An award-winning costume and production designer team (including ‘Mad Men’s’ Janie Bryant) delivers a visual feast to the streamer’s new series, starring Matt Bomer and Kelsey Grammer as a studio head and his boss. – Cathy Whitlock to Pret-a-Reporter
The closest template was always going to be a Downton Abbey,” says writer-director Billy Ray (whose screenplay credits include The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips) of the look of Amazon’s adaptation of The Last Tycoon, out July 28.
Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished roman a clef of Hollywood’s golden age during the Depression, the series deployed a dream team of Oscar-winning production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein (Amadeus) and Emmy-winning costume designer Janie Bryant (Mad Men). Both drew inspiration from Edward Steichen protege and MGM photographer George Hurrell, known for his black-and-white images of 1930s stars, to dress and give visual context to Matt Bomer’s Irving Thalberg-inspired studio head, Monroe Stahr, who goes head-to-head with boss Pat Brady, played by Kelsey Grammer, at a time where the Depression and Nazis were knocking on the door. “The story we are telling is not just [the gap between] the dream of Hollywood and the reality of Hollywood, but why the dream has such a powerful grasp on everybody in it — why all the characters are shaping this dream with such obsession and focus,” says Ray. Adds executive producer Chris Keyser: “I wanted to tell this story about the cost of the American dream as applied to Hollywood, the cost of lies that movies tell.” Marc Resteghini, senior development executive, drama, at Amazon Studios, concurs: “The Last Tycoon will immerse our customers in this fascinating era of cinematic history, with emotional and artistic struggles and themes that still resonate today.”
For the backdrop of the two disparate worlds of Hollywood and the adjacent shantytown of Hooverville, von Brandenstein relied on books about the dream factory in the ’30s as well as tomes about the backlots of MGM and Warner Bros. “People spent their lives on the sets and backlots, so we spent a great deal of research on that end,” she says. In opposition to the glamorous designs donned by stars Bomer, Lily Collins and Grammer, the clothing for the inhabitants of Hooverville represented a color palette of browns, grays and blues with a lot of texture and dirt. “There was such a contrast to those two socio-economic groups,” says Bryant. “The studios were creating fantasy while Hooverville was being bulldozed just next door.”
Costuming some 900 extras alone just for the pilot required a mix of vintage (sourced from online retailers eBay, Etsy and Ruby Lane) and custom work that necessitated the craftsmanship of 15 seamstresses. Borsalino men’s hats and vintage belt buckles were part of the hunt for accessories. “I am always looking for a piece that tells the story best about the character — it could be handbag from the ’30s or a sophisticated clasp,” says Bryant.
Von Brandenstein sums up the overall bifurcated design process: “Billy’s theme from day one was, ‘I want the dream of Hollywood, but also want the reality of what these people went through — their personal trials and the professional anxieties.’ The dream is bright and shiny, but real life is another color.”
No stranger to period menswear after designing seven seasons of Mad Men, Bryant “built a lot of 1930s three-piece double-breasted suits,” putting Grammer’s powerful Brady in a formal brown and gray palette. L.A. locations included the Goldwyn and Paramount lots, Musso & Frank and Point Dume, for Stahr’s Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired beach house.
Writer-director Ray loved how the tone of Fitzgerald’s book conveyed “glamour to the way the characters carried themselves.” Bryant’s standout looks for Brady’s headstrong daughter, Celia (Lily Collins), included a seductive halter dress at the Writers Ball. With Norma Shearer as a muse, Bryant says of Celia: “I love how she is glam but smart, tailored by day and sultry by night.” Referencing Clark Gable for Stahr, she says: “His passion is filmmaking, and I felt like his suits should be black and white, a play on the silver screen.”
Von Brandenstein viewed the sets as character-driven and transformed Beverly Hills’ historic Greystone into a mansion for Bomer’s Stahr: “I thought of him as an English lord living in a Tudor house. We have our share of art deco interiors; at the time, Tudor was their idea of great elegance.” To achieve the “mysterious, luminous quality” of the work of George Hurrell, which provided inspiration for the film’s look and feel, she used lots of reflective services, such as highly polished woods and marbles that “would resonate with a lot of punch.” Von Brandenstein and set decorator Maria Nay also utilized “backdrops that were painted and dyed to avoid any digital process, as it would kill the reality.” Primary colors were also avoided as the dyeing processes at the time were much more subtle.
“We had fictional movies we re-created,” says von Brandenstein of the “sets within the sets,” including this baroque film, and her sketch of a set from the biopic Stahr wants to make about Minna. “Whenever we could, we tried to show what technology was [at the time], how the scenery was built, what did it look like and the backdrops,” she says. “We believed that it’s important to use the same technology when trying to design. Ray says that the world he wanted to capture, inspired by Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey, is “this beautiful, intoxicating world you want to feel a part of, where the stakes feel like life and death all the time and you are watching these huge, thematic ideas washing over the entire country and examining how they affect one particular group of people.”