Oscar-nominated ‘American Hustle’ designers reflect on bringing the 70s to life

“American Hustle” has lit up both the movie-going public and the Academy with its cool take on late-1970s Americana. While an enormous amount of credit obviously goes to the acclaimed performances and the atmosphere created by director David O. Russell, the look and feel of the era was also largely the result of the collaboration between costume designer Michael Wilkinson and production designer Judy Becker, both Oscar-nominated for their work on the film.

Becker has worked with Russell for a number of years, beginning with the ill-fated (and sure-to-never-be-released) “Nailed.” She been right there every step of the way for the director’s personal reinvention as of late with “The Fighter,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and now “American Hustle.”

This was Wilkinson’s first collaboration with Russell, however, though he and Becker had previously worked together on “Garden State” a decade ago. “Judy and I talked the same language, came at design from the same direction,” he says. “So when ‘American Hustle’ was on my radar and I knew Judy was doing it, it became very exciting.”

For Wilkinson, the film was particularly daunting because so much about the characters is expressed through the costumes. “David and I cared about how people dressed,” he says. “These characters are using clothes as part of their hustle. David really encouraged me to go deep into my exploration with these characters. It was easy to get clichéd but we wanted all of them to have all the infinitesimal details that real people had.”

Amy Adams’ character was the best case-in-point in this regard. “She came from a rather mousy girl and gets the confidence/resources to reinvent herself as the woman she has always wanted to be,” Wilkinson says. “She had over 40 costumes. We had to very carefully manage which stage of transformation she was at. Did she have enough money to afford designer labels? All of these things sort of played into the decision we made for each costume.”

Becker says there were a number of ways she approached the film. “I was interested in depicting that period in New York City in the late 1970s,” she explains. “I have a lot of memories from my youth and my childhood. Irving reminded me a lot of some of my relatives. I had to think of getting in their heads and what they’re aspiring to. Always, however, I was trying to tell the story.”

Obviously both Wilkinson and Becker had to work with each other a great deal, and that collaboration started with figuring out a color palette. “There was a pretty defined color palette for the sets,” Becker says.
“Michael added in some other color. There was also the idea of this glamorous, stylish world of the 1970s as opposed to the ‘dirty’ world of the 1970s. The 1970s is so often vilified. Really it was a period of amazing design and it’s not tacky or kitschy.”

Adds Wilkinson, “We have a very similar approach to conveying to the audience information about the characters. The way [Judy] creates spaces is what I’m doing – give clues about my characters, such as whether a costume is body-hugging or voluminous. Judy is using the same language with the sets.”

Becker uses the film’s opening credits moment as an example. “All those elements show so well when [Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper] walk down the hallway,” she says. “The wide hall tells you something. You see what Amy’s wearing. She turns on this fake con woman smile. You see Christian looking at the briefcase and so much storytelling is going on with sets and props and costumes. It creates a magical feel.”

Of course, both Wilkinson and Becker were working under the watchful eye of Russell, who Wilkinson describes as “500% particular. The man has an incredible mind. To him, these characters are not theoretical concepts. The attention to detail is something I have never experienced before. We had a series of camera tests of these characters from the floor to the ceiling. I’ve never really experienced such an amazing level of love and care.”

“He does get somewhat more involved in costumes, hair and makeup, because they’re more involved in the characters,” Becker adds. “We have a longer working relationship so he gives me a little more leeway. But he also drops these little jewels of information. I was on a different movie and he said, ‘Why don’t we use some yellow?’ I thought that’s so random but then it gelled. He drops these little bombs and you don’t know where they’re coming from but they have something very meaningful behind them.”

Being a period piece, Becker notes it was important to create accuracy, which at times could be constraining. At the beginning, this seemed to be a particularly large challenge as Boston and surrounding areas in Massachusetts were filling in for New York. But she says this ultimately turned into a blessing in disguise. “I started discovering more and more great locations, like in Worcester. Locations were hard to find. The General Sherman suite was most difficult. But today people come up to me and are surprised to hear we didn’t shoot in New York, and that’s the ultimate compliment.”

Wilkinson, on the other hand, sought to distinguish three different types of characters in the movie who belonged to different classes in the late-1970s. “I really wanted to make sure we were delineating different people. There was Upper Manhattan, the diverse/powerful world of New Jersey, and the suburbs of Long Island.”

At the end of the day, Becker says she can only “look back on the movie so fondly – every day, getting up and going to work; that movie was a joy and I miss it. It was such a powerful discovery of the era. We were all working together on this.”

Wilkinson echoes the sentiment: “I feel the whole experience was an amazing opportunity for me to go deeper as a creative costume designer, to inexhaustively search for the right clothes, creativity to the max every day, encouraging me to get outside of all that to a more raw, intuitive space.”

Now that experience has landed them in the Oscar race. And how does that feel? “It has been rather surreal,” Wilkinson says. “It has taken a while for the news to sink in. I think I nearly hit the ceiling. I had to jump in the shower and calm down.”

“It’s an enormous surprise and a pleasant one,” Becker says. “I really sincerely did not expect it. The BAFTA nomination was the first shock and then I saw I got the Art Directors Guild nomination. But when the movie came up in Production Design [on Oscar nomination morning], I really was in shock.”

We’ll see on March 2 if either manage to hear their name called at the Dolby Theatre.