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Exploring the Eye-Popping Production Design of Argo, Anna Karenina, and Silver Linings Playbook

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To celebrate this year's Oscar noms and the interiors that made them work, Curbed talked to three production designers: Sharon Seymour of Argo, the mastermind who picked Zsa Zsa Gabor's house (which so happens to be on the market) as a set and helped imbue the action film's scenes with period-perfect details; Sarah Greenwood of Anna Karenina, whose plans were completely uprooted when director Joe Wright decided, 10 weeks before shooting, that they'd film it all as if it were in a Russian theater; and Judy Becker of Silver Linings Playbook, who used a character-driven approach to craft the film's primary set: a '70s-inspired Philadelphia home. Read the interviews below.

Sharon Seymour, Argo

Film nominated for: overall picture of the year, actor in a supporting role, adapted screenplay, film editing, original music score, sound editing, sound mixing. 1. As a main plot point, six Americans taken as hostages by Iranian revolutionaries escape and hide out in the official residence of the Canadian ambassador. What are some details about this house (above) that few would notice when watching?

What we were really trying to go for with the scenes in that house was a sense of claustrophobia, and we achieved that with a lot of layering: I started with a location in Hancock Park in Los Angeles that had a sort of sense of foreignness to it. It was just this very odd house for the neighborhood, which was [full] of a statuesque Los Angeles period houses. This house wasn't that, it was a late '60s, early '70s house and it just felt?odd.

It had good architecture and some great elements that I didn't have to touch; the kitchen was spectacularly in place. But every other room we wallpapered—I looked for textural wallpaper, for dark colors that had detail or felt a little exotic. [The house] had off-white, wall-to-wall carpet, which we couldn't replace, but we layered rugs on top of that so you could no longer see it. [On the windows] we put in textural sheers and then on top of those we had paisley drapes and a valance curtain treatment that I had seen in an old House and Garden book.

We [Seymour and decorator Jan Pascal] had determined that we would help give the audience some sort of subtext into who these people [the Canadian ambassador and his wife] are: they had been posted a lot of different places and they had elements from these times. The living room was hung with a gallery of a bunch of different art. The furniture had to feel as if it were slightly foreign. A lot of that we achieved by picking the right fabrics to reupholster everything.The crowning touch in that room is period lamps. We knew we were going to be shooting a lot with the drapes closed, so we tried to choose things that would give us a lot of light.

The den, which was the ambassador's office, we dressed as a more masculine space, but we wanted to put in that were specifically Canadian. It's funny, I've actually gotten inquiries from an art historian in Canada asking: how did we know to do that? We just do that kind of research.

2. Argo is a movie set in a very particular slice of time. What sort of research did you do to lay the groundwork?

[Director Ben Affleck] sent me a number of books about the actual event, and there was quite a bit of photographic reference for the takeover, [though] there wasn't a lot of reference for things like the ambassador's house. So we just kind of drew from my personal collection of large period books. We bought a bunch of Sears catalogs, we looked at movies of the time; the CIA stuff was very much modeled on All the Presidents Men.

For the White House chief of staff office, which was completely built from scratch, we had some great photographs. People think the White House has traditional art, but in the Carter administration they were showcasing contemporary art. We always said, "What element can we give this location that defines it as a period?" For example, the Hollywood production office has a plaid carpet, harvest-gold walls, and casement drapery. It was how we created not just a bland production office, but a bland production office in 1979/1980.

3. Do you have some sort of intuition about when precisely a room is "right?" Is there an indicator you rely on that your piece of the puzzle fits?

It's a totally visceral reaction. When I'm location scouting with the location manager I try to give the director a couple of choices, but in this movie, I had other choices for the ambassador's house, but I knew that this house was just the right house. It was just perfect. You walked in and you knew. Even though we looked at other things, it was so clear that this was the top choice. For me it's a gut feeling.

4. What about Zsa Zsa Gabor's house (above)? What about it made you think it was right to play plays producer Lester Siegel's mansion?

Oh, well the fact that it wasn't a Spanish Colonial mansion. It played to that regency feel of a different era of money in L.A.—we were really grasping to find that. The mansard roof, and walking outside the house and into that pool—it felt special, but not forced.

It would have been really easy to get a Spanish mansion, but that wouldn't have fit for the character Lester Siegel. I wanted him to be part of a particular time in the Hollywood power structure.

5. I heard Ben Affleck decided to become very involved with [his character] Tony's son's room, because Affleck was a kid at the time the movie takes place, and he wanted it to be exactly as he remembered it. What was that like?

What he was really involved with was the stuff. The toys. This was truly Jan Pascal's department that pulled this off. They [searched] the Internet for probably three or four months, getting and buying those toys and those books and those elements. And then getting clearance; not only do we have to get the stuff, we have to have the legal right to use it. It's hugely complicated.

Sarah Greenwood, Anna Karenina

Film nominated for: production design, costume design, cinematography, and original music score. 1. You had this enormous task of crafting an old Russian theater from scratch and configuring these scenes—the ice rink, the horse races—in a tight, distinctly indoor space. What was the most difficult part of recreating your vision?

Well, you've hit on a few points there. [By the time] we decided to go down the route to shoot it all in a theater, we had already had all of the sets in the film conceived, we knew how were were going to do them. This massive set build that was, you know, an extra. It was not budgeted for.

But in theater you really get down to the bare bones of what the scene is about. So even though what we were doing visually was opulent and rich, actually what we were putting in was very minimal. We had to find different ways of telling the story of the scene. So [the most difficult part about production design for Anna Karenina] was a combination of those factors: they range from the very practical and pragmatic to the very aesthetic and very conceptual and intellectual. It was a massive kind of headspin, actually.

2. How is Anna's evolution and eventual destruction represented in the sets?

[In production design] you're always reflecting the characters. That's why we're film designers or set designers rather than interior designers, because whatever you create is reflecting the character. [Anna] was in this very formal kind of marriage, a cold marriage. The Kareninas' house set was very formal, very bare, very masculine. You have the motif of imperial Russia; her husband was very high up in the government and was kind of obsessed with that. There's no relaxation or joy in that set. It was not comfortable. In her boudoir, the white motif was based on snowflakes. Whereas in his bedroom, their bedroom I should say, they had the imperial eagles and it had no windows. You wouldn't notice, but there were no windows in that space. It was completely enclosed.

She goes to [lover Alexei] Vronsky's apartment (above), halfway through the story. The painting on the wall in that apartment was a copy of "Heaven Room" [a mural by 17th-century Italian artist Antonio Verrio]. It's very opulent, very debauched. Then you get to the Grand Hotel (below). It was very pared back, but it had lots of mirrors and was bevelled, kind of representing the madness and facets of her mind, because that's the point when she goes completely mad, she's completely paranoid and jealous and, you know, taking lots of opium. So that set was disorienting.

3. Most of the interiors in Anna Karenina are incredibly grand and sumptuous, how do you not get lost and keep every piece of scenery deliberate and thoughtful?

You don't do anything just for the sake of it; it's not just for decorative reasons, but it is there for illustrative purposes. So every scene is illustrating a moment in the life of Russian society or Anna or Oblonsky's family or [Nikolai] Levin. And obviously Russian high society at that time was incredibly opulent. So, you know, we represented that as best we could with the budget we had.

We went to Russia and we got a great sense of what Russian society was like, and how interested they were by the West and how decorative it was. You walked in one room and it was French, you walk into another room and it's Italian, and one room that's like English Baroque, but it's all still very Russian.

4. How do you bridge the gap between what you saw in Russia in 2012 and Russia of the 1870s?

What was interesting was how much of Russia's 1870s [interiors] exist even now, and how proud the Russian people are of their past. Everybody is well-read and the museums are packed full of people. They're very, very cultured.

One thing that was fascinating was, we went to Catherine the Great's summer palace, which was completely burnt out and bombed by the Germans when they attacked Russia in the second World War. What was incredible that I hadn't realized was that Stalin rebuilt it—and it's like, my God, even in the peak of Communism they were recreating the opulence of the 17th and 18th century. It was incredible and really informative, and had we not been there and seen what we saw, we couldn't have done Anna Karenina. It was really an important trip.

5. You've done a number of period pieces before. How did Anna Karenina compare?

Every script has very different challenges. For something like Sherlock Holmes, which was set in 1890s, what we did was give the film a really strong backbone, a reality. We had to represent London—London was a huge character in the first film—and having that budget to be able to do that was amazing. It was fabulous.

I do work on contemporary films. One of the last ones I did was Hanna with [director] Joe Wright, which was a kind of fairytale crossed with a Bond film. Even though it's set now, whatever your choices are, you still have to base it all on the period—which happens to be today—and the story and the characters. It's no less challenging; in fact it's more challenging because you have a lot more choices. Equally, when doing a period piece, it can't just be old, it has to be correct for the characters and all the other reasons.

Judy Becker, Silver Linings Playbook

Film nominated for: overall picture of the year, directing, actor in a leading role, actress in a leading role, actor in a supporting role, actress in a supporting role, adapted screenplay, and film editing. 1. Silver Linings Playbook is all about neuroses and displacement and change. In what ways did you bring these themes to the set?

I would say that the Solitano parents' house (below) was the main set and one of the things we tried to show was the distinction between the father's side of the house—he had a lot more OCD than the mother—and the mother's section of the house. So in the father's section he has his remote controls lined up a certain way, it's very organized, and he has his big-screen television. And then in the sort of kitchen and dining room area it becomes more lucid-feeling.

We also dressed his study, which you never really see—a wide shot of the study wasn't included—but in that you saw his obsession with the Eagles. I mean, it was filled with Eagles memorabilia, and you just get a little taste of that in the actual movie. But those were some of the ways we tried to get some of that neurotic, obsessive quality across in the house.

2. Of all the sets you created, which particular room do you think most acutely contributes to the scene as a whole?

That's a very interesting question. I don't think that it was any one set. I designed each set for the character and [to help] each character tell the story, so I think that they all work together to tell the story. Bradley [Cooper's character] doesn't really have a house, so he's stuck up in the attic. His old room—another thing you don't really see in the movie—from when he was single and a child has been turned into his mother's sewing room. So he's up in the attic with all the clutter and kind of chooses to sleep up there.

And then for Tiffany, her room was almost like she was trying to divest herself of her past. So in her dance studio, we wanted it to be very minimal and just really focused on the dance and the creation of the dance. [There's] not any other character elements in there because she's someone who's trying start a new life and get away from her past.

3. Where, specifically, did you draw inspiration?

I knew that I wanted it to look very blue collar, middle class—and very Philadelphia and very Italian-American. So I looked at a lot of similar real houses in Philadelphia and asked friends of mine who come from that sort of background about their parents' house and how they were decorated.

I knew that the parents had been together a long time—40 years—and they would have decorated their house in the '70s, and probably not changed it that much. It was a combination of feeling like they had decorated the house as a young couple in the '70s, with a mixture of hand-me-downs and furniture that they bought, [along with] very specific elements of their culture and their religion. And then layering that with newer elements, [like the dad's flat-screen TV].

4. What's the oddest thing you've every tried to get your hands on for a set?

Well, I did Garden State, which was I think about nine or 10 years ago, and I remember there was this ark sitting on the edge of the abyss written into the script. It was supposed to be a very hand-made-looking kind of ark. And when I met with Zach Braff, the director, he said, "I'm really worried about the boat, the ark and how we're going to do it." And they said, "Don't worry, I know the ark's going to be easy. It's other things that we're not even thinking about that are going to turn out to be hard."

And that was right. We found [a broken boat] on Craigslist and re-made it into our vision, but it was extremely difficult to find an outdoor swimming pool that was heated so we could have the swimming scene. That we didn't find until, like, the day before we shot it. It wasn't an odd request, but it was a request that seemed like it would be difficult and then turned out to be easy and an easy request that turned out to be difficult.

5. If you could take one piece from the set home with you, which would you choose?

I'm trying to think if I did take anything home. Huh. Well I really liked some of the wallpaper—that was all vintage wallpaper. I especially liked the wallpaper in the living room, (below) so that would probably be what I would want.