Interview: Production Designer Judy Becker on Designing a Period Psychiatric Hospital and More in ‘Ratched’

There is a distinct feeling that comes across when Netflix’s Ratched begins that you’re watching a Ryan Murphy project. That familiarity has a considerable amount to do with the fact that production designer Judy Becker has worked with Murphy before on Feud: Bette and Joan, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and Pose.

Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Becker about recreating perfect period spaces that couldn’t be used for shooting and enhancing the feel and size of offices and hallways.

Q: What is your earliest memory of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and did you ever imagine you’d be working on a show about Nurse Ratched?

A: I’m not sure when I saw it, but it was probably those horrific images of Jack Nicholson before and then after the lobotomy, and how his head kind of flops around. I found it so disturbing that I’ve never been able to get that image out of my mind, it was pretty scary. And, no, I never thought that I’d be working on anything about any of those characters, so that came as a very welcome surprise.

Q: How much did you want to pay homage to that film and was it important for you make anything different about this show?

A: When I went into my first meeting with Ryan Murphy, I had re-watched the film and I had researched real mental asylums from the period we were shooting in. The first thing Ryan said was that it’s going to look nothing like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Almost the polar opposite of the grittiness.

Q: How does having worked with Ryan on multiple occasions inform your approach?

A: I didn’t know what to expect when I went in for the meeting, but then when he started talking about his vision for the show, it was so interesting and something I had never done before. I don’t know how to say it. I always trust that Ryan has a really great vision and he does. He’s just a very interesting person to work with for me. I feel like I get what he wants. What we ended up with in terms of the hospital was not really true to his first concept, but it evolved through the process of location scouting, and then building and thinking about what we wanted. That whole process of coming up with the look of the hospital was a really interesting process for me.

Q: Can you tell me more about what the first concept was that didn’t end up working?

A: Ryan always wanted it to look like a glamorous hotel that has been transformed into a psychiatric hospital, and he wanted it to look like it was in northern California near Big Sur with a lot of use of wood on the interior, kind of lodge-y feeling, very grand and very expensive-feeling. We scouted for something like that and there was absolutely nothing. There was absolutely nothing that had the scale or the period correctness of what he wanted. Finally, after a few months, Robert Foulkes, the location manager, who’s amazing, my favorite, had shown me photos of a place in San Bernardino that I thought looked really promising. It was an old hotel that had been a very glamorous movie star hotel in the 1950s. It was built in the late 30s. It was hard to get permission to scout it, but then finally, we did. Robert and I drove out there and we turned off the highway, and it was a few miles up this windy mountain road to get up to the hotel. After about mile one, you could see it glimmering in the distance. It was beautiful. It was this huge, white, Hollywood Regency-looking building. As we got closer and closer, I got more excited. We got there and I found out that this incarnation of what’s called Arrowhead Springs Hotel had been designed with Paul Williams, who I was pretty familiar with from having researched for Feud: Bette and Joan. The interior had been done by Dorothy Draper, and a lot of her things were still there. I also know that Ryan’s a huge fan of her interior design. So right away I had a really great feeling about this place. It had a big solarium and I’m looking at references for solariums, which are very common in hospitals. It had scope, and scale, and I went back and showed pictures to Ryan and he looked at them and said, this isn’t what I was thinking of, this isn’t what I asked for. I said, I know, it doesn’t have the wood, and it’s in the desert, but it’s also really glamorous. Elizabeth Taylor stayed there. And then he looked at the pictures again and suddenly got super interested, and we all went and visited it, and he loved it. We all loved it. Cut to about six weeks later, and the location absolutely refused to allow any filming in it, for anybody, ever. Fortunately, we had a plan B, which was to build it and it turned out better because we could customize it a lot to the needs of the show. It was inspired by the Arrowhead Springs Hotel, but it turned into the Lucia State Hospital. It was all built on the stage.

Q: What was most challenging for you to be able to create or recreate?

A: Honestly, the most challenging part was determining what we were going to do. Were we going to find a location? It was never intended that we would build it. Once that was a decision, that we were going to build all the interiors of the hospital, it was mainly a question of scale, because the real Arrowhead Springs had very large rooms but it didn’t have some of the things that we needed. It didn’t have any long corridors. It didn’t have a big office like Dr. Hanover’s office. It didn’t have anything like that. We were building at such a big scale. It was so much fun for me. I loved it. We filled up one stage with just part of the hospital, and then had to take most of another stage. Eventually, it was all starting to seem almost too big, so we cut back on some of the sizes a little bit.

Q:  Are the offices as big as they seem, or is that just clever camerawork?

A: Ryan likes to shoot wide, and he will always make a space look enormous. But they were big. The office was big. It’s challenging, in fact, to come up with a good furniture plan for a big space. That was another challenge. The seating arrangements and getting a really big desk. If we had a puny desk in there, it would have looked ridiculous. His bar, we custom made, because we couldn’t find anything that looked elegant enough and big enough for his office. So there were a lot of challenges like that. Matthew, my set decorator, found some period sconces for the hallway and then we had like fifty of them reproduced so that we had enough for all the hallways. There were those challenges of scale. I’m glad you brought it up because it reminds me of how many challenges there were in terms of figuring out floor plans and finding furniture with enough presence.

Q: There are a lot of scenes that take place in the hallways, which I assume is not all that ideal because you can’t really do much to make the hallways look interesting. But what did you have in terms of a vision?

A: Ryan certainly makes them look interesting through the use of lighting. One interesting thing happened with the hallways. I’m trying to remember exactly how it evolved. In some of the photographs that we had taken at Arrowhead Springs, the hallway walls looked like they had a plaster pattern on them, where the plaster is scumbled, and Ryan liked that. On closer inspections, I think it was just shadows, but we already now had this request for a texture on the walls with the hallway. My best ideas come to me when I’m driving or when I’m falling asleep, and I was driving home from Fox in California. I suddenly realized we could use this wallpaper called anaglyphta, which has a three-dimensional pattern on it and then you can paint over it. There was a lot of art deco patterns in anaglyphta, so I found one and we all liked it, and we painted it this cream color that we used everywhere in the hotel so that you can’t really tell there’s wallpaper but it gives a texture and a depth to the walls that you wouldn’t have otherwise. That was something that I think really helped keep the hallway from just booking blank and boring.

Q: What can you tell me about designing the motel?

A: The motel interior was pretty straightforward in the sense that I had a collection of postcards of period motels that showed a lot of rooms and exteriors, and restaurants. I put together a big presentation of ideas and Ryan wanted wood walls. That’s where we really went, for this Northern California, everything made of wood, green ceilings. We built the interior before we had an exterior, I think, or we planned it. Finding the exterior was much harder, because it needed to be remote and it needed to feel like Northern California, and it needed to be period, or look period, or be able to be transformed into looking period. There aren’t many like that that aren’t right next to a lot of non-period stuff. We found a few options, all near Big Sur and Monterrey, and there was one, the Lucia Lodge, that you see in the show, and it was obviously the outright winner. Nothing could compare to it, it was on a cliff overlooking the ocean, all by itself. It was amazing. They’re very busy, they’re booked almost all year-round, seven days a week, because it’s just a unique place. They really didn’t want a film or a TV show shooting there, but eventually they agreed and they were very happy to have us there. We had very little prep time because of how busy they were. We did a lot to the exterior, and I think we had one or two days max. A strong memory for me is staying up till like one in the morning to get the neon sign onto the roof, with me and two electricians and an art department just using our iPhones as flashlights. But it was a great memory because it reminds me of how fun it is to work with people that just really want to get it done, they’re committed to it and they’re not looking at their watches saying, we’ll come back in the morning. That was really fun.

Q: There have there been a lot of projects you’ve done that take place in the past. Do you like working in different eras and periods?

A: It’s funny, because it’s to the point now where I haven’t done a contemporary thing in a long time. I can’t even remember. I don’t want to speculate, but it’s been quite a few years. I do like it. One thing I like about it is that it imposes certain restrictions right away and you get to be creative within those restrictions. And I always find that an interesting way to work. I think a lot of people do, where you’re almost given a format, and then what do you do with that? It’s 1949, and I have to find out what my possibilities are, what my limitations are. I find that really interesting. It forces your creativity, not to just reproduce a photograph or something, but to really think about what an interior looked like in that time period, and what it could look like, and what would make sense, and what doesn’t. What to avoid, what not to avoid, how to make it look like a movie or a TV show. It’s fascinating to me. When you’re working in the contemporary world, although it seems like there would be a lot more leeway, and in certain ways, there is, in other ways, we’re just so limited, because people tend to have things look the same way. I do like it a lot, working in period.

Q: You’ve also worked with David O. Russell on a number of films, and you have an upcoming project together.

A: We just finished one, actually. We had started prepping it, and then COVID hit, and we went down for seven or eight months, and then came back and started prepping again in October, and shot it. We just finished a month or so ago.

Q: Can you preview what we can expect from it?

A: Only what’s on IMDB, that’s all I’m allowed to say. I can tell you who’s in it.

Q: Can you preview any of Ratched season two?

A: No, I’m not working on it.

Q: Do you have any projects coming up?

A: Yeah, I’m working on a movie called The Brutalist, from a great young director I’ve been wanting to work with for seven years, Brady Corbet. He did a really amazing movie called Childhood of a Leader and then his second movie was called Vox Lux. This one’s called The Brutalist and it’s about an architect and Holocaust survivor in Philadelphia, but we’re shooting it in Poland. I’m going to Poland in July to start working on that. I’m also working on a documentary about Paul Reubens aka Pee-wee Herman.

Season one of Ratched is streaming exclusively on Netflix.


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Written by Abe Friedtanzer

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