Perhaps no one was more perfect than Judy Becker for the task of production designer on David O. Russell‘s American Hustle. Not only has she been working with the director for years, on films including The Fighter (2010) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), she grew up in a neighboring town to Russell, the same area where American Hustle takes place. “All my earlier sense memories were of Manhattan and Brooklyn in the 1970s – visits to museums and restaurants, coffee shops and the Plaza Palm Court with my parents, visits to my relatives in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, people who were very similar to the Polito family in the movie,” said Becker. In addition to all her personal memories, she also found plenty of factual documentary to use during research including images of the Chelsea hotel in the 1970s, interior design magazines from the same time period, films featuring the settings in the film and more.
The collaboration between the director and production designer began with a discussion of the film’s palette, in particular how it related to the story and the characters. “I suggested that we go against the grain a little bit,” said Becker. “Many period movies set in the ’70s use a similar palette of mustard, orange, olive or avocado green and blue. We avoided some of the colors to emphasize the later period we were portraying and the stylishness and aspirational qualities of the characters so we agreed on a palette that would emphasize the spectrum of yellows and gold and blues, with many neutrals (brown and metallics).” Textures were also added to the palette and became an important part of the mix. “There was a lot of use of materials such as acrylic plastics, foil patterned wallpapers, flocked wallpapers, chrome, brass, travertine marble and burled woods in the popular decor of the period.”
The film was shot in Massachusetts, near Boston, and the Plaza hotel suites and other sets were built on a stage in Woburn. Many of the design decisions were made based on Russell’s decision to shoot 360 with a Steadicam in nearly every scene. “It was decided early on to build the Plaza Hotel set, as David had very specific choreography in mind, and it would have been impossible to find the right layout even if a period intact hotel existed. For example, David knew what song he wanted for the opening walk down the hallway of the Plaza so we needed to make the hallway both wide enough to accommodate three actors and a Steadicam walking abreast, as well as long enough for the pacing out of the beats of the song,” explained Becker.
Becker’s experience working on American Hustle was filled with fond memories. “I can’t think about working on the film without smiling. Everything was a delight. Immersing myself in the period and working with my wonderful crew, people who are like family to me, such as my longtime decorator Heather Loeffler and my art director Jesse Rosenthal, being able to create the world these wonderful characters inhabit. I had the opportunity to build and create many memorable sets, and seeing David’s, the actors’ and the crew’s reactions were probably my favorite moments.”