Ryan Murphy’s Production Designers Explain How They Help Create a Distinctive Aesthetic
Art and Experience:
Bold and vibrant. Glitz and glamour. Spectacular locations. Those words have become synonymous with the world of Ryan Murphy. The stories might be vastly different, but audiences across the worlds of TV and film know a Ryan Murphy set when they see one.
The Art Directors Guild honors the showrunner with its Cinematic Imagery Award at the 25th Annual ADG Awards on April 10.
One of the ingredients of Murphy’s secret sauce is his repeat collaborations with key department heads in production and costume design, as well as in hair and makeup — relying on major players behind the scenes to help create his aesthetic and keep it uniform, whether he’s going after something dark and sinister or bright and glowing.
Production designer Jamie Walker McCall, who worked with Murphy on “American Crime Story” and “Pose,” created the glitz and glamour of Broadway in the film adaptation of “The Prom.” She recalls her first meeting with Murphy at a concept get-together for 2017’s “Feud: Bette and Joan,” “He was wearing a black suit jacket with red piping, and it was stunning,” McCall says. “Immediately I could tell that Ryan was very concise, and knew exactly what he wanted from each department, for every scene — which has not changed in the many collaborative years since.”
Similarly, production designer Matthew Ferguson first met Murphy in 2006 on “Running With Scissors.” He recalls, “On that film [where I was set decorator], and every other project we’ve worked on, Ryan is so clear about what he wants. It usually starts with the color palette.”
That approach makes the job easier, says Ferguson, who has worked with him on “Hollywood” and “Ratched.” “It lays the groundwork and the parameters you’re working in, and it helps keep the focus on the end product.”
With “Ratched,” an origin story and prequel to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Murphy took audiences back to 1947. It was a noir-like world with the Lucia State Hospital at its center. The idea was that “a glamourous hotel had been turned into a hospital.”
Dr. Hanover’s (Jon Jon Briones) office was the centerpiece of it all. The large room featured 20-foot floor-to-ceiling windows. “The drapery was beautiful there. That architecture was based on the Arrowhead Springs Resort in San Bernardino.” Since they couldn’t film on location, production designer Judy Becker recreated it in Hollywood on a soundstage.
The series was shot in both Northern and Southern California to capture spectacular exterior scenery. The motel Nurse Ratched checks into is set atop a sweeping cliff edge near Big Sur.
In keeping with the lush exteriors suited to Murphy’s aesthetic, the stately 1850s Buckner mansion in New Orleans, with its 40 pillars lining the exterior, featured as the witchy Miss Robicheaux’s Academy from “American Horror Story: Coven.” Production designer Mark Worthington was tasked with lavishly outfitting a two-story soundstage for the interiors, which featured a two-sided staircase.
Not being able to shoot “The Prom” on Broadway didn’t pose a problem for McCall. The notes from Murphy were clear. “He wanted to showcase a wide variety of notable elements: Sardi’s, the Broadhurst Theater and so on,” McCall says.
McCall worked to bring New York’s theater district to Downtown Los Angeles, building an extensive 44th Street set and shooting at the Orpheum, Los Angeles and Palace theaters. “We settled on the heightened reality construction build that appears on screen. We developed a version of Broadway that performers and fans alike might envision when they dream of this iconic locale. It’s almost magic to those performers.”
Other glamourous worlds have included 1960s Hollywood for “Feud: Bette and Joan,” for which Becker was tasked with recreating the homes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and the “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” house. Murphy replicated the Hollywood of the 1940s for the series of the same name.
It was up to Ferguson to recreate iconic institutions of yesteryear, including Schwab’s Pharmacy for “Hollywood.” He also reimagined a Beverly Hills Hotel bungalow, for which he had the hotel’s banana leaf print wallpaper made to order.
Ferguson says, “Working with [costume designer] Lou Eyrich, and the consistency of us all working together over the years is so special. We’re able to continue these jobs and be together and work so closely.”
But it all starts with the same simple premise, Worthington explains. “Ryan sees environments as characters, as essential to the tone, idea and emotion of the story he is creating. Like characters, environments have personality and agency.”