Awards Radar recently got the opportunity to chat with Joshua Petersen, the production designer behind Hulu’s Life & Beth. Joshua worked on the series from start to finish, creating the “life of beth” from her childhood home to her Manhattan apartment and more.
Life & Beth was recently renewed for a second season and follows Beth as she starts having flashbacks to her teen self and is forced to confront her past. The comedy series stars Amy Schumer, Michael Rapaport and Yamaneika Saunders.
In this interview Joshua dives into some of his favorite sets, working with Amy Schumer and discusses what’s next for him.
Congratulations on the renewal of Life & Beth Season 2, how did you get brought onto the show?
I got the first three scripts one morning last summer, and within 30 minutes was on a facetime with Amy. Immediately upon reading, and chatting with Amy about the emotional subtext, I knew it was a fit. We really hit it off, and I felt that Amy knew how to support me as an artist by encouraging vulnerability and trusting my instincts right away. This is what I seek in my collaborators, and I felt that our creative bond flourished during the production of the show.
I do have some questions about some of the specific designs in the series, but the first one I actually want to know about is Beth’s childhood home. How did you go about creating that set and what elements did you want to include to reflect the time period?
For Beth’s childhood home we drew on a lot of real-world inspirations to create both looks: contemporary and 1994. The architecture of the house was based off of the long island single-family that we used as the exterior, but altered for visual flow and to accommodate filming in the interior. The contemporary version is modeled primarily off of Amy’s real mother’s home, but I feel many people will identify with the affirmation-based decor, and echoes of a once-bold palette that many family dwellings nestle into overtime. The hints that you feel when you first see the set are writ large in 1994, where the stylings of the era come alive. The 1994 look is an amalgamation of Amy and I’s respective childhood homes, that held a lot of visual similarities, along with the mood-board contributions from my team, friends, and family. The carpet, aptly named “mustang sally,” the color scheme, much of the furniture, and details down to the closet door knobs were directly pulled from my childhood home. I love designing in this way- and when I can marry a psychological outward approach with my own memory, it’s nothing short of the movie magic that inspired me to become a production designer in the first place.
The MRI Room set looked incredible. Walk us through the design process and how you built this set.
Authenticity is a primary goal when designing contemporary stage builds, and I like to be as granular as possible with the details. I myself have not had an MRI before, so I researched the setting, and pushed to build the set on a stage as opposed to dressing something into a location for two reasons: first, the specificity of MRI technology dictates a material and visual grammar that’s equally specific, and second, I felt that the emotional weight of the MRI sequence required a control environment that location work can sometimes detract from. Our visiting MRI consultant assuaged my nerves over whether the set passed the bar or not, and really validated the work of my incredible team that brought it all together.
There’s such a wide variety of sets on Life and Beth are there any others that you’d like to highlight?
Jonathan Groff’s hoarder apartment. It’s really an all-out assault on the eyes, and I loved the opportunity to take some bigger visual leaps from what we normally create, and to have such a great collaboration with DP Jonathan Furmanski. On the same day, we shot another of my favorites, which was the bathroom of Beth’s sister Ann’s apartment, which is a beautiful bookend to Episode 6 “Boat” that I absolutely loved creating with the team. There is a great BTS video of how we orchestrated the final sequence of that episode that our producer Dan Powell cut together, and it’s shots like that that I live for as a designer.
What was the collaborative process like on set? How did you work with Amy and other cast/crew members to create the different sets?
Amy gave me tremendous freedom as a designer, and all of the writers and directors were incredibly supportive of my process, my ideas, and the visual language that I explored for the show. Sometimes I pitch a palette as an abstract concept and I think “am I crazy?” and often times I’ll be met with a constructive “yes.” However, for Life & Beth, there was no question, and it just came down to the pressure of executing my ideas. Thankfully, and maybe most importantly, our line producer Ayesha Rokadia also never really said “no.” It was an ideal collaborative environment across the board.
Since the show is based on real elements of Amy’s life, what was most challenging for you to be able to create or recreate?
If my job is to inspire, the difficulty only stems from a self-imposed pressure to do so effectively. I study every character, what drives them, and how they contemplate their surroundings and their chosen environments; conversely, I build environments that may drain them, or scare them, depending on the nature of their experiences. We all experience capital ‘H’ humanity, so the challenge of production design is staying in touch with one’s lived experiences, good and bad, and translating them visually for an audience. But I love doing that, and I think it’s an honor to be able to do so and to work with the visual artists in my department that I collaborate with.
Do you have any upcoming projects you can talk about?
I am currently in production for Disney/ABC Freeform’s “Everything’s Trash” created by Phoebe Robinson, which is set to air celestially July 13th, and July 14th on Hulu.