For “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” production designer Daniel T. Dorrance, in order to capture the look and feel of the 1940s, “the first thing is getting your head around what movie are we making, what’s the look of it, and what are the marks we want to hit?” That led him to a particular photograph that informed much of the film’s visual approach. Watch our exclusive video interview with Dorrance above.
“I found a great image of New York in the late ’30s or ’40s, I think, that was colorized by somebody … which just had the right feel and tone to it,” Dorrance explains. “So I did a little Photoshop. I put [lead actress Andra Day] in the shot, gave her a fur coat and an umbrella, and sent it to [director Lee Daniels]. He was like, oh my God, that’s it, that’s the feel of the movie. He loved that so much we ended up finding a place for it in the movie.”
Dorrance worked with costume designer Paolo Nieddu and cinematographer Andrew Dunn to develop the film’s look, often working from Day’s wardrobe and using darker colors to capture a “sort of faded opulence. She was in the grand spaces, but it wasn’t their heyday typically. They were all well-used, and we really wanted to show that.” That reflected the tragic contrasts of the title character, who experienced the glamor of show business but was also fighting through drug addiction and persecution from the federal government for daring to call attention to the horrors of lynching by singing “Strange Fruit.” “She still was amongst the nicer things in life,” Dorrance points out. “She just was struggling through it.”
Eventually we see those horrors up close as Holiday comes across the scene of a lynching. It’s captured in a continuous shot that follows her emotional turmoil from room to room in a cabin that transforms to show her continued trauma until finally she’s on stage singing “Strange Fruit.” Dorrance and his team had to create a physical space like a “maze” where “you’re not even sure where you’re going.” That included walls that moved and spaces for characters to suddenly appear so Daniels could capture the scene without cutting. “That was a really emotional day to shoot because as we’re watching it on a monitor in a side room, you can hear the action outside. You can hear the girls crying, and you hear Billie reacting. It gives me chills thinking about it now.”
But there was also space in the film to explore Holiday’s personality and joy, as when creating her dressing rooms. “We really wanted to make them special,” says Dorrance. “A lot of care went into all those layers, and that’s kind of the fun of it ultimately. That’s where you really enjoy the research and the learning that goes on on any given film,” whether it’s the odd presence of a pineapple or images of the dog she loved decorating the space. At moments like those, production design doesn’t just set the scene, it can reveal the person in that scene.
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