Netflix’s Ratched series explores Nurse Ratched’s life prior to the events of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. In this visual splendor of a series, viewers are taken to post-World War II Northern California, where we are introduced to Mildred Ratched (played by Sarah Paulson). While the character is very much the focus of the series, the production design is one of many highlights that draws the viewer in. From the glamorous psychiatric hospital to the cliffside motel to a pampered wealthy man’s bedroom, Academy Award-Nominated Production Designer Judy Becker spares nothing to immerse audiences into the world seen onscreen. And she succeeds.
A frequent collaborator of both David O. Russell’s and Ryan Murphy‘s projects, Becker grew into her current path in production design after working in different areas of the film industry. Once discovering her ambition and passion, though, the sky was the limit. Working on films like Brokeback Mountain, We Need To Talk About Kevin, and American Hustle, which would lead to her first Academy-Award nomination, her work more than spoke for itself.
It wasn’t until Feud: Betty and Joan that she would shift her production design over to the TV realm, and would also start a longstanding collaborative relationship with Murphy. This is ultimately what led her to work on Ryan Murphy’s series, Ratched, where she’d work to bring his vision to life once more.
Becker tells Below The Line how she relied on old postcards as reference sources for motel construction. She further explains how building the majority of the sets proved to be more useful than on-site locations, especially when it came time to make customizations to the set depending on what each episode required from the team.
Below The Line: One of the things I wanted to discuss first was how you came to discover production design as a career. What prompted you to pursue this career?
Judy Becker: That’s an interesting question. I’ve thought about that a lot actually. I was always interested in all the things that go into it: movies, art, design. But I didn’t really know that it could be a career. I didn’t have any family in the film business, and I wasn’t really exposed to that. And then, after college when I was kind of floundering, my cousin happened to work in the film industry. She’s an assistant camera person in New York, and she said, “Maybe you should try working in film as a PA in the art department. You might like that,” and I did start. I first worked in props, and I did like it, and it took me a while to have the ambition to want to be a production designer. But once I did discover that, and that that’s what I wanted to do, I really devoted myself to it, because it basically encompasses everything I like in life. I’ve always loved design, and all visual stimulation, and I like putting it all together to create these imaginary worlds. It’s really, I’d say, the perfect job for me.
BTL: When you realized that production design was everything you wanted to take on, what did you study to sort of help you along the way? Did you study architecture, or…?
Becker: Oh, no, I’ve learned it all on the job.
BTL: Oh, that’s the best way.
Becker: I think it is the best way, because you’re learning. I worked in filming a lot of different, I mean, always kind of the art or props or set dec. I worked in a lot of different roles, and I learned so much that way, and I think that it really grounds you in it, and you see things from the bottom up. I think that it’s a really excellent way of learning a craft. Honestly, I don’t really think that production design can be taught. I think you can learn some of the skills that might come to be useful, but I think that to really learn it or do it, it has to come from experience.
BTL: Yeah, I definitely get that, especially since I am not super sure if they have classes that specifically focus on hands-on production design. I remember classes specifically for stage design and set design, but not so much for production.
Becker: There’s a couple of film schools that offer production design courses, but it’s really more from what I’ve seen, that they’re really learning more how to be a set designer, which is a completely different, it’s just drafting. It’s a career, but it’s not production. I don’t have to draft, you know? I can do it without drafting very well. So, it’s a whole different thing. I think that what you bring to it, as I actually wrote an article about this once, so I have thought about it a lot, but I think that every designer brings their own unique set of associations and references and the things that they know more about to the job and that’s what makes It’s so interesting. That’s what makes every designer different really.
BTL: It’s interesting that you mentioned references because I think somewhere, I’m connecting it back to Ratched now, I read somewhere that you used motel postcards.
Becker: Oh, I did. Oh, definitely. I have a big collection of vintage postcards of motels, and they’re really great because, especially from the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, even the ’30s, because they show often are those postcards, which show an interior of a room, and a restaurant, and the exterior. So, you get a lot of visual information from one postcard, and I have a lot of these. I’ve gotten a bunch for a movie I did before I did Ratched, and then I got some more. They’re really great for general concepts. I had a lot of images of motel rooms that were wood-paneled. So, we looked at those for the Ratched motel room. But there’s also little things like, what are the closet options? Or how many rooms had a sink in them? Or where was the sink? Or is there a weird vent we could put somewhere to cover something up? So, all of those little details are really fascinating, and it’s fun looking at the images to try and discover them, and see how you can add little touches of reality in that way.
BTL: Especially since Ryan Murphy’s projects always have that fusion of reality, but there’s just enough fantasy there to make you question things.
Becker: That’s really a great way of putting it. I think that’s absolutely true. And then some other stuff that I’m trying to think, because I’ve done a bunch of shows for Ryan, I feel like there’s some that the places were real and they don’t look at and vice versa.
BTL: I’m thinking Feud: Betty and Joan.
Becker: Actually, that was probably one of the more real-looking ones, because we based everything on research, but it’s always heightened for the camera. Joan’s house in real life was small, much smaller than the one we created because people just didn’t live in such big places. So, it would have looked pretty unimpressive if we had built at the scale that it was built in the 1920s when I think was one her house was built. Not to get off too much on another show.
BTL: It’s so easy to slip away like that. In terms of the specific locations, how much did you guys build from the ground up?
Becker: We built the entire hospital, every interior, every single interior of almost every single interior, The only one that we build on location was the jail where Edwin is kept for a while in the beginning, and that was a location that we made into a prison. We added a lot of elements to it, including all the prison stuff. But all the other things, all the other interiors of the hospital were built on two different stages at Fox. And then, we built the interior of the motel, and son’s room. The room where Sharon Stone’s character’s son, his bedroom, where all that crazy stuff happens, we built that bedroom. And I’m trying to remember what else. I feel like there’s something I’m leaving out that was kind of a major set.
BTL: The Mexican resort?
Becker: I actually didn’t do the Mexican set. I wasn’t there. That was at the end of the show, and I left the show by then to do to The Boys in the Band, which was also for Ryan. But some of that was built, but not in the beginning. I’m thinking about when we were building, filling up the two stages the first few months. We filled up entirely two stages of Fox. There was not any room to move.
BTL: For the hospital, was that a matter of just not being able to book the physical location? Because I had heard that you guys had found a location initially.
Becker: It’s a long story. Ryan wanted to use an actual location, but he had very specific ideas about it. He wanted the hospital to look very glamorous, like a hotel that had been turned into a hospital, and very luxurious, very against stereotype of a mental asylum basically. Someplace deceivingly welcoming looking. We had permission to scout the entire state of California for this location, and there were things that would look great in pictures, and then the location manager would get there and, of course, it had just been renovated. It didn’t look good anymore, didn’t look period.
And finally, Robert [Foulkes], the location manager, and I got permission to look at this old spa hotel near San Bernardino, the Arrowhead Springs Hotel, and we walked in. I mean, the drive up there was amazing. It was like being in The Shining, the opening of The Shining. We got up there, it’s in the middle of nowhere, this huge, glamorous, old hotel, it had been bought by a Native American tribe, and was basically being used for meetings. So, it wasn’t a hotel anymore. It was incredible looking, and the minute we saw it, I was like, this is gonna be it, for sure. And we went back and I showed Ryan pictures, and at first, it wasn’t what he had wanted so much. He wanted something more Northern California looking, like in the woods and with a lot of wood, but it was so glamorous, that he fell in love with it. He went and came with us to see it, and it was a lovefest for everyone.
And then, the location owners just said no, we don’t want any shooting here ever. Not enough money could have convinced them, and we still don’t know why, but I think it really turned out for the best because it was far away from Los Angeles and it would have limited the amount of time we could have shot there. Instead, we built the whole thing and could change it to suit our needs. They didn’t have such long hallways as the real Arrowhead Springs, and we had those very, very long corridors. It would have been, in some ways easier to shoot on location. The thing you would have gotten was the relationship of the outside to the inside, but I’m so happy we built it because we could never have gotten that much production value out of the real place.
BTL: And being able to customize the set made it easier to shoot.
Becker: Yes. So much easier, and we customized it constantly. For Episode Three, I think a new director came on and he wanted another hallway that led to the hydrotherapy room, and we could do that. And when you’re locked into a real place you have to deal with what you’re given this does.
BTL: Because you guys built so much, what was the most difficult set for you guys to build or adjust around?
Becker: I think that, in a sense, what was most challenging was to make sure, because the exterior of the hospital, and the exterior of the motel was shot on location, and so the challenge to retrofit the actual location was just fit the interiors and vice versa was something that we had to think about. It’s not particularly creative or fun to think about, but you have to do it. So, that was something that took a lot of creativity and imagination I think to make work. I have such a great crew in Los Angeles and really, working with Ryan, I’ve just been given so much creative freedom that what might seem daunting turns out to just be fun a lot of the time.
BTL: Because of the time period and also like the noir feeling that the series gives off, what design elements did you incorporate to sort of visually give that noir feel? Because I saw that there was a fair amount of stuff done with the lighting and the shadows, but wondered how production design contributed to that feeling.
Becker: There were a lot of ways in which we tried to incorporate that, and obviously, a lot of it was done by the cinematographer as well. We had in the hall, that long hallway that changes color sometimes, we had a couple of period boxes that stayed in uplight, which can give kind of eerie lighting to a face. And Matthew [Flood Ferguson], my Set Decorator, had a huge quantity of them replicated so that we had enough for that hallway and for other parts of the hospital. So, that was one thing, but that kind of lighting was very deliberate for that. Also, in the motel interior, we did something that was like an outright reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which was the green. There’s a very lurid green that’s used in Vertigo, especially in Kim Novak’s apartment, when she’s her real self as Judy, and the green comes from a neon sign that’s outside the window, and it makes everything turn green. The green is such a great green, and Ryan and I talked about it, and we got a lot of different fabrics and sort of layered them and shone light through them to see what would give us that the best duplicate of that green. So, anytime, I think you use a lot of shadow and dark, and this lurid green, it feels very Noir, and that was definitely the intention.
BTL: And greens during that time period were just a whole thing.
Becker: Definitely a whole thing, and a very fun color to work with, because it has so many variations. I was thinking a lot about it last night, because it almost seems, it’s not a primary color. But it’s the only secondary color that feels like a primary color that you can use so much of it, and it’s not overwhelming, unlike orange and purple.
BTL: And you don’t see too much of that, either.
Becker: Yes, only in movies I design. [laughs] I feel like I’ve used every shade of green there is. But no, you don’t see it a lot, and I don’t really understand why, but I love using it, and it photographs well too. So, it’s a good color to work with. It can go cold. It can go warm. It can be dark. It can be light. It has so many variations.
BTL: A very versatile color.
Becker: Yes, it is! In fact, I was reading an old decorating book, one of these books, like how do I decorate my apartment written in the 1930s. And it said, it’s good to start with the color green, but it says something like that’s an elementary decorating color to start with. And I was thinking like, it is? I thought it was my discovery. I had no idea. It was like number one.