An artist’s personal space is vital in getting into the right frame of mind. In Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday, production designer Daniel T. Dorrance was tasked in building the world surrounding the tumultuous life of singer Billie Holiday. As the United States government fixes their claws on Holiday’s act, Dorrance created dressing room space where she could relax before stepping out onto the stage to use her voice as activism.
Dorrance worked on Daniels’ sweaty, pulpy The Paperboy, so they had already had a language to communicate with each other. For Billie Holiday, they made sure that the other crafts worked in harmony together to create a color palette where everything shined. The costumes never clash with the lighting. A curtain doesn’t match Billie’s dress.
Dorrance has created a world where Billie Holiday can truly live. When her friends visit her in her dressing room, it feels like we are watching them joke and play in a safe environment or home. His work is elevated and timeless.
Awards Daily: You’ve worked with Lee Daniels before. What kind of directives did you receive from him at the start of production?
Daniel T. Dorrance: It’s funny because this film was actually up and running a few years prior to us starting. We did some location scouting in Atlanta, and I don’t think it was Andra Day then. When it came back around in 2019 or so, I was already available and I had a head start. As part of my research, I found an image of New York in the ’40s that had been colorized by another artist. The way the guy used this color palette, it had the right feel to me. I took a picture of Andra–and she dresses in a retro fashion anyway–and gave her a fur coat and put her in this image. It just felt like the vibe of the movie. Lee saw this image and it helped him click into this movie as well, so we used this image as our inspiration. We did poster sizes and put them in people’s rooms, and that set the tone for everything else we were doing. Lee really lets me do my job in that sense. He lets me bring my thoughts to the table, and he lets me run with it.
AD: I wanted to talk about the color palette of the film because I read that there weren’t a lot of pictures of Billie Holiday in color. Sometimes when she’s on stage, I noticed, for instance, a curtain behind her that was a purplish red. Did you want a lot of the emotional aspects of this character to come through in the color choices?
DTD: What we were doing with this movie was that every set we sat with costumes and the DP, Andrew Dunn, and the first assistant director. I’d ask what Billie was wearing in that scene and I’d key off that in a tonal way. We wanted to push the color away from that. Every set is thought of in that manner. First off, what is Billie wearing–I don’t want it to clash but I want it to make sense with the setting. It’s not unnormal to do that, but we did that very closely on this film. We also did that with props and set dressing. We talked it all through in Lee’s office and have design meeting. This is what the band is wearing, this is what Carnegie Hall looks like and we play into the mood as well. On all the sets, we wanted to push the color and the tone darker. We want the characters to move forward from the background and float in the space. As an audience member, I am looking at the character but the background comes in a little bit. As I look at it, the wall color contrast to the costumes. That was a fun layer to this film.
AD: That actually stood out to me, so I’m thrilled to hear that that was the intention.
DTD: Thank you.
AD: I loved when we visited Billie’s dressings. There are several throughout the film, but I know that it can be a private space for a performer–somewhere that is very personal. She can relax there and she can have her friends with her. What’s the most important thing about establishing those spaces?
DTD: I’ve been asked what my favorite sets were on the movie, I always say Café Society and it’s always the dressing rooms. They are another character, so to speak. I was able to build Café Society’s space from the ground up instead of living with a location. We tried to make each one of them iconic in its own way. Wallpaper was a big part of it. Elise de Blois, the set decorator, found a vintage wallpaper store in New York that had wallpaper from that era.
AD: Oh wow!
DTD: You could’ve bought those rolls then, and in some cases, they were so fragile that they would break when we took them off the roll. They wouldn’t work. We had to scan them to make new wallpaper using the new design since they were falling apart. We had so much fun choosing the mood to go with the action of the scenes. I know what happens in the scene from the script, but I don’t know the blocking and I don’t know who is going to sit where or the movement. Lee didn’t either until he got there and he would go into the cast and they figure out the movement and geography and then he’d call us in. I had to make sure that 360 was covered with different elements or different plains to maybe see into another room. The dressing rooms were a key part to all of that. From the scene where the manager have sex in one of the spaces and then they fight later, we had logistical issues. We had to build a second version of that to have a fight and then put the crew in there. The original set had to be next to the stage so Billie could look up and see the band. We had to build a second version of the dressing room to give room that was an exact replica of the original one.
AD: I just think those room are so interesting and so full of character, so I looked forward to when we were in those spaces.
DTD: What’s funny is that you mentioned there not being a lot of picture of Billie Holiday in color and that’s true, but dressing rooms were not that exciting at the time. It’s behind the stage. Did they put in heavy furnishing or wallpaper? We definitely took some licensing with that.
AD: I liked seeing some of the outdoor spaces, especially outside Café Society and there is a brief shot around Christmastime. It really helps transport us to that time.
DTD: Great. Those are hard. We went into all old Montreal and as on any period film, we had to get rid of all the modern. Parking meters, all the electrical conveniences like cameras had to go, but you spend so much money getting rid of all that before you even get to put the period stuff on top of it. You’re often faced to not being able to remove it. We had to find an area that was pretty blank. We had to go in and put in our own facades and put in big doorways. Sometimes when there was an area with doorframes, we didn’t have the timeframe to be on that location to do that work that was needed. I had to pick these offshoot streets that didn’t have a lot of shops on them but great architecture or happen to have cobble. Picture vehicles are huge and you can do a lot with it. A little fun fact is that that is the same street for the shot of a character walking into Café Society that we did for Christmastime.
AD: I wouldn’t have guessed that.
DTD: It’s looking in the other direction. Change the time of day and put some snow and that’s how we had to make it happen. We did a little CGI to sell the scale of New York.
AD: There is a really emotional sequence leading up to us seeing Billie sing “Strange Fruit” on camera for the first time. The camera is swirling around all these different spaces before she sees the family going through that tragedy and that pain.
DTD: It was written for her to get off the bus and walk into a field and see someone hanging. In the location process looking for iconic looking trees, which is strange enough. We found a location that has little shack attached to it. It was strange. It started with finding a location and one of them had a burnt down shack on it. We found another location with a shack upright to it with a tree. It all evolved into being one spot. I basically purchased the burnt cabin, moved all those elements to the other location with the upright cabin and Lee came up with this idea of Billie seeing the hanging woman and going into this almost psychedelic moment. It’s out of body experience and have her go into the cabin.
DTD: At that point, it didn’t have any rooms yet. He wanted her to stumble through the cabin to console her along the way. That was the vibe. When she is going through this maze, if you will, and ends up on stage on the other end. I worked on layout because a Steadicam operator has to go through. We wanted the space to feel bigger. She would walk through a hallway and we had carpenters move the wall back to do that and then have them put the walls back. We wanted it to look more extended. The sequence has a bizarre feeling to it. Back then, if someone was poor, they would use newspaper as wallpaper. We found a great wallpaper design that had a ballerina on it. A lone ballerina that was supposed to match a different setting for a scene that we ended up cutting. Emotionally, it worked so well because she goes through this walk and her people come and change her dress. It felt right to have all these singular ballerinas around her before she went on stage. It was such an emotional day.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is streaming now on Hulu.