Production designer Julie Berghoff details how she recreated the darker side of Los Angeles for the TNT limited series.
Julie Berghoff has a knack for designing for scary things. An Emmy Award winning production designer, Berghoff’s resume makes it appear that she has the stomach for building sets around things that terrify a viewer. With TNT’s I Am the Night, however, there is something scarier than ghosts and possessed dolls.
Revolving around the insanely true story of Fauna Hodel and her own racial identity, I Am the Night paints a lurid picture of Hollywood in the 1960’s. Men have power, and Fauna slowly learns her own family history could be tied to something much more sinister than she could possibly imagine. What Berghoff is able to achieve is nothing less than extraordinary. She creates a beautiful version of Los Angeles, but something is always brimming beneath the surface. There is glamour, yes, but the shadows hide something wicked.
While Los Angeles is front and center for most of the series, Berghoff also recreated other spaces that are just as impressive. When you have a story as wild as Fauna Hodel’s everything around it must do complete service to the story, and Berghoff rooted her designs in the character’s environments. It makes everything more personal, live in, and authentic.
You won an Emmy for designing The Handmaid’s Tale. What did you learn from designing Gilead that you could apply to Los Angeles in the 1960’s?
The process is similar in that I really dive into the characters and what their worlds look like. I like to build around who they are. I approach every project that way. It’s all about the characters and working with the directors and writers and your team to discover what their nuances are. Those nuances are the ones that come out in their environment that show you. For example, Serena’s bedroom was so meticulous and classic. We looked at the Puritan society even though there was wealth. There was no fluff. In I Am the Night, the Sowden House—which was his real home—you can almost feel the energy of the house of when he lived there. It almost has a dark energy, that house.
Oh yeah. You can feel it just watching it.
But it’s beautiful! The Mayan influence from Lloyd Wright. It’s almost a creature. I think they said the face of the house looked like jaws. For me, it felt like a cave going into the womb of something. With Jay’s apartment—this tenement housing—really showed how down and out. He’s living in old Hollywood with his Murphy bed. He was probably never in his place—just to sleep. He probably never ate there. I just wanted to think of what he surrounded himself with. Working with Patty, we came up with a color palette. We did a lot of research of what Los Angeles looked like in 1965 but also older than that, because Jay was going into morgues and government buildings that had existed from the 1920’s. The morgue was tricky to do. We basically took over this school that shut down out not far from LA. It was a kitchen for this school.
A kitchen? Oh God…
I know! But we could utilize the walk-in refrigerators and the long hallways and the tile floors. We built the walls in the morgue to sell the idea. It was really, really difficult to find buildings in Los Angeles that were 1965 or older. The bus station was the hardest. With most of the buildings in Los Angeles, the bottom structure has been redone with aluminum and glass.
Like overly sleek?
Just redone in a classical manner. To find something that still had the integrity to represent the time period we literally found that building on Los Angeles and 8th Street. It was empty. We were also dealing with the speed of television and sometimes we have 3 locations in a day. With that one, we were working with Matt Jensen, the DP, and saying, ‘We can put the camera in the middle of the street and angle it to the left, but you can’t look at the right’ because it had all been modernized. It was a super big team effort working with Patty and Matt and the other directors to find locations that we could bring to life in 1965.
Did you always want to do something from the 1960’s? Does something about that time period jump out at you?
I love the challenge of diving into any time period. The amazing thing about production design is the research and the knowledge you come out with. We get little PhDs with every project we go into. With 1965 LA, Chinatown was such a big influence on me as a production designer. Looking at that film, we were kind of making our own little dark version of Chinatown was really fun for me. When we were researching the movie, we found the street from the final shot of the movie, and we went there.
That’s so cool!
Yeah! We ended up shooting our Chinatown in the Hispanic area of town, in Boyle Heights. We wanted the decadence and the simplicity that it represented. It wasn’t a big tourist attraction like it is now. It was people creating their own community and sharing it and being proud of it. That’s the beauty of production design and connecting with the project.
Do you gravitate towards horror, like designing something scary? I’m a big fan of The Conjuring series as well, so I was intrigued by your horror roots in connection with I Am the Night.
I was always very much into texture and color palette. When I met James Wan to do Saw—which was my first long format project—he was talking about the doll, we connected over that from my model making days. I just went down a road of when I read a script and you can see yourself in the characters. Even with Saw with appreciating new life and not taking advantage of it and what would it be like in a roomful of glass and what you would do in order to survive. I’m intrigued by that connection. I’ve done comedy as well, so I always say I have a schizophrenic resume. Even with The Kids Are All Right with Lisa Cholodenko and this controversial shift in the dynamic of the family. It’s also the challenge, as a designer, of ‘What does that world look like?’ so I really read each script, dive into the characters and find my way.
I do gravitate towards the darker stories. There’s more freedom in the creativity of bringing those to life. We built both of the houses on stage for both Conjuring films with James. He could really move the camera freely that way and I can create the shadows that allow the audience to wonder what is in that shadow. What is unknown is scarier than the known. The same goes for Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. What is the world going to look like in 2020 or 2040? What do we want it to look like? With I Am the Night, and period work, you want it to be grounded, so you do a lot of research in order to do that. We want people who lived through that time period to remember it.
With the Sowden House, did you get to recreate any of that or was it all filmed on location?
Well, we created the basement lair.
The stylish torture chamber!
I’m so good at that. We shot pretty much straight up in the house. I covered the Jacuzzi and we created the space down below. He supposedly performed abortions in a room there but the secret room there was like a closet. I don’t know how much truth there is to that. Who knows? Maybe there’s another bedroom that’s now been modernized down there. The house itself is pretty simple with the courtyard in the middle with everything surrounding that. It flows. The challenge for each DP was to shoot it in a unique way, and I think they did that pretty successfully.
That house is so beautiful, but it’s so creepy. I imagine, as a production designer, that you’d gravitate towards it.
The thing about it is you could go to that house right now and film something with your own camera, and it would still have that old Hollywood feel. It’s so interesting when architecture is done in a certain time period how it just has the same energy. That house is special and the people who bought it were really great. This is the first time I actually shot in a location that represented it. I’ve done The White House or anything like that. It was really interesting to shoot in the actual place.
Going back even further, the spaces in Sparks feel drained of color and not as flashy as old Hollywood. Can you talk about creating Fauna’s space with Jimmie Lee?
They were lower income so we wanted to create a house that was probably built in the 20’s and Jimmie probably decorated it in the 50’s. Or she has just moved her furniture in. We found a great house on the fringe of LA. It was really challenging to find a neighbor who hadn’t modernized their house. We needed a neighborhood that felt really friendly between neighbors and everyone kind of knows everything about everyone in the town. The house has lots of windows, so you can hear everything. The kitchen is the main meeting place for them where she ironed her hair and had that morning dynamic where Jimmie could fawn all over her when Fauna got ready. I loved to have the long hallway in the house to have that dynamic of the characters moving through it but the solitude of it even though they are so close to one another. We built that house on stage and shot the exterior somewhere else because of the scale of the house. With Big Momma’s house, it was researching that Compton-ish area and being surprised that a train went through the neighborhood. The houses were actually very rural.
Oh really? That surprises me.
Yeah, there was a lot of property between the houses and they weren’t as tight as they are now. But, again, people knew their neighbors. The front porch was where everyone would sit and meet each other—it wasn’t until we started to barbecue and make a back area that we moved towards solitude. Momma had a big, fun house where everyone would come to. That house has kids and fun in it whereas Jimmie Lee’s house had pain and control. The kitchens between the houses differed greatly in the floor plans. Big Momma is a big character and you saw her laundry and there was always cooking and good smells coming from the house and Jimmie Lee had cigarette smoke coming from her house.
One feels warm and the other feels a lot more toxic.
When Fauna goes to The Happening, we see all the cool exhibits—there’s that awesome spiral thing in the center. Did you have more freedom because it wasn’t a living space?
One hundred percent. I was researching that art movement—it’s so obscure. The artists would create something interactive, so instead of looking at the art, you would participate in it. That was fun for me because each thing had its own representation of making you think beyond that. So the spiral was the ‘spiral of life’ and it forced you to be near other people and walk past other people and touch people. Do you let people walk in front of you? Or are you aggressive and push through them? There’s a lot of thought process around that, so when you get to the end and there’s nowhere to go, what do you do? Do you turn around? Do you freak out? It’s like a mouse in a maze. With the zoetrope, I did the stages of a woman. I did a birth mother, pregnancy, the warrior, the older woman—all projected onto the wall. There was another room with dangling eyes that represents other people always watching you. I have a little story behind everything that I make. I want you to feel something when you’re going through it. As an actor, I want to inspire emotion and as an audience member, does it trigger something in you or just when you see the story?
I Am the Night is streaming now.