lot of footage of the actual match. It might have been the only tennis match played at the Astrodome and they had used a tiny portion of the playing field so we really studied that. That’s why we had the model so we could figure out where to put our match in the sporting arena so we could get the right shots.

That was where we started and it reminded me of working on The Fighter because that was the only other sports movie I’d ever done. My very first day was “We’re going to the auditorium and we’re going to figure out how to shoot all the matches there.” I think it was good that I’d had that experience because we had to show a lot of different tennis matches and give the feeling that they were traveling, time was passing, and I’d had some experience with that on The Fighter.

Each tennis match had different requirements and we ended up shooting quite a bit at the Billie Jean King tennis center and that’s mostly where you see the tour montage and that had a lot of different courts. The ways we distinguished the different courts for that was we changed the banner which we really did. It looked like they pasted the name of the city that they were in because they didn’t have a lot of money, so that’s what we did.

We’d change the set dressing and the number of people who were there. Tennis courts at that time didn’t look that different from each other, so we had to use our imagination. They were often lined with the windscreen which is the green canvas. It’s not aesthetically challenging design work, it’s mainly technical design work, but it’s interesting to do.

We shot the Margaret Court match at two different places. We shot one side at an arena in San Pedro and the other in Santa Monica. The main thing was finding the courts that looked period as so many courts today look bright blue which didn’t exist at the time. We painted a few. It was a lot of technical scouting about what would work for the shots.

The film was shot on 35mm film. How does that play into your work as a production designer?

A lot of the directors I work with still use film. Jon and Val had used the Alexa on Ruby Sparks and they preferred film. I haven’t worked with digital media that much. I’m used to working with film and it’s my comfort zone.

The technology has changed so much since I worked on Personal Velocity, there were things you had to think about when you’re working with DV. Were things going to look different? The Alexa has gotten so sophisticated that those issues don’t even come up anymore. I just design the same way as I would for film, it might look different, but production design can translate to either.

What’s the greatest tool for you?

It’s the color palette. I love working with color and it’s a great way to design worlds. I think of every world as in, what is the world that we are trying to convey and how are we trying to convey and how they contrast. Are they the same? With a piece like this, an important tool is the research into how it actually looked like and what the facts were and what the visuals were and where we were going to deviate.

Often we deviate to enhance the visual storytelling and lead the audience into the world. If all the motel rooms had white walls it just wouldn’t say anything or give the audience anything to feel something about the storytelling. You have to figure out where to change reality in order to create the world of the movie because the world of the movie is different. So that’s an interesting process. I love with knowing what the real thing is, luckily we had a lot of documentation.

These people were fairly well known and we had access to the players themselves and that was great. A big challenge from the start was they’re on this tour and they’re traveling around the country. They start out with not a lot of money but then the tour gets profitable. We had to look for period hotels and figure out if they were staying in a divey place or at chain motels or somewhere fancy. We talked to the members of the tour and they said they stayed in a mid-level hotel place and that was a good direction knowing they weren’t staying somewhere run down. It was the touring life. We ended up building the hotel rooms because the real ones were just too small to shoot in.

For me, I found it fun. We were making all these hotel rooms that were fun to play with. One is pinker, one is super beige, the other has orange shades and I had a lot of fun with the bathrooms. The Bonadventure had pizza pie shaped rooms and that was fun. It’s almost minutia but I loved working on it because I feel like it helps give this great background to the story.

Now you’ve done 1973 with tennis players. Is there another era you’d like to work on?

I would love to do New York in the ’70s. Not American Hustle, but down and dirty in the ’70s and that would be my fantasy project. I’d like to do the early 19th century as that was a minimalist period and that interests me. But, definitely New York in the ’70s.

We’ll maybe Ryan will grant that wish.

We’re already doing New York in the ’80s with him, but who knows.