L.A., churches and gardens — it all works into the look of ‘Amsterdam’

Judy Becker peers out from behind iron railings.
As head of the large art department for the film “Amsterdam,” Judy Becker says, “It’s like running a little artistic army.”
(Ye Fan / For The Times)

By her fifth go-round working with writer-director David O. Russell, production designer Judy Becker has come to understand when the auteur knows exactly how he wants a set to look and when he might need a little visual guidance from her.

“We do have a shorthand,” Becker says. “I know what David needs to visualize a set, and I show him materials in a way that allows him to do it. He’s interested in color palettes, but he’s most interested in actors and their movement. He usually has a big cast with a lot of people in the room at one time, so I’ve learned, depending on budget and crew, the different ways to show him the capacity for this to be the set.”

But sometimes the director behind October’s “Amsterdam,” a comic thriller starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington, has a precise vision.


“Visual details he’s attached to he’ll put in the script. I can usually tell which ones as I know him so well, and when he puts something very detailed into the script, that means he’s very attached to it,” says Becker.

For the story warning of the rise of fascism set largely in 1933, for example, Russell was very specific with some elements.

“The shrapnel-covered teapot, the hairbrush and the mirror — those were all scripted in. He was really into all that. The art made from the fragments of war was a big theme for him. It took a lot of work, and a lot happened before we got what felt right artistically and felt right for that scene. A lot ended up not being in the movie, which often happens.”

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie and John David Washington in 1930s clothing in "Amsterdam."
Christian Bale, from left, Margot Robbie and John David Washington in the movie “Amsterdam.”
(Merie Weismiller Wallace / 20th Century Studios)

People sometimes forget what filmgoers see on the screen (minus the actors and costumes) — everything else visual is what you do. Can you give us a sense of how many people work under you and what sort of divisions there are?

I’m head of the art department and also set dressing. I also work closely with the prop master and the location manager.


That’s a lot.

It is a lot. It’s a leader of a big team. Under me I have an art director, then draftsmen, and production coordinator and the paint department and graphic designer. The set decorator is my most important hire, and she has a big team — so altogether I can have 100 people. It’s like running a little artistic army.

There’s so much going on plot-wise with this movie, so many opportunities to plant little set secrets. Did you partake?

I don’t recall how many made it in the movie, but I did plant them: swastikas everywhere as a sign of what was lying underneath everything. We had them in [Bale’s] office tiles, but they looked too crazy; and in [Robbie’s] office there are some really beautiful burgundy-and-black Art Deco chairs we purchased because it was reminiscent of a swastika design. Things like that.

COVID was a big tangle for this film. There were separate preps for two locations, yes?

We went to Boston originally, which was great since I’ve filmed there with David several times and know all the places that can pass for New York period. Then suddenly we were shut down: “You need to go home, tomorrow.” We hadn’t started filming yet, we were still in preproduction. But the film was always going to come back. We ended up for various reasons shooting in Los Angeles. I don’t think it was ideal, but it worked. There were not that many exteriors [in the film], which is where I think [filming in L.A.] shows, and a lot of it is at night, so it ended up being fine.

Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy and Margot Robbie in 1930s clothing in the movie "Amsterdam."
Rami Malek, from left, Anya Taylor-Joy and Margot Robbie in the movie “Amsterdam.”
(20th Century Studios)

I noticed there were a lot of Los Angeles landmarks used in the film. The Queen Mary, for instance, was used for the Waldorf Astoria’s interiors; Palace Theatre downtown was used for the veterans’ gala theater. And the New York and Chicago backlots at Paramount to shoot the New York exteriors.

Yes, and using backlots always strikes fear in the hearts of production designers, but this worked out. I did love the freedom we had to paint and play with the signage and dressing all the buildings, which you wouldn’t get in the real world.

You also filmed at First Baptist Church Pasadena, and interiors of the mansion Robbie’s Valerie Voze shares with her family were shot at L.A.’s Peace Awareness Labyrinth & Gardens.

The interiors of Valerie’s Amsterdam apartment were shot at the church. I’d never seen or used this location before. Little had been done to the building, so it really looked period. We shot there a lot. And the gardens, I’ve shot there before. We were looking for the Voze mansion and having trouble finding an exterior and interior to match, as most wealthy estate-type people heavily renovate their interiors and look more McMansion inside. The exterior was a house in Pasadena.

How closely did you work with the costume designers? There were two designers on the project, correct?


I worked mostly with [veteran costume designer Albert Wolsky]. It is tough to do visuals on Zoom, but we worked with palette, swatches, samples and paint samples. This and location scouting are always the things I start with, in terms of practical things. And a good costume designer — and I’ve worked with some great ones — always works it out. They know what the palette is, they know the look, and we’re all working on the same page with the same director. We do our own thing, but we’re always on the same page.