You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

For Period Films, the Key to Design and Audience Engagement Is in the Details

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,” 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 Film

  • Kristen Stewart Charlie's Angels

    Kristen Stewart Tells Shia LaBeouf Why She's Proud of 'Charlie's Angels'

    Kristen Stewart decided to star in the reboot of “Charlie’s Angels” because she thought it would be a fun change of pace for her career. Stewart explained what drew her to the studio tentpole in a conversation with Shia LaBeouf for Variety’s Actors on Actors issue, on newsstands this week. “Why ‘Charlie’s Angels’?” LaBeouf asks [...]

  • Lady and the Tramp trailer

    How 'Lady and the Tramp' Remake Solved Its 'Siamese Cat Song' Problem

    Janelle Monáe sings two songs, including the classic “He’s a Tramp,” in the live-action remake of “Lady and the Tramp,” among the most talked-about of the new offerings on the Disney Plus streaming service. But the biggest challenge for her writing and producing team, Nate “Rocket” Wonder and Roman GianArthur of Wondaland Productions, turned out [...]

  • Netflix Makes Move Into Nordic Film

    Netflix Makes Move Into Nordic Film With Danish, Norwegian, Swedish Projects

    Netflix is moving into original movies in the Nordic region for the first time. Action thriller “Red Dot” out of Sweden, and “Cadaver” from Norway were announced as Netflix Films at the Stockholm Film Festival on Thursday. The streaming giant also announced that it had scooped the global rights to Danish feature film “Shadows in [...]

  • Cairo Film Festival Reboot Moving Into

    Rebooted Cairo Film Festival Shifts Into Higher Gear

    The Cairo Film Festival, which is the grand dame of the Arab world’s cinema shindigs, looks set for a watershed edition, its second headed by producer Mohamed Hefzy whose reboot effort is coming into full swing. Besides the Middle East launch of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” which is Cairo’s opener, Hefzy and his team have [...]

  • Shia LaBeouf Actors on Actors

    Why Shia LaBeouf Is Only Happy While Acting: 'When I'm Not on a Set, Life Gets Hard'

    Shia LaBeouf (“Honey Boy”) believes that acting is a conduit for love. LaBeouf explained what his profession does for his happiness to Kristen Stewart (“Seberg”) during a conversation for “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.” “The most intimate moments of my whole life happened on set,” LaBeouf said. “I don’t know if there’s anything more intimate [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Tom Hanks Variety Actors

    How Tom Hanks and Renée Zellweger Disappeared as Mr. Rogers and Judy Garland

    Tom Hanks (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) and Renée Zellweger (“Judy”) sat down for a chat for “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.” For more, click here. During their enduring careers, Tom Hanks and Renée Zellweger have gone back and forth seamlessly between comedies and dramas, played romantic leads and won Academy Awards — she [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content