“I’ve found that many, many times when this period is recreated in movies or in television, it’s created in a way that is inaccurate in a disturbing way,” says Judy Becker, production designer of “Hitchcock.” “You’ll see a movie set in 1959, and it looks like everything in the movie is from that year. That’s not what life is like: it’s not the way it is today, and it’s not the way it was back then.”
“In 1959, people had stuff from different periods of time before that, and it all gets layered into their lives. When you have an older couple like the Hitchcocks, that’s especially true. At a certain point, their house becomes stuck at a time when they were a certain age, and you want to express that about the characters.”
“My starting point is always the characters in the story, and what world are those characters living in. What do I need to do to make the audience believe in this story? I don’t start from design, I start from the script.”
To recreate the period look of the picture, Becker drew upon a tremendous amount of research. “We had every single wall in the art department covered in research images. They fell into two categories: one was research of the reality of the story, so actual pictures of the Hitchcock’s house, the Paramount studios offices, the ‘Psycho’ sets. And then other research pictures from the same time period of other places that weren’t necessarily apart of the Hitchcock’s lives, but that we could draw on to create the look of the movie.”
Becker worked closely with director Sacha Gervasi on developing an appropriate style. “We talked a lot about the different worlds in the script, and how to translate those visually for the movie,” she says. “We came up with this idea where we would use a very specific color pallet for that time period, but we would use it in a lot of different ways in the sets. In the Hitchcock home, you see these colors in muted, traditional versions, and then elsewhere you see the brighter, more contemporary versions of those colors. So you have this color pallet motif throughout the movie but used in different ways.”
The Hitchcock home was created using three different locations: one house in Beverly Hills for the exteriors, one house in Pasadena for select interiors, and then sets of the bathroom, bedroom and kitchen were built. With so many different locations posing as one, how do you make them all match?
“You pick the most crucial location first,” revals Becker, “which for us was the exterior. The idea that this was a Tudor style house, that the Hitchcocks had brought a little piece of England with them to Los Angeles, was important. But the interior had been renovated, and it didn’t look period. So then we had to look for an interior. We found one that could pass for the interior of the other house, but we knew we would have to build the kitchen because we couldn’t find one that looked period. We knew we were building the bathroom because we needed a lot of space to shoot in, and because of that we knew we were building the bedroom.”
“The first places people renovate in their houses are the kitchen and the bathroom. We knew this was true of the Hitchcocks in reality, so we made it a little more modern and kept them a little more up-to-date. Alma became our bridge between the traditional world and the contemporary world at the time. So with the pool and the kitchen, which were really her domain, we went a little more into that 1950s look.”
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In addition to recreating the Hitchcock home, Becker also had to recreate the “Psycho” sets and soundstages. “This movie had a lot of builds for its budget. It was just tactical for this particular movie. Because I like realism and naturalism, I always think it’s better to try and find a location if you can make it work, but sometimes you just can’t. So then you work as hard as you can to make the set look as real as possible.”
Yet Hitchcock himself always preferred shooting on a soundstage, and reportedly hated shooting on location. “As a filmmaker, he grew up in a time when location shooting was not popular. Film had evolved from theater, and the idea of shooting on these gritty, real locations was just starting to become popular in the early ‘60s. It’s something that wasn’t really of Hitchcock’s era. I imagine it was really pretty annoying for him to get on location and have to deal with all of these variables that you wouldn’t have on a soundstage. Although since his films are so stylized, I think that worked to his advantage.”
Becker also worked on this year’s “Silver Linings Playbook,” as well as Best Picture nominees “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) and “The Fighter” (2010), the latte of which earned her an Art Directors Guild nomination.