Production design of "Hollywood" by Matthew Ferguson, Raymond's apartment. Courtesy of Netflix.

Production design of “Hollywood” – interview with Matthew Ferguson

July 3rd, 2020
Production design of "Hollywood" by Matthew Ferguson, Raymond's apartment. Courtesy of Netflix.

Continuing the ongoing series of interviews with creative artists working on various aspects of movie and TV productions, it is my delight to welcome Matthew Ferguson. In this interview he talks about how much preparation and attention to detail goes into every single shot, the fast-moving pace of productions, the importance of research, and what keeps him going. Around these topics and more, Matthew dives deep into what went into creating the sumptuously luxuriant worlds of Netflix’s limited series “Hollywood”.

Kirill: Please tell us about yourself and when did you know that you wanted to be part of this creative field.

Matthew: My love of film started when I was 8 years old. I saw a film on TV called “The Snake Pit” with Olivia de Havilland from 1948. It was a film about a woman who finds herself in an insane asylum. There was a particular scene when the main character is sent to the ward for the severe mental cases. She stands there surrounded by mentally ill patients walking aimlessly around her and the camera starts to pull up. As it does, we start to see the walls are made of dirt and suddenly we are no longer looking down on people but rather snakes withering around in a pit. That moment made a big impact on me. I was on the edge of my seat and I wasn’t exactly sure what it was that moved me, but I knew I had to figure it out.

So, from then on, I was on a journey to learn as much about film as I could. There was no internet, and I would ask my parents take me to the library, and thankfully they indulged me. I would go to the film section and read about movies, and watch them whenever and wherever I could find them, and absorb as much as I could. It was then that I knew I wanted to work in film production.

When I was 10 years old, my parents gave me a Super 8 camera for Christmas. I started making movies with neighbors and friends, and then would screen them a week or two later because they had to be developed at the local Kodak Camera shop and it generally took a week to get the film back. At this early age, and thanks to support from my parents and friends there was no question that I wanted to work in the film business.

Kirill: Being in the industry now, and learning back then about how these stories are told, does it diminish your own experience as a viewer when you watch productions that others work on?

Matthew: When I’m watching a film that’s well done, all it does is enhance my passion for the viewing experience. When the craftsmanship is excellent, it just makes it that much better for me as the viewer, because I have an understanding of all the hard work that goes into it. It doesn’t take me out of it. I may be aware of what they’re doing, aware of the edit or the camera angle, but it just makes me enjoy it that much more and it will stay with me. Conversely, only when it’s poorly done is the experience diminished.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Ace Studios make-up suite. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: How was your transition from reading about how these productions are made into being on set? Do you remember if there was anything particularly surprising or unexpected to be surrounded by all the moving parts of a real production?

Matthew: Yes. How technical the whole process can be. I started out as a PA in production getting as much experience as I could, and then slowly working my way up in the Art department. From time to time, there would be moments, whether lining up a shot or talking about a stunt and I’d find myself almost stepping out of the work and thinking “this is exciting, I’m actually part of it now.” Imagining, and then being a part of Hollywood, has always been a thrill for me and I love it.

From a more practical standpoint, I realized early how technical the process was. It might look seamless and spontaneous, but it’s all laid out and planned before shooting. This is when imagination and fascination meet practice, and I find that interesting and challenging as well.

Kirill: When you talk about what you do with people who are not in the industry, is it difficult to convey the different aspects of it?

Matthew: Not so much, and it helps that I live in San Francisco and Mendocino, both in Northern California, and of course I work in Hollywood. In other words, I am accustomed to being the simultaneous translator between these two distinct worlds of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Kirill: Moving a little bit closer to “Hollywood”, but also in general, what are your thoughts about where the visual storytelling is taking place these days? It feels to me as a viewer that a lot of mid-budget dramatic storytelling has migrated away from the feature films and into the world of these episodic productions.

Matthew: A lot of it is in episodic productions and there’s so much wonderful content that’s now streaming on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu for example. I find many of these shows quite interesting. The films that I am attracted to are generally not big blockbuster movies and the films/shows that I want to be a part of are more character-driven and story-driven, and not big sci-fi or action movies. Not that those aren’t great movies. They’re fun and escapist, but that’s not something that appeals to me at the moment.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Ace Studios starlet classroom. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: In case of “Hollywood”, does it help that as the production designer, you worked on all the episodes with the same cinematographer, the same art director, the same costume designer – to keep the visual continuity for me as a viewer?

Matthew: Absolutely, no doubt. When you work on these shows, at times you’re moving very fast and schedules can change. In the end, you hope to have a completed project that is visually cohesive. So, having the same crew with the relationships, communication and trust, helps to stay on top of it. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that they are all very talented and nice people to work with.

Kirill: Taking a step back, how did you find the show, or perhaps how did the show find you?

Matthew: I worked as a set decorator for many years. One of the movies that I decorated early on was “Running with Scissors”, which Ryan Murphy directed. I met him on that project, and then I worked on a pilot with him that ended up not getting picked up. And years later I worked on “American Crime Story: Assassination of Gianni Versace”, and then from that we were did another Netflix show called “Ratched” which is scheduled to launch later this fall. I was working on that as the decorator with the designer Judy Becker whom I’ve worked with over the years. She had to leave the show to go into another project. At that point I took over and production designed the last three episodes of “Ratched” – and that’s when Ryan asked me to do “Hollywood”. Once we wrapped “Ratched”, I had a week off and then we started prep on “Hollywood”.

Kirill: One interesting aspect of this show is that half of it is based on real people and real events, and the other half is more of a what could have been or what should have been, almost projecting the social outlook of 2020 back in time to when the events are happening. As you were exploring the design language of the show, how did you approach reflecting the balance between these two worlds?

Matthew: I really wanted to bring historical context to the show, to help inspire the characters and the stories. For example, Ace Studios is a hybrid of RKO and Paramount. The studio system back in the golden age was a very real thing. There were five major studios that dominated the film industry, and everything was within the walls of those studios to make a film. You had contract players, the directors, the acting classroom, the commissaries, the stages, the editing rooms. As we were working on Ace Studios, we built all of that on stage.

We knew that the commissary was going to be a big permanent set with a lot of scenes in it. I started to research what the studio commissaries looked like back in the ’40s. I looked at Warner Bros, Paramount and RKO, and decided to model our commissary after the Paramount commissary. My set decorator Melissa Licht had the tall task of trying to find a hundred period chairs to go around the tables. One day she came up and showed me a picture of a chair that she’d found. I realized it was an exact chair from the Warner Bros commissary from the 1940s. In my office, I had pictures of Errol Flynn and Betty Davis sitting in the chairs. I also had a deal with Getty Images and had all the Kodachrome movie star portraits line the walls. When the set was dressed and ready to shoot, it felt like we were back in the Paramount commissary.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Ace Studios commissary. Courtesy of Netflix.

Avis’s office was modeled after Jerry Mayer’s office. He was Louis B. Mayer’s brother, and he was head of production at MGM. It was a fabulous Art Deco office with a great ceiling and big windows. It also needed to relate to the exterior of Paramount which is where we shot the exterior gates. I wanted to incorporate some real elements in creating our worlds to help ground the story and pay homage to the golden age of cinema and the studio system. There’s a certain stylistic approach to the show that I hope helps give it this glossy or, dare I say, fairytale look to it.

The sets weren’t heavily cluttered. It’s clean. There’s not a lot of stuff on the walls. If you look at old films, a lot of them were like that. We wanted it to feel like a ’40s film.

I also wanted the architecture in “Hollywood” to be a sort of character, and not just be a set or a location. We had stage builds, but we also had practical locations. I wanted to make sure that when we used practical locations, we showed LA and Hollywood like it used to look back in the golden age. I started to research and look at prolific architects from that period. There were certain architectural movements happening in LA in the early part of the 20th century that were shaping the physical landscape. You have the Spanish Revival courtyard buildings, Hollywood Regency, Art Deco/Romanesque buildings, and I wanted to capture a little bit of that in the locations we used.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Ace Studios offices of Avis and Dick. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: Do you feel that a lot of this goes unnoticed by most of the viewers? And if so, is it worth your time and effort to create these worlds?

Matthew: It’s definitely worth my time because I enjoy it and I want to be as true to the subject matter as possible. And I do think people notice it. They may not notice every single detail, but you get a sense of something.

For instance, let’s talk about Anna May Wong’s garden apartment. It’s a beautiful Spanish Revival courtyard apartment in Hollywood. It was commissioned by Cecil B. DeMille to house his out-of-state actors who came to work for him. I loved it, and I wanted to put Anna May Wong’s apartment there – which we did. You see the exterior very briefly. We have our two scenes in there, and we never go back there again. But the little bit you do see, helps place our character in that world and give her more context.

We have this fabulous Art Deco bank where Jack and Henrietta go to apply for the loan. It was built by a very prolific architecture firm at the time – Morgan Walls, and Clements. They also built the El Capitan and The Wiltern Theatre. The building we used as the exterior Western Costume was built by them. You see the exterior of Jack’s apartment, a beautiful Spanish/Baroque facade. It starts to stack up and I think people get a sense of it, whether they really remember every little detail or not.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Anna May Wong’s apartment. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: You mentioned the fairytale aspect of this world, and one thing that struck me as I was watching it was the opulence of every single space in it. No matter how high or low somebody is on the social ladder in that world, they “get” to live in a magnificently looking space. Was that intentional?

Matthew: It was intentional. It’s a little bit of a fairytale, and an obviously revisionist take. We had a glamorous environment, and we wanted to keep it consistent with the color palette and the tones of the interiors. They are all slightly similar, and that was intentional to have a continuous thread that went across the whole show.

Kirill: Was it your intention to break away from these golden colors in the gay bar where Dick goes? I think it was more of a mix of dark reds and colder greens in there.

Matthew: There was blue and green, and a little bit of red in there. Simon Dennis the cinematographer was great. He wanted to bring in some of those colors in the lighting, because it is a very big moment for Dick Samuels coming to terms with his sexuality. You see him briefly outside on the street in the rain before he finally makes the decision to go inside the (gay) bar.

We talked about changing the color palette for that moment once he goes in, because it’s such a huge leap that he decided to take.

Kirill: How did you approach building sets for “Meg”, which is a story inside the main story – for the shooting of it, as well as the “completed” look of a ’40s movie?

Matthew: It was a lot of fun. Janet Mock (the director) and I talked about what happens once we go in that world of the “Meg” movie and that we would stay in the film until the moment Camille is at the top of the H. I started to look at a variety of films from the early 30’s. There was a certain type of artificial world in a lot of those films – so we strived to create that feeling in our Meg film. And then once Raymond yells cut and we are suddenly taken out of the film and back in the film making world of the 1940’s – that had its own challenges. We had all the period cameras and lights and the constructed set. But there were things that we had to address once we did pull out of our set and reveal the sound stage around it. Our stage had many contemporary elements that we had to hide, build flats to cover, have visual effects take it out – so that even though we’re in the movie, we’re still in the 1940s making the movie.

Kirill: With all that research that you did into the world of moviemaking in the 1940s, would a production designer from that time recognize a movie set from the 2010s? Do you think they’d recognize the overall structure and atmosphere around the modern-day productions?

Matthew: I think everyone doesn’t dress as nice [laughs]. It’s amazing how everyone dressed so nicely back then.

If you look at the construction of a set, things are obviously more involved – such as various types of elaborate rigging and having visual effects, for example. But I do think that they would recognize the basic mechanics and the elements used. I don’t think it’s that different. Certainly, I wasn’t around in the 1940s, but the production stills I’ve seen from that time have a similar feel and production elements in them.

I had numerous black-and-white production stills from films from the ’30s and ’40s that I got a licensing deal from Getty Images to use on the walls in the Ace Studios offices. We lined them in the executive hallways. They’re in Dick Samuels’ office and in Ace Amberg’s secretary’s office. And for the most part, many of those images were similar to what a working production set looks like today. It’s not that different from what we do now.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Beverly Hills bungalow. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: One thing that comes to mind that didn’t exist in the ’40s are digital set extensions. They used to do matte paintings or other special effects, and nowadays these words are extended in computer environment. Did you have a lot of that on the show?

Matthew: We had some, yes. The opening credits for sure. When Jack is driving up to The Hollywoodland sign and you see it all lit up, that was a visual effect. I know they took out a couple big billboards and lowered the telephone poles and electrical wires that were right next to the Golden Tip Gas station location. They also changed the facade of two buildings that were across the street. There were elements that needed to be taken at LA River location when Ernie leaves his “client” hog tied on the ground. And of course – the famous pink and green awning at Beverly Hills Hotel was added in post.

Kirill: Do you find yourself trying to build complete sets even if some parts are never going to be seen on the camera?

Matthew: I always try to build complete sets. It’s hard if the budget doesn’t allow it. If everybody’s on the same page and you can only afford to build a three-wall set, and the director and director of photography knows it, then yes. But if you can build a complete set, I do. I learned early on when I was a decorator that when they tell you that you can only afford to decorate one corner in a room and that they would never look the other way, the dailies came in and sure enough they shot the whole scene looking the other way [laughs]. Having complete sets is also good for the actors, the story and the crew. It gives them flexibility and the freedom to move around, to be able to block the scene and use the entire space.

In a perfect world you can design and build the complete set, have wild walls and camera ports so that you can have options to capture the design of space in a variety of ways.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Golden Tip gas station. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: You went into the details of researching and building the commissary set. What about the gas station? Was that an existing location that you took over, or did you build everything from scratch?

Matthew: That was an existing location, but it did not look like it looks in the show. Scotty Bowers had an old Ridgefield gas station on Hollywood Boulevard. The Richfield gas stations were these wonderful streamline modern buildings with a big overhang that comes out from the front entrance where cars could drive under, big casement windows usually painted white. They were great looking.

I was fortunate enough to have two great location managers and we scoured all of LA county from Santa Clarita down to Long Beach, looking for the right location, and finally found one on Glendale Boulevard in Atwater Village. It was indeed an old Richfield gas station, but it was no longer operating as one. It was a tire and break shop. It had been partially painted blue, and a lot of original details had been taken away.

Once we made a deal with them, we took over that location and we re-did it completely. From top to bottom. I re-asphalted, painted, took out five hydraulic lifts. We built another overhang so that there could be two places for cars to pull up. We built custom neon signs. I had all the palm trees trimmed because they hadn’t been in 20 years. I had gas pumps manufactured and sent out from Atlanta then painted in our colors. We built a used car parking lot with a structure and neon across the street.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Golden Tip gas station. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: Do you find that people in LA are jaded and used to this movie environment, or do you see crowds gathering to see what’s happening?

Matthew: I see both. I see people that sometimes are finding it a nuisance when we’re in their neighborhood and especially if it’s a neighborhood that’s used a lot for filming. And then I often see people that are intrigued, interested and asking questions, especially on period shows. We had so many great looking period vehicles, and then all the extras in this great wardrobe.

Kirill: Probably those vehicles don’t give you great miles-per-gallon numbers.

Matthew: And sometimes they were not starting on cue. Working with the period vehicles is always its own little deal.

Kirill: What was the place that Henrietta worked in? Is it some kind of a drugstore or a diner?

Matthew: Henrietta worked at Schwab’s Pharmacy. That was an iconic place in Hollywood. It was located on Sunset Boulevard until the ’80s when it sadly was torn down to build a shopping complex.

It was where young actors, known and unknown, would go to hang out and read trade magazines. There were two phone booths in the back where they could call to get jobs, or agents would call and they would yell across the pharmacy to try to get actors jobs. It’s supposedly where Harold Arlen, sitting at the lunch counter, came up with the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow” in “The Wizard of Oz”. So, it was very much an historically driven set. To answer your question, it was a pharmacy with a lunch counter.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Schwab’s. Courtesy of Netflix.

It was also depicted in the film “Sunset Boulevard” where William Holden referred to it as the “Hollywood hopeful hangout” – where people go waiting for their next job. There was also a well-known gossip columnist Sidney Skolsky who wrote for Photoplay, and he set up an office at Schwab’s. He had a small office in the back, and he wrote a gossip column called “From a Stool at Schwab’s”. It became a really popular place.

I felt a certain amount of responsibility and pressure to construct that as accurately as possible. I really wanted to pay homage to Schwab’s, because it’s a landmark. It was an iconic place in Hollywood’s history.

Kirill: Do you get used to seeing the sets you’ve worked on getting torn down at the end of the production?

Matthew: Sometimes it’s sad, but I’m used to it. The show is over and it’s time to move on. It’s time to take things back, return them, sell them, and take it apart. I’m always a little sad to see it go, because so much work has gone into it. But hopefully it’s all been captured on film and it will be on the screen, and we’ll have it there forever.

Kirill: One more question of the specific set – the big finale where the Oscars ceremony is taking place. How much work went into that?

Matthew: When we realized we were going to be doing the 20th annual Academy Awards set in 1948, Mark Taylor (Art Director) and I spent a lot of time going over images, looking at what the set piece looked like, and started working on scaling it out.

That award ceremony was held at the Shrine Auditorium. However, we couldn’t use the interior because the Screen Actors Guild Awards were happening during the same dates we needed to shoot our scene. We were able to use the exterior of the Shrine for the arrival bits – cars pulling up, the red carpet, the press – but for the interior we ended up using the Orpheum Theatre. And we had conflicts in getting to pre-scout the Orpheum as well. That theatre was booked almost up until our dress days. So, Mark and I had to work off of the plans that they sent us. We started working off images of what the set piece looked like and trying to scale it out from the pictures we had. For example, we’d look at pictures of Loretta Young accepting her award and try to scale the distance from her shoulder to the second layer of the cupcake – which is what we called it – the set piece behind her and try scale it out that way.

And then finally we got one day to scout the theatre. We went there, taped it out and luckily it worked because we had already started to build it back at the mill.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Jack’s house. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: When you are on a production, and you spend your days, weeks or even months obsessing over these details, is there a tiny switch that you can flip off when you go home for the evening or the weekend? Do you get to detach a bit from those details, or do they follow you all through the production?

Matthew: I’d love to say that I can switch it off, but it’s still with me. I am definitely thinking about it, but it doesn’t prevent me from enjoying my life, or my day off or my weekend off. I’m still working on it and thinking about it, because I enjoy it and I care about it.

Kirill: Do you find that productions never stop raising the bar as far as the depth and the richness of the worlds that they expect you to be creating?

Matthew: I think the bar is pretty high, and I do think it continues to go higher. It’s challenging. There so many talented people out there and so many visually stunning and exciting shows, that it certainly puts pressure on you to deliver your A game.

And the schedules have gotten tighter. I used to work on commercials, and as technology started to come in, the prep times started to get squeezed – but what they expected you to deliver with less time, would be the same.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Miss Kincaid’s apartment. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: You’ve mentioned Netflix, Amazon and Hulu that have joined the ranks of the more “traditional”, if you will, studios in the last few years. Does it feel that it’s getting harder for some of these productions to find their audience, to get noticed and to carve out their piece of the pie?

Matthew: Some of these platforms have big marketing teams and can promote their shows which may possibly may help give them more exposure than others. It can also be a timely thing – which has nothing to do with the marketing of it. It may be about what’s going in today’s culture, what people are interested in or what they want to escape from that triggers it. I don’t know if there’s one thing in particular. I also feel because there are so many different platforms to view shows that I think it provides outlets for some productions to be seen where years ago they may not have ever made it that far.

Kirill: You poured your heart and soul into every single color, every single texture, every single element on the screen, and then people watch it on these poorly calibrated TVs, or their tablets, or their phones. Does that frustrate you, or is it just a fact of life?

Matthew: It used to bother me. You work on a feature film, and somebody missed it when it was in the theaters and then they finally see it on a plane for example. I know they’re experiencing it but it’s a bit frustrating that that they didn’t see it in a big dark theater.

However, when I look at shows on television now, I feel like I’m seeing what’s been produced. It doesn’t bother me. I was very pleased with what I saw on “Hollywood”. There’s certainly a lot that we put into it that you never see. But that happens. In the end, you don’t get to see everything you do. But I’m generally pleased with it. I always want to give 110% to every set, knowing that I’ll be happy to see 50% or 60% of it. Sometimes less.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Henry Wilson’s house. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: Do you worry about how your work might be seen in 20-30 years? Do you think about how it will age for the next generation of viewers?

Matthew: I don’t. It’s inevitable things will be dated, for sure. You just can’t get away from that. There’ll be work that I’ve done that’s going to look dated, but that’s OK. I was recently looking at stills of “Cleopatra” with Elizabeth Taylor. The sets are gorgeous, absolutely beautiful, but there was an element you couldn’t get past that it was the mid 1960s. You could see that it was dated in a certain way.

I look at old films all the time. They’re dated but they’re still incredible movies.

Kirill: How pessimistic or optimistic do you feel about the current forced Corona break? What’s your outlook on how productions might look like when they resume and go back to “normal”, however that new normal might look like?

Matthew: On one hand, I don’t feel pessimistic about the forced break. The time off has made it possible to stop for a moment and reflect on life, on your values and what’s important. However, as much as I would love to be back at work, I think we need better leadership in our government and respect for the science that we are facing. Our country is not doing well. So, I do feel pessimistic about the lack of informed leadership in our government. Our current President doesn’t even wear a mask.

I am a little concerned about what going back to work is going to look like especially when we are so used to working so closely together. Sometimes you have to move so fast and deal with so many different people in different departments. How that is going to be? If there’s no vaccine and we’re back in production, what does that look like? Sometimes there’s a part of me that thinks it really can’t happen until there is a vaccine. I know shows are starting to slowly come back and some prep is starting to happen. A friend of mine who’s a gaffer just did a music video. He said they all got their temperature taken daily, they had to fill out a questionnaire, everybody wore masks. It was a small crew and they did it, but it was a different environment.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, swing sets. Courtesy of Netflix.

Kirill: And for my last question, pretending for a second that Corona never happened, what keep you going in this creative field? Probably some of these productions have kept you from your family and friends for long periods of time. You probably had stressful days for whatever reasons might be. What keeps you returning for more?

Matthew: What keeps me returning for more is the love of the craft. I love the process. I love working with the people, and I like storytelling and film. That’s what keeps me going.

There’s another side to it, which is the question of what keeps me balanced when I’m not working. I live up in San Francisco and in Mendocino County with my husband of 27 years. We have a place up the country, and I can separate work from my life, to just come back to nature and enjoy the trees and the grass and the views. I love that and it’s very important to me.

It’s like watching a great sequence in a movie, or experiencing a particular scene that really touches me, when it hits me in my core and I feel this wonderful thing – I also have that with nature. So those two things keep me going, film and the outdoors – because I get the same feeling from both of them. When I am working, I am completely immersed in the project and I love it. But I can also remove myself from it when it’s done, to recharge, get inspired and then go back out and do it again.

Production design of “Hollywood” by Matthew Ferguson, Ace Studios soundstage. Courtesy of Netflix.

And here I’d like to thank Matthew Ferguson for taking the time to talk with me about the art and craft of production design. All episodes of “Hollywood” are available for streaming on Netflix. And if you want to know more about how films and TV shows are made, click here for additional in-depth interviews in this series.