Happy Massee (‘Armageddon Time’ production designer) on drawing inspiration from Archie Bunker and ‘All in the Family’ [Exclusive Video Interview]

“I don’t necessarily associate the 80s with a period piece because it just doesn’t feel that long ago to me,” admits production designer Happy Massee as he reflects on his work on “Armageddon Time.” The new James Gray film takes place in Queens, New York, in 1980, and centers on the friendship between two middle-school students across social divisions of race and class. The set decorator lived in New York in the 80s, so bringing that period to life did not take an inordinate amount of research. He shares, “The research were my personal experiences. I sort of re-lived something that I lived when I was in my early 20s.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.

“Armageddon Time” is Massee’s third collaboration with Gray on a feature, having previously worked with the director on “Two Lovers” and “The Immigrant.” He recounts meeting the writer-director for the first time, remembering, “He invited me over for dinner and cooked a bowl of his famous spaghetti and meatballs” before he dived into “his life, his experience… everything that influences all his movies.” The production designer enjoys their partnership because Gray “gives you the freedom to bring your talent, your job, to the table.”

WATCH our exclusive video interview with Banks Repeta, ‘Armageddon Time’ actor

Gray drew upon his own childhood for the inspiration for “Armageddon Time,” which stars Banks Repeta as Paul Graff, a fictionalized version of Gray himself. The Graff household in the film is a close recreation of Gray’s own family house, which Massee brought to life by studying hundreds of slides Gray provided. “It was a personal story. As much as he gave me a lot of freedom, I also had to be very mindful and careful and really create James’ world as he knew it,” he notes. The production designer paid exceptional attention to detail, such as tracking down and building a period-authentic model airplane that Gray wanted. “The lampshade over the dining room table is exactly the one that was over his dining room table,” continues the designer, and the “wallpapers were very close to the wallpapers that we’re in the existing home.”

Not everything remained the same, though. While Gray lived in a row house in Queens, “Armageddon Time” shot the Graff household in a single-family home in New Jersey, a change Massee had to accommodate in his designs. As for the advice he received on the overall aesthetic, the production designer shares that Gray told him simply, “Archie Bunker, ‘All in the Family,’ which I got right away. The difficult part was telling my crew, who had no idea what ‘All in the Family’ was.”

WATCH our exclusive video interview with Christopher Spelman, ‘Armageddon Time’ composer

“Armageddon Time” features a scene set in the Guggenheim Museum. Massee reveals that the original intention was to set the sequence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and their Edward Hopper exhibit, but the production landed on the Guggenheim and Wassily Kandinsky instead. The set decorator had very little work to do in the museum itself, sharing, “We couldn’t touch anything. It was a limited crew in the museum, we couldn’t get any closer than 20 feet from any painting,” with the exception of one brief shot. For a fantasy sequence in which Paul fantasizes about being a famous painter one day, the production designer asked his scenic artist to paint something using “Kandinsky-esque colors, the vibrant greens and pinks.”

Other important locations that Massee worked on for the film including the home of Paul’s friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb), the public and private schools that Paul attends, and a subway car Paul and Johnny ride home together one day. He divulges, “Ironically, both schools in our movie are shot in the same school in New Jersey… there are different wings to the school.” For the subway, the team shot at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority museum and used period advertisements to decorate. They could not graffiti on the walls of the authentic subway car, though, and when their attempt to use “frisket paper” was nixed, the film had to employ CGI instead.

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