Artisans Balance Historical Accuracy With Audience Expectations in Awards-Contending Films

Films set in recent history face the challenge of balancing accuracy with creativity. During pre-production, prop masters and set decorators working on these pictures collaborate with the directors to determine just how closely they should copy the details of the period.

One such movie, Fox Searchlight’s “Battle of the Sexes” (pictured above), moves between scrupulous exactness and inspired re-imaginings, depending on the scene. “Sometimes real is good, but interesting is better,” says Dwayne Grady, the film’s prop master.

Grady focused on such items as eyeglasses, tennis rackets and luggage. Tennis pro Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) has a distinctive look, in part because of her iconic spectacles. Grady found the frames King wore, but also had a pair that weren’t exactly the same model, but fit well on Stone’s face. “You always have something this side or that side of the original as choices, because what looks right on the actor is ultimately what you’re going for. It’s the feeling you get when you look at it.”

Another consideration: Rebuilding and re-creating every item in a film with historical accuracy has the potential to blow out a budget. Drew Petrotta, prop master on Warner Bros.’ “Dunkirk,” spent more on the two main pilots’ gear than all other props combined.

Since they were going to be shown in close-ups, director Christopher Nolan upped the initial budget to get it right. The gear was built meticulously, though some film-friendly adjustments were made. While all masks and helmets should have been the same two colors, “Chris wanted to be able to tell the two pilots apart very quickly,” says Petrotta. The solution was to use slightly different colors, a plausible variance within dye lots. “It’s creative cheating.”

Open Road’s low-budget “Marshall” used artistic license as well. “Period is important, but really you’re telling a story about people,” says set decorator Kara Lindstrom. A combination of authenticity and believability are at work. The film was shot almost entirely on location in Buffalo, N.Y., where word-of-mouth led Lindstrom to a woman willing to rent the her pristine, period-specific furniture.

On the flip side, when it came to the train station where future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) and attorney Sam Friedman (Josh Gad) discuss the case’s closing argument, the cafe where they eat no longer exists. Lindstrom and her team created a new one based on European stations. “My goal is to make it a world that you enter and you’re never startled out of,” Linstrom says.

At times, the best way is to adhere to the highest standards of exactitude. Margaret Court’s (Jessica McNamee) tennis racket became a challenge for Grady. First, there was extensive research and then a hunt ensued; King herself became involved, even checking with the original players for a match.

At last, Grady found the right brand and profile racket for the period. He had it refinished and painted before employing a graphic artist to create and apply the appropriate images. Next, it went to a tennis shop for proper period strings. This small, seemingly-simple prop? “It took four or five people.”

Likewise, period guns aren’t simple when 1,000 soldiers need to be outfitted with them. Petrotta wound up with three levels of accuracy, from period-specific rifles to $16 toys that had to be aged and painted for 700 of the deep-extras.

Petrotta shares one secret to aging equipment: cement mixers. “We put rocks, sand, hockey pucks, baseballs and gear in there and tumble it together,” he says. “It breaks it down quite a bit. It worked out fine and you can’t tell.”

Sometimes, inattention to accuracy can destroy credibility. Aged toy guns may work in the background, but something as simple as tape can leave the wrong impression. Grady says, “If an actor’s taping up a flier and they’re using the wrong type of tape, like Magic Tape that hasn’t been invented yet,” then someone hasn’t done their job right.

As with God, success is in the details.

Popular on Variety

More Artisans

  • Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd Jay Roach Bombshell

    Jay Roach on How 'Bombshell' Production Crew Re-Created Roger Ailes-Era Fox News

    “Bombshell” is a fast-moving exploration of the oppressive atmosphere at Fox News in 2016, when Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and eventually, Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) brought down Roger Ailes. Considering more than 200 scenes were shot over 38 days, the film has an impressive runtime of 1:45. Director Jay Roach credits the work of his [...]

  • Mindy Kaling photographed by Victoria Stevens

    Mindy Kaling to Host 22nd Costume Designers Guild Awards

    Mindy Kaling announced Wednesday that she will host the 22nd Costume Designers Guild Awards. “I’m thrilled to be hosting the Costumes Designers Guild Awards. Costume design and fashion are close to my heart, and I promise many, possibly too many, outfit changes,” Kaling wrote on Instagram. View this post on Instagram Hey guys! I’m so [...]

  • the two popes

    How Luca Canfora Recreated The Papal Vestments for 'The Two Popes'

    Luca Canfora is no stranger to designing papal vestments; his previous projects include “The Young Pope” and “The New Pope.” Coming into Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes” meant Canfora knew where he could have costumes made with the highest quality, and when it came to fabric choice and constructing his costumes. Canfora had to create [...]

  • Olivia Colman in the film THE

    'The Favourite' Reigns in Craft Categories of European Film Awards

    Tragicomedy “The Favourite” has walked away with four craft prizes – cinematography, editing, costume design, and hair and makeup – of the European Film Awards. The craft awards were decided by a jury drawn from various below-the-line professions. The 32nd European Film Awards will take place on Dec. 7 in Berlin. Robbie Ryan picked up [...]

  • Harriet Movie BTS

    'Harriet' Costume Designer Paul Tazewell on How He Crafted Harriet Tubman's Look

    For many, Harriet Tubman’s journey is one we’re taught about in school. We know she’s a heroine, an abolitionist who led slaves to their freedom via the underground railroad. Unless you’ve read the books by Kate Clifford Larson or Beverly Lowry, “We didn’t receive the whole story,” says costume designer Paul Tazewell. Until now. Kasi [...]

  • 'Joker' Cinematographer Lawrence Sher Wins at

    'Joker' Cinematographer Lawrence Sher Wins at EnergaCamerimage Film Festival

    “Joker” cinematographer Lawrence Sher’s bid, along with director Todd Phillips, to try something “perhaps even a bit artful” won big Saturday in Torun, Poland as he took the top prize at the EnergaCamerimage Intl. Film Festival. The Golden Frog for cinematography, along with the audience prize, went to his work filming Joaquin Phoenix in the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content