Filmcraft: Judy Becker

Filmcraft: Judy Becker


Filmcraft is a new Metrograph column that gets up close and personal with some of today’s most sought after film craftspeople—cinematographers, production designers, make-up and costume departments, and special effects technicians—as they open up about their process and inspirations. The series profiles both rising stars and legends in their field, starting with our inaugural subject, the celebrated production designer Judy Becker, much acclaimed for her collaborations with directors such as Todd Haynes (Carol, 2015), David O. Russell (Amsterdam, 2022), and Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, 2005).

Filmcraft: Judy Becker plays at 7 Ludlow from Saturday, June 3.

You’ve spent most of your life making movies. Do you remember the first moving image/costume/set you ever saw?

the wizard of oz

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

My memory goes way back—I grew up when it was still the norm to go to a movie theater, and I remember my mother taking me, starting when I was three or four—to so many horrifying “kids” movies, both animated and live action, which inevitably involved the death of a beloved parent figure, a beloved animal, or an innocent kid. To this day, I don’t know what she or the filmmakers were thinking—I already had enough anxiety! Then there was our terrifying annual viewing of The Wizard of Oz (1939)—the hourglass scene still haunts me.

Alternatively there were “adult” movies on TV that I was never allowed to stay up late enough to finish. So the real answer to your question is: The first movie I remember seeing in an adult way, when I was 13 or 14, was The 400 Blows (1959). It was on PBS, part of a series of classic and foreign films. The films I saw on that TV series have always stayed with me—a lot of French New Wave, but also older classics like M (1931).

That was the beginning of my film education. Most of the films I saw when I was a teenager were revivals or second-run; I was lucky enough to go to high school near a university, where screenings of classic and arthouse films were held every night. I went to everything I could. But I never thought about the craft of filmmaking—in some ways, I’m still like that. I like the craft to be hidden.

What is the first film you remember watching with an eye towards the production design, and not just the story or direction?

blade runner

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner, the 1982 Ridley Scott original. I think what I responded to was this creation of a world that was entirely new, yet felt totally real and believable. The use of both real-life and invented elements was crucial to this believability. And then there was another level of innovation—the use of existing, familiar seeming locations in highly creative new ways. And everything served the storytelling. I really believe that movie strongly influenced what has happened in certain cities since then—the reinvention of Times Square certainly.

What other movies spoke to you through their production design?

rosemary's baby 1

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

One set of examples comes to mind—Se7en (1995), The Exorcist (1973), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Shining (1980)—I’m mentioning these horror films because they all have one thing in common, which is an emphasis on contrasting the supernatural with the visually banal. To me, that’s great visual storytelling. I will never forget that moment in The Exorcist when we are in Linda Blair’s ordinary, suburban house, approaching her ordinary bedroom door, and then inside that ordinary bedroom the most horrifying scene takes place.

In general, I believe that everything in a movie has to be balanced, unless it’s a conventional genre movie. So a movie that deals with the supernatural or the surreal is so much more powerful when it is balanced by normalcy. Even though Se7en travels close to that line between the real and the surreal, it never crosses over; things like the tree-shaped air fresheners in the room of the man who is decaying in bed snap us back to the real world.

There are also movies I love that are largely about the design—the design in itself has a starring role—i.e. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), Playtime (1967), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The storytelling is inseparable from the design. A recent movie that surprised me was Knives Out (2019). Most of the movie takes place in an over-decorated, fairly stylized world—but when we break out of that world with Ana de Armas’s character and see her gritty reality, it all becomes meaningful.

What bothers me the most is any movie that purports to be set in the real world—but a world where everything is perfect, beautiful, symmetrical, styled to perfection. Those movies are unwatchable to me.

What’s the most useful tool you use as a production designer? What can’t you go a day without using?

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

My brain: it contains all my sources of inspiration. My entire life I’ve been interested in every aspect of the visual world—art, design, architecture, photography. The things that I am most drawn to—that catalogue of sources of inspiration—is unique to me, as it is to everyone. And the work I do makes use of all of it.

I can’t imagine not being like this. I can walk down the same block 10 times and notice something different every time—collecting these images in my head is the way I function. There are many things about myself I wish were different, but this affinity for the visual has always been my personal savior.

How did you get to be a production designer?

raising victor vargas

Raising Victor Vargas (2002)

I didn’t plan it at first. And it’s a long story, but an important one, to me, because I did it from the ground up. I’ve always loved art and design, and was exposed to a lot of it from a very young age. As a child, art was my refuge—I loved drawing imaginary worlds, houses, rooms. But I was never the kid who was the “good” artist—my drawing is a bit primitive. So even though I always wanted to be an artist, I didn’t think that was a real possibility.

Then when I was 13, in my first year of high school, I became very involved with my drama department. That experience of working on a project with other people was life-changing for me—that was when I felt truly happy for the first time in my life—in the midst of creative collaboration.

Despite that, after college I was really lost. I had studied music with the thought of going to graduate school but by the time I graduated that no longer interested me. So I was working crappy office and restaurant jobs. My cousin, who worked in film and was pretty successful, suggested I might like working in the art department. I worked for free on a little music video and learned A LOT from that experience. It was fun and exciting, so I just cold-sent my resume to everyone listed in the union guide and eventually got called to work on some commercials, which led to work for the SNL film unit and other comedy TV. I started as a PA in the art or props department, and literally worked my way up, learning on the job, eventually getting into the union [IATSE].

For a long time, I thought I wanted to work in props; I was still thinking that when I got asked if I wanted to design a small movie that a Spanish director was making in NY [Sublet, 1992]—it just fell into my lap. But it wasn’t a great experience, and after working as a union set dresser for a while, I went back to school...

Law school.

And that changed my life. I met my husband Michael Taylor through an old film friend during my last semester—he worked in film, and I started to be really nostalgic for it. When I started at a law firm after graduation, I hated every second of it. I knew right away I was going to quit at some point. About a year in, a friend—the one who introduced me to Michael—told me about a super low budget film that needed a designer. I gave two weeks’ notice and designed that movie [From a High Place, 1998]. That’s when everything clicked. I fell in love with being a designer. I’d never felt happier, not since I was 13. I knew it was what I was meant to do—but it took three years of earning a living as a set dresser while getting rejected for design jobs for that dream to come true.

My break came when I art directed an indie movie called Home Sweet Hoboken (2000). I met a couple of young producers, Brian Bell and Jenny Schweitzer, and their friendship was a turning point. They recommended me for a larger movie they were producing, The Opponent (2000), when the designer fell out, and that was my real start. The next film we all did together was Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity (2002), which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Other important early jobs were The Jimmy Show (2001) and Raising Victor Vargas (2002)—the latter really changed my life. I give a lot of credit to Pete Sollett for hiring me as his designer despite the fact that I was less experienced than the other designers up for the job.