Richard Bridgland was given an impossible task: Re-create 1970s Hollywood for Shane Black's buddy conspiracy thriller The Nice Guys … in Atlanta. As a production designer, Bridgland has had to make the Czech Republic look like 1930s rural North Carolina (Serena), New Orleans look like West Virginia (American Ultra) and a film set with a bunch of miniatures look like an alien pyramid (Alien vs. Predator). Production designers are known as the visionaries on set, the people a producer brings on to create the film’s “world” before any directors or stars are attached. But that doesn’t stop Bridgland from looking at a bunch of empty storefronts in the middle of nowhere and asking himself — often — “How do I even start?”
“I hadn’t even been in Los Angeles in the 1970s, so a lot of what was iconic to native Angelenos, I had to learn,” says Bridgland, who’s originally from London. “The producer Joel Silver would take me on little neighborhood tours to places he knew well. We dug into archives, but one of the really useful things was social media, like Tumblr, where I found these Super 8 films, like this footage of someone coming to L.A. for the first time and driving down Hollywood Boulevard, and there it all was — all the sex shops, people hanging out, in color.”
Becoming an expert in all things 1970s porn and sex shops became an interesting facet of the job. The Nice Guys follows two detectives, Holland March (Ryan Gosling) and Jackson Healey (Russell Crowe), who search for a missing porn star.
For a scene depicting a sex shop on Hollywood Boulevard, Bridgland had to dress 20 empty storefronts ultra-realistically. If it didn’t come off as authentic, it wouldn’t sell — or distract from — the inevitable CGI they’d have to add in the background to make streets look wider, longer and more lined with palm trees. The sex shop had to be perfect.
“We researched what kinds of sex toys people used in the 1970s, what they all looked like,” Bridgland says. “It’s one of the arcane things you become an expert in for film, and there is a real imperative to get all those details right. You can tell when you’re watching a movie that hasn’t had that scrutiny on the dressing, where it all starts to look a bit Austin Powers and not Midnight Cowboy. People know when things are off, even if they couldn’t tell you why.”
Bridgland’s most difficult feat was re-creating 1977's porn magazines and billboards, because, he says, graphics, illustrations and newspapers in a movie are the first things an audience will call out for looking like a prop if they’re not done correctly.
“We had to take ‘glamour’ photos of the girl who goes missing in the movie, so we got out of retirement the photographer Arny Freytag, who did the centerfolds for Playboy in the ’70s,” Bridgland says. “When you actually took a look at that stuff, that’s really beautiful photography. By today’s standard, it’s not smutty, and the lighting is extraordinary. Arny used hundreds of these little lights to light different parts of the scene and the model's body. It wasn’t like a regular still-shoot setup at all.”
That attention to detail went into the porn illustrations required for billboards and magazines. Bridgland had to track down a man in New Zealand who specialized in that long-gone style of “glamour” illustration.
But when it came time to film iconic L.A. architecture, Bridgland thought he would never find the most crucial location, at least not in Atlanta: the Lautner-esque lair of a hugely successful porn producer. Fortunately, it turns out that hip-hop producer Dallas Austin’s near-replica of Lautner’s Silvertop house is set right in the middle of a cozy suburb like a psychedelic alien spaceship, mirrors, floor-to-ceiling shag carpet and all.
“For the interior, I took my inspiration from Hugh Hefner,” Bridgland says. “We rebuilt Hefner’s circular bed. It had telephones built into it, all the latest tech, so he could obviously combine work and play. It’s great when you can find iconic images like that that can inspire the set dressing. People might not absolutely know what it is, but subconsciously there will be a recognition, which helps as a shorthand for the audience — they know where they are and who this person is.”
For Bridgland, keying into the world of the film includes something he calls the “smell” of it: so many layers of authentic objects, textures, patterns or memory triggers that you can almost smell that you’re there.
“I love using wallpapers,” Bridgland says. “I chose things that weren’t contemporary to ’78. You try to make sure there’s stuff from five or 10 years earlier because the world isn’t all brand-new. For Ryan Gosling’s character’s daughter, we put this floral wallpaper up in the room, and everyone walked in and said, ‘This reminds me of my bedroom when I was 12 years old.' Wallpapers act like a smell to transport people back to a particular time and place.”
What people may not realize about production designers is that their job extends far past the look or “smell” of the film, spilling into the territory of cinematography and even direction. As locations change, so too do stories and camera angles. Bridgland sometimes slyly backs the director into a corner by creating a particularly cinematic corner of a room; a director can’t possibly turn it down when it's the place to set up a shot. The director of photography, meanwhile, must be the production designer’s best friend: Bad lighting can cancel out all the meticulous work of set design.
Despite the larger budget of The Nice Guys, which allowed him to build in all those layers over the course of seven months, Bridgland never forgets the beginner’s spirit — and stupidity — that got him where he is today.
“All those times when the trees have no leaves on them, but it’s summer in the script? Somebody had to go up and put all the leaves on the trees. I’ve never done it, but I have had to shave trees,” he says. “Don’t worry. The trees survived.”
(Thanks to Curbed Atlanta for its assistance in identifying the Dallas Austen house.)