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Perry Mason is a familiar name to longtime TV viewers, but HBO’s Perry Mason miniseries, starring Matthew Rhys as the titular character, is something different. Though it fully embraces its roots and early 1930s setting, it’s also a series designed for audiences today with a gritty plot and elaborate production values.
It’s a world that came together on-screen thanks to meticulous research and a solid collaborative effort involving the cast and crew, according to production designer John P. Goldsmith and costume designer Emma Potter.
“You’re always on a sliding scale between what’s historically accurate and cinematically interesting,” Goldsmith tells Fortune, adding that for on-location shoots, his team would look for places in Los Angeles that had the “bones that were around in 1932,” while stripping out modern elements and adding in historical details, like specific wallpapers, to fit the show.
“You’re always sort of finding a middle ground, which is interesting visually, and as close or in the spirit of what was historically accurate,” he says.
Transforming locations involved a varied amount of effort. While shooting streetscapes and exterior settings, the crew “tried to focus largely on what’s happening above street level, which is perfect as is,” Goldsmith says. But at street level, the production team would have to make sure to change everything from streetlights and stop signs to mailboxes and awnings.
“For interiors, like a bungalow in a kitchen, we would change out the appliances so that they were correct for the period,” he continues. “In a couple of kitchens, we put down linoleum floors that we had printed from patterns we developed ourselves from historic patterns.”
While coming up with costumes, Potter looked at paintings—particularly watercolors—done in Los Angeles during the ’30s, which helped determine the color palette and textures seen on-screen. She also looked at a mix of documentary photography, newspapers, and film studio portraits of that period.
In addition to establishing the setting, the clothing on the series helped highlight aspects of characters’ personalities or circumstances.
“So many of those characters have that kind of one side that people see, and then this other side that was hidden,” Potter says. This is especially applicable to the character of Sister Alice (Tatiana Maslany), an evangelical preacher who sports very specific types of gowns while onstage. Potter also had a real-life evangelical figure to draw inspiration from: Sister Aimee Semple McPherson.
“I remember reading this note that said that she had often had her stage gowns made by people who designed costumes for the movies,” Potter says. “And that really inspired this idea of wanting to have these kind of luxurious or figure-hugging fluid gowns that she wore.”
But offstage, Sister Alice gives off a different persona, dressed in softer colors and small floral-print patterns.
“I think of her and [her mother] Birdy as characters that sit a little more in the late 1920s than they do in, say, 1931 or ’32, which is where I would put a character like Della,” says Potter, adding that Alice’s day-to-day style isn’t due to a lack of money or resources, but more a reflection of her mother’s influence. “Her mom is still kind of controlling her, and that’s something that the show starts to explore.”
Goldsmith—who looked at movies like Chinatown and Paths of Glory for artistic inspiration—also relied on archival photographs for his work, which included creating crime scenes on the show. A researcher in his department also helped add authenticity, sometimes reaching out to people like a history professor at the University of Southern California for additional information.
“Like, we might have a question: What kind of glass is in windshields in late-1920s automobiles? Was it safety glass or the kind of glass that was popcorn when it broke? What did manhole covers look like in the street in 1932?” he says.
The set decorator and prop master were a huge help in finding period-appropriate props—like older cameras seen on-screen—but there were times when they had to manufacture what was needed for a scene, Goldsmith says. Costuming worked somewhat similarly—Potter and her team found some vintage pieces, including jewelry, but also created custom items.
“I know that I loved and responded to being able to find vintage pieces that still worked, still looked good enough, and were in strong enough quality to be able to use,” says Potter, adding that she supplemented items when she couldn’t find the right color or shape she was seeking.
“For characters like Mason, I think everything except some of the ties was custom made, because he doesn’t really have very many clothes,” Potter says. “But we always started with vintage pieces, so that Matthew and I could look at the shapes and the fit and the wear of the garments…before we built from there.”
Potter gave the same attention to costumes for everyone—from principal players to extras—who appeared on-screen. This applied to big shoots that included 400 to 500 background characters as well, she says.
“You don’t know who’s going to be sitting next to Della in the audience,” she says of one particular church scene. “We wanted to pay as much attention to everybody and give it the right amount of texture.”
The production as a whole was a big job. Goldsmith estimates that there were ultimately 130 to 140 locations, with 26 stage builds—some of which, like the courtroom, Mason’s house, the morgue, and the jail—were massive.
He says the church interior, built inside a former Methodist church that has since been “stripped and modernized” for use as an event space, was one of the most challenging builds. His team had to put down the wood flooring, build the stage, and bring in items like the organ, a cross, banners, and bleachers.
For real-life inspiration, Goldsmith looked to evangelist Billy Sunday, “sort of the precursor to Billy Graham,” and the “raw industrial” spaces he had put up for his preaching while traveling from town to town. The props used by Sister Alice for preaching in the church were—just like on the costume side—also inspired by McPherson.
Ultimately, even with the various challenges brought about by large sets and crowd scenes, both Goldsmith and Potter enjoyed what they did for Perry Mason, crediting their teams and cooperation between different groups for bringing the final product together.
“I also personally get very excited about period work,” Goldsmith says, emphasizing how “exciting” it was to re-create Los Angeles during this particular period.
“There’s the Depression, there’s Prohibition, there’s the Olympics, there are racial dynamics, there’s modernism, which is quickly approaching—like the way life had been up till then was changing…and World War II isn’t that far ahead,” he notes.
“All of that was immensely interesting,” he says. “I just loved this work.”
Perry Mason is currently airing on HBO Sunday nights at 9 p.m.
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- Christian Slater on retelling the Betty Broderick story in the new season of Dirty John
- Inside On the Record and the sexual assault accusations against Russell Simmons
- When jazz musicians aren’t live-streaming owing to the coronavirus, they’re scrambling to rebook lost gigs
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