Devoted fans of the Los Angeles Lakers have watched for decades as their preferred basketball team has seen ups and downs throughout the seasons. HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, now airing its second season, chronicles the team’s most memorable moments, from new management to breakout players and much more.
Below the Line spoke with production designer Richard Toyon about his enthusiasm about getting to work on this show, something he thought he wouldn’t be able to do initially because of his commitment to Silicon Valley. He also revisited his early projects, including another LA-centric series, Boomtown.
He detailed the process of rebuilding key sets and working with a devoted collector to ensure that everything felt real enough to the people who would be paying closest attention. He also speculated on what might be next for the show in a theoretical season three.
Below the Line: I have to start by asking: are you a basketball fan?
Richard Toyon: I am a basketball fan. I played basketball in college and high school, and I have always been a Laker fan. I’m a lifetime resident of LA and just love basketball.
BTL: So, when you found out about this gig, was your first reaction excitement, or were you concerned that you wouldn’t be able to recreate what you had loved watching so much?
Toyon: Well, the first time I came in touch with it was with the producer, Scott Stevens. I was working on another project called Silicon Valley. Scott had called me to let me know that his lead actor, who was going to play Magic Johnson in his new series, had never been on a real set before, and was wondering if he could come and visit our set. So he and Quincy Isaiah came to see our set. Then he told me about the project and I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m on this project. I wish I could be on that one.” But they went ahead and they did the pilot, and then after the pilot, of course, the series came my way. I was all too happy to do it.
BTL: Do you feel like you had a pretty good memory from being a Lakers fan of what it is you were working with, or did you go back to look at a lot of tapes and other stuff for inspiration?
Toyon: Both. Yeah, I remember I was around during that era and I was in high school, I think. I was just a big fan even then, and so I was able to touch into that. But in terms of the period, I had to look at a lot of footage for reminders and also, since we had to recreate things like the Forum, we needed to get it right. Everything from tracking down collectors who actually had pieces of the old Forum floor with the real color on it and the color of the orange stripe and all of that. We had to be authentic about it because you’re recreating something that a lot of people have seen and a lot of people are going to know, but there’s also a difference between authentic and appropriate. There’s some license that has to be taken, but for the most part, I think we got everything correct.
BTL: Can you elaborate more on that?
Toyon: When we did the Forum the first season, we were on the sound stage, and the sound stage has obvious physical limitations, but we weren’t sure how we were going to do it until I did a proportional sketch showing that we could fit the Forum floor on a particular sound stage at LA Center Studios. The problem was that it just wasn’t quite big enough, and so the visual effects supervisor and myself and the director of photography had to overcome some physical things, to make it work. And while it worked just fine, the second season, we were on the bigger soundstage, so we were able to actually get more of the physical attributes of what the Forum was into the space, and then our visual effects team really augmented what we actually had there. But we had a good portion of the Forum on our sound stage.
A lot of us learned a lot of lessons from season one. Not just the art department, but also camera and the directors. Everybody learned something. What we learned I think we are able to put into effect quite nicely in the second season. It’s everything from getting all the color of the seats right to the orientation of the floor, knowing where all the things are in the Forum, where Jerry’s skybox was, where Chick Hearn sat, where the championship banner was going to be hung, even though this space is much smaller than the actual Forum. Also, the Forum we did not have access to for any number of reasons. We didn’t have any Lakers participation or NBA participation, so we had to recreate everything.
BTL: I’m curious especially about the colors because this show has a very particular look to it, and I know that sometimes there are camera tricks and other things that are necessary to make it look that way. Was there anything that you designed that you knew how it would be reflected in the camera but that audiences would be surprised to learn what it actually looks like?
Toyon: For sure. We had a specific color palette for season one given that it was the late seventies, 1980, and there was a particular color palette that existed in Los Angeles. Los Angeles, of course, is very sunny and very warm and, as a result, things tend to be a little bit more saturated. And so I developed a color palette and then we put it in front of camera to see how much it would change because we shot most everything on film or on the videotape of the day. And so those things had a tendency to go more Kodachrome. Very warm oranges, reds, yellows. To really push it and to push the feeling of sunny Southern California, we did a lot of testing of colors to see where it would go. And then you have skin tones, of course, you have somebody who’s very dark complected next to somebody who’s very light complected. All of those colors then have to play to allow for that color variation, and then, on top of that, the costumes. I worked really closely with that costume designer to make sure that anything that I put on the walls or in the space or anything wasn’t going to be a conflict with what the person was wearing.
BTL: You mentioned the collectors earlier. Are these people who are generally happy to see what they have used to recreate this era, or are people not excited about that kind of thing?
Toyon: Actually, I’ve received a lot of IG comments and Facebook comments and various other social media comments about the look of it, and most everybody feels like we nailed it. But that comes as a result of a lot of research. I was mentioning a piece of the floor. There is this guy who lives in Orange County, I think, and he is the self-professed museum of the Lakers. At his house, he has a separate structure just for his Lakers memorabilia. The guy has everything, and if you want to be sure that what you’re doing and recreating in terms of uniforms the textures, the colors matching the floor, the stripe, all of that, he’s the guy to go to. So we visited him quite a bit. We went to his museum, we bought a lot of things from him, and those kinds of things are really helpful, going a long way in establishing your credibility at the very least.
BTL: Has he seen the show and told you what he thinks of it?
Toyon: Yeah, he loves it.
BTL: I always like looking back through people’s credits, and I was happy to see a show that I remember very fondly. I don’t know if a lot of people remember it: Ben and Kate. I think it was before a lot of people knew Dakota Johnson. That’s obviously a very, very different vibe from this show. Do you have any memories to share from that series?
Toyon: A friend of mine is Jake Kasdan. He’s kind of a casual friend, but his assistant was my friend and he’s the one that coerced me into taking it on. I did the pilot initially, and I thought that was about all I was going to do. But then the show that I had intended to do right after that got cancelled, and so I went back and did the series with them. It was fun. I really liked Dakota Johnson and Lucy Punch and Echo Kellum and Nat Faxon. Those guys are really great.
It was just really a lot of fun, and it was certainly something different than I had ever done, that light romantic comedy episodic television. The feeling on set was great, and it was just a fun show. It’s great to see how far Dakota went, and Nat continues to write and direct, and I see him in things. And Lucy, I also see in things, and once in a while, I see Echo. But I thought, of all the people there, I thought he was like the most talented and I’m just waiting for something huge for him to be on screen because I think he is an immeasurable talent.
BTL: Well, he should be free now that Grand Crew got cancelled! To close out of our conversation, I want to revisit another show that I was very happy to see, which I think is a great bookend because it’s very LA-focused: Boomtown.
Toyon: Boomtown was great. A friend of mine wrote it. I first met him on From the Earth to the Moon, Graham Yost, and he had this project, and he called me early on, probably a year before it even went to production. We got to talking about it. He wanted to do this Rashomon-style of looking at a crime or an incident through all these various bona fide, day-to-day workers of LA City. Everything from beat cops to the DA to the mayor to all these people to find out what the real truth was. It was really great. Jon Avnet had directed the pilot and it was a great look at Los Angeles and it was compelling storytelling. I remember in the first probably five or six episodes, there was a magazine article that said that that writers’ room was the best writers’ room.
I dare say that the network didn’t quite handle it well enough. It became, rather than this sort of circular look, much more linear storytelling, and I think that’s what killed it. But yeah, it was great. I loved it. The actors on that were just fabulous. A lot of them have gone on to other things so. My favorite thing on there was Mykelti Williamson as one of the detectives, he would sit there in the cop car and tell stories. And then you would go into his story and his stories were always so rich and layered and flavored. He told the story so beautifully, and it was so wonderful, to visually tell his story that he was describing. That that was one of my favorite things to do but, sadly, that series ended too quickly.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is now available to stream on Max.