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Production Designer Judy Becker Defies Time And Snow With “Joy”

Although “Joy” follows four generations in a story that starts in the 60s and continues into the 90s, director David O. Russell wanted to avoid presenting a period film.  During initial discussions about the film’s look with production designer Judy Becker, O. Russell referenced two of his favorite black and white films:  Frank Capra’s 1946 holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” and Peter Bogdoanovich’s 1973 black and white depression era set “Paper Moon” – films that both seem timeless despite their period settings.

“When we began, we talked about the importance of having a timeless quality to it,” said Becker.  “You know it isn’t now, but you don’t know exactly when it is.  It’s a timeless fable about self-empowerment and self-discovery.”

Based upon the rise of Joy Mangano, the suburban housewife who became a successful entrepreneur after inviting the “Miracle Mop,” Becker did dig into research, noting “stranger than fiction” aspects of the inventor’s life – her ex-husband living in her basement, the creation of the Miracle Mop really arising from wine spilt on a boat’s deck – were factual.  However, the greatest historical accuracy went into the designs of locations outside Mangano’s direct influence, such as the QVC set with its splashy 80s color palette and rotating turntable stage, and the plant where the mops were manufactured.  The more intimate settings, however, were to be less personality driven and more a representation of Joy’s (Jennifer Lawrence) personal growth.

To achieve an atmosphere that evoked Joy’s cicada-like, pre-transformation dormant stage, Becker’s visual storytelling was deeply rooted in making a movie being shot in color feel like black and white film.  A key to creating this illusion was defining a mono-chromatic color palette with very little saturated color.  Becker utilized blacks, grays, whites and faded, muted colors offset by structures designed with dark woods.

Knowing O. Russell is a very traditional director who’d be shooting on film she felt confident the in-camera capture wouldn’t be overly manipulated in post.  However, the minimal palette makes an abrupt turn when Joy visits the garishly colored QVC sets and becomes awaken to her personal potential, a point Becker hoped would remain truthful to the capture.

“Is that going to read in the finished film? Are they going to do something in DI?  Is the color timing going to affect that? When I saw the movie for the first time I said ‘Yay, it really worked!’  I wasn’t nervous that David wasn’t going to get it and it was going to change, but until you see it, well, it’s always nice to see it worked,” said Becker.

While O. Russell’s dedication to the techniques of classic film making have reminded rock-steady, Becker notes other aspects of O. Russell’s work style have transformed.   Her first film with the director, “The Fighter” involved little build outs to found locations.  On “Joy,” Becker’s team constructed massive sets within the found locations.  To create Rudy’s (Robert De Niro) garage, for example, the crew started with an abounded garage and fully built every room and space seen in the interior.  With her roots stemming from set decorating before transitioning to production designer, Becker is very attentive to every detail added to the set.  She worked closely with set decorator Heather Loeffler on that stage of the process: the two discussed needs and reviewed materials before anything was added to the set.  This style of teamwork has resulted in a 15 year collaboration, including O. Russell’s last three films.

Snow falls under set design, and in the case of “Joy” was a crucial element in the story for establishing timelessness.  Becker and her crew hoped the timing of their winter shoot in    Boston would result in some natural white stuff.  The winter of 2014 proved to be one of the worst winters in Boston’s history. Instead of a dusting of snow, the crew found themselves challenged by eight foot tall snow drifts that blanketed the set.  After repeated snow storms, Becker’s set dressers had to dig trenches to the front of the house in order to capture Joy entering her front door.

“We had to remove half the snow so that it didn’t look insane,” said Becker.  “It was something that had to be worked out, ‘Where do we put the snow?’  There were a lot of snow issues on the movie, but it is a better problem to have than not having the snow that you want.”